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
»

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Callingwood Goes For The War . . .



Well, over at Callingwood, our conversation looked initially to be surprisingly short for this late stage of the competition. No suspense here, really: we loved The War that Saved My Life and we were just generally pretty irritated by The Porcupine of Truth. Once we got rolling we actually spent a disconcerting amount of time revelling in what annoyed us the most about Porcupine, but we’ve endeavoured to see some good in the novel, as well. It started out as a reasonably engaging story with a mystery in the middle, but as is sometimes the case with an ambitious author there was a real sense of jamming ideas (and puns, oh the puns!) in a novel that could have used a little restraint, rather than continual excess. That said, the author clearly is writing a novel that could be a way into some tough discussions (the hypocrisy of faith, sexual identity, the effects of trauma, substance abuse etc.) for some young people and there are entertaining and sobering moments that occur throughout the novel. There, that was somewhat diplomatic right? As for what got on our nerves (in no particular order): 1) Why does Aisha need to be supermodel hot? An interesting and potentially nuanced character seems continually diminished by Carson’s leering, which seems to signal a subtle misogyny that runs through other aspects of the novel. 2) The whiny petulance on display from Carson throughout may accurately portray the occasional teen boy, but it doesn't make great reading company. 3) The scene where they earned $500 telling lame mom jokes and making up plays on the spot drove us nuts. 4)
The overly pedantic look at the hypocrisy of faith (throughout) and the AIDS epidemic (at the end) also grated. Both interesting things to discuss, but I don't think any of us need our novels to devolve into thinly veiled lectures. We could (and did) go on, but that should suffice here.

The War that Saved My Life on the other hand, charmed us. I cringed a bit writing that because it seems like faint praise, but the more I think of our discussion, it is the right word. The War that Saved My Life reminded us all of some of those really important books that we read when we were young that seemed note perfect and really kindled our love of reading. The book starts out with an almost Dickensian tone as we are immersed in both physical and emotional squalor. Of course, this novel does immerse us in the past (although some hundred years removed from Dickens), but its insights into such things as trauma, relationships and, ultimately, the mysteries and foundations of human communication are profound and timeless. The characters in this novel are achingly damaged, but Bradley, unlike Konisberg, opts to show in carefully drawn characterizations rather than tell through too often invasive dialogue. There is considerable restraint in what is revealed about each character and this allows us to draw closer to these characters. We see this in Susan’s profound, but understated mourning; in Ada and Jamie’s halting recovery from trauma and even in the decision to cast their mother in such a shockingly mean and unsympathetic light. There is no doubt that she too has been traumatized, but she is so far gone the narrative cannot allow us any window of hope, which helps to form an essential narrative contrast to our other characters. One of the challenges of The Smackdown is coming across books that may be perfect for one particular audience, but disastrous for another, and I often think of these books in terms of kids I’ve known and ask myself, “Would I give them a particular book?”. With this book it kind of went the other way, in that we were all hard pressed to think of a person, young or old, that we would not eagerly want to read The War That Saved My Life.

And . .  .Wolf By Wolf is our Zombie Pick!

1 comment:

  1. The improv scene! Ugh, I forgot about that - or rather, I think I blocked it out. Yep, that was yet another implausible facet of Porcupine.

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