Tuesday, March 10, 2009

the scatterbrained bookie

i've been knee-deep in YA fiction lately, interspersed with short little jaunts into paulo friere's 'pedagogy of the oppressed' and chicago and hawai'i travel guides.

a while ago i read maureen johnson's 'the key to the golden firebird' - it was aight (do a search for the full review if you're so inclined), but nothing to write home about. this was more of the same. standard white girl protagonist who is awkward and shy and doesn't know how to behave around boys and is described in that careful YA language that leads the reader to envision someone who is pretty, but in a self-effacing manner. YA authors of a certain ilk are always throwing around words like 'curvy' or 'medium-build' or 'round-face' to make you (the reader, who is presumably a teenaged girl perhaps possessing those self-same attributes) feel a certain affinity for how NOT cookie cutter the protagonist is. the character descriptions aren't the breathy, soapy, seventeen-magazine model-prose of "sweet valley high," but at the same time, you're still left with the impression that these girls aren't HOMELY, by any means. they're still attractive and more often than not they get the boy.

this book is about a girl whose high-strung, dramatic artist of an aunt ups and deserts her one day and then passes away from cancer (requisite macabre, jolting, real-world tragedy YA trope, check!) and leaves her a stack of 13 blue envelopes containing instructions that set her off on an international adventure where she has adventures and scrapes and learns about herself in the end. it's pretty boring and the writing isn't very engaging. i think i'm done with maureen johnson. she's so-so as far as YA authors go, and i have no room for so-so when there is work of the following author's calibre floating around out there.

this brings me to john green, who wrote 'an abundance of katherines' which was mind-blowingly, genre-bustingly good. first of all, green is a wordsmith of the highest order - the main character anagrams like crazy. he also has the gift of creating characters that manage to walk the fine line between imperfectly, believably, smart and kooky, and relatable - that impossible heady literary elixir where you could almost imagine meeting people like that in your own life (and fervently hope and wish that such was the case.) i LOVE writers who can do that.

green is a keen observer of human nature and is thus fantastic at limning personalities that can speak in that heightened reality way that made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion with their easy, effortless, cleverness. the main character (colin) is a child prodigy (different from genius) and is a boy (a bit of a departure from my usual YA fare) but i could totally see this appealing to all genders. colin sets off on a cross-country adventure with his best friend, a chubby, snarky, loyal muslim kid named hassan who looks out for colin and banters back and forth with him in arabic (another charming thing about this book are the frequently funny explanations, historical tidbits, and translations in the footnotes. sometimes footnotes can be extremely pretentious - not so here.) colin has only ever dated and had his heart broken by girls named katherine, 19 in all, and this book disguises his attempts to find his own place in the world through the vehicle of his road-trip tour with his best friend hassan and his attempts to find a mathematical equation that will predict the duration and characteristics of a relationship.

it was a profoundly enjoyable read - winning and charming and whip-smart.

after reading 'an abundance of katherines' i was obviously hungry to consume the entire john green oeuvre. next up was 'looking for alaska' - green's first published novel. this was very different, though it shared some of the same attributes: smart, self-aware, slightly awkward male protagonist with a nerdy quirk (this time, the character is obsessed with famous people's last words) in the process of self-discovery. the main character goes away to boarding school (dr. rei alert!!! although this book isn't as full of plummy boarding school details as the harry potter series, or curtis sittenfeld's 'prep' - it's more of an afterthought than a key element), where he falls in with a rag-tag crew of misfits and outcasts, led by his roomate the colonel and the beautiful, impulsive, and wild object of his yearning, alaska.

i don't want to diminish what happens - the book unfolds in such a way that the central crisis comes as a total surprise (or it did for me) - it's a neatly composed coming-of-age story that managed to make me somewhat at peace with my own sense of self. it was very moving, to the point where i was brought to near-tears on the subway as i flipped the last page. it again speaks in a very pure, original, and almost real voice that captures the paradoxical mixture of wisdom and naiveté that all teenagers seem to possess. it was one of the most moving pieces of fiction that i've read in a long time and had a lasting impact. it's one worth buying and re-reading, for sure.

tonight for dinner i went with my friend L and the dotytron to king palace. it's a pakistani place on church, frequented by cabbies. kind of shabby, bare-bones decor, one wall featuring a tv blasting south asian music videos and the majority of the place taken up with a battalion of chafing dishes atop a sturdy levy of steam tables. there's a dizzying aray of combos. i don't even remember what we had, but it was all uniformly delicious and came to about $15/person including a pop, salad, naan and/or rice (depending on the combo) - we emerged feeling stuffed:

it's nice to have an option for cheap eats in the neighbourhood...especially if you're going to see a movie at the cumberland or something. it was really tasty and i can't wait to go back to try some of the other items (especially the ones the guy manning the steam tables gave me dangereyes about - namely the stuff he thought i would be too squeamish to eat. i can't blame the guy - i wouldn't peg me for a cow's stomach eater either, at first glance.)


1 comment:

dr. rei said...

awesome book reviews dude! i'm definitely going to check out john green (the dr. rei alert was bang on heheheh).