Smackdown Books 2018

Wolf Hollow
Salt to the Sea
The Serpent King
Optimists Die First
The Hate U Give
Orphan Island
Dan vs. Nature
The Female of the Species
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere
Paper Girls, Vol. 1
The Passion of Dolssa
The Distance Between Us
When We Collided
Louis parmi les spectres
Girl in the Blue Coat
Defy the Stars

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Never Fall Down vs Rotters TD BAKER

OK, Smackdown Gods (AKA Arlene and Dia). You’ve done it again. Rotters and Never Fall Down? Two compulsively readable, but almost tragically flawed books that would speak to very different kids? C’mon, man!

So, where to begin? It is hard not to like Never Fall Down, in that often unsettling way that we “like” books like Elie Wiesel’s Night or Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands With The Devil: books that show the darkest capabilities of the human animal, but also provide that spark of hope that we can transcend even the most horrific situations history presents us with. Never Fall Down is a novel (and it’s not, in a way) inspired by the life story of Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of -and active participant in- the Cambodian genocide. The author, Patricia McCormack, a former journalist who is well known for her social conscience, is clearly inspired by Arn’s story and his subsequent humanitarian work and she is not alone as we see back cover blurbs from Desmond Tutu and Peter Gabriel. (Cut to Brent furiously mining the remnants of his pubescent brain for a Peter Gabriel reference. Got it. Watch for it later). The book is a compelling read regardless of how much one might know about Cambodia –I’m assuming very little for most of our students –and McCormack has done an exceptional job of crafting a complex central character. Arn’s experiences are horrifying and emotionally exhausting, but the novel is more than just a catalogue of atrocities and we see Arn – just a child when the narrative begins –suffer through an adolescence marked by loss and abuse. In a book like this aimed at a younger demographic it must be tempting to simplify Arn’s emotional and intellectual journey, by painting his experiences with the broadest strokes, but McCormack never falls into that trap. In the hands of a lesser writer we would experience each horrifying moment as repeated blows with a sledgehammer and the title would manifest as a constant refrain of “Don’t Give Up.” This, in itself, is a validation of McCormack’s decision to render Arn’s story through fiction; I believe that her skills as a novelist allowed her to get at a more profound series of truths than a memoir could. It’s a relatively slim volume and while I generally am in favor of YA books that go the less- is- more route, because of that tendency towards bloat (See Rotters, below) we all had a sense that the sections in the latter part of the novel where Arn was in America were fascinating and would have strengthened the book by adding increased nuance and depth.

So, well done, Ms. McCormack, but despite all of the above, there was one aspect of the book that threatens to be a deal breaker in moving Never Falls Down on to greater Smackdown glory. When you read this book – and I think you should regardless of whether we move it on or not –you will be immediately struck by McCormack’s decision to present Arn’s voice in fractured English.   In her author’s note at the back of the book, she explains her decision as follows:
Trying to capture that voice was like trying to bottle a lightning bug. Every time I impose the rules of grammar or syntax on it, the light went out. And so, in telling Arn’s story I chose his own distinct and beautiful voice. The end result, I hope, captures the courageous and unforgettable person he is.
I’m afraid that I have to call bullshit on this rationale. McCormack has successfully conveyed Arn’s courage and his unique persona, but this is in spite of, rather than because of, the voice she has given Arn. I have no doubt that what we hear as we read is an accurate representation of what Arn sounds like when he tells his story to an English speaking audience,  but that is not his voice; it is his voice through the filter of a language he has not mastered. When Arn tells his story in his native tongue or in his own mind – which is where we are situated as readers throughout this narrative –he would not be presenting himself as an outsider in the way that he is here. It is his story, but we hear it through the barrier of our choice of language. Who is empowered by this choice? It is not Arn; it is us. I am not saying that there isn’t a power and beauty in the way that Arn – or at least McCormack’s interpretation of Arn –uses the English language, but it creates a distance from him as a narrator that smacks of the kind of American privilege that I would guess McCormack would recoil from being associated with. She is a talented writer and she should have been able to craft a voice for Arn that reflected what he hears when he tells his story, not what she hears. All that being said, I would actually teach the book because of this “flaw”; it offers an invaluable space to have this important discussion about voice with our students.

And what about Rotters?

I think we were all very taken with this book – to a point – and I can see myself recommending it to a number of students. Is there a more difficult concept to grapple with in YA literature – or any literature for that matter – than death? Rotters somehow manages to approach this delicate subject head-on –often literally – in a way that is both –and I’m not sure this is possible –reverent and irreverent. We were all very engaged with the first part of the book, as Shelley noted in her response to the Round One posts, and the main draw was the historical context that is so much a part of how the author establishes, and makes accessible, the macabre and often grotesque world of the “Diggers.” This is no small feat as there are some scenes in this novel that will test the stomach of even those of us who cut their reading teeth on vintage Stephen King (Y’know before he got all literary and respected and all). I think we also thought that the author did a pretty good job navigating some of the usual teen angsty stuff as Joey deals with the bully, the hot chick, the bad reputation, the mean teacher, the nice teacher, etc. (There is much more, but I’m trying to avoid any spoilers) and he does so largely through Joey’s voice which is quite self-aware and articulate (although the prose gets a bit purple at times) and by building an ongoing series of mysteries for the reader to puzzle through.

I would guess that Mr. Krause has not only read his fair share of the aforementioned Mr. King, but also his Dickens and Poe, as there are moments throughout this novel that are reminiscent of the best- and to be fair, the worst -of those 19th century masters. It is a sprawling and ambitious novel with Krause trying to connect the dots on a coming of age story, the previously referred to teen- in- new school drama, a father-son story, a story of grief and loss, a historical drama, a gothic melodrama and, well, you get the picture. This guy has a lot of balls up in the air and for the first part of the novel he does an admirable job in keeping everything aloft and affecting a rhythm that is both thrilling and controlled. In the second part of the novel, however, I would say at about page 283 things start to, and here I’ll switch metaphors, go off the rails. There must have been a moment when Krause realized “Hey, I’m not George R.R. Martin or Hillary Mantel. I actually have to finish this novel at some point.” At that point things start to speed up as we head towards some spectacular collisions and there will be certain readers who are really going to enjoy the pace, the drama and the twists and turns. We’re probably not going to have kids saying, “You know, it kind of got boring near the end,” although for me, it kind of did.

I can’t say that Krause lost his narrative thread (oh, mixed metaphors, my curse!), but I do think it is fair to say that he lost his narrator and central character. I felt like I knew Joey pretty well in the first part of the novel, but in the second part he is basically narrating event after event and while he does his fair share of teeth-gnashing and takes some stabs at introspection, he (and Krause) has given himself up to the unfolding events. Krause isn’t exactly a master of dialogue at any point in the novel, but I think the dialogue –in direct parallel to the events –becomes less believable as the novel careens towards the ending. I don’t need realism in a novel like this, but I do need – Hello, Alberta Program of Studies –verisimilitude and I think that is lacking in the later stages. I’m not sure who Joey is at the end of this novel and I’m not sure if I care nearly as much as I thought I would when I was in the early stages of the book.

 An imperfect novel, to be sure, but I also admire Krause for attempting to create a host of complex characters, a fully-fleshed out sub-culture and his willingness to address some issues about our relationships with both the living and the dead that will strike a chord with most readers. As with the tragic flaw we see in Never Fall Down, I think that were we teaching Rotters, there would be much to discuss about narrative structure and character voice. Which brings us back to where we began: two engaging, if less than perfect books, that are not for the faint of heart. Both books would shock and appall some young readers and even some of us not so young readers.

At the end of the day – or, more precisely, the end of last Thursday after our department meeting –we chose Rotters to move forward, but I’d be lying if I said I was totally convinced of that and I have been vacillating between the two even while I write this. There are more problems with Rotters, but I also think he is attempting to do a lot more with his book and I think we have to take this into consideration.

We’ll go with Rotters to move forward . . . unless we don’t. (Sorry, Dia. Patience.) I’m posting this on Sunday the 20th. Chandra? Shelley? We have until the clock strikes midnight on January 21st to change our mind. There is still opportunity for some serious Smack.


  1. I defer to your judgment, as it allows me to eschew the burden of responsibility. ;) I would sooner teach Never Fall Down, but I think Rotters would be more readily picked up and enjoyed. It certainly sucked me into the story more.

    I agree with your critique of the voice in Never Fall Down... But I wonder, would we feel the same way if McCormack had simply justified it differently? What if her author's note explained that she wrote that way because those were the words Arn used in telling his story in English?

    1. I'm pretty sure that much of this book is exactly that, but I guess my point is that he didn't experience this in English, so why would I want to read about it as if he did? I've taught a lot of international students over the years and I know that for many of them, the hardest thing to deal with is how their inability to express themselves in English changes the way they are perceived and the way they perceive themselves. If 200, 000 words at his disposal in his native tongue and only half of that in English isn't he being done a disservice?

  2. True, true. This reminds me of something I was reading for class this week on poetry that could be apropos in this case:
    "...when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet."

  3. +1 : Not so subtle "Don't Give Up" reference
    +2 : More subtle "Sledgehammer" reference
    -2 : Both references being from the same Peter Gabriel album

    The Peter Gabriel Fan Club
    Solsbury Hill Division

  4. I will not comment on the Peter Gabriel but from a listening perspective...I'm listening to Rotters on audio as that's how it landed on the list. It is an excellent audio book though the dad is done in a very Clint Eastwood impression way and I keep thinking about chairs. I would agree that as it goes on we lose introspection to rats crawling on your body but hey people isn't that junior high?