Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Being Henry David: Summer Reading, Part 3

I love it when a novel for young adults tackles something I remember feeling as a young adult. I can’t recall another novel that takes on the issues and concerns of “good kids” as well as Cal Armistead’s new Being Henry David (Albert Whitman, 2013).

The premise of the book is intriguing: a teenaged boy wakes up in New York’s Penn Station. He has no ID, no nothing, except for a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s classic Walden, sitting at his feet.

When I say “no nothing,” I’m serious. He has no memory of who he is or how he got where he is. This becomes even more interesting when, after reading Walden once, he has a near photographic memory of the text.

Taking the name Henry from the book, he sets out on an odyssey of self-discovery leading to Walden Pond in Concord, MA, out here in my neck of the woods. Along the way, he meets runaways, a tattooed librarian and Henry David Thoreau historical interpreter, and a very talented young female singer.

I won’t tell you what crisis drove Hank’s memory away and set him on his quest. But I will give you a passage mid-book that illustrates how he copes with the gradual return of memory in his dreams:

The bad memory dreams are the ones where I see myself going through the motions of being a “good kid,” when in truth I’m holding so much inside that I want to break furniture and throw things at the wall and scream until I burst a few blood vessels in my head. I’m the phoniest person around, putting hundreds of miles on my running shoes to escape, playing guitar till my calluses bleed because that’s an escape too. On the outside, I’m the perfect kid—like a statue of perfect marble, serene and unreal. Inside, it’s all snakes and maggots and broken glass.

Throughout Being Henry David Armistead’s writing rings true. I hope this first novel gets all the recognition it deserves when award time comes around again. Check it out and try, along with both Henrys, to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

PS: Here I am at the reconstructed Thoreau Cabin in Concord, MA. If you have not visited, you really should. In the meantime, happy summer reading!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Running Dream: Summer Reading, Part 2

Last week, I started looking at summer reads with substance—books that challenge and entertain. This week’s review is of The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011):

Writers are sometimes surprised when their work strikes a particular chord with readers. A reader may see on the pages something that the author never realized was there, was only dimly aware of, or couldn’t anticipate.

For me, The Running Dream filled a need that author Wendelin Van Draanen likely never imagined. I decided to read this young adult novel after the Marathon Bombings.

This spring, my son and I went to see the start of theBoston Marathon. Later that day we learned of the bombings. Over the course of the next few weeks, we all heard about those who were injured—in particular those who lost limbs.

Van Draanen’s novel has nothing to do with terrorism, but it’s a great read for anyone coming to terms with the recent bombings.

Jessica, the novel’s main character, loses a leg below the knee in a bus-truck accident on the way to a track meet. She loves to run, and even sitting bereft in her hospital bed, her descriptions of what she was once able to do border on poetic:

Breathing the sweet smell of spring grass.
Sailing over dots of blooming clover.
Beating all the boys.

Van Draanen’s novel is a fine study in grit and determination, loss and recovery. For me, however, it was like a primer on what it is like to lose a limb and struggle up the slow road to mobility.

Jessica is a likeable narrator, so I was drawn into her story and followed each step along the way as she massages her stump, goes back to school, is fitted for a prosthetic, learns of her family’s struggles with insurance, and finally learns to run again.

The Running Dream is just as much or more about hope as it is about running. It makes me want to see the Boston Marathon again.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Homesick: Summer Reading, part I

Summer is just around the bend, so for the rest of June I'll be posting reviews of middle-grade and ya novels that make for thought-provoking beach reads. Starting things off: a review of Homesick by Kate Klise.

Benny Summer has a lot of things going for him. He’s got good friends in his hometown of Dennis Acres, Missouri, a possibly promising radio career, and even a hint of romance in fellow sixth-grader, Stormy Walker.

On the outside, Benny’s life seems to be going well. It’s at home that everything’s a wreck.

Benny’s mom has left, this time for good. Benny’s dad is still around, but he reacts to his crumbling marriage by intensifying his already extreme hoarding behavior.

Benny’s dad has never seen a piece of junk that wasn’t “redeemable.” And he’s stacked that junk in mile-high piles in the living room, kitchen, bathroom, and every other room of the house. And the yard.

All of this might seem like heavy going for middle-grade fiction, but Kate Klise (Regarding the Fountain) has a light touch. She fills the book with folksy charm, vivid characters, a quick-moving plot, and unexpected warmth and compassion.

When a destructive tornado comes screaming through town, Benny and everyone else in Dennis Acres is forced to decide what’s most important: the things we wish were redeemable or the people we love regardless.