Saturday, July 12, 2008

Things People Told Me to Read

King Dork by Frank Portman

(Recommended by Chance.) Is King Dork among the best young adult novels of recent years? Well, how the hell would I know! It's the only young adult novel of recent years I've read. But whatever. It's a damn fine book by any yardstick.

The main character, nicknamed "Chi-Mo," seems at first a fairly conventional teen-fiction protagonist. He is a smart loner on the outskirts of a brutally tribal high school society, in rebellion against the usual suspects: teachers, popular students, viscious students, parents, step-parents, and bad music. He is also more specifically in rebellion against the classic novel The Catcher in the Rye and its adoring fans among the adults in his life. Throughout the book, Chi-Mo ridicules Catcher as dated, pointless, and overrated. Whether this reflects Portman's own thoughts on Holden Caulfield, or whether the whole thing is ment as an homage to Catcher, I'm not really sure. I don't know enough about Catcher to say. (I haven't read it since high school, and I don't remember being particularly impressed. But I may have just been baffled by its East Coast prep school setting, which would have been about as recognizable to me at that point in my life as Mongolia under the Khanate.)

The plot of King Dork, which involves Chi-Mo's attempt to decypher strange messages and notations that he finds in his dead father's books, inevitably plays out against the stock conventions of teen fiction. What makes it brilliant is that way that Portman messes with these conventions. He knows what you expect from a novel about a young man coming of age, but tends to change the rules on you at the last possible moment. Chi-Mo does not discover that the well-meaning adults know best after all. He does not become the school hero after his rock band is a hit at the big pep assembly. He does not get the girl in the end. Or does he? I'm not telling.

Upping the self-referrential ante, Portman's first-person protagonist also knows the conventions of juvenile literature, and is continually commenting on how little application they have to his or anyone else's real life. Long-suffering, fiercely independant, and burdened with an abundance of ideas of his own, Chi-Mo reminds you of every painfully intelligent teenaged boy you've ever met. He's a compelling character, whose aventures in the worlds of family relationships, books, girls, epistomology, and rock and roll I found highly entertaining.

Highly recommended for bright, cynical teenagers and adults. (Contains descriptions of sex that, although not graphic, are detailed and enthusiastic.)

Fire Logic by Laurie Marks

(Recommended by Elizabeth.) Fantasy fiction has made a lot of great strides in the last couple of decades. Most writers now avoid epic struggles between the forces of "good" (pretty elves!) and "evil" (ugly goblins!). To be sure, there's usually still an epic struggle, but writers now take the trouble to think about what motivates the actors involved. This makes for a more interesting story, and makes the fantasy world more power as a metaphor for our own workaday world.

Too, most current writers think through the ecology of whatever system of magic (or whatever) that they develop. If there are people running around with supernatural powers, what is that going to mean for the society they live in? Taking questions like these seriously makes for a far richer, smarter fiction. (For the best of the crop, settle in to George R. R. Martin's sprawling Song of Ice and Fire epic with the first book, A Game of Thrones).

In Fire Logic, Marks introduces us to a continent whose peaceful agrarian society has been invaded by an aggressive warrior caste from overseas. I agree with Elizabeth that the dynamics of this scenario are among the most interesting things in the book; I did wish, however, that we had learned a little more about the invaders' point of view.

As Fire Logic goes on, we see less and less of the geopolitical contexts and more of the personal relationships among the six or seven main characters. This was a disappointment for me; I'm the kind of guy who, when the fate of civilizations hangs in the balance, is less interested in learning who is going to hook up with whom. But that's just me.

Also, this was interesting: Two of the hook-ups are same-sex relationships, and Marks introduces them without comment, treating them exactly the same as you would expect her to treat a heterosexual relationship. And this is all fine and good -- in theory. In the actual reading, however, I confess I found it surprisingly jarring. The effect was much as if she had written in big red letters in the margins, "Look! Same-sex relationships! Which I am normalizing by writing about just as I would a heterosexual relationship!" This might represent some sort of vestigial heterosexism in michael5000, but I think it also represents a special problem that still exists for writers whose characters fall in love with people of their own gender.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, 1889.

(Recommended by a New Yorker article that offhandedly referred to it as the funniest book ever written in English. Seperately contrarecommended by both jennifer and Mrs.5000, who described it as nothin' special. An earlier version of this review appeared previously in an email to jennifer.) I think the warning of lowered expectations was helpful going into Three Men in a Boat -- and, I think it might be a better book to have read to you (I listened to an audiobook) than to sit and read -- but with those provisos, I did find it rather charming.

As essentially the Victorian era's equivalent of, say, Erma Bombeck, it is a historical document with a great deal of historical interest. I was suprised by how many elements of upper middle class life turn out to be pretty much the same over the intervening 150 years. The concept and experience of camping, in particular, seem in many ways unchanged. I wouldn't have guessed that.

There is a lot of fussing in Three Men about the modern times they live in and the fast-paced, dehumanizing nature of the 19th Century, and those are particularly arresting to the modern reader. Or at least, to me. These observations buttress my perenial pet argument that life in Britain and America went through wrenching technological and social changes in the early and mid 1800s, but has been relatively static ever since. ("Relatively" being a key word there, of course.) A long passage in which Jerome makes fun of antiques, and then riffs on the preposterous notion that everyday mass-produced goods will be regarded as "precious Victorian antiques" in 100 years time, is priceless. Sidelong references as to how people commonly drink a lot, hole up at parties to make out, and otherwise behave in unVictorian fashion are additional good correctives to our historical stereotypes.


d said...

king dork was one of my favorites last year. i had pretty much the same reaction to it as you did. i especially loved all of the band names.

i'll need to check out the other two.

Chance said...

Hey, I'm glad you enjoyed King Dork. I probably liked it for slightly different reasons than you, being a prep school alum and Catcher fan early on, so it's great to see that KD's appeal isn't limited to a select group.

I thought Three Men was pretty damn funny, but the humor is perhaps a bit too subtle for modern tastes. I wouldn't call it the funniest book in english by any means --- Catch-22, Confederacy of Dunces, and a lot of PG Wodehouse's best works easily surpass it.

Chance said...

Did you also listen to the King Dork audio? I see from the incredibly tiny writing on the image there that Portman (of punk band Mr T Experience, not that I expect that means anything to you) wrote and performed some of Chi-Mo's songs; that would be fun to hear.

Anonymous said...

I think I am going to have to add both King Dork and Fire Logic o the free reading shelves at school.

The first I want to read and the second seem like it would be a favorite among many of the teens I know. They are into fantasy big time and the same sex relationships element would make it a selling point for them. So far I've only had two books that touch on it and they were among the most read.

Okay.. Added hem both to the "hunt for" list!