There is a delicious rivalry between Young Adult novel enthusiasts (who are above the young adult age) and those that want to rip that copy of Hunger Games out of their commuter-rail grip and throw a copy of Ulysses at their stomachs. One side sees the young adult section as the answer to the failure of the post-post modern novel, the other side sees young adult readers as worthless ninnies who can’t watch half an episode of Guiding Light without getting confused.
Neither side is right. That’s why the rivalry is so excellent – they both have to continually read novels on both sides to make good points, and if people are reading, then we all win. Things Not Seen can abstain completely from the fight, because it doesn’t fall within either of these camps. Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements is MIDDLE READER, a section that might as well be a benign bookstore tumor to both the stodgy intellectuals and the teen werewolf apologists. Unless you have a young reader in your house, I can only imagine the last time you looked at a middle reader book was the last time you thought fondly back to Beverly Cleary, and her physics-defying Runaway Ralph novels.
As a middle reader novel, Things Not Seen is strange. The protagonist, for one, is 15. For two, lots of the book is devoted to a budding romance between him and a blind girl. These two factors alone make it different than your average “Ages 10 and Up” novel.
The book centers on a paranormal event in which the main character becomes invisible. The most salient point of the novel – the theme that is most interesting, and the reason I’m recommending this book to you today – is that his parents can’t help him. They are two scientists, even – and they can’t help him. Things Not Seen is based upon the very real problem that middle readers come to face – parents aren’t superheroes. They don’t have any more answers than you do, and in the blown up, metaphorical world that Andrew Clements creates, when you go invisible, you only have yourself to figure out how to become visible again.
For some reason, this book has been on my mind. It’s a classic, even though it’s only 12 years old. It beautifully illustrates something that we have all felt at one point or another, but the family remains in tact. Go and find a copy, read it in an afternoon. Then… hand it to a younger cousin.
Lauren Groff should be commended. She probably is, by many people. I know literary award functions aren’t like the Star Wars award ceremonies, but if it were up to me, I would gladly hand her that Tesla Plasma Ball that the Gungans get at the end of Episode 1.
That’s supposed to be a compliment. Here’s a straightforward compliment: Lauren Groff is a hell of a lot prettier than that Gungan king (Boss Nass. Dammit, I wish those movies were better.) What was I talking about?
Arcadia, with its poetic purple prose and insistent present tense, was like being on a river rafting trip with your family, only not your family – instead, it’s the Stone family, with Bit, Hannah, and Abe. It starts idyllic, with Bit as 5 and the commune of Arcadia living in Ersatz Arcadia, a.k.a. tents. It’s pretty tense as well, as things continue. Of course. “Plot” and all that.
Sometimes, if a writer is doing his/her job right, you wish that the plot could stop right where the text is, and leave everyone well enough alone. Bit, whose shoulder we perch on for the novel, has lots of terrible things happen to him. He is born into the commune, he falls in love with a manic depressive, he has to face the stench of the real world, he is thrust into the disease-ridden future. I kept wanting his pain to end, the turmoil around him to quiet. The book is separated into 3 (maybe 4) distinct parts, and from the 1st part to the 2nd, when Arcadia’s population explodes, I could only feel despair. Once you hit the rapids, it’s all roiling uncertainty (that’s a metaphor carried over from the second paragraph).
Right on Arcadia‘s back cover, it’s compared to Lord of the Flies, and right on its inside flap, it’s said that this is a book about a commune. Neither are true. Arcadia is a book set in a commune, and while a book can be about its setting, the book is really about Bit, and how an artist’s mind and an empathetic mind are nurtured, and also torn asunder. How pain manifests itself in art, how we are forced to create the same art because of our fixations.
It’s also about Lauren Groff’s love for words and language. And the 70s, and the 80s, and the 2020s. It’s about parental love as well, and the unknowable bonds between husband and wife. I tend not to read things that criticize the things I love, and since I only read this book once, I can only give it glowing praise. It’s a delicious read. I could have read a 1200 page doorstop about the denizens of Arcadia. But present, flowing prose is hard to sustain. At 300 measly pages, I suppose I’ll have to read it 3 more times instead.
Imagine is excellent.
Jonah Lehrer is a master of the anecdote and the anecdote explication – the prologue about Swiffers is so readable and interesting that it feels like a magic trick all its own. Then he takes us on the ride of imagination and creativity through music, technology, animation, and writing and lands on an actual magic trick – Penn and Teller’s Cup and Balls. It’s perfect.
It’s a book that makes you highlight passages and break out the sticky notes. Blue walls? I should try that. Concentrated play? I should try that too. Same with getting myself into a rut, taking a nap on a difficult idea, and taking a walk down city streets.
Perhaps the most amazing idea he has, which illustrates with his firm grasp of the science behind it; is that sequestering yourself isn’t always the best idea. Some ruts can be fought out of with diligence and commitment, but others can only be conquered with a bike ride, a conversation with a stranger, and a trip through the office to a coffee machine.
My only note is this – Lehrer points towards the poet W.H. Auden and his reliance on Benzedrine, and then he points out that it’s not the best way to be creative – that you’ll stifle insight with a reliance on drugs – but he doesn’t make a strong case for it. I left that chapter wondering whether or not a focus drug would be useful, and I thought he might make a stronger case that they aren’t.
But ah well. Creativity comes dressed in many different clothes – luckily, I can apply some of the meta-ideas and (hopefully) invite it over more often.
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I think it was my girlfriend’s initial scorn on seeing Michael Ondaajte’s name on the cover of The Cat’s Table that made me suspicious. She hates the English Patient. That outsider’s opinion, added to a boring cover, and the image elicited by the title (see below) all made me think that I was going to slog through 100 pages of the thing, then get angry if it got past the first round in the Tournament of Books.
Imagine my surprise when I realized that it was actually an entirely engrossing trip down memory lane, an eleven-year-old boy’s journey from Colombo to England, (from his Dad to his Mom) a memoir (that isn’t actually a memoir) about being cast, so young, into the riffraff of the ship. The eponymous Cat’s Table is actually the nickname for the table of alleged miscreants that Michael is assigned to sit with at meals.
The chapter breaks are actually memory breaks. The journey is only 3 weeks long, but like all of youth, it gets stretched into a near interminable time. One memory is seamlessly blended into the next, and some of them are just beautiful images, like a young Australian girl who awakes at dawn to rollerskate the length of the ocean liner, and then showers with her clothes on before the rest of the ship rises. Or a bright overhead light in Michael’s room changed for a blue-filtered one, so his kennel master bunk mate can hold whispered bridge matches in the room after hours.
A surprising amount of plot manages to take shape in what is essentially a child’s fractured memory of the first most important event of his life. It was surprising because I didn’t quite care. I was more drawn to the accumulation of images and the boy’s brief stint as a grease man for a con artist on board. I wasn’t as compelled to read on by the mystery of a girl who can only speak in whisper, a man who won’t speak at all, and a prisoner in chains.
And, as a final coda, there is another written account, by another passenger at the Cat’s Table. It details another childhood event, near the end of the novel. It is, wonder of wonders, in a completely different voice. It starts as a cautionary tale and ends as a reason for how she became strong, and I was so arrested that I couldn’t read much further without taking a deep breath and eating a quiche.
I’m always glad to be wrong about my initial opinions. And I know a book is taking hold when I start to wonder how I can turn my own memories and subconscious imagery into a tapestry. I was disappointed that Ondaatje made up the entire book (as he alleges in his afterword) – I wanted for all of his characters to be real, for an author such as himself to be shaped by something as beautiful as a Cat’s Table and an ocean crossing.
I saw Chronicle yesterday. It’s not often that a movie appears without any sort of buzz or lead-up. I barely saw a trailer for this thing before it came out. All I saw was that haunting poster on the way into the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it was so arresting that I called my friends over to look at it.
Found footage movies seem to be de rigeur for our day and age, and I think it makes a hell of a lot of sense – we are so documented by ourselves and others these days that it would be stupid to not use our ever-present cameras to make movies. At the Sundance film festival, there was a ridiculous amount of found footage films, and I see no problem with it. If my phone could take HD video, I’d be making movies too. Maybe.
Chronicle never lost its footing. It was ultimately a character showcase, a nice long thought process on the perils of power, and if Spiderman 2 hadn’t been such a bloody incredible movie, this film would definitely take the cake on the “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” theme.
Anyway, there’s a reason Patton Oswalt took two tweets to explain how good it is, and there is no reason why there wasn’t more buzz before it was released. I loved it, and it’s a rare movie that you can’t guess the ending while the action plays out.