“An Abundance of Katherines” by John Green

I use GoodReads to keep track of books. Sometimes, I check reviews of books I’m thinking of reading, some books go on the TBR list regardless of what others think. Others don’t make the cut. For some books, these Printz books in particular, I wait to look at reviews until I’m done reading, I want to avoid having preconceived notions of a book if I can.

I’m always interested in reading what people who didn’t like a book have to say, this helps me clarify what I think — maybe the thing that someone else hates is the thing that made a book work for me. Occasionally, other reviews make me change my mind. I’ve read reviews that point out something problematic about a book that I had enjoyed, and have ended up feeling differently, disliking the book after the fact.

All of which is to say: having read t”An Abundance of Katherines” before, and enjoying originally and on the reread, I read reviews by people who didn’t like the book with humor. I find myself wondering if we even read the same book! I saw words in these reviews like: “boring” or “predictable” or “characters were unlikeable” and my favorite “the math part was dumb.”

I thin k there’s a pretty fine line about predictability in books — in many genres, books follow a pretty specific formula. When you pick up certain books, you can expect certain things to happen by the end, and for many readers, it’s not the end of the story, it’s the journey to get there.

Do John Green books have a kind of template or a formula? I think so, yes, and that’s exactly why some people keep reading his books. But to me, that doesn’t make them boring or pointless, it’s what happens along the way that matters. It’s the conversations and insights about life, love, relationships, and why we’re even here that keep me reading.

As far as likeability of characters go — I didn’t have a problem with this book, personally, but that’s what makes the world go round. If everybody like the same people and things, I think it’d be pretty boring. I’m also quite sure I’ve said before that making a character “likeable” isn’t necessary for creating a character that people care about.

Readers expect their authors to keep up their end of a bargain or a contract. We come to certain genres and books knowing we’ll get a specific outcome. Sometimes, the author will appear to break that bargain, resulting in books getting tossed across the room, but then we go pick the book up, keep reading, and find out that the new thing the author gave us was even better than what we thought we wanted. Some authors do just plain destroy the bargain and for no good reason, and I don’t have a lot of patience for that.

To me, his promise is to make his readers feel  something, to experience and learn something new about ourselves. I think John Green keeps his end of the bargain, even if unexpectedly, and I know I’ll keep reading.

“The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol I: The Pox Party” by M.T. Anderson

This book has shown up on lists of books I might like on Oyster and Goodreads for awhile. I wasn’t really sure it was up my alley, especially after I had bounced off of a different book by Anderson.

Once again, though, this project of reading Printz books has not led me astray (honestly, of the 41 books I’ve read so far, I’ve really only hated one, and the other 4 that I’ve rated low or not rated at all were more victims of…not being my thing or disappointment rather than hatred).

This is a very unusual book, and it won’t be for very everyone. It’s set in Revolutionary America, and the language is pretty flowery. The story itself is strange and disturbing, and as a reader it was a bit….well, like watching a car crash. You don’t want to see, but you can’t help yourself, and wonder what it says about you that you are so compelled.

It has gotten easy, at a remove of many years, to romanticize the founders of our country, but this book is a reminder that those men weren’t saints. They wanted freedom, but for those who looked like them. Octavian is a slave from Africa, being examined for his intellectual capacity, and despite what he could achieve (which was pretty impressive!), the deck was stacked against him. No one really thought he was actually a human, and the so-called experiments “proved” this.

The first part of the book is a little slow, as it follows Octavian when he is young. The pace picks up towards the end, and ends in a cliffhanger. Luckily for me, the second book in the series is a 2009 Printz Honor Book. I would read it anyway, but this way, it’s sooner rather than later.

“American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang

Hey! A graphic novel — the first to show up as a Printz honoree — and it won the 2007 award. This is a very quirky quick read of a book. It might seem to be simple, but it’s actually a pretty complex tale that I thoroughly enjoyed.

As soon as I finished it, I handed it to one of my teenaged boys. He flew through it, and when he was done, I asked what he thought. He let a grin slip, shrugged, and said  “It was kind of weird.” I could be mistaken, but I think that counts as a thumbs-up kind of a review.

 

2006 Printz Wrap Up Post

I think I might have forgotten to do a 2005 summary — and after posting last week, I realized that I had gotten some posts out of order (starting 2007 before finishing 2006!)

Oops.

So, 2006 Michael L Printz honor and award winners. A very eclectic group of books — two novels, a short story collection, a biography, and poetry. I had already read Looking for Alaska, and while I loved it (again), I think that I Am the Messenger had a bigger impact on me out of all of the books. The style and message of the book were fantastic. There’s nothing like the feeling of getting run over by a book. That sounds weird, I know, but as awful as it sounds, there are an awful lot of us that keep looking for that feeling.

For some books, I still wonder at what made them honor-worthy. Why was the Lennon biography considered so special? I mean, yes, I enjoyed it, but what made the awards committee choose it over every other book that got published that year?

I think if nothing else, this experience has lead me to read so many books that I never would have considered picking up on my own, and I’m grateful for that. A Wreath for Emmett Till is an extremely powerful and thought-provoking read. It’s just a tiny little picture-book length poem, that packs a really big punch.

 

“A Wreath for Emmett Till” by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy

This slim book of poetry was a surprise. At first, because it looks like a child’s picture book. Later, because of the poetry itself.

The name Emmett Till was vaguely familiar, but sadly, not enough to have been able to say who he was. The book description, above, has a short version of his story, for more, I offer you Wikipedia. As I write this, we are 5 days past the murders of 9 African Americans in a church, in a state that still flies the Confederate Battle Flag over its capitol building. Till’s death was a pretty key moment in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Without going too much further into this rabbit hole, it’s pretty clear that Emmett’s story is still relevant today.

Setting aside the content of the poetry for a moment, the sheer technical artistry of this book made me gasp out loud at one point. It is structured as a heroic crown of sonnets: fifteen interlinked sonnets (a sonnet is a 14 line rhyming poem in iambic pentameter). A crown of sonnets are connected by their first and last lines: the last line of a poem becomes the first line of the next poem, sometimes with slight alteration. A heroic crown takes this one step further: the 15th poem is made up of the first lines of all of the poems. And! The first letters of those first lines in that final poem, spell out RIP EMMETT TILL.

I think that what amazes me about good poetry is the adherence to such specific rules,  in a way that the rules become invisible, the words don’t feel shoehorned into the pattern, they were meant to be there, in that particular structure.

I read this book several weeks ago. I was looking through it just now to refresh my memory about the content. I’m going to include one of the poems without further comment, because I find myself unable to add anything else.

Mutilated boy martyr, if I could,

I’d put you in a parallel universe,
give you a better fate. There is none worse.
I’d let you live through a happy boyhood,
let your gifts bloom into a livelihood
on a planet that didn’t bear Cain’s curse.
I’d put you in a nice, safe universe,
not like this one. A universe where you’d
surpass your mother’s dreams. But parallel
realities may have terrorists, too.
Evil multiples to infinitude,
like mirrors facing each other in hell.
You were a wormhole history passed through,
transformed by the memory of your victimhood.

 

Marilyn Nelson

 

Source: Nelson, Marilyn. A Wreath for Emmett Till. Houghton Mifflin, 2005