Smackdown Books 2017

Arlene's smackdown17 book montage

The Memory of Things
Hour of the Bees
The Gospel Truth
Ultraman, Vol. 1
Ghost
The Bunker Diary
Echo
Trouble Is a Friend of Mine
Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy
The Hired Girl
An Ember in the Ashes
The Porcupine of Truth
Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir
Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans
Goodbye Stranger
Beautiful Blue World
The Blackthorn Key
One
Updraft
All American Boys
»

Monday, December 16, 2013

Settle in folks....what follows is the email conversation between Jyoti and I regarding far far away and The Children and the Wolves:

Brad:  Well, I guess, welcome, Jyoti, to your first Smackdown.  I honestly think this might be a contentious choice; I certainly have something to say about both books, but I fear (hope?) we may ultimately digress into a deeper conversation before we can, ultimately, make a choice.  Maybe we should start with Tom McNeal’s far far away, which has certainly been making its rounds on year-end Best YA Books of 2013.  What did you think?
Jyoti:  Thanks, Brad. So far this Smackdown thing has been fun & we'll see how this format goes for us. I quite enjoyed the fairy tale/modern-ish mashup of the Far Far Away setting. I liked how we were in a kind-of indeterminate time and place which made it possible to accept the goings on in Never Better. The characters were compelling and I felt drawn in from the outset, but I must say that, overall, the book could have been shorter by about 100 pages.

Brad:  Oh my, yes.  I guess that’s my problem with the novel (which I, nevertheless, enjoyed).  It is so impossibly busy for the first third or so that the reader wonders how McNeal will keep all of the balls he has established in the air:  the ghost of Jacob Grimm’s narration; the compelling notion of him as a guide for Jeremy, our protagonist; young love; the ominous threat of the Finder of Occasions; every conceivable fairy tale trope; a game show, Uncommon Knowledge...the list could go on interminably.  I kind of loved the set up...but then the pace becomes, well, glacial, and the big “twists” are so hopelessly telegraphed that I found myself more peeved at the characters’ inability to figure anything out than excitedly compelled to turn the page.  By the time the endless dungeon sequence played itself out, I was sort of exhausted myself.  I just wish that the big “events” of the novel weren’t so obvious—it really could stand a good unexpected shocker or two.  Or an ample application of a red pen.  Did it seem “teach-able” to you?  Would kids like it?
Jyoti:  I share your "get on with it" sentiment. It feels heavy-handed and clunky in the middle, but, despite that, I think it would be teachable at grade 10. All those fairy tale tropes? Those could be an English teacher's jackpot. You could go for miles on this book if you could move the kids through the plot. But, perhaps, for a term 1 class, they might really enjoy the plot. Maybe we're being picky? The notions of young love, mortality, & injustice do appeal...
Brad:  Yes, yes.  I agree.  There are some beautifully conceived and written passages, and I kind of like those plucky teen protagonists.  I guess part of my “wanting” was that the character I was most intrigued with, Jacob, takes such a back seat to so much of the action.  But, whatever.  Shall we deal with the elephant in the room, Adam Rapp’s The Children and the Wolves?  Give me one word to describe your reaction.
Jyoti:  Disturbed. Deeply. That's my reaction. Two words, but holy man...
Brad:  The Children and the Wolves is a terrifying, fever-dream of a book.  I’m still sort of reeling.  I’m not sure I ever really needed to enter the psyche of a grade eight sociopath who uses drugs and sex to control her two grade seven lackeys.  But there it is.  And it is shockingly, horrifyingly real.  He sure can write.
Jyoti:  A grade eight girl and her two lackeys who kidnap a three-and-a-half year old... I told my principal what it was about and he had to put the book down immediately. He's a risky, edgy reader but the very idea of this one chilled him. The writing is so, so visceral it drew me in immediately. I couldn't put it down, but I didn't want to read the words on the page.
Brad:  Not to mention the violence and the sex and the swearing and the drugs…
I guess the central question for me, ultimately (and I welcome others to weigh in down below in the comments section), is what makes a Young Adult novel a Young Adult novel?  Does a teenaged protagonist suggest that it is suitable for YA audiences (take, for instance, Erdrich's The Round House last year)?  This wasn’t always the case, but in this golden rebirth of YA writing, it seems to be taken for granted (The Round House showed up on many YA lists last year--is it for young adults?).  Even with the steady hand and bravery of a teacher (I’m looking at you, McKeown) to guide a teenaged mind through this nightmare, I think there is simply too much to unpack, and even my best High School readers would have trouble successfully “packing back up” the complex way that Rapp deals with some pretty heady concepts:  Religion.  Race.  The power of stories to heal or to destroy.  Absent parents.  Sex as a means of power and control.  Colonialism and cultural appropriation.  It’s sort of amazing what Rapp accomplishes in so few pages, particularly with the voices of the four characters—internalizations laid bare.  I think everyone (who can stomach it, and, for realsies, it is absolutely harrowing) should read it, but…does it move on?  And what, specifically, did you like about it?  Wait.  Did you like it?
Jyoti:  You know, I did like it. I'd never be able to teach it for the very reasons you stated, but it's a book I'd want in my classroom. I like it because it is raw and unvarnished and ugly. (For the record, I'm wearing a Jane Austen (it's her birthday, by the way) t-shirt right now.) I respect how it rips open the underbelly of neglect whether it comes from poverty or affluence. The thing that scares the protagonists is empathy and that's worth talking about. And your question is a good one. What makes YA Lit YA? Is it the old discussion about Can Lit that (I think) we've put to rest? Because this certainly isn't YA to my mind. Like Kids wasn't for kids...
Brad:  OMG.  Kids is the movie I kept thinking about while reading this, the same need afterwards for a Silkwood shower with bleach and steel wool. You’re right.  Its ugliness is what gives this book its verisimilitude and its power.  I think it might be in my top few books of this year.  It is that good.  But it sure isn’t pleasant.  But it is so incredibly written, so subtle:  OK, maybe the videogame as metaphoric parallel is sort of on the nose, but there are so many beautiful, subtle motifs and metonyms:  water, teeth, technology, time and watches…I could talk about this for a long, long time.  With adults.
So I will leave it to you.  Which book moves on (and, I guess, in some ways, it obliquely answers my question regarding defining YA fiction)?  The charming (yet too long), whimsical confection, or the sparse and gritty book about teens that isn’t necessarily for teens (really, could there be two books that are more diametrically opposed?)?
Jyoti:  What?? I'm supposed to choose? Ugh. I'm not 100% clear on this Smackdown thing. Are we Smacking down on a good book or on a good book to *teach*? Because if it's for the former, I'll go with The Children and the Wolves, without a doubt.  But if it's for the latter, then it is far far away. In this case, the distinction is that clear for me.
Brad:  This is not the first time that this has been the question.  Just choose.  I think it is sort of unlikely that either of our two books would move on beyond the next round.  For very, very, different reasons.
Jyoti:  Ok. The Children and the Wolves.
Brad:  We may have just broke The Mighty Smackdown.  AND ruined Christmas.

1 comment:

  1. This is the question for so many of us. Some people find it so easy to answer what is YA....I would say it's book by book and like anything else we do with adolescents is it scaffolded? It is discussed? Does it come with warnings? Should it come at all?

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