le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

prize-winners and honorable mentions

This year I was on the stick with the children's/YA media/lit prizes. I checked the list of prize-winners when I got up on 23 January, and immediately put in  library requests for a number of them. They've been arriving in dribs and drabs, and I've been reading them that way, so this is a bit of a haphazard roundup.

Newbery Winner: Dead End in Norvelt, Jack Gantos.
Gantos is awesome, for about a hundred reasons not least being Rotten Ralph, who I have admired since my childhood. Unsurprisingly, I hadn't heard of Norvelt before the awards announcement; I am out of the loop, the real inner circle of readers and Important Book People who get ARCs and/or are able to afford new releases.
I liked Norvelt, but I didn't love it. It says good things about history, and story, and community, and memory, but not unusual, extraordinary things, and it doesn't say them in ways that felt truly unusual and extraordinary. I want my Newbery winners to be books that either make me cry, or dazzle me with their structure, language, characters, plot.  Dead End in Norvelt, like Moon Over Manifest, last year's winner, did neither of these things.

Printz Award, Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley. 
I wrote a post about this one already, but I realize I feel pretty good about this being the Printz winner. I'm not sure what else should/could have won, unless it's Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which - because I just re-read it again, for teaching - strikes me as a book VERY deserving of an award or two. Perhaps I will invent my own award and give it to the book.

Printz Award Honorable mentions!
Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.
Very recently Stiefvater was one of a number of YA authors asked which YA text they'd most like to see adapted as a film, to wich she replied How to Say Goodbye In Robot, which horrified me - that book is perfect, utterly perfect, as a book. Anyone who attempts to adapt it for any kind of even marginally mainstream audience will ruin it, which makes me question Stiefvater's judgment. I was also skeptical of this initially, because I associate Stiefvater with *Shiver* and the genre of paranormal romance YA in ways that are not flattering. I haven't read those books, and I still might not, but people who are smart and thoughtful readers mentioned Scorpio Races in positive ways, so when I saw it on the honorable mentions list, I thought: Why not?
As so often happens, I'm glad I did read it, because this was quite an enthralling book. I love the dual narrators - Sean and Puck/Kate - who inhabit such initially different-seeming worlds even on the same small(ish) island, both of whom have unique voices and personalities. Sean is horse-obsessed, especially with the capaill uisge, the water-horses that come from the sea surrounding their island. I had to look up capaill uisge, and then spent the next ten days racking my brain to recall where I'd recently read about glashtyn, with which they are essentially synonymous [answer: Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland].  The Scorpio Races are a yearly event, racing along the beach on the ferocious, mostly feral and carnivorous capaill uisge; someone always dies in the race, it seems, and others are hurt. Sean works as a trainer for the wealthiest man on the island; Puck is the middle child of three who were orphaned recently when their parents were attacked by capaill uisge while at sea.
There are any number of twists and turns involved in getting Sean and Puck into the race, and then into contact with each other, but it's so well-crafted and captivating. Stiefvater's setting, a clearly remote, dark island with its own customs, traditions, ways of being, is wonderful; it's definitely Celtic in feel, but is fictional, which gives her free rein to world-build. This is essentially a two-in-one romance plot and boy/girl-and-her-horse plot, and the two complement each other beautifully. The romance feels utterly convincing, almost painful, slightly strange, slightly inevitable, fierce as everything else about these two characters are. It is never cloying, or sentimental. Despite Puck and her brothers being orphans, their sorrow and situation is never pitiful; rather, it's an obstacle and an element of change that they all must grapple with (and do so rather poorly, which strikes me as utterly realistic given their ages - something like 19, 16, 13).
The ferocious nature of the capaill uisge is made abundantly clear, repeatedly, but at the same we're always able to see them through Sean's (and Puck's) perspective; they are forces of nature to be held in awe and respect, not terrible monsters to be vanquished. Like thunder storms or sea swells, the capaill uisge are there whether you want them to be or not; how you choose to respond to them is everything.
There are a number of secondary and tertiary characters, and Steifvater does a fantastic job of keeping them all within human bounds; even the characters we don't see a lot of, like Peg the butcher's wife, are complex and real and interesting. There is no real "villain" in the tale; the stableowner and his son say and do aggressive, terrible things, but we also see enough of them to know why they do these things.
Scorpio Races surprised me in how very much I liked it; it's a story about love that isn't a "romance," it's a story about horses that isn't a horse book. It's gloriously evocative of an utterly devastating place and people, and it's completely deserving of its Honorable Mention.

Printz Honorable Mention, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
THIS was a letdown. Silvey's Australian, and I've come to be deeply impressed with contemporary Australian YA (Melina Marchetta, Markus Zusak, Simmone Howell), so I had some high hopes. I wrote about this on my Goodreads page, and I'll just reproduce that here:
This is not a bad book, but I do not - I truly do NOT - understand why it is a Printz honorable mention. It is very possible I'm biased because I read it in my project to read the awards books & honorable mentions; maybe if I'd picked it up by chance, I'd have liked it more. But not much resonated with me as a reader; not the plot, which seemed deeply implausible, not the characters, who were either stereotypes or bafflingly inauthentic. Charlie, the narrator, never sounds like a 13-year-old boy, not even a precocious one, except in a few snips of dialogue with his friend when they call each other dickhead. Jasper Jones is a ridiculous kind of shadowy cartoon of a boy, who doesn't speak like a teenager or act like one, and not because of the circumstances of his life. Charlie's dreamy devotion to Jasper at the beginning of the novel is interesting, and it would have been super-interesting to follow THAT path - why not have Charlie crush on Jasper, since it seems he's halfway there already? The sideline about famous murderers/serial killers is also interesting, especially in tandem with the search for the missing girl, but it ultimately doesn't go anywhere either. So much is left undeveloped, and not in a way that feels intentional and shadowy, sketchy like the real world; the core premise that Jasper is so much a target that a 13-year-old agrees to hide a body never feels plausible, especially not when Charlie rhapsodizes about Jasper, and explains how great he is at football, and how the girls love him.

The language of the book feels all wrong, too. It isn't BAD, it just doesn't seem right for the kind of characters, for the kind of story, that's being told here. I hateHateHATE saying things like this, but *Jasper Jones* really feels like it was aiming at being an Important Grownup Novel about Coming Of Age, but slipped and fell on its ass on the YA shelf. I think this could have been a good book, but something went awry, and Charlie wandered away from being a teenager to being a rather empty and pretentious plot device.

I really don't understand why this was named Honorable Mention. It's gotten good collective reviews on amazon and goodreads; maybe I'm just missing something, or maybe I expected too much? It's possible that I've also now read a goodly amount of truly astonishingly great YA fiction; the bar is set very, very high.

Printz Honorable Mention Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler
Because I'm out of the loop, I didn't see this one coming; I didn't even know it existed until a week or two before the awards were announced. I love Daniel Handler, and try to keep tabs on him, and I also love Maira Kalman, who did her usual wondrous illustrations for this novel; how it escaped me is kind of mysterious.
I read this in one setting, and I quite liked it. Min is a delight, and she manages - as the story evolves - to be both a unique teenage character ("different," or "arty," as the text suggests and Min resists) but to also be completely a teenager. Min's love of old movies (all of which I believe Handler invented for his novel, and I give him massive props for that, because they are referenced constantly, sprinkled  throughout Min's letter precisely the way you do continually connect real-world moments to film scenes) and her personality in general made me think, oddly enough, of Ruby in E. Lockhart's Boy Book and its companion novels - but not badly.
The premise of the book is fantastic - Min is returning the detritus of their relationship, which lasted for about six weeks (yes! they are teenagers! in high school! this is how it is), accompanied with a letter explaining the significance to her of the item, and also the significance of it to why she broke up with Ed, the basketball-star popular boy senior. I love material culture, and I love thinking about material culture, and like Min, I imbue objects with meaning and associations more than perhaps I should, or more than most do.
Min is a smart cookie but not overly smart; she's engaging, she's interesting, she's able to describe their relationship in great ways. For all we suspect Ed - we know, after all, from the get-go that this relationship isn't going to last, and Min is angry at him - Handler manages to present him as likable, truly likable, so when the final shattering reveal comes along, it's wrenching to the reader on many levels.
A lot of people have raved about Handler's ability to channel a sixteen-year-old girl, and I suppose he does throughout, though the kind of girl he channels is one that lives in a hazy third space; Min is not a girly girl, and her closest friend is a boy - the space Min occupies in her world is not that of many, or most, girls in the "real world," at least not in my experience. But Handler does a devastatingly good job when he gets to the actual crushing moment of breaking-up. A nearly three-page paragraph, a semi-stream-of-consciousness burst of emotion, almost at the very end of the book, makes Min heartbreakingly real and representative of, I think, a lot of girls and women when their hetero relationships end. A sample:
"I like movies, everyone knows I do - I love them - but I will never be in charge of one because my ideas are stupid and wrong in my head. There's nothing different about that, nothing fascinating, interesting, worth looking at. I have bad hair and stupid eyes. I have a body that's nothing. I'm too fat and my mouth is idiotic ugly. ...I scratch at places on my body, I sweat everywhere, my arms, I clumsy around dropping things, my average grades and stupid interests, bad breath, pants tight in back, my neck too long or something. ... I'm not a romantic, I'm a half-wit. Only stupid people would think I'm smart. ... The only particle I had, the only tiny thing raising me up, is that I was Ed Slaterton's girlfriend, loved by you for like ten secs, and who cares, so what, and not anymore so how embarrassing for me." (336-337).
Min's sense of failure, of loss of self-worth, of helpless hopeless stupidity, reminds me of virtually every girl I've ever known (including myself) who has had a relationship end even a little bit badly. That feeling of the only thing raising you up being the boy - that right there is so true, and even the most well-adjusted feminist women I know experience this. I don't know, because I can't know, if this is how boys and men feel when they're on the bad end of the break up, but I do know that I can't think of any representations of this (in literature). It makes me think, reading about Min from a safe distance of I'm not sixteen anymore, that we still fail girls and women in our culture; we still make them think that value comes from having a guy, especially a successful guy. Even though Min doesn't wallow for long, even though she manages to pull it together, this feeling of no-worth-without-him is still strong when the breakup happens. I have read books with male narrators and protagonists who express horror, sorrow, dismay, loss, grief, listlessness - all kinds of emotions - when faced with their girls and women leaving them. But I don't think I have ever encountered one who responds with the kind of self-loathing that we see here from Min, that I have seen from all kinds of girls and women I know (including myself).
For these three pages alone, Daniel Handler's book is deserving of at least an Honorable Mention.

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