Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Reapers are the Angels

Temple is alone in a new world.  It used to be the United States, but that doesn’t matter now.  People used to live in houses, ride bicycles, and go to school.  No one does anymore.  Not really.  Not the way it used to be.  Temple’s world is full of zombies, or meatskins, and survivors like her.  
Alden Bell creates both a riveting character in Temple and remarkable world from the first sentence.  “God is a slick God. Temple knows.  She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe”.  Temple’s world is a place where zombies invaded and civilization came to a grinding halt twenty-five years prior, but it’s the only world 15 year-old Temple has ever known.  Although she doesn’t know how to read, she knows how to hot-wire cars, find supplies in abandoned houses and businesses, and, most importantly, she knows how to kill.  Killing meatskins takes no thought and brings no remorse, but when Temple is forced to kill a man who tries to rape her, she must grapple with guilt, remorse, and a muddled sense of spirituality as she runs from his vengeful brother.  Temple’s travels take her places that are bizarre and almost impossible to imagine, an unrecognizable, macabre southern United States.

The Reapers are the Angels is an epic book packed into a small package.  Temple is a study in contradictions, both fearless and vulnerable.  She is brave and principled in the same vein as Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games.  Like Katniss, Temple represents a kind of hope to the people she encounters in her bleak world.  Temple continually grapples with her place in a very violent, chaotic world and wonders what if she will be a tool for good or evil.  Despite having no training in anything other than survival, Temple seeks meaning in a world of zombies, soullessness, and constant death.  Like other teens, she also seeks small pleasures, occasional oblivion, adventures, and someone to occasionally lift the awesome weight of her responsibilities from her shoulders.  

Readers will be enthralled with the zombie-infested world Bell has created.  Temple’s world is one in which she has complete autonomy to take a car and head in any direction, as long as she can stay ahead of her enemies and a zombie bite.  They will understand Temple’s struggle with spirituality and a feeling that there is something greater than herself at work and will admire her sense of immortality in a world where others are cowering in fear.  Temple doesn’t need adults to protect or advise her because she has her survival skills honed as sharply as her trusty khukuri knife.  She is an amazing heroine that will appeal to fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Hunger Games.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Citrus County

Citrus County is a brilliantly conceived and executed novel about the smart, strange, and disaffected in rural America.

In less skilled hands, Toby would be just another teenage bad boy – distant, destructive, irresistible, a real-life Edward Cullen.  Yet this teen bad boy is both perpetrator and victim.  Abusive Uncle Neal, who balances on a razor thin edge of sanity, is raising Toby.  How could he end up any other way?  There’s no explanation available to Toby as to what happened to his parents, why he ended up with Uncle Neal.  But Toby doesn’t dwell on what could have been in his life; instead he accepts what is.  For Toby, that means understanding and embracing his basest impulses, his “badness”.  “He was as weak as ever.  Anything could make him weak – the wrong smell, the wrong tint in the sky, thinking about the dragging afternoons he’d endured in his lifetime and all the afternoons to come.  He was addicted to petty hoodlumism.” 

Orbiting around Toby is Shelby, the gifted, funny, pretty, new girl.  She’s too smart to tolerate the vapid popular girls and too good at being a daughter to her widowed father and motherless sister to risk shaking the family foundation with petty rebellions. When Shelby rebels, it’s going to be with Toby. When she rebels, it’s with forethought and deliberation.  Shelby will save Toby in a completely unexpected way and Toby will be unable to help himself from destroying her and her family in return. 

While Toby and Shelby torture themselves and others with anger, lust, and uncertainty, their geography teacher, Mr. Hibma, plots the murder of a fellow teacher and creates plays for the girls’ basketball team that he’s been forced to coach.  “Teaching had been the only job available to him, and for awhile it was amusing, another lark, but now he’d been doing it a year and half.”  Mr. Hibma is, in many ways, more immature than the students he teaches, as he steals sodas from the teachers lounge and forces the girls basketball team to undergo makeovers.  “In middle school, he reminded them, ugly girls are intimidated by pretty girls.  Hell, it was this way with adult women.  A team could gain advantage by keeping tan and having their nails done.”  Like Toby, Mr. Hibma struggles with his “badness”, his most immature feelings butting up against the functioning adult he is becoming despite his best efforts.

There is a crime at the center of Citrus County.  It is perpetrated and the horror of it is felt in everything following – kisses exchanged, library visits, emails written, breakfasts prepared and eaten, and greeting cards purchased.  There is no black-and-white, Citrus County is hot, humid, and full of gray areas.

John Brandon has created genuinely complex teen characters, imbuing their contempt and recklessness with the seriousness that teens treat themselves and each other.  Their voices and actions, even at their most shocking, ring true.   Mr. Hibma is deliciously contemptible as the morally questionable and thoroughly pathetic boy-man in charge of teaching adolescents every day.  The events that unfold in Citrus County will stick with you.

More about the book at McSweeney's.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dogfight, A Love Story

Can you steal your brother’s girlfriend and business while he’s in prison and make everything okay when he returns? Alfredo’s day of reckoning has finally arrived. His older brother Tariq, formally known as Jose, is coming home from prison, where he’s been incarcerated for armed robbery. Alfredo and his hapless best friend, Winston, come up with a scheme to steal some drugs to get Tariq back in business, to steal a pit bull so they can host a celebratory dogfight in honor of Tariq, and to make it to the doctor on time for Isabel’s prenatal visit.  Just another day in Queens in Dogfight, A Love Story.

Unfortunately for everyone, but most of all Alfredo, his ham-fisted attempts at robbery go haywire when he has a panic attack and has to call in vicious reinforcements. In addition, Alfredo and Winston cannot find a dog to steal for the dogfight. All of the things Alfredo plans as a way to make amends to Tariq are falling apart. The question quickly becomes how disastrous the results will be. 

Matt Burgess does a masterful job of building tension around Tariq’s return. Alfredo and Isabel are so young, confused, passionate, and stupid that it’s not difficult to understand why they both followed Tariq before he went to prison and what they found in each other once he left. Burgess also forgoes easy characterizations about drug dealers, high school drop-outs, and teen mothers and writes about young adults doing the best they can in chaotic, barely working-class poverty.

Isabel’s conversations with her son in utero are both heartbreaking and hopeful. Alfredo’s charm, eagerness, and almost paralyzing sensitivity make it impossible not to root for him to survive, if not succeed. Tariq’s thoughts and actions are positively chilling and Burgess describes a violent psychopath who is also a beloved brother and son - no small feat.

Readers will be thoroughly sucked into the drama of the love triangle, wondering how Tariq will react when he sees Alfredo and a pregnant Isabel together for the first time. The book is also infused with the aimless bullshitting and wandering that most teen nights are full of, whether it’s in person or on AIM.  Adult readers will remember the potential for fun or danger every night seemed to hold. This is a book full of drugs and violence, but it’s not about drugs and violence. Dogfight is Shakespearean urban grit.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Stuff by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee had me on the verge of a panic attack for 290 pages.  Their examination of hoarding as a growing psychiatric disorder in the United States was a balance of legitimate scholarly study and fascinating anecdotal evidence of what may cause hoarding - PTSD; OCD; a cold, withholding parent; perfectionism; genetic predisposition; or physiological damage to the brain.  There is no clear answer, but the study alone brings hope to those who hoard and the people affected by their hoarding.

Irene, one of the first participants in their study was especially fascinating.  The authors sift through her life the was she herself tries to sift through the piles of papers, mail, newspapers, and other detritus entombing her in her own home.  Her childhood is examined, especially her relationship with her withholding father.  Additional clues to her hoarding lie in how she coped with a childhood move that left her lonely and unmoored.  Another layer is revealed when examining her college years and her inability to finish her senior thesis because the information and possibilities of her research completely overwhelmed her natural perfectionism.  Her skill and pleasure in finding and organizing information took an ominous turn during her career as a librarian.  Irene could organize and weed library materials, but nothing was ever thrown away.  Instead, she brought everything home with her, excited by the sheer possibilities of each scrap of paper.  Even divorce and the possibility of her children being taken away did not stop her hoarding.  The authors describe Irene the person and provide fascinating insight into the creation and everyday existence of Irene the hoarder.  Reading about her attempt to come to grips with her hoarding provides an understanding of both Irene and the disorder.

The authors are able to bring this same insight into each case they highlight in Stuff.  The people on the other side of the “goat trails”, paths of papers and trash created in order to move around their homes, are more than hoarders, more than their “stuff”.  Frost and Steketee do an excellent job helping readers understand what “stuff” represents for hoarders, but also for society.  Their writing style is accessible and the narrative arc created in the book ensures an interest in both the idea of hoarding and the people studied from beginning to end.

We are inundated with messages of consumption everyday and I think readers will find the individual stories compelling and horrifying. It offers a chance to think about “stuff” in a new way.  Hoarding is not about materialism; it’s about how people connect to inanimate objects and the degrees of these connections.  As an extension of that idea, Stuff will challenge readers to think about mental illness, exploring how someone can use inanimate objects as a way to cope, with larger mental health issues.

Supplementary information:

The Joy and Pain of Things by Randy O. Frost on the Huffington Post