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Truth & Responsibility
All three of today’s books are concerned with learning the truth and/or facing responsibility.
In Ben Dolnick‘s At the Bottom of Everything, young Adam is trying to avoid facing the mistake he and his best friend made as teenagers. If he could only take responsibility for it, he would be better off. So would his friend, Thomas. Adam goes all the way to India to find his friend, and even there he puts off telling the truth. I’m afraid I’ve made this novel sound heavy and dark, but it’s actually written with vibrant life and humor. Adam is deeply observant, searching and questioning. He has a funny way of observing the minutiae of life that elicits a chuckle or a nod of the head, as if to say “I never thought if that way, but I know exactly what he means!”
Dolnick’s two other novels are also coming of age novels with male protagonists. I read his debut, Zoology, back in 2007. It is charming and also a good suggestion for teens. But with his latest, he has taken a major leap forward in his writing. His characters have more depth, and the plot goes further afield.
The truth is entirely elusive in The Returned. Are the people returning from the dead really themselves? Or something else? No one knows. This could have been a thriller/science fiction premise, but author Jason Mott has something else in mind. He brings the story closer to home, to small-town America, to one family. Even within that family there are differences of opinion, different interpretations of the truth, and different ways of taking responsibility for each other. Then there’s the question of how much to risk for another family. It is tremendously affecting by the end. I think the mystery that hangs over the entire novel will engage teens. I also think the family, military and town dynamics will be of interest.
Our reviewer calls Buck a “universal truth-telling book,” which is the line that inspired this post. Buck is also about changing your truth. MK Asante is a hip-hop artist, a filmmaker, a writer, and a professor. But as a young teen he was headed for trouble, living in Philadelphia with a broken family, dealing drugs. “A blank sheet of paper” changed all that. In an NPR interview, Asante said, “this book is written for the kid that has never read anything that’s resonated with him.”
This is hardly the young artist’s first book. He has two books of poetry to his name, as well as It’s Bigger than Hip Hop, nonfiction in which he “uses hip hop as a springboard for a larger discussion about the urgent social and political issues affecting the hip-hop and post-hip-hop generations.” Booklist called it “vital reading for keeping up with youth culture and pop music.”
DOLNICK, Ben. At the Bottom of Everything. 239p. Pantheon. 2013. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780307907981; ebk. $24.95. ISBN 9780307907998. LC 2012042259.
Adult/High School–Adam is the quintessential slacker. The promising starter jobs he found right out of college didn’t last, so he’s tutoring middle-school students, putting off law school, reeling from a breakup, and trying to avoid Thomas’s parents. Flash back to seventh grade at Washington DC’s Dupont Prep and the beginning of Adam’s and Thomas’s friendship. Thomas was the smartest boy in school. A teacher’s pet, wise and extraordinarily well-spoken, he was never going to be popular, partly because he looked “as much alien as boy” with his huge eyes and pale skin. Adam started going to the Pells’ house after school and they became best friends. Mrs. Pell regularly set a place for him at the dinner table, and Adam wanted nothing more than to grow up to be just like Mr. Pell. Then, 10 years ago, in their teens, they accidentally caused a terrible tragedy. It ended their friendship and changed the course of their lives. Now, Thomas is somewhere in India, sending strange e-mail messages to his parents and occasionally to Adam, too. Adam has been trying to avoid taking responsibility for his old friend, but after an ill-advised affair ends his tutoring work for good, he gives in to the pressure to travel to India, find Thomas, and bring him back home. Both young men are fish-out-of-water in India; they lack the inner resources and experience necessary to deal with navigating a foreign country alone. Dolnick offers readers a perfectly rendered awkward adolescent male friendship, along with dryly humorous, witty, and sad observations on life, responsibility, and madness.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
MOTT, Jason. The Returned. 352p. Mira: Harlequin. Sep. 2013. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780778315339; ebook ISBN 9781459236639.
Adult/High School–Is it the end of days or a time of miracles? Around the world, the dead are returning. Harold and Lucille’s son Jacob drowned in 1966, on his 8th birthday. When he is delivered to their front door, still 8 years old, they are in their 70s. Harold refuses to accept that the boy is his son, but Lucille welcomes him with open arms. As more and more Returned appear, nations around the world cope with a population explosion and the violent protests that follow. Arcadia, North Carolina, is the site of a government program that keeps the Returned in captivity, separate from the True Living. At first, agents interview each detainee, hoping to figure out what took place between death and reappearance. When Jacob is imprisoned, Harold insists on going with him. As conditions in the camp deteriorate, they are helped by Agent Bellamy, a compassionate man who regularly shares news with Harold over horseshoes. His superiors are not so kind. Readers will sense tragedy approaching, and everything comes to a head when Lucille decides to rescue her family. This is not a Christian novel per se, yet its issues are addressed in that light–the value of life, the nature of family, forgiveness, kindness and grace. How do we face the tragedy of losing loved ones, yet go on living? Is there life after death? When is it worth risking everything to do what is right? Although there are no teens in this story, its premise, execution, and concerns are intriguing enough to attract young readers.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
* ASANTE, MK. Buck: A Memoir. 272p. Spiegel & Grau. 2013. Tr $25. ISBN 9780812993417.
Adult/High School–Buck is dynamic, enlivening, and superbly written. At 12, Asante was living in “Killadephia, Pistolvannia,” admiring Uzi, his older brother with “a temper so hot you can fry bacon on it.” Asante writes, “I even duck like him under doorways, even though he’s way taller and I don’t need to duck.” When 16-year-old Uzi had consensual sex with a girl who turned out to be 13–and white–he got 10 years in prison. Asante was left alone to cope with his Afrocentric Pops (“We can’t celebrate some big fat white man bringing us gifts,” he says about Christmas). Mom was just getting out of a psychiatric facility. Dropping out of school, jumping into a gang, slinging dope, “I’m blowing money faster than a hollow-tip….It takes my mind off the bullshit: off the fact that my best friend is gone, my mom is in a coma, my dad left, my sister’s on the funny farm and my brother is locked in a dog kennel in Arizona.” He was sent to an alternative school where he was given a blank sheet of paper–both literally and figuratively. After struggling for days, he finally wrote the first word that came to his mind: Buck. Asante’s writing is passionate, fresh, and electric–a unique style that is informed by hip-hop, the classics, street slang, and everyday voice mails, rules, and found journal entries. From the title to the chapter headings to the interior, Asante has crafted a powerful, funny, deep, and universal truth-telling book that teens will love.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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