Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
672 pages

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray is an extremely long, but intriguing novel. This book is very interesting, challenging and thought provoking; it is also funny and has great characters. The postmodern structure is brilliant.

Skippy Dies is split into three sections: 1. Hopeland, 2. Heartland, and 2. Ghostland.

In the very beginning the title character dies in a donut shop. He manages to write "Tell Lori" on the floor in donut jelly before dying. His real name is Daniel Juster, but everyone calls him Skippy.

Skippy is an oddball student at Seabrook College for boys. He has a roommate named Ruprecht, a scientific genius who wants to open the portal to other dimensions using ten-dimensional string theory. Skippy also hangs out with a boy nicknamed "MC Sexecutioner," among other weird characters.

The plot revolves around Skippy's love obsession Lori, who attends the girls school right next to Seabrook, who's involved with a drug dealer named Carl. There's also a teacher named Howard, who fell out of love with his live-in girlfriend. Howard falls for a gorgeous substitute teacher named Auriele and they have a brief fling that leads to nothing.

The highlights of the story are Ruprecht believing his experiment to get a figurine to another dimension worked after it disappeared, Lori's conflicted feelings for Carl and Skippy, Howard realizing he made a mistake when he dumped his girlfriend for Auriele, Ruprecht and others sneaking around the school to set up tools for communication with the dead, the creepy Father Green and his immoral desires, and the principal aka "The Automator" and his single-minded objective to get the school updated.

A scene that has a lot of emotional impact is when Ruprecht confronts Lori after Skippy's death and blames her for it. They have an argument that leads to a mutual understanding where they see a glimpse of humanity in each other despite their differences.

A major theme in this book is the fragility and fleeting nature of adolescence and how it impacts the rest of your life.

Skippy Dies offers a lot opportunity for character analysis though the title character remains a tragic mystery.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
230 pages

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a painfully revealing look into the life of a teenager named Junior who lives on a reservation. He wants to be more than what he sees. Junior opens up describing his health condition hydrocephalus. He talks about how he gets bullied and beat up by other kids on the reservation. He keeps to himself and draws cartoons all the time. “I draw because words are too unpredictable. I draw because words are too limited… so I draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me.” He describes being extremely poor and how that affected his dog Oscar who was dying for hours, but his family couldn’t afford to take him to the veterinarian so Junior’s father euthanized the dog. Junior talks about how his family has always lived on the reservation and in the same place, noting that “no one paid attention to his parents’ dreams” which seemed to be a generational cycle. Junior asserts: “But we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are. It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that somehow you deserve to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”

When Junior contemplates running away his best friend Rowdy tells him no one would notice. Rowdy is described as the toughest kid on the “rez”. They hang out at his house and read comics together. On Junior’s first day of school at Wellpinit High School he gets so angry about receiving a geometry book that belonged to his mother when she was in high school that he throws it at his teacher Mr. P’s face. He gets suspended for the incident. Mr. P visits his house and tells Junior that he has to leave the rez forever! He tells Junior that his older sister Mary was the smartest student he ever had and that she wanted to be a romance writer. Now she spends all of her days in the basement. “All these kids have given up. All your friends. All the bullies. And their mothers and fathers have given up too. And their grandparents gave up and their grandparents before them. And me and every other teacher here. We’re all defeated.” Mr. P starts crying and says that the farther Junior gets away from the rez the more hope he’ll have. Junior decides to go to Reardan High School after his parents tell him white people have the most hope. “I had to multiply hope by hope.” Rowdy is angry that he is transferring and refuses to go with him. He screamed and punched Junior in the face.

Junior’s dad drove him to Reardan on his first day of school in his  rundown truck. He feels worthless when he stands outside the school. While he attends his classes he develops feelings for a blond girl named Penelope and encounters a popular jock named Roger who makes an extremely racist joke about Indians. Junior is so angry he punches Roger in the face and makes him bleed. Roger and his friends leave. When Junior tells his grandmother what happened she tells him it means they respect you. Junior dresses like a homeless dude for Halloween and claims he’s going to raise money for the poor to impress Penelope. He does end up raising money, but gets jumped and robbed. Penelope feels sorry for him and touches apart of his back where he was attacked.

Over the next few months Junior feels invisible and talks about his struggles getting to and from school. He is shocked when his sister gets married and moves to Montana with her husband. Eventually Junior is tired of being lonely and approaches a nerdy boy named Gordy and asks him to be his friend. They become friends and mostly study together. Junior comforts Penelope after discovering she is bulimic. They start sort-of-dating and go to the Winter Formal together. Junior wears one of his dad’s old suits. They go to a diner and Junior feels sick about the fact that he doesn’t have any money. Roger figures out that Junior is poor and pays for him. Junior’s high school life changes dramatically when he makes the varsity basketball team against the odds. When he plays against his former high school Rowdy knocks him unconscious during the game and he goes to the hospital. Tragedy strikes his family when his grandmother gets killed by a drunk driver. His dad’s best friend Eugene gets shot and killed by his friend. Junior gets depressed and misses class a lot. Gordy stands up for him in school after his teacher says he shouldn’t miss class so much. The rest of the class drops their textbooks and leaves too.

The rematch against Wellpinit draws media attention and Junior gets interviewed by a reporter. Junior starts the game and blocks Rowdy’s opening game dunk and makes a three pointer. Reardan wins by a large margin and he celebrates with his team, but he feels guilty and ashamed when he thinks about Indians. He cries thinking about what the loss must have done to their spirits. Reardan goes undefeated for the rest of the regular season. Tragedy strikes again with the news of his sister’s death by fire. Junior becomes hysterical when his dad takes him home from school. Rowdy is crying and says “Your sister is dead because you left us. You killed her.” Junior’s classmates hug him and support him. Penelope cries and hugs him. At the cemetery with his parents Junior remembers his grandmother, Eugene, and his sister. “I mean, she was amazing. It was courageous of her to leave the basement and move to Montana. She went searching for her dreams, and she didn’t find them but she made the attempt. And I was making the attempt, too. And maybe it would kill me, too, but I knew that staying on the rez would have killed me, too.”

After many months of not speaking, Rowdy comes over to Junior’s place over summer break and says he’s bored. They play a basketball game and Junior realizes that Rowdy sees to accept Junior’s decision to go to Reardan when he calls him nomadic. Rowdy says he’s okay staying where he is. They don’t keep score of the game and play for hours. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
186 pages
Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl is a modern classic that addresses the importance of individuality and explores the impact of social conformity in this poetic, deeply moving story of a rare teenager who proved to others that being different is a gift and not a curse.

What happens when a girl who is carrying a pet rat, a ukulele, and a sunflower canvas bag, and is wearing a long flowing white pioneer dress without make up attends high school for the first time?

She sets the school abuzz. Everyone whispers about Stargirl. Who is she? Is she real? What kind of name is Stargirl? The reason why Stargirl causes such a scene is because of the type of town she lives in and the school she attended. The narrator reveals the social structure: "Mica Area High School--MAHS--was not exactly a hotbed of nonconformity. There were individual variants here and there, of course, but within pretty narrow limits we all wore the same clothes, talked the same way, ate the same food, listened to the same music. Even our dorks and nerds had a MAHS stamp on them. If we happened to somehow distinguish ourselves, we quickly snapped back into place, like rubber bands."
Stargirl Caraway is a uniquely eccentric 15 year old who attends public school for the first time at Mica Area High School in Arizona. Her real name is Susan, but she doesn't think it matches her and names herself Stargirl during this time--she had other odd nicknames such as "Pocket Mouse" before.
At first people think she is joking or is a ruse planted by the school faculty to inject school spirit. After several months people start to believe she's probably just crazy. The narrator tells readers that “she laughed when there was no joke. She danced when there was no music. She had no friends, yet she was the friendliest person in school. In her answers in class, she often spoke of sea horses and stars, but she did not know what a football was."
She also sings "Happy Birthday" to complete strangers in the cafeteria, gives out cards and candy every day and says hi to everyone. What kind of person does these things? Stargirl is a rare individual who does not care about social mores. She is selfless and energetic in ways the narrator of the story, Leo Borlock, can never understand. He explains the school's fascination with Stargirl: "We wanted to define her, to wrap her up as we did each other, but we could not seem to get past 'weird' and 'strange' and 'goofy.' Her ways knocked us off balance. A single word seemed to hover in the cloudless sky over the school: HUH?"

Leo Borlock is a junior at the same high school and he is completely fascinated by Stargirl. He doesn't realize he is falling in love with her even though he followed her for miles after school one day and stays up late every night under the moon thinking about her. Leo poetically tries to capture her essence: "She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow. She was the faintest scent of a cactus flower, the flitting shadow of an elf owl. We did not know what to make of her. In our minds we tried to pin her to a cork board like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.”

Around the time Stargirl becomes unexpectedly popular, Leo and Stargirl begin a tentative relationship. Leo learns how to see the world through Stargirl's eyes: an unlimited space of possibility. He starts to notice what is going on around him and sympathizing with strangers. Leo lovingly declares that “she was bendable light: she shone around every corner of my day.”  

In many ways Stargirl seems to take over Leo's whole life. He is willing to accept it until Stargirl becomes a social pariah for her innocent, yet unacceptable behavior as a cheerleader during basketball season. When Leo notices he's become invisible to his peers due to his relationship with Stargirl he begins to succumb to the pressure and influences Stargirl to change.

After Stargirl realizes her "normal" teenage act isn't working she becomes herself again and Leo makes his choice: the crowd is more important. But that doesn't stop Stargirl from attending a school ball and winning the affections of her fellow students in an unforgettably emphatic fashion when she leads a bunny hop train.

Stargirl leaves after the ball and no one at the high school has ever seen her since. Leo reflects on the light that Stargirl shined on his small town and how she still impacts his life everyday fifteen years later. He wonders if he there is still a has a chance to be with her. A gift he receives the day before his birthday leads him to believe he does.

Though Stargirl compromised her identity to be with Leo, she's not the one who changes at Mica High. Everyone around her does. She forces people to rethink their views on society and behavior and what is acceptable and what is true. She gave herself the perfect name. In less than a school year her legacy lived on like the stars in the sky.
A wise teacher in the story explains the unique eccentricity of Stargirl: “It's in the morning, for most of us. It's that time, those few seconds when we're coming out of sleep but we're not really awake yet. For those few seconds we're something more primitive than what we are about to become. We have just slept the sleep of our most distant ancestors, and something of them and their world still clings to us. For those few moments we are unformed, uncivilized. We are not the people we know as ourselves, but creatures more in tune with a tree than a keyboard. We are untitled, unnamed, natural, suspended between was and will be, the tadpole before the frog, the worm before the butterfly. We are for a few brief moments, anything and everything we could be. And then...and then -- ah -- we open our eyes and the day is before us and ... we become ourselves."