You wanted to know, didn’t you?
So, book one: Why We Broke Up.
I’m not sure I get it. Yes, Maira Kalman is immensely talented. And yes, Daniel Handler is a funny man whom we all love for Lemony Snicket. But this is sort of too sweet; I KNOW where it’s going (and, ok, I did check at the very end to see if my predictive powers were correct, and I think at this point I’ve read about two-thirds if not more). And while there are flashes of that dark humor Handler does so well (I’ve read The Basic Eight, so I know just how dark he can be), they feel a bit wrapped up in pink ribbon. Although the bittersweet sixteen party was fabulous.
And what does the art actually add, from a literary perspective? Photos of actual objects could make sense, given the conceit of the novel, but drawings that stand in for actual objects is an odd distancing and makes the letter premise clearly a fiction. (As I write this I am realizing there could be a knowingly post-modern meta thing going on, so perhaps this post really is the catharsis to break through my stuckness… but I am not sure I buy that explanation.)
On the other hand: Min’s voice is pretty awesomely done, even if I personally find her irritating as all get-out (but then, we don’t get irritated by characters in fiction if they aren’t done well, we just get irritated with the books for crap writing. And I was definitely reacting to Min.) And, as I said, I think the art and design elements are lovely added value even if I question what the value is to the story.
But going by our super scientific method of determining our contenders, which is to say our fake nomination list, this should be given close, full scrutiny: three stars (with some reviews possibly not out yet) and one best of 2011 nod. And those starred reviews make me want to read this! And yet, when I sit down to read it, I stick fast.
Ok, on to book two: Jasper Jones.
This has been on the contenda list from the start: four stars as of September 1 and now one best of 2011 nod as well.
There is some great sentence level writing here, and a palpable, oppressive sense of place (although wow, another book in which Vietnam plays a role). Two things hold me back, both from wanting to read on and from thinking I even need to finish reading, because I could craft an argument against this one based on as much as I’ve read (slightly less than half).
First, it walks a fine line between over written and arch. The voice is too mature, which the story supports in many ways—but it still doesn’t always pull itself off. The gap between the written voice and some of the immaturity or youth on display (the fear of Mad Jack) makes the voice sometimes suspect. I do realize that that might be something that later bears fruit (since it seems pretty clear Mad Jack won’t be the killer), and so this is a criticism half rooted in the personal (I think the voice has some flaws, but in all fairness need to admit that some of those flaws might be part of a larger thread) so if I had to read this (if I were on the committee and it was nominated), I could not use that as a defense. Mostly I’m just trying to chronicle my reading experience as faithfully as possible. Also, as long as I’m picking at the voice, there’s way too much cricket, in excruciating detail. And yes, it’s important to this town, but since Charlie doesn’t like cricket that much, it’s too much; would he really give so many details? Or is this a hint that he is less immune to the pastimes of his town than he claims? Or maybe I’m just too American and thus biased against cricket, but the large cricket scene with the boys at the town field (green?) derailed the pacing.
Secondly, and much more damaging: the premise. It’s ridiculous. I find myself thinking even Silvey must know this, because there are moments when the story gets going (the first time we see the cricket pitch and the casual racist treatment of Jeffrey) and both Charlie and the reader forget the entire weight hanging over the story and need to be forcibly reminded. And because it’s the premise that’s in question, it’s hard to overlook. Why would Jasper Jones seek out Charlie? I don’t buy the explanation Jasper gives. And it’s an awfully big crack in the windshield before anything else even happens. More than that, the first chapter set up a murder mystery and I don’t think that’s what this is at all: this is a close-up portrait of a small town. The first chapter was a really long chapter that seems tacked on (again, with the caveat that I have not yet finished), and thus calls the entire book into question.
So, that’s where I am, spinning my wheels on two potential contenders when I should perhaps be moving on. I need a nudge to get me on track or permission to let them go: Any strong arguments for or against either of these as a top five? I’m not asking if these are contenders, which they obviously are, but whether you, my faux fellow committee folks, can argue that these are likely short-short listers. Or that they aren’t. Don’t make me do all the heavy lifting!
Pub details: Jasper Jones, Alfred A. Knopf March 2011; reviewing from final copy; Why We Broke Up, Little, Brown December 2011; reviewing from ARC with color art postcards inserted.