Monthly Archives: May 2008

Magic For Beginners, by Kelly Link

Magic For BeginnersNine short stories of magical realism, stories that shift effortlessly from fairy-tale mode to a much more naturalistic mode to surreal absurdity.

The thing about these stories–the frustrating, beautiful thing–is that they are not merely hard to understand. They resist all efforts to understand them. They hint at the feeling that, oh, if only you were smart enough, if only you spent enough time decoding the symbolism and the turns of phrase, everything would suddenly become bright-clear and revelatory, and then they dismiss that idea–directly or more subtly. These are stories about the ways in which stories satisfy or don’t satisfy, make you comfortable or uncomfortable, and it’s no surprise that the stories themselves are unsatisfactory and uncomfortable. And it’s not even a bad thing.

I don’t know any other writer who evokes so well the way I feel about stories, a mix of absurd devotion and intense suspicion of that devotion. Kurt Vonnegut, perhaps. And they evoke, too, the absurdity and magic and meaningfulness and meaninglessness of contemporary life, in a way that doesn’t feel bleak or depressing–Link makes me feel like both her stories, and the world, are complicated, weird, and incomprehensible, but they aren’t things that need to be understood.


The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages

The Green Glass SeaDewey Kerrigan, raised by her grandmother until she has a stroke and goes into a nursing home, is sent to live with her father is New Mexico. Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1943: the place where chemists, physicists, and other scientists are working on creating the atomic bomb. All of this is shrouded in secrecy, and Dewey herself knows nothing of it. Her life is concerned with smaller things: having conversations with Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman, bonding with a loving but overworked father, working on projects with scrap metal and electronics. Then her father is sent away, to Washington, and Dewey is left with family friends and their daughter Suze. Deeply awkward around each other at first, Suze and Dewey slowly form a friendship.

Klages really gets what it’s like growing up as a nerd girl: the way adults can be easier to talk to than people your own age, the way one’s projects can be so fascinating that you don’t even care (that much…) when you’re unpopular, how Popular Mechanics is the most exciting magazine in existence, how great it is when you can share obscure knowledge with a friend like a secret code. I don’t know if I really believe the ending–it has one of those Big Misunderstandings I’m thoroughly sick of–but it’s such a warm and knowing picture of friendship and growing up, with the historical information woven in unobtrusively.

I think I like the book’s approach to the atomic bomb best of all. It’s not foregrounded at all. It’s top secret, and up until almost the end of the book, you only get vague rumors of a gadget that could end the war. But when it does show up, Klages doesn’t spend a lot of time arguing for and agaist the use of the atomic bomb. Dewey certainly doesn’t get to decide that. The scientists working on the bomb can argue about whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but ultimately, it’s out of their hands. Instead, Klage approaches it from three different perspectives–there’s the scientific perspective, and given Dewey’s fascination with science and engineering throughout the book, it’s easy to get caught up in this idea of– Wow! Science did this! And then there’s the political perspective, pro-ending the war as quickly as possible, with as little loss of (American) life as possible. Dewey is a child of her time, casual about using slurs against the Japanese. And finally, you just have to be floored with fear and trembling at the idea that human beings can obliterate each other on such a massive scale. The last chapter is wonderful when it comes to bringing all of these things together without hitting you over the head with them. 

Freewill, by Chris Lynch

FreewillIt’s taken me a very long time to write up this book because it’s a bit hard to get my head around it. I wasn’t a huge fan of the other Lynch I’ve read, Inexcusable, because it tried hard to leave a lot of blank spots–but they were obvious blank spots, that drew a great deal of attention to themselves, and it ended up being obvious in all the wrong ways. At the same time, I do appreciate what Lynch was trying to do and I admire the book for its ambition.

Freewill is way more obscure. Even the most straightforward aspects of the plot unfold very slowly, reluctantly: Will is in a woodworking class at a vocational high school. It’s not where he’s supposed to be; it’s not what he’s supposed to be doing. A student commits suicide by drowning. Other students build a memorial, with one of Will’s structures as the centerpiece…

It’s told in second person, and is probably the only YA novel I’ve ever read in second person (I could be wrong on that count). The second person perspective feels very natural as the voice of someone mired in grief and depression, though – a voice that is often self-accusatory, always second-guessing. Alternately trying to do the right thing, or at least find a right thing, and not caring.

I admire all of that, and yet, I admire it more than I like it. It seems like too much work to get through a novel that still remains cryptic, impenetrable.

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother17-year-old hacker, tinkerer, and gamer Marcus finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when he skips school and gets caught in the worst incident of terrorism in the U.S. He gets separated from his friends, detained by Homeland Security.

As the government starts encroaching more and more on civil liberties, Marcus is determined to get back at DHS, stop the questioning and detainment of innocent civilians, and generally take back the government from the law-and-order-at-all-costs brigade. Tall order for a junior in high school.

This is not a far-future dystopia. It is about the world now. (Based on Marcus having a Sega Dreamcast when he was seven, and discussions of the upcoming midterm elections, I’d put the date at 2010. I’m not sure if the technology is there yet, but certainly Doctorow would know more about that than I would!) It is, specifically, about the situation in the U.S. in the present day, not some handwavy analogy of a dystopia. It is also a manual to do exactly what Marcus does. Mind you, it’s not filled with lines of code and technical detail. (You can look up all that stuff on Wikipedia). It’s just enough to make you go, “Oh, cool!” – or else, “Oh, no!”… and to inspire you to take a few pages from Marcus’s playbook.

Which makes it a really important book.

But it’s something else again that makes it a whole lot of fun. Doctorow – well, he named his daughter Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus. That just about says it all. It’s a fast-paced technothriller packed with offhand nifty ideas and references and in-jokes. If you’re at all familiar with Scrotumgate from last year, you’ll know why this was my favorite:

“Did she use the scrotum line on you? I hate it when she does that. She just loves the word ‘scrotum,’ you know. It’s nothing personal.”

I’m thrilled when I read a boy book that’s filled with information and technology and the things that guys will voluntarily read about if they won’t voluntarily read about things like feelings, and is also plenty good on its own literary merits. It’s icing on the cake when that book is also politically conscious, socially relevant, and smart as all get-out. (Of course, that’s not to say that girls shouldn’t read it too!)

In short: it’s made of awesome.

Absolute Brightness, by James Lecesne

Absolute BrightnessLeonard Pelkey is almost fourteen years old, an orphan, and flamboyantly effete in a way that suggests he will grow up to be gay, if he isn’t there yet. He comes to live with his cousins, Deirdre and Phoebe, and to work in their mother’s beauty parlor. He loves the work, the customers love him; his cousins and classmates feel differently.

And then he disappears.

This book reads like a first novel – it’s so uneven. It’s the martyry adolescent fantasy of “People dislike me because I’m different, but I’m just special and unique, and they’ll all miss me when I’m gone!” — and Leonard is also a complicated and interesting character. It’s too long, and too diffuse, but also beautifully written and a pleasure to read. It has moments of moralizing and Social Messages, and also moments of great subtlety and complexity.

I didn’t exactly like it, but it’s far too good a book to dismiss.

Good enough, by Paula Yoo

Good EnoughPatti Yoon is wilting under the pressure of overachievement; she is Assistant Concertmaster of the all-state high school orchestra, after three years of being Concertmaster, and she got 2010 on her SATs instead of the 2300 she needs to get into HarvardYalePrinceton. She is thinking about applying to Juilliard and pursuing her love of the violin, but her parents think a career in music is too risky.

Enter Ben Wheeler, who plays trumpet in the same all-state orchestra and guitar in his spare time. He listens to punk music and is very, very cute. Patti’s growing friendship with Ben leads her to sneak over to his house to play music – and to reconsider the direction of her life.

It’s an all-around competent book. It doesn’t cut through to the heart of overachievement in the way that An Abundance of Katherines does, but Katherines is one of my favorite books ever so I may be setting the bar a little high. I started the book concerned about how it shows a rather stereotypical side of Asian-American culture (academic excellence, strict parenting, and playing the violin) and in some ways that’s true, but I think the cultural details (like all the food – spam sushi!) give it the weight of truth and authenticity, not “Hey, here’s a stereotypical Asian-American family!”

It’s a book that does some very nice unexpected things, and I especially like the way the ending shows the vastness of possibilities for life after high school, no matter what your SAT score.

Tiny spoilery quibble after the break:

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