Tag Archives: social issues

Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher

Whale Talk T.J. is 1/4 black and 1/4 Japanese in a town of racist rednecks in inland Washington; his single mother, addicted to drugs, abandoned him at two years old. Luckily, she abandoned him to a very nice normal family and he grows up to be probably the happiest character in the book. Take that as a warning sign. He ends up gathering a motley cast of losers and misfits for the swim team, in a quest to get a letter jacket for Chris, the brain-damaged kid who’s been bullied out of wearing his dead brother’s letter jacket.

What’s interesting about this book is that if my suspension of disbelief had snapped for even a second, I would have sighed and rolled my eyes and put the book down, because you could play Problem Novel Bingo with it, and it has an improbable density of awful things that happen, and it’s just too clinical, too therapeutic. And depressing. Did I mention depressing?

But Crutcher has such a firm handle on T.J’s voice – it’s not all snappy and hip in the way of some YA novels, it’s just solid and convincing all the way through. I end up believing all of it. I end up getting sucked into it. I end up getting my heart broken by it even as I get annoyed by the way the plots for coming-of-age novels always seem to need to sacrifice some important character at the end.

T.J. is very believable as a character who feels an idealistic need to rebel against the system and change things, but who also has a chip on his shoulder, and who can’t always neatly draw the line between those two things. This is a guy I knew in high school, definitely. Perhaps no other character in the book is quite as well drawn – I don’t think I really believe in the villainy of the villains – but T.J. manages to hold the whole book together.


The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Vol. II, The Kingdom On the Waves, by M. T. Anderson

Octavian Nothing IIMost historical fiction books for young people take as their object to show a Typical Person with a Typical Problem in a particular era; and most historical fiction for young people reflects a sort of bland consensus view of history, something that is acceptable to teach in schools.Octavian Nothing is not most historical fiction.

Picking up where the first book left off, Octavian — a slave raised in luxury with a first-rate education as part of an experiment — enlists with the Royal Ethiopian Regiment, which has promised to free any Rebel-owned slaves that join up. There he encounters war, friendship, heartbreak, betrayal, the difficulty of fitting in when he fits in nowhere. He has spent his childhood learning Latin and violin fugues, where his comrades have spent theirs on plantations. Octavian’s cultural heritage is extremely complex. He has been given music and religion – but has been deprived of the music and religion of his own people. The novel refuses to make an easy calculation of what he has gained and lost.

We see Octavian’s growing maturity as he acquires wisdom — and also cynicism. Is selfishness at the core of human nature, human existence? Can success — or survival — only be achieved at the expense of others? And if so, how do we reconcile ourselves with that?

The issue of historical memory is one I’ve been deeply interested in for some years now. There is probably no nation on earth that has never, somewhere in its history, committed war crimes or genocide, that has no scars on its conscience. It’s easy to say, it’s history, it’s in the past. It’s too easy; the past is never past. Octavian Nothing is willing to confront that, to ask hard questions. To refuse to provide easy answers to them. It asks how we can reconcile ourselves with our past — with our present — and says, maybe we don’t. Maybe we can’t.

What a profoundly troubling and beautiful piece of work.


Octavian Nothing II will be published in October.

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.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

This happens to be the book that finally taught me how to spell dilemma.

We have, Pollan says, a crisis of food in this country–where diet books are bestsellers and no one ever loses any weight, where we can eat anything we want and no one kThe Omnivore's Dilemmanows what to eat. Butter’s bad for you, eat margarine! No, margarine’s bad for you, eat butter! Meat’s bad for you, eat fish! Wait, fish has mercury in it! And, more than that, we don’t know where our food comes from. Or, we do: it comes from Food Lion, in a box. And before that? Well.

So Pollan goes on a quest to eat trace four meals from their origins to the table: fast food, ‘industrial organic,’ ‘beyond organic,’ and hunter-gatherer.

The meat of this book is Pollan’s look at the industrial-agricultural complex, which is built on a foundation of corn; which is itself built on a foundation of government subsidies, and chemical fertilizers, and ultimately, a whole lot of fossil fuel. You think a Hummer is bad? What about a Big Mac, or asparagus in January?

It’s a seriously scary book, beautifully written, thought-provoking, knowledgeable, tracing connections between things you’d never have thought to connect. But I’m ultimately a little disappointed that Pollan’s handwringing can’t move beyond personal action. The problems of industrial agriculture and fast food and food culture are not (as Pollan totally acknowledges!) personal moral problems. They are systemic problems. Yet Pollan denounces the system without seeing any way to change it – besides growing and gathering your own food, something that’s a little beyond most of us.

That’s a small thing. It’s a fantastic book, and almost a necessary one.