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, January 20, 2015

Ummmmm...What Just Happened? or Grasshopper Jungle versus Sister Mine

I’m not sure how the stars aligned to put two of the oddest, most unclassifiable, and contentious books in the history of The Mighty Smackdown into the same round, but it has happened.  I feel a little spent.

Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle:

Hoo boy.  I don’t even know where to start with this one.  I’m not really sure for whom this book is written.  I can’t think of one person that I would actually recommend it to.  Heck—I’m not even sure what I just read.

How about this:  if you’ve been breathlessly waiting for a book where the perpetually horny protagonist (and who gives explicit voice to said horniness on a near page-to-page basis) fights terrifying man-sized praying mantises, then, ladies and gentlemen, we might as well declare Grasshopper Jungle the winner of this year’s Smackdown, and call it a day.

Did I like it?  This is the best I can come up with.  I was about the same age as the protagonist in the mid-80s, and at the time the teen movie industry was burgeoning, catalyzed by a teen audience that had more money in their pocket than any group of teens before them, and by the VHS market, which ensured that there was no end to slight teen movies with plenty of nudity (tame by today’s HBO standards, but not by those days’ standards), lots of talk about sex, and an eventual “message” about friendship or kindness or identity that made, I’m sure, the filmmaker feel like he had created a piece of art.  No genre was off limits to this, including thriller/horror movies aimed squarely at a teen audience.  Like Night of the Creeps.  Or Return of the Living Dead.  Or Night of the Comet.  Apocalyptic horror/comedies with plenty of young ladies taking their tops off, and the repeated use of the word “horny” (you might see now where I’m heading with this).  Movies that you snuck into at the Cineplex after paying for a ticket to something more family-friendly.

If anyone who had never seen one of these movies in their formative years watched one of these movies now, they would hate it.  Exploitative.  Cloying.  Repetitive.  Vaguely (maybe explicitly?) misogynistic. Sure--agreed.  But, when I watch these movies now, I see all of these problems, but I still watch it a bit wistfully, remembering the days of the illicit thrill of the profanity and the endless talk of sex and repetitive fart jokes.

So…Grasshopper Jungle is that.  With all its blemishes and all its puerile glory.

Better than that, of course.  Smith does lots of things with voice and character that no 80s film (never mind 80s YA novel) would have ever dared to do.  And I agree with Mr. McBean that some of the best moments of the novel are those where Smith sort of cinematically cross-cuts between various characters of the novel to note where they are at a precise moment, but then adds another level of complexity by cross-cutting through time and space (caveat:  but, like almost everything else in this book, I’m sad to say that Smith employs this device, ultimately, too many times, which drains the [at first] novel stylistic device of all its impact and vitality).  But then we get the sublime “Four Photographs” chapter about a third of the way through the novel that is so poetic and moving and smart that I can’t believe it even exists within this book. Sigh.

There are COUNTLESS things wrong with the novel:  the plot takes much too long to get going, and even when it does, it does so in awkward fits and starts.  The use of the word “horny” loses its charm on about page 30, but the author continues to use it as liberally as Scorsese does the f-bomb (attempted comedic effect? a misguided notion of teen boy verisimilitude? I don’t know.  It kind of wore me down).  Quirks of character, strange details, and plot devices that are set up for a clever pay off, only to be ignored.  Everything that is great about the novel is endlessly repeated to the point of irritation.  After pages and pages of buildup, the novel sort of sputters to an inconclusive halt.  BUT, not before, in the last seven lines, tying up one of the key motifs in the novel in an undeniably beautiful and profound way.  You can’t write about this book without a lot of sentences that start with “But.”

Sheesh.  Talk about the sublime and the profane.

Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine

Here’s where I have to admit to one of my greatest deficiencies as a reader.  I don’t understand Fantasy as a genre.  At all.  I have tried and tried and tried, but my “suspension of disbelief” chip was lost somewhere in the womb.  I am the only person I know who can’t watch Game of Thrones.  Not because it is too gory or too intense, but because I can watch entire episodes without understanding who anyone is or why anyone is doing anything that they are doing.  And I have tried.  Really hard.  But, suddenly, a character has dragon eggs, and my brain short circuits, and I am done.  Done.
So, Sister Mine never really had a chance with me.  I was lost LONG before we meet the character who is a shapeshifter (I’m not even sure if I am using the right vernacular here—probably not) that used to be Jimi Hendrix’s guitar.

It is beautifully written.  To be sure.  And I am sure that this is SOMEONE’s cup o’ tea, but it isn’t mine.  Honestly, I really had to push myself to keep reading.  And, at the end, I just had a big old shoulder shrug.  I’m with Tracy here.  M’eh.  But I acknowledge this is may be entirely my deficiency.  So I’m not sure what to do here.

The Verdict

Here it is.  I know some of you are going to hate it/already hate it.  But I can’t deny that it has made me think about it a lot more than anything that transpires in Sister Mine.  So, Grasshopper Jungle goes to the next round.  It has my vote, anyway.  It is entirely in the hands of Team 6.

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