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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Grasshopper Jungle vs. Jumped In

I'll start with Jumped In. I found this book so incredibly boring. The premise of a life changing friendship being formed around a relatively minor poetry assignment seemed completely contrived and unlikely to resonate with students. The un-ironic Nirvana references made the book feel like a product of 1994 (I checked the publication date a few times!) The gang-related plot line was never fully realized. The interspersed poetry pieces were weak and uninspiring. The teacher character seemed to suffer from that all-too-common YA novel condition - not the one where they're absent or disinterested (see Falling into Place), but the one where they are just too over-the-top, too unrealistically knowing of exactly what kind of remedy (always a literary remedy - see Belzhar) their students need to heal every hurt that exists in their life. The protagonist of the novel summed up the total banality of the story in his explanation of his mission: "two people that barely know each other looking for someone they barely know." Then, just when you know the novel is going nowhere interesting, it gets the John Green kids-with-cancer treatment. Even dying teenagers were not enough to resuscitate this book. Am I being too harsh? Maybe. See Barb's blog post for what I believe from our e-mails will be a more favorable review.

Grasshopper Jungle is certainly a book that warrants discussion and I suspect will evoke many mixed feelings. I actually started reading the book before it was assigned to me. I had read Dia's post that no one had wanted it at the first Smackdown meeting ( I was absent). So I had to see what all the fuss was about. I admit, I still don't know entirely if I like the novel. I do know, however, that I was kept intrigued enough to return to the book as frequently as I could until I finished it. I should also say that Grasshopper Jungle is not the kind of book I normally read. In fact, I'm still trying to think of what kind of read might normally read a book like this. I would be hesitant recommending it to a lot of students. Chris, the narrator, talks often and openly about his horniness and masturbatory habits. Similarily, the giant praying mantises that hatch from the infected bodies of residents of his small Iowa town are interested (as we read many, many times) in only two things: "eating and f--cking." And while the frank talk about sexuality is believable for a teenage boy, I could see it being uncomfortable or inappropriate for many students. The whole bug-invasion plot was surprisingly interesting, if not entirely weird. At first I thought it should be read as a metaphor for Chris' discomfort with his sexuality (he's dating a girl and is also in love with his male best friend). And maybe there is some metaphor there, somewhere, buried under the strangeness. I found myself consistently annoyed with Chris' discussion of his sexual "confusion." (and annoyed that author Smith never fully allowed the character to come to terms with his bisexuality in any kind of positive way). Instead, his "confusion" takes the form of a series of increasingly awful actions that are unfair to his girlfriend and his best friend. In short, he's completely selfish and never really has to overcome that (living instead in some kind of fantasy world with two lovers who both want monogamy. Again, I'm skeptical about the treatment of bisexuals here.)  As for Smith's writing style, I found myself enjoying the repetition of lines and the poetic way that he incorporated Chris' ancestral history, along with very recent events of the past, along with the contemporary narrative - often unfolding at the same time in different places. Is this the best book of the year, as some enthusiastic reviews have claimed? No. Best book of Smackdown? I don't think so.  (In fact, I am throwing very early support behind I'll Give you the Sun which I absolutely LOVED). BUT if you're looking for something completely different, and aren't put off by horny teenage boys and giant insects that eat and copulate and kill everything in sight, then you might want to check out Grasshopper Jungle. If only because I'm dying to hear some more opinions! This is my vote to move forward to round two.

N.B. I should add that Barb knew I would like the book because I'm "Hip, Young, and Cool" - Thanks Barb!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you...thank you...thank you. We read this one in my book club and were very divided. Some loathed (not an exaggeration) it but when I finished and someone said what do you think? I wasn't sure. I agree I have NEVER read anything like it. I gave it to my daughter (19) to read at spring break - just last week she brought it up again and said...I think I like it. Clearly it is a long gestational book. I gave it to my 16yr old son for his birthday...he stopped reading it. Now others will be reading it mwhahaha!