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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 4, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Bruiser, Bridge, Friending, Unique Shops

In honor of National Young Reader's Day next Tuesday, I'd like to recommend a trio of excellent novels that might make excellent gifts for young readers on your list.

Neal Shusterman is the author of the dark classic Everlost, an unforgettable story of what happens to dead children who get lost on their way to heaven. If that doesn't sound particularly upbeat to you, keep in mind that young readers are much less disturbed by the idea of death than their parents and older relatives are. And Everlost achieves an elegant dark beauty that leaves readers filled with hope and love -- quite an achievement.

Most recently, Shusterman offers young readers (and adults smart enough to realize that kids shouldn't get all the best writing) a novel called Bruiser. The title is a triple pun.

We call big aggressive men "bruisers," and Tennyson, the teenage narrator of this story, is that kind of guy -- a teenager who is likely to let his negative emotions take the form of a good pounding.

Then his sister, Brontë, starts dating an even more dangerous-looking kid named Brewster -- the sort of guy who gets voted "Most likely to get the death penalty." Naturally, Tennyson and Brewster are going to go at it head to head. But what comes out of their confrontation isn't at all what Tennyson expected. One thing you can never say to Brewster is, "This is going to hurt me worse than it'll hurt you."

Without every losing the brash humor and strong relationships of a Shusterman novel, Bruiser becomes a powerful story of sacrifice and redemption. It might just be the your young reader's new favorite book.

*

Louis Sachar wrote the masterpiece Holes, and if you and your young reader haven't already read it, then stop reading this review, get a copy of Holes, and let it become a part of your secret magical life.

OK, presumably you've done that, so I don't have to tell you what a wonderful writer Sachar is. His newest novel, Card Turner, is about as different from Holes as it can be and still be in English.

It's about Bridge. The card game, not the architectural feature or dental appliance or nose part.

Now, I don't know about you, but I have spent years looking at bridge columns in newspapers (like Omar Sharif's or Charles Goren's) and thinking, This makes no sense, feels complicated, and I will never, never play bridge.

But that didn't stop me from enjoying Sachar's novel about tournament-level bridge-playing. It's about a kid named Alton whose "best friend" just took his girlfriend away from him. To top that off, he gets plunged further into hell when his greedy mother forces him into the company of his rich uncle, a blind bridge player named Lester. The idea is for Alton to become so beloved by Lester that the old man will leave him serious money when he dies.

Instead, Alton finds himself becoming Lester's hands and eyes in high-level bridge games. At first he simply tells Lester what cards come up and then follows Lester's instructions. Gradually, though, Alton comes to know the game ... and the old man.

The human relationships make the novel a wonderful read whether you care about bridge or not. Good thing -- because I still don't care about bridge. However, Sachar does an excellent job of explaining the game, so that the story makes sense, especially as bridge games interlace with Alton's loves and friendships. There's also a bit of a mystery about Lester's past.

No, this book won't displace Holes as Sachar's greatest work. And not every reader, young or old, will enjoy the intense concentration on bridge. But despite my utter lack of interest in bridge, I did enjoy the book to the point that I didn't set it down -- I stayed up late and finished it in a single sitting.

And even though I don't want to play bridge, at least I now understand its appeal and fascination for those who do play. Like life, it has elements of chance and sometimes you're going down just because of the luck of the draw. But the more you understand the game, the better you can get at making things work out your way.

So your decision about whether to give this to a young reader is not based on whether the kid -- or you -- is interested in contract bridge. If the kid likes any head-to-head games, he'll get it; and at heart, it's a story about love -- romantic love, friendship, and the love within a family, even a completely crazy and somewhat awful one like Alton's.

*

I didn't read Daniel Ehrenhaft's Friend Is Not a Verb -- I listened to it from an Audible.com download. And it is one of my favorite contemporary novels.

It's funny how li-fi (academic-literary fiction) has staked a claim to the novel of contemporary life -- because contemporary life is far to interesting and complicated to be entrusted to writers who only care about impressing you with their cool literary stunts.

The title of Friend Is Not a Verb comes from the way Facebook has caused people to talk about "friending" somebody. You meet someone, and instead of giving them your phone number you say, "Friend me," and they know they're supposed to invite you to become their friend on Facebook, so you can follow each other's wall postings and send messages and invitations and a whole bunch of completely nonsensical activities.

But this is not a novel about Facebook. It's a novel about longtime friendship turning into love, even as "undying love" turns into doo-doo.

Henry Birnbaum is famous at school -- for being the kid whose older sister disappeared under mysterious and quite possibly criminal circumstances. Either something terrible happened to her, or she did something terrible and went on the lam.

The thing is, Henry's parents seem to know something about what happened to her, but they won't tell Henry. He's just supposed to get on with his life, knowing that his family has made him the only person who doesn't know the biggest most terrible thing that every happened to them.

Talk about isolation.

So Henry dreams of being a bass guitarist and even joins a band headed by an utterly selfish and totally cool girl who becomes the love of Henry's life. Only he isn't the love of hers. Like that never happened to anybody.

The book is funny. Really, really funny. And smart. And truthful. And emotional when it counts. The story of what happened to the sister is fully known by the end -- in fact, the book takes its structure from that mystery. But what we really care about is the rebuilding of Henry's life, without his having to depend on his sister or his parents to define him.

This book is impossible for a teenage reader not to like. But do keep in mind that it does reflect the reality of modern life. There is a lot more sexual tension in the book than would have borne any relationship to my life at the same age -- but it's the world your young reader lives in, and Henry manages to make his way through that world without screwing up, or at least not screwing up much. If you're proud of being considered stodgy, then don't give this book to a kid you love until you've read it yourself and are sure you're comfortable with it.

Meanwhile, I think it's terrific and recommend it highly. Kids today are already dealing with stuff just as morally difficult as what Henry faces -- and this book helps them see how good choices can sometimes be made, and bad choices be made up for.

*

I was in Newport News, Virginia, last week for a listen-to-an-author-drone-on-and-on event (I was the droning author), and the morning after my wife and I found ourselves in the Marriott at City Center at Oyster Point, a "planned town" development that mixes shopping, office, and residential space (like Reston Town Center and the development at Pisgah Church and North Elm in Greensboro).

We didn't have a set schedule, and could take all the time in the world getting home. So we went outside -- into a stiff, cold wind, for autumn had taken us by surprise, I'm afraid -- and wandered around City Center.

Since they're having a recession in Newport News, just like here, there were a lot of spaces unrented. And I'm afraid that my eyes glaze over when I see storefronts occupied by the standard national chains.

In fact, it would greatly benefit developments like this -- or city downtowns, for that matter -- if there were either a law (for cities) or a requirement (for developments) that a certain percentage of store frontage be occupied by local retail instead of national chains. If the only thing a mall or shopping center contains is national chain stores, then it stops being a browsing destination. Why browse when you already know what you're going to see?

So the highlight of our walk through City Center at Oyster Point was an absolutely brilliant little home decorating store called Sisters Unique.

We are not in the market for a complete re-do of our decor (however much our friends might think we need it). But they had lots of small stuff that it was fun to browse through, even as their larger decorating elements made their impression on us.

To get an idea of the feel of the place and the attitude of the people, here's a quote from the artist-in-residence's self-intro on their website:

"The worst idea I've ever had was The Paint By Number Couch. I bought a couch off of Craigslist that looked about as hopeless as they get. And proceeded to paint the intricate patterns in an effort to bring it up to date.

"Needless to say, my husband came home and asked, 'You didn't pay for that did you?'

"Sheepishly, I answered him, 'Yes. Yes I did.'

"We moved the couch to the curb under the cover of night so the neighbors wouldn't see this travesty of a DIY project. I was fully prepared to act astonished at the mention of a painted couch on the curb, when at last, the dump truck came and the metal claw removed it from our lives forever. Thank God."

Jennifer Brewer not only creates original pieces and treatments for customers, she also teaches art classes for kids at the store. "The Painted Mouse" is what these classes are called -- it made me wish I lived closer. And had kids that age.

I like these people -- I like their attitude and I like their taste. And, fortunately, I can get some of their influence into my home through their website: http://www.SistersUnique.com .

For instance, we came home with six foolish little statuettes of trick-or-treaters by Lori Mitchell (whose work you can also see at http://www.laDeeDahFolkArt.com ). (Her website shows the originals -- we bought commercial reproductions from Sisters Unique.)

Unfortunately, the Sisters Unique website is still under construction, and the only things you can actually buy right now are a couple of floor samples.

Mostly what I wanted to share with you was the delight of finding a one-of-a-kind store with its own character.

The funny thing is that we have several stores in Greensboro that are also one-of-a-kind -- with wonderfully likeable and creative staff.

Like Smith Beautiful Living at North Elm and Pisgah Church (next door to Harris-Teeter).

Or Fleet-Plummer (2437 Battleground), which was once a hardware store but now is our source for patio furniture and lots of other outdoor and indoor decor items.

Or New Garden Landscaping and Nursery (3811 Lawndale and 5572 Garden Village Way), where I buy not only plants but also various items of indoor and outdoor decor -- like the wonderful outdoor standalone clock that helps us keep track of time in our back yard.

Or The Salt Box (at the corner of Golden Gate and State), which is a place where I have taken out-of-state visitors to give them a sense of local color.

The thing about these stores is that even if you don't buy anything, they're just plain fun to visit and walk through. The people who work there know what they're talking about and can give excellent advice.

These aren't stores you can find in any mall in America. They're ours. You can strike up a relationship with the staff. It's shops like these that help give Greensboro its personality.

And the only way we get to keep stores like these is if we shop there. And spend a little money now and then. So please remember that this Christmas. Yes, you can shop the bargains, buy online, visit the mall and Friendly Center ... but don't forget the out-of-the-way, one-of-a-kind stores that still have the power to surprise us.


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