Zusak Redux

Mark,

As you noted, I really did love this book. When I read it the first time, the ending didn’t bother me at all. I admit that I have a tendency to pretty much take writers where they are and not ask too much on a first read–I’m willing to go along for the ride. In this case, I think my reaction was sort of a shrug–perhaps I, too, had been reading enough metafiction that I didn’t give it much thought.

I gave it so little thought, in fact, that when I read it the second time a few years later, in preparation for a reading group, it came as a surprise to me for the second time.

I think what that means is that I was so involved in the story, and in Ed’s life, that I didn’t really care how Zusak got him out of it. I loved the humor in the book, and the genuineness of Ed, and I kind of liked the fact that this had all been brought about by authorial fiat, and that we were being told that. And it was really just a way to end the book, because at this point he had moved Ed along to the point that the book needed to end.

In retrospect, after hearing Zusak’s own regrets, and Beth’s well-reasoned comments above, I can see that it could be seen as rather a cop-out. I know that it made some of my book-group readers uncomfortable, although at the time I more or less dismissed their discomfort as a lack of imagination.

As I write this, however, I find that I can’t really condemn Zusak for it, or even regret it, as he apparently does. One of the things I liked about the ending was that it took a risk, and I like that in a book. I like to have something to think about, and I like to be surprised. I like to close a book and think to myself, “Huh. THAT was certainly interesting.”  So I have more tolerance for a risk that maybe doesn’t quite succeed than I do for a too-predictable ending. (Not that there weren’t other ways he could have ended this book and still maintained the surprise and interest. And not that I can imagine what a too-predictable ending would have been for this book!)

So there you have it–my own not-very-definitive answer to your question!

Two more comments about Markus Zusak, though:

1) I was so happy that YALSA President Shannon Peterson gave a shout-out to Getting the Girl at the Edwards Brunch (she mentioned that it had been a treasured book for a teen boy she had worked with). Getting the Girl is, in my opinion, Zusak’s overlooked and underrated book (although happily, the Edwards Committee cited it).

2) When is Zusak going to write another book? It has been seven years since The Book Thief!

–Mom

 

 

 

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ALA Debrief: Markus Zusak

Mom,

i am the messengerWell, we’re back from ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas. I seem to have been the only librarian there who kind of enjoyed Vegas, although the heat was truly terrible, but I’m glad to be home nonetheless. You and I went to several programs together and a whole bunch separately, so hopefully we’ll have a few thoughts to post to this blog, but the very first thing I wanted to get up is about Markus Zusak’s speech at the Margaret A. Edwards Award brunch.

Since I write and work for School Library Journal (which sponsors the Edwards Award), I was lucky enough to get a free ticket to the brunch and an invitation to meet Markus beforehand. He was incredibly kind and gracious and I thought his speech was lovely, discussing his development as a writer and his desire to write books that “only [he] could have written.” But the piece I want to discuss today was a brief digression that I might have missed had I not been discussing the very same issue with a friend. Zusak was talking about I Am the Messenger (or The Messenger as it’s known in Australia and as he referred to it), and he said, “I think I really screwed up the ending.” That’s a direct quote, the following is a paraphrase: “some people really got it, some people didn’t get it at all, and some people thought they got it but didn’t.”

The_Messenger_Au_CoverI’m sure you remember, but for our readers’ benefit, the ending of I Am the Messenger has Ed, our narrator, encounter an unnamed character who, it quickly becomes clear is Markus Zusak himself, who explains to Ed that he has written Ed’s story. It’s one of the more purely metafictional moments in YA fiction–it lays the ground for the final lines of the book, “I’m not the messenger at all./ I’m the message”.  And it is undoubtedly strange since nothing has really prepared us for this moment of stepping out of the story this way. At the time I read the novel the first time I was reading heavy doses of metafiction so it didn’t really even phase me. So I was surprised when a friend of mine read this for the first time and reacted negatively to it. And then I was even more surprised when Zusak got up at an awards ceremony and admitted to screwing it up!

I don’t know if this post is of interest to anyone other than myself and my unnamed friend (if he/she wants to reveal him/herself in the comments, feel free!), but I thought it was worth writing about since I don’t often hear authors so blatantly admit to faults in their writing. I know you’re a bigger Zusak fan than I am, especially of I Am the Messenger. What did you make of the ending at the time? What do you make of it now?

- Mark

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Korea

Mark,

Obviously, we’ve let the blog go of late. Between my stint on Excellence in Nonfiction and yours on PPYA as well as AB4T, plus the usual work and family obligations (not to mention my broken arm), the blog has fallen to the bottom of the priority heap.

But it seems to me that it will be a good place for me to share some impressions from my trip to Korea for the 8th International Symposium on Library Services for Children and Young Adults.

I’m actually still in Korea (I’m leaving in a few hours), so I’m not going to do a full post now, but stay tuned for some posts in the upcoming week, and meanwhile, here’s a picture of the Korean translation of my book on YALSA’s competencies.
image

–Mom

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Plus Two

Mom,

Beth Fama is not only a frequent commenter on this blog, but a good friend, so I will preface this post by saying that I make absolutely no claim to objectivity.

Given that, I loved this book. Here are some highlights for me:

1) The prose.  As you know, this is always first for me. The prose here is excellent – I don’t think I noticed an infelicitous phrase throughout (although SLJ found one – but I sure didn’t notice the one they mention on my read). Sol’s voice is strong and distinct, and never unduly calls attention to itself.
1a) The slang/jargon. I loved “smudge” in particular. “CircaDiem” as the name of the drug the smudges take was perfect: a) exactly what a pharma company would name that drug and b) transparent enough to understand its purpose.
1b) The French. I might have missed something, but I didn’t notice an explanation anywhere for all the French, which I thought was fine. The French (and the one mention of Latin) gave it a nice alternate-history feel without having to overexplain anything.
2) Characters. D’Arcy in particular was very well done. His tentativeness at the beginning – unable to understand why exactly he’s helping this smudge. his conflicted feelings about turning her in. His slow growth into an equal partner with her. Great stuff. Sol, of course, was amazing. Side characters: Jean, Helene, Ciel, Gigi – everyone popped. They all (including Sol and D’Arcy) had clearly delineated agendas (and hinted back stories) of their own, which organically led to their alliances or conflicts. Very well done, in a genre where characters often exist for the purpose of advancing the plot.
3) Structure. I quite enjoyed the bi-partite structure: the first half–interweaving the “desk” story with the present, the stealing of the baby leading to the show down with Poppu’s kidnappers–is what the reader expects the entire book to be. Then Beth throws Ciel out there, everyone scatters, and we get a whole new second half with renewed motivations and questions.
4)  I think Beth  writes incredible love scenes (there was some great stuff in Monstrous Beauty as well)–in Plus One, the sex scene, for sure, but even more so D’Arcy and Sol’s first kiss – wow.
5) Poppu’s death scene is another great set piece – really moving.
6) The ending. Well played with no cop-outs.

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Plus One

Mark,

Today is the official publication date of Plus One, the new YA novel by our frequent commenter Elizabeth Fama. I read this book in January, and just now re-read it, so I want to share some thoughts.PlusOne

I was excited to read it when I first heard the premise last summer: in an alternate version of history, the world was divided into Day people (Rays) and Night people (Smudges) during the 1918 Flu Pandemic. At the time, it was a way to increase productivity and decrease the crowding that led to more contagion. However, in the years that have gone by, it simply became the accepted way to live, with everyone’s activities limited by curfews. Until, of course, a night girl named Sol and a day boy named D’Arcy meet up.

There is lots going on in this book. On one level, it is an analysis of the kind of society that can emerge when we allow our governments to have too much control over every aspect of our lives. Just as one example, no one uses the phone any more (except to text) because “It was too tedious and expensive for the state to redact verbal conversations, and on the customer’s end, the ten-second time delay necessary for the redaction–along with frequent, irritating bleeping of content–spelled the death of person-to-person calls.” Isn’t that great? So much explained about the society and the government in one sentence!

On another level, it is just a solid, fast-paced adventure story, with chase scenes and hideouts. Sol has what she admits is a harebrained scheme to steal her brother’s baby from the hospital so that their grandfather can see the baby before he dies. Her brother has been reassigned to Day, and has not been in regular contact.

On yet another level, it is a great romance, as Sol and D’Arcy develop a relationship that has deeper roots than it first appears.

And yet again, it is also a story about the lengths to which people–all sorts of people–will go to protect the things and people they love.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the plot details here, since the book is brand-new and many people won’t have read it yet. But I do want to mention some of my favorite things about the way Fama has written the book.

On my second time through, I realized how carefully and cleverly the whole thing was set up. Every person or idea that would come into play later in the book was mentioned early on–even if I didn’t notice it the first time around. By alternating between sections (designated with time and day) that told what was going on in the present day and sections (designated with titles) that filled in the gaps from the past, she was able to give us the information we needed to know for the one story without slowing the pace.

I was impressed over and over at the way Fama can tell us so much in just a few words.  The first line is terrific: “It takes guts to deliberately mutilate your hand while operating a blister-pack sealing machine, but all I had going for me was guts.” This tells us right from the beginning something important about Sol, and it is emphasized by the second sentence: “It seemed like a fair trade: lose maybe a week’s wages and possibly the tip of my right middle finger, and in exchange Poppu would get to hold his granddaughter before he died.” So in two sentences we already know that Sol is gutsy, impulsive, witty, and fiercely loyal to Poppu, all of which are played out in the rest of the novel.

I liked the way that the characters were not stereotypes or straw men–everyone was depicted in fully human shades of gray. People are defined by the choices they make, and those choices are often informed by the things–and people–they value. D’Arcy’s parents and Sol’s make different choices in similar circumstances, and the results affect their children in ways they couldn’t have anticipated.

There’s more I could add, but I want to give you a chance to have your say. I will conclude with another of my favorite parts of the book–the way that Sol and D’Arcy learned to see each other’s worlds, and especially the part where Sol shows D’Arcy the Milky Way and D’Arcy is able to top that wonder by showing Sol a murmuration of starlings. Coincidentally, just days after I read that description, someone on my news feed linked to this marvelous video of a murmuration that I can’t resist sharing here:

- Mom

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My New Heroes

Mom,

I haven’t been following the Battle of the Kids’ Books over on SLJ this year (too much else to do), but Monica Edinger made reference to it in her blog today which made me want to read what Patrick Ness had said about Far Far Away. And then I got sucked in a read a few others, including Mac Barnett’s take-down of Midwinterblood. As you know, these two books were two of my “why does everyone else love these” books from last year, so I’m happy to say that Patrick Ness and Mac Barnett are my new heroes (of course, Barnett was already my new hero for co-authoring Battle Bunny).

Here’s some of Barnett on Midwinterblood:

The jacket copy of Marcus Sedgwick’s unfortunately named Midwinterblood promises “a painter, a ghost, a vampire, and a Viking,” which sounds like the start of a joke my uncle tells that makes everyone uncomfortable.

people speak in that manner peculiar to Characters in Futuristic Novels. Sample dialog from our young lovers: “‘I believe we are not the only place that has no need for cars,’ she says. ‘I don’t know about need,’ Eric says, ‘but yes, since gas became so scarce, there are many places that use alternatives.’” Good to know!

Clichés abound. . . . The well, if you understand, had run dry.” Oh, I understand.

And the problem with clichés, of course, is that they lack specificity. Midwinterblood is a fatally unspecific novel. Despite spending more than 1,000 years with Eric and Merle, I have no idea who they are. And worse: I have no idea what brings them together (except that they both brush hair out of their eyes quite often). Forty pages from the end, an incarnation of Merle reflects that “My way was to think, and his way was to do.” But that distinction isn’t really borne out by the novel, and anyway, well, it’s a cliché. In a not particularly passionate scene, Eric informs Merle, “Our love is forbidden.” I guess we’ll have to take his word for it.

And here’s some of Ness on Far Far Away:

I didn’t believe a word of it.

I didn’t believe Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) would need to help an American teenager in order to cross over to the other side.  I didn’t believe the whimsy of Jeremy’s father trying to run a (literal) two-book bookstore meshed with Jeremy and Ginger subsequently being starved to near-death by a serial killer of children.  I didn’t believe that EVERY missing child named in the book – either abducted in the present or the past – would end up having a happy ending.  I didn’t believe Jeremy and Ginger would suffer no discernible trauma after a life-scarring experience.   Most of all, I didn’t believe Ginger would say “Zounds.”  It’s as bad as “heck.”

I found the book false in the most objectionable way:  the teenagers aren’t allowed to be real people.

Because of the Grimm connection, a lot of energy is spent on the fairy tale aspects of the story.  But even fairy tales create a universe in which the story can logically take place.  And they can certainly be harrowing and full of real danger and truth – anyone with a passing acquaintance of the astonishing work of Margo Lanagan knows that. . . .  I’m more than happy to believe in fairy tales, but I didn’t believe any of Far Far Away.

Hey – didn’t I say all of that! Anyway, I know you disagree with me on both novels (so did everyone else!), but I thought I’d highlight the fact that a couple of people who write much much better than me had some similar thoughts.

- Mark

 

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The Completist: Robert C. O’Brien, Concluded

Mark,

Z for Zachariah was Robert C. O’Brien’s fourth and final novel. He died before finishing it, and his wife and daughter completed the last few chapters from his notes. This book, of all his novels, deals head-on with what O’Brien referred to as his concern about “the seeming tendency of the human race to exterminate itself.”

zach2

The plot is quite simple: a nuclear war has destroyed everything. Sixteen-year-old Ann Burden is living alone in a secluded valley that has somehow escaped the radiation. The only explanation given is that the valley has always “had its own weather.”

Ann’s parents and family left the family farm one day to see how the neighboring Amish families had survived the war, and they never returned. Ann has been living on her own for some months, raising chickens, caring for the cows, planing crops, and just getting through the days. But now someone is coming. She sees the smoke first, and watches the progress of whoever it is as he approaches the farm.

When he appears, it is a man wearing a radiation suit. Ann very prudently hides herself in a cave and observes for some time, but when the man bathes in a radiation-poisoned stream and becomes ill, she ventures down to care for him.

The man, whose name is Loomis, is a scientist (ofcourse he is!). He is a chemist from Cornell who had been doing research on plastics and polymers for a government-funded project in the hills outside of Ithaca. His job was to help create a safe-suit, as well as other things like water and air filters, that would allow soldiers to continue to function in areas that had been atom-bombed. (See, didn’t I say that O’Brien had kind of a Cold War fixation?)

Anyway, Loomis has the prototype suit and all the other apparatus, which has enabled him to walk from Ithaca to Ann’s valley. He does get quite sick with radiation sickness for a time, but eventually recovers.

Once she is over her initial skittishness, Ann is delighted to have Loomis around. He has helpful suggestions–such as how she can get gas for the tractor, thus enabling her to plow a much larger garden patch–and Ann begins to imagine that there might be a future for them together.

But there is a dark side, too. When he is sick and delirious, she learns that there was another man with him in the cave outside Ithaca, and that the other man had been attempting to leave, wearing the safe-suit. Loomis shot him. This fits with what Ann has discovered about Loomis–that he is very protective of the suit, and also very controlling.zach1

The more he recovers from his illness, the more controlling he gets, until eventually Ann realizes that if she stays in the house, she will effectively be his prisoner, so she hides out in the cave. But even that is not enough, and Loomis clearly intends to find her. He stalks her, and even succeeds in shooting her in the leg. Then Ann has a moment of clarity:

“And I suddenly realized that he was not trying to miss. He wanted to shoot me in the leg so I could not walk. He wanted to maim, not to kill me. So that he could catch me. It was a simple plan, a terrible one. Starvation would force me to come to the house or the store. And the gun would keep me from going away again. And I knew he would try until he succeeded.”

Ann concludes that there is no possibility of peaceful coexistence, and she knows that Loomis will not leave the valley. So she decides that her only option is to leave the valley herself. And to do that, she will need to steal the safe-suit. She knows that Loomis will shoot her if he has the chance, but she is determined, and she succeeds. She has a final showdown with Loomis after she steals the suit, telling him, “I don’t want to live with you hunting me as if I were an animal, and I will never agree to be your prisoner.” He begs her not to leave him alone, but she reminds him, “You have food. You have the tractor and the store. You have the valley.”

The last words in the book are: “As I walk, I search the horizon for a trace of green. I am hopeful.”

So again, we have O’Brien tempering his pessimism about what people can and will do with hope.

Of the four novels, this is the only one written in first person, in the form of journal entries. I think he does a pretty good job with Ann’s voice, mixing a kind of country competence with naivete. It lends a real immediacy to the narrative, especially when Ann is on the run from Loomis, and when she is planning her escape from the valley.

As a bad guy, Loomis falls somewhere between Dr. Schutz of Group 17 and Dr. Schultz of Mrs. Frisby. We actually feel a bit sorry for him, wandering the country looking for other survivors in the only existing safe-suit, but at the same time, he is overbearing, and has no idea of how to live in this new world. When Ann suggests, at one point, that she could wear the safe-suit and walk to a nearby town for books at the library, he gets violently upset with her, ordering her never to touch the suit.  He has no interest in Ann, except as someone who can possibly help him, with her knowledge of farming. He rarely makes an effort to talk to her, or to find out anything about her, but at the same time, he doesn’t want her to have a separate life. He’s not actually evil, although he’s certainly ruthless.

Ann, like O’Brien’s other protagonists, is smart, resourceful, and thoughtful.

My final summing-up of O’Brien’s book would be this, using your categories:

Masterpiece:  Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  Of course. This is just a great book that works on so many levels.

Minor MasterpieceZ for Zachariah.

Must-Read: The Silver Crown.

For Fans: A Report from Group 17.

And one final note: O’Brien’s daughter, Jane Leslie Conly, wrote two sequels to Mrs. Frisby. They are Racso and the Rats of NIMH, and R.T., Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH. Both owe much more to the Don Bluth movie version than to the original book. Both are pale imitations of O’Brien’s masterpiece, and I’m relieved that Conly stopped after the second book and started writing her own books, which were much better. Among other issues I have with the so-called sequels was the way in which she tried to wrap up all the loose ends that O’Brien left in Mrs. Frisby, such as which rats had died in the rose bush, and how things had worked out in Thorn Valley. As you know, I don’t have any problems with a little ambiguity, but Conly seemed to want to beat every horse until it was fully dead.

Okay, that’s it for my first try at a Completist post. I know you’re off at the Eureka Leadership thing this week, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, since I know you’ve read at least three of these books.

- Mom

P.S. One more side note: there is a movie of Z for Zachariah starring Chris Pine as Loomis that has just finished filming in New Zealand. It will be out later this year or sometime next year.

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The Completist: Robert C. O’Brien, Part 2

Mark,

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is, as you know, probably my favorite children’s book of all time. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have read it, read it aloud, and listened to it. And every time, it gets me. I get incredibly caught up in the dual stories–the story of Mrs. Frisby and her children and their need to have their home saved from destruction by the plow, and the story of the rats, their captivity in NIMH, their escape, and their plans for the future.Frisby

I am not, as a rule, a big fan of “talking animal” books, but this one is an exception. And I think it is an exception because O’Brien makes it as realistic as he possibly can. In contrast to the movie made from the book, and also to the book’s sequels, which were written by O’Brien’s daughter, O’Brien’s rats, mice, and birds do not wear clothes or look in any way different from ordinary animals. You just have to have this one suspension of disbelief: that the rats were given injections of some substance that made them super-intelligent and super-long-lived. That one fact leads to everything else that happens in the book. Continue reading

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The Completist: Robert C. O’Brien, Part 1

Mark,

I’ve never done a Completist post before, but I just recently re-read all four of Robert C. O’Brien’s novels, and decided I would try my hand at this.

O’Brien is primarily–and deservedly–known for his Newbery Award-winning middle grade novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971).  His next most well-known book is the YA novel, Z for Zachariah (1975), a BBYA selection that was published posthumously. He did, however, write two other novels, a middle-grade called The Silver Crown (1968) and an adult novel entitled A Report from Group 17 (1972), which was also a BBYA pick. The three children’s/YA books are still in print, but Group 17 is long out of print, and even vanishing from libraries (so I was quite clever to have bought a copy many years ago).

All four novels are on the surface very different, but they have some common themes and threads that really stood out to me when I recently re-read them all. Continue reading

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Poor, neglected blog

Mark,

I would apologize for not writing any blog posts in a while, except that you haven’t either, so I think I’m off the hook!

But, there is good stuff to come. I’m working on my own Completist post, and I have some comments on some new books that I have been reading.

So–if we still have any readers out there–keep checking this space; I promise, there will be something here in the not-too-distant future!

- Mom

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