Guys Read, Summer 2015: The Last Session.

The Hollow Land - Jane Gardam The Great Greene Heist - Varian Johnson Going Bovine - Libba Bray


Well, the other Wednesday were the last book clubs I was scheduled to lead for the Guys Read Summer Read program, and they were some interesting ones to end with. I have learned so much during this time, I now have a much better idea of what to do and what to avoid for next time. The main thing I would say would be to always choose books I have already read, just so that I would have an idea of what age level, really, they are appropriate for. I'm not just talking about swearing and "adult situations" in teen books, but just the writing style and context that might just mean less to younger readers, even if everything else is totally appropriate age wise.


As I scrambled to choose books, make sure that they were accessible from the library collections and there were enough to go around, I had to choose a few through only second hand recommendations. Of course, I also had the obsession to use the newest books I could, and ones that had not been chosen for other groups yet. This led to some mixed reactions on this last session, though, as can be seen, my choices worked quite well as a whole! 


To segue into my discussion of the Guys Jr. choice, one thing that I noticed throughout the sessions was the importance of the books cover to the kids' reactions of the books. I guess that is superficial, but it is definitely true, at least for the younger readers. For instance, the kids who got the more action-packed edition of The Screaming Staircase, featuring Lockwood and Lucy confronting the staircase with their rapiers enjoyed the book considerably more than those who read the edition that merely had a picture of a spooky locket and box. 



This, sadly, did not bode well for my last choice for the juniors, The Hollow Land, Jane Gardam's novel for children. The classic, simplistic graphic design of the cover, with its paper cutout pastels and faceless children did not spark the children's interest; in fact, it creeped 'em out, and they expected a spooky story rather than the gentle, pastoral reflection on growing up in the Cumbrian Fells of northern England. This seem to be the style chosen for Jane Gardam's recently republished novels, but for the readers, it was less than inspiring. 



The Hollow Land was by far the least well received book in any of the groups; none of the book club members enjoyed it, not even the sole child who managed to finish it. They all found it boring and, if I understood their complaints, rather unintelligible. I chose it due to coming highly recommend by various environmental blogs as a great book on nature for young readers, and I wanted to include a book that deals with themes of nature and science; it seems that Jane Gardam, while an extremely respected author in the UK, is not very well known in the states. 


I wonder if this book may have just been TOO English for our young American readers. While there was no "inappropriate" themes, and the reading level (aside from the many Britishisms) was easy, it was languidly paced, wistful, and obscure. I may use it for the teens in future clubs. As for me, I quite enjoyed it, though I do think it was quite an unusual novel. The Hollow Land is a loving ode to the power of place.


The setting of the county of Cumbria in the north of England is the real star, with its geography, climate, culture, and history coming through. Bell Teesdale, a local farmer's son, and his friend Harry, up from London on holiday, learn about folklore, explore mine pits (the reason for the area being called the "Hollow Land"), and enjoy other rural adventures. It may have been just a little too steeped in this distant world, with too little context, and much of this deep, nostalgic local color was lost on them. It was a little weird, for instance, to talk about the local farmers' prejudices against "Gyspies," the Irish, the Welsh, the Scottish, and those shifty Yorkshiremen; neither condoned or condemned, it's just how it is North. This could certainly spark a lot of discussion among older readers, but it was a little much for the kids. 



Varian Johnson's The Great Greene Heist, on the other hand, was a great success. The cover, here, again, was discussed in positive terms by the readers, who enjoyed trying to put a name to all of the characters depicted on the cover. All of the characters were well liked by them, too, and they also reported really identifying with them. A few of them mentioned that it was a bit cheesy, but they might have liked it because of this, and one reported staying up late to finish it! Personally, I liked this a bit more than Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library as the big success books of my clubs.


Johnson's book is a fun "crime" caper, along the lines of Ocean's 11, with smooth operator with a heart of gold Jackson Greene putting together a crack team of diverse 7th grade specialists, each with their own talents and personality, to help put a stop to a rigged election in their middle school and save the Tech Club. Greene's Code of Conduct was a great way for the readers to debate whether it is always best to only follow the rules, and whether there is a time to break them. There is plenty of humor, plans that go awry, wit under pressure, and success, just like any good heist picture. In addition to this, the Great Greene Heist subtly explores issues of diversity and privilege, which I think the guys in my group picked up on, and liked. As perhaps the most "realistic" book chosen for this group, I think they appreciated it as a break from stranger things, as well.



Now this, this book was weird. Probably the weirdest I’ve read so far this year, and I read The Orange Eats Creeps. "Going Bovine," kind of came out of nowhere for me, as it was the book voted on for the last session of the Teen Group, but then, only two of them showed up for the last one. The two members who were there said they enjoyed it, though they felt the ending was confusing and that it started slow, as well. This is an assessment that I don't disagree with, personally.


Unpopular slacker Cameron Smith’s life kinda sucks and then he gets Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (otherwise known as mad cow disease), a fatal and incurable condition that turns your brain to mush. However, a punk angel named Dulcie appears to him and he is given one last chance to save himself and save the world , a quest that throws him in with Paul “Gonzo” Gonzales, a nerdy hypochondriac little person and classmate who becomes the Panza to Cam's Quixote. Things become increasingly surreal, though shot through with that quintessential American cable news hyperrealism.

With the help of his manic angel dream girl, and a succession of magical minorities including an entire time-traveling Inuit indie rock band, he travels the highways and byways of the American south, from Texas to that hot spot of American weirdness, Florida, encountering one bizarre situation after the next. There is a definite magical realist, even urban fantasy, vibe to Going Bovine as takes on fire giants, taking yard gnomes, and his own mortality as he tries to find the one mad scientist who might cure him and shut the interdimensinal rift threatening reality.

There are a lot of interesting ideas banging around Going Bovine, a lot of themes and elements that intertwine throughout the narrative; Don Quixote, the “It’s a Small World After All” ride at Disney World, Norse mythology, snow globes, feathers, theoretical physics and quantum mechanics, the power of music, and those are only the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Along with this, Bray’s heavy handed satirical depiction of our contemporary world of vapid consumerism, Going Bovine is awash in quirky scenes, not all of which go anywhere. Her parody is not exactly subtle either.

In fact, I’d say entire chapters could be dropped wholesale without effecting the book in the least, In the end, predictably, all of this may be nothing more than hallucinations in the deteriorating mind of Cam, which comes a bit uncomfortably close to the “it was all a dream” motif. Even with the rather hamfisted moralizing that life, and reality, is what you make it, so you should live every moment to the fullest, it feels like it all is, in end, of no consequence. Poor Cam.


To conclude, my Guys Read experience was awesome, I loved reading all of the books chosen for the groups, debating their merits with such smart and interested young people, preparing activities, and learning good tips that will help me in future clubs. The best experience is first hand, right, and I threw myself into this one. Looking forward to the next!

*Monthly theme music, "Adventure," Be Your Own Pet, 2006