Monday, February 20, 2012

Where Things Are Awesome

Book Reviewed: Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley

My friend Amy (she of the often-great book recommendations, and the author of this great blog) recommended John Corey Whaley's award-winning debut teen novel to me a few weeks ago.  She sold me with three things that are important to the book's protagonist, Cullen Witter: Sufjan Stevens, zombies, and the use of the word ass-hat (one of my all time favorite words in the world, by the way).  I loaded into onto my Kindle at once, and although it took me awhile to finish because of boring grad school stuff, I have to admit: This book is pretty damn good.

I knew I was going to love this book only a few pages in, when Cullen says this about himself: 
Being seventeen and bored in a small town, I like to pretend sometimes that I'm a pessimist.  This is the way it is and nothing can sway me from that.  Life sucks most of the time.  Everything is bullshit.  High school sucks.  You go to school, work for fifty years, then you die.  Only I can't seem to keep that up for too long before my natural urge to idealize goes into effect.  I can't seem to be a pessimist long enough to overlook the possibility of things being overwhelmingly good.
I'm not sure I've ever read anything that so perfectly describes the inside of the teenage brain.  This passage could have been written by me at the age of seventeen (not that I would have put it together in such a simple and eloquent way as Whaley).  Nothing is worse than the realization that you're not the cynic you think you are.  The world hurts a hell of a lot more when you're an idealist.

And this summer of Cullen's life hurts a whole lot.  Not long after some annoying bird expert claims to have seen the long-thought-extinct Lazarus woodpecker in the Witter's small Arkansas town, Cullen's smart and thoughtful little brother, Gabriel, goes missing.  Intercut with this story is that of a young Christian missionary, the missionary's impressionable college roommate, and the pain of a romance gone bad.  It's hard to see how these two separate stories are going to connect, but they come together in an incredibly poignant way in the end. 

Cullen and the people around him are what make this book.  Cullen is funny and sincere but because he wants to cut himself off from the horrors of the world around him, he often slips into a third-person voice that helps distance himself.  What could have seemed like a gimmick (particularly as Cullen often imagines the people around him becoming zombies at the same time) instead pays off wonderfully in the book's moving final paragraphs.  This novel also features one of my new favorite BFF characters, Lucas Cader.  Lucas Cader is the strongest of friends, charming and loyal, but with his own tragic backstory that only makes him that much more interesting.  And Cullen's mother is really well-written.  Mother characters in teen novels aren't always portrayed well, but Whaley gives Mrs. Witter a rich inner life of which we only catch brief but enlightening glimpses.

Where Things Come Back is a very rewarding book.  I've thought of it often since finishing it last week, about the strength of its brevity, its tricky narrative moves, and its warm view of teenagers in a small rural town.  Also, it has the best use of ass-hat I've yet encountered in literature.  I'm going to be throwing this one in with The Book Thief as a great teen read that should be experienced by all age groups. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Book Reviewed: Low Moon, by Jason

I've reviewed several of Jason's books on here before, so I won't go into all the reasons I'm obsessed with his graphic novels.  Just know this: I'm obsessd with Jason.  Even his books or stories that I don't love are still more interesting than a lot of things out there.  He knows how to tell a good story, and his art is always incredibly clever.  And in the best Jason stories, there's some really emotionally satisfying moments. 

I interlibrary-loaned Low Moon just because I was in the mood to read some short graphic novellas, and I hadn't read this one yet.  As usual, I finished it almost as soon as I picked it up (these things read really fast).  Low Moon collects five of Jason's shorter works: "Emily Says Hello," "Low Moon," "&," "Proto Film Noir," and "You Are Here."  Jason's work is sometimes too clever or ironic for its good, which is why "Emily Says Hello" and "Proto Film Noir," both of which are deeply weird, didn't quite work for me.  But the other three were engrossing and poignant in their own ways.  And in the case of "Low Moon," funny as hell. 

"Low Moon" is a Western in which people ride bicycles instead of horses, and instead of having shoot outs, sheriffs and bad guys duke it out on chess boards with life and death consequences.  Jason is clearly a major film buff (most of his best stories play with basic film concepts and build on image as if storyboarding an interesting shot), which pays off wonderfully in this particular piece.  "Low Moon" is a classic western, and it's not afraid to comment on its own ridiculousness.  If I introduce anyone to Jason anytime soon, I'm going to recommend "Low Moon" as a great place to start.  It's so funny and quirky and charming.  I loved it. 

I didn't love "&" or "You Are Here" quite as much as "Low Moon," but they were pretty good on their own, too.  "&" has a dark humor that undercuts the story in a way that actually gave me a nice surprise at the end, in which two intertwining stories finally come together.  It's a cute little piece.  "You Are Here," on the other hand, has a lot in common with one of my favorite Jason books, Hey, Wait..., which, for those of you who haven't read it, is an incredibly sad and strange look at grief and guilt.  "You Are Here" isn't quite as starkly beautiful as Hey, Wait..., but it's still a very human depiction of remorse and how we live (or don't) with our most banal choices. 

I really enjoyed Low Moon, and if I said it once, I'll say it a hundred times more.  You all need to go out and read Jason ASAP.  You won't regret it. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I Finally Get Around to Read That Book Everyone Else in the World Has Read...

Book Reviewed: Blankets, by Craig Thompson

You know those books that you feel like everyone else in the world has read but you?  Like all the cool people you follow on Twitter or whose columns you read on pop culture websites have read this one book and you won't be as cool as them until you do, too?  Well, that's how I feel about Craig Thompson's 2004 graphic novel/memoir, Blankets.  On nearly every list of important graphic novels or best books of the 2000s so far, Thompson's seminal brick of a book gets mentioned.  Earlier this month, my library finally got around to ordering a few copies of the hardback edition of Blankets, and I jumped in line to be the first person at my branch to check it out.

Needless to say, I knew a lot about Blankets before I even jumped in.  I knew it was about Thompson's first love with a girl he met at Bible camp.  I knew it dealt with his struggles over religion.  I also knew it was supposed to be really, really good.  So I was somewhat surprised by the fact that what I expected from Blankets ended up being different from the actual experience of Blankets.  I don't mean that in a bad way.  I quite liked the book.  It was nice to be surprised by the things I liked but hadn't seen coming ahead of time.

Blankets is considered a graphic "novel," but Thompson makes no qualms about it actually being autobiographic.  I mean, honestly.  The protagonist's name is Craig, people!  Thompson isn't afraid to go to some pretty dark places, and he's more than willing to paint himself (literally) in a bad light at times.  Craig is an incredibly sympathetic character, but he never feels unrealistically good or pitiful or overly tragic.  Thompson does a great job making Craig seem fully-realized, which had to be difficult considering he's writing and drawing himself here.  The characters around him are well-drawn, too, particularly his short-term girlfriend, Raina.  Raina manages to be naive and mature at the same time, more like an actual teenage girl than most books are willing to portray.

So yes, this is a book about first loves and religious doubt and the interior life of an artist.  But it's also a wonderful look at the relationship between siblings (between Craig and his younger brother, between Raina and her special needs brother and sister, between Raina and her bitchy older sister).  I'm a sucker for well-portrayed family dynamics, and Thompson gets into those dynamics in really interesting and detailed ways.  Few artists or writers can portray the tenson between what we expect from those we love and what they actually give us in the way Thompson does here in Blankets.  If you strip this book down to its essential theme, its this: the poetry inherent in the beauty and tragedy of our all too human expectations.

Note:  I didn't mention it above, but the art in this book is really stunning as well.  Thompson is all about detail.  My favorite thing in this book might just be the way characters tend to tuck their hair behind their ears when in the heat of a moment, a telling sign that never gets told to us by the actual text.  You have to pay really close attention to the art in this book, something that's not always true of graphic novels.