Monday, December 22, 2014

Stupid people should never read books

I must have picked up Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle: A History as part of my plan (see, another plan!) this year to read all librarian-ish youth award winners. I didn't really want to read it because I have read an Andrew Smith novel and one was plenty, but the Boston Globe-Horn Book fiction award went to Grasshopper Jungle and -- well, I wanted to stick with the plan. (Plans make me feel like I'm in control ... hah!) I do find it telling that Horn Book had not reviewed this title (Horn Book only publishes positive reviews) which says to me that the librarian/reviewer the editors handed this to didn't like it either. Smith is most definitely an acquired taste.

In this very peculiar book, we find ourselves in Ealing, Iowa where nothing much happens. Except an evil scientist who developed a mutant strain of something or other 40 years ago that some bored delinquents steal and accidentally release. Coming into contact with this strain will morph a human being into a giant praying-mantis/grasshopper-thing that lives only to eat (human flesh) and breed. Some other bored delinquents -- Austin Szerba and Robbie Brees -- are the first to figure out what's going on, evade exposure, discover the underground bunker (created by the mad scientist) where humans can survive the apocalypse, and do their best to save the world.

Alas, it is too late -- the creatures can reproduce too easily -- and Austin relates the entire adventure from the bunker, which he expands to be a history (note the subtitle) of himself, his Polish ancestors and what may come. The boy is whip smart, profane, hilarious, and obsessed with sex (he can't seem to decide whom he loves more -- gay best friend Robbie or deliciously handy girlfriend Shann -- or perhaps a three-way would be really the solution). He does an entire riff on whether/what he should name his testicles. He gets to fight the creatures in a special suit and a huge paintball gun. Austin is always right, it's the world (and people) around him that have fucked everything up. It's kind of like a boy heaven -- much like that of Hokey Pokey -- only these guys have clearly left the bicycles behind.

So, really, just not my kind of book at all. But I've no doubt that it's a great book for teen readers, make that teen boys. There's not much for the girls to do in this story, but that might be the author's point. I have to give Smith credit for creating an adolescent boy and staying inside his head consistently, without apology.

Philip Church reads the book, which might be his first narrator gig. He reads Austin's story in a rapid, deadpan manner which is perfectly appropriate for the distancing historical approach that the boy tells us he's providing, but this -- combined with the brief chapters, very short sentences and the lack of contractions in the narrative -- gets very tiring to listen to. The novel's action moments (when the creatures face off with some unsuspecting deputies, when the boys get suited up and head out with their guns, etc.) sound no different than Austin's stories of his Polish ancestors.

Church does a nice job creating a different voice for Robbie, a voice that's ever so slightly feminized without being swishy. On the other hand, his voice for Shann, and for the novel's other females, are generically girly and too childish. On the whole, Church does well in what I think is his debut. Led by the text, he handles fairly tough material consistently. His voice is pleasant to listen to and -- with practice -- he'll get better.

There's some slightly raucous rock 'n' roll music at the start and finish of the book. It sets the tone of the novel right off, as good intro music should.

There's buzz about this one, which might be good in that I'll have one book already finished when I get to next year's plan (to read all the youth awardees). On the not-so-good end, 100 Sideways Miles (the author's most recent book) is also being mentioned in the same sentence as the Printz. Will I have to read another book by Andrew Smith?

I could, of course, just ditch the plan. Noooooo ...

[Wikimedia Commons gave me this photo when I asked for a praying mantis (mantidae). It's from the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad.

[I like how the cover of this book can be both cleavage and antennae. The book also has these hot-yellow page edges (like gold leafing on a fancy old tome) that gives the whole book this sort-of otherworldly glow.]

Grasshopper Jungle: A History by Andrew Smith
Narrated by Philip Church
Penguin Audio, 2014.  9:20

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