The Buffalo Tree (by Adam Rapp)

9 03 2014

thebuffalotreeIn 2005, Adam Rapp’s debut novel[1], The Buffalo Tree found itself in the midst of what the New York Times called a Culture War. This happened in the Muhlenberg School District, where – coincidentally – another book riot went on (and is still going on) at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. The petition that was started on by some of the students themselves, explains how books are being ‘red-flagged’ and how class and school libraries are at risk of losing many of its books because they might contain “inappropriate” content.

In the case of Rapp’s The Buffalo Tree – as is the case in most if not all instances of book challenges or attempted bans – the main issue is that those who want to ban it never actually read all the material they are protesting, and in the case of The Buffalo Tree, the school board only heard some passages taken out of context.

The Buffalo Tree has all the hallmark signs of “an Adam Rapp novel” and already show his mad talent. I’d previously read Punkzilla, The Children and the Wolves and 33 Snowfish, and each of those reading experiences left me shattered. Not just because of the harsh story of the kids in those books, but equally so by the unmistaken talent of Rapp as a word artist. Voice is his strength, and it’s no surprise then he’s also a playwright, and a really good one at that (even though I haven’t see any of his plays, I have no doubt believing that).

His experience as a playwright is all over those 3 YA novels, in which each character gets a very distinctive voice. In The Buffalo Tree, Rapp isn’t quite there yet, but it shows how good he is at having a character “be” that character completely, voice and all, enhancing the reality of that character from the inside out. And in Sura’s case – the 12-year-old boy who’s locked up in the Hamstock Boys Center for 6 months for stealing hoodies (car hood ornaments) – that means that he speaks tough, in a sort of juvy vernacular. It’s also Sura’s stream of consciousness perspective we get when the other Spalding juvies are described: Coly Jo, Sura’s (unfortunate) patchmate (cell mate) and Hodge and Boo (two juvy bullies). But like in other Rapp novels, it is fascinating to see how a kid like Sura views the adults of his surroundings: the cruel Mister Rose, Deacon Bob Fly, the resident ‘psychologist’ who’s intent on ‘getting through to Sura’, and none of them are seen in a positive light, except maybe for Sura’s mom, Mazzie – who got pregnant with Sura when she was 15.

Let’s face it, what happens in The Buffalo Tree is grim and hits you hard, but it’s a real world. Sura’s world in the juvy center and outside of the center is a bleak one: cruel, violent, abusive adults, and kids who may end up the same way as those adults, or kids who do not find the inner strength to overcome their situations. That too is something certain teens experience every single day. Every day is a battle for Sura and even after his release that feeling stays with him: “You get that old feeling back up in your bones”, but the hopeful thing to keep in mind here, that even though he might still get that feeling, he’s out.

Is a book with an almost naturalistically drawn story reason enough not to allow teens to have the ability to read this? OK, so that’s the most absurd question ever, which is why I can only respond with an Elle Horowitz original: “So, OK. The Attorney General says there’s too much violence on TV, and that should stop. Even if you took out all the violent shows, you could still see the news. So until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there’s no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.” And if you don’t believe Elle, then read this. Also, it’s really great to hear that there are students willing to support what they believe in and say: “We refuse to be idle,” they say in their petition. “We need to show them that young adult literature is a life-changing thing for young people to be exposed to. We won’t stop until every book on every shelf of our school is saved.”

[1] (I found 1990 on Wikipedia for the first time this was published, making Rapp 22 at the time!

The year 2013 in reading

22 12 2013

Sometime during summer the cat thought 2013 would be a really weak reading year. And there have been some major disappointments and some serious stinkers this year, for sure. I didn’t care for Allegiant (the last in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series). I definitely thought Lauren Myracle’s The Infinite Moment of Us was the biggest disappointment of 2013. I thought Melvin Burgess’s The Hit totally stank. I honestly don’t understand how people could rate books like Where She Went or Virtuosity more than, “Mèh, they’re OK…-ish.”

But, more than anything the books I read in 2013 have convinced me that there’s one thing I just can’t take anymore and that’s… mediocrity. I absolutely hate it when it seems like there’s no effort in the book I’m reading. And most of all, I want to see personality in the words I’m reading, I don’t just want to see craftsmanship (although it’s a big plus, obviously!), I want to see balls! I want to read character – not as in a well-rounded character or protagonist (although, again, that’s obviously a major plus), but as in: show me what you’ve got, show me your stuff, show me your fucking talent! Take a risk, don’t play it safe and show me you care. Your book doesn’t have to be perfect, but I want to see you care. I want to see authenticity and honesty and intellect in the writing. I want you to be an author, not just a writer. If that makes me a book snob, then so be it.

I absolutely loathe carelessness and disinterest when it comes to the book I’m reading. If you only write half a character, then don’t put that character into your book. If you only have half a plot, or dozens of half-assed developed plots, then cut them short and focus on the essential. If you show me fake sentiment, cheap thrills, or go for the lowest common denominator I really don’t care much about what you write. If you write a book because that’s what people happen to do these days or because they want to sit at the cool kids’ table, or if you write a book because a book packager has this great idea of what will work and sell, I cannot take you seriously.

So… on to 2013 and the books and authors that passed the one and only true feline test of authenticity! (books published in 2013 will be indicated in bold)

For the cat 2013 was absolutely the year of Andrew Smith, no question about it… I read all his 6 published books in 2013, starting with The Marbury Lens in February and ending with (his debut) Ghost Medicine in October. An absolutely highpoint was Winger in June. But also Passenger, Stick and In the Path of Falling Objects showed me the talent of a true author: fierce and intense, an authentic voice amidst an ocean of average wannabes. He does not always turn out ‘perfect’ books, but they always – always – make an indelible impression. I cannot wait for Grasshopper Jungle in February 2014!

If I mention Andrew Smith, I cannot not mention A.S. King, and not just because she pointed me in the direction of Andrew Smith. In October Reality Boy once again proved how she can see through the bullshit and is one of the most – if not the most – open and caring authors out there these days. She rocks and she’s my hero. And she writes like no other. Respect.

I have one book on my bookshelf, unread, that I’m afraid to touch, because I know that if I do, that’s it… I won’t have any left of that author and what will I do then, if I don’t have one of his books to fall back on… The first book to leave me completely drained and shattered this year was Adam Rapp’s 33 Snowfish. Rapp is the master of voice and in 33 Snowfish, stream-of-consciousness is the logical narrative device to carry the characters’ voices, giving the novel a certain cadence and musicality that is unique in YA literature today. Looking back on 2013, I do think that it’s not a big leap from liking Adam Rapp to liking Andrew Smith’s novels, though, in that both go places where very few YA authors dare to go. Again, balls, man, balls! *

One author showed that “Yes, it’s really OK” to have obvious literary ambitions as a YA author, and that’s David Levithan. His Two Boys Kissing was important not just because of its topic, but also because of its narration: daring and poetic. David Levithan definitely showed his talent once again in 2013!

Adam Rapp, Andrew Smith, A.S. King or David Levithan… these people are so good I want to keep them a secret, but I realize that wouldn’t be fair, so if you buy someone a book for Christmas this year, then make it one of their books… but if you have more money to spend, then there are definitely a couple of other authors and books that made 2013 worthwhile reading-wise:

I figured out you can’t go wrong with Chris Crutcher (Deadline, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Whale Talk) or with garden gnomes on book covers (Jordan Sonnenblick’s Notes from the Midnight Driver).

I don’t understand why Gregory Galloway’s The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand didn’t get more recognition. Well, I do understand, but I don’t get it… I read two extremely good debuts this year, namely Jesse AndrewsMe and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Evan RoskosDr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets . And Matthew Quick also confirmed this year that he’s so incredibly good at describing feelings of isolation from the world in Please Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock . But he doesn’t revel in the despair but shows what it means not to get stuck in that isolation and hopelessness.

I didn’t read a lot of Middle Grade fiction, this year, but what I read was excellent:

  • Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now, which is MG and YA of course, because Gary D. Schmidt is just absolutely boss and can do no harm. Ever.
  • Anthony McGowan’s Hello Darkness confirmed that McGowan is the funniest British MG and YA writer around these days.
  • Jo KnowlesSee You at Harry’s scores big on integrity and humaneness (although I just noticed, I didn’t write a review of it).
  • Paul Zindel’s The Pigman: how good is this book! Totally withstands the test of time!


2013 isn’t over yet, and I’m still reading a few books, but it’s already very obvious that this ‘best of 2013’ or how you want to call it, isn’t the most standard of ‘best of YA lists’ of 2013…** but I don’t care, this is what I read, this is what I like. Take it or leave it.



*I totally get that I’m not being very woman-friendly here. But then, I don’t want to be PC. Fuck that shit 😉

** Yes, I only have 2 women in my ‘list’, but what women they are!

Stick (by Andrew Smith)

17 08 2013

stickAndrew Smith is definitely one of the fiercest voices in YA at the moment. From several interviews, I get that he’s not all that happy with his books being labeled one way or the other, because he doesn’t write his books with a particular audience in mind, but I’ll be damned, this is some of the best YA literature there is, my friend, and you should be proud of that.

Stick is a perfect example of this: it’s both heartbreaking and sad on the one hand, and comforting and hopeful on the other.  Stark McClellan is 13. Born with just one ear and unbelievably tall for his age, he’s mostly called Stick. Luckily he can rely on his older brother Bosten, who literally fights some of his battles, and his best friend Emily who just takes him the way he is, just because that’s how Emily is. Perfect. The bond he has with Bosten and Emily is the only beautiful thing in his life. Kids are cruel and Stick gets bullied, a lot, for his otherness.  But that’s nothing compared with the ugliness and cruelty that the brothers have to endure at home. However, more than a book about abuse, this book is about relationships, how they were, how they change, how they are now, but most especially about the bond between brothers. About the support they give each other and the way love really can be an unconditional thing.

What Smith excels at is characterization. Stick is awkward and innocent and unsure, the way all 13, almost 14-year-olds can be. And Andrew Smith absolutely nails this teenage voice. This is a real kid, you know? He’s not brighter than most teens you know, he’s not quirkier than most teens you know, he’s not more of a smart-ass than most teens you know. He’s just taller. And the way you get to see the world is entirely through Stick’s eyes. He thinks every family has rules the way his family has rules. He thinks the abuse is absolutely normal, and is how problems are dealt with in families. But when you read his voice, and you get inside his head, you know that everything this kid is going through is wrong, and you’re aching for him, and you’re yelling at some of the other characters: “OPEN YOUR EYES! BAD THINGS ARE HAPPENING TO THIS KID!” And it’s weird that they don’t see it, but you know that that is how it goes. Abuse often goes unnoticed by people’s immediate surroundings, and it’s hard to see the positive side of things, because you KNOW that what Bosten, Stick’s older brother, says is true: “things don’t make people the way they are…they just are.”

And that’s the second thing that makes Andrew Smith different from a lot of other contemporary YA writers: his willingness to take his readers to places they are not comfortable with. [i] And I’m not talking about “teens having sex” or “teens drinking” and other normal teen behavior that stupid grown-ups who don’t actually read the books often object to. I’m talking about a discussion of inherent (a)moral human behavior, a hot pickle if ever there was one. I can think of 2 other YA writers who are as uncompromising in their attitude towards moral ambiguity as Andrew Smith, Adam Rapp and Rick Yancey, coincidentally also two writers who people (mostly people who hardly read any YA) often almost accuse of not writing real YA. Sigh. Smith doesn’t really elaborate on why the parents are abusive, or how it came about, but Bosten obviously sums it up: “things don’t make people the way they are…they just are.” And in The Marbury Lens Smith does offer us a deeper insight into how people get screwed up, of course, and it’s actually interesting to ask the question: what will Stick grow up to be like? And Bosten?  Will things just … be for them?

The cat owes A.S. King lots and lots! If it hadn’t been for her, I’d never even have heard of Andrew Smith. So thanks, Amy!  Andrew Smith now belongs on the cat’s list[ii]: I’ll read anything these people publish!

[i] It’s also why the ending came a bit too soon (or too late, depending on how you look at it), because I didn’t quite buy into how fast Bosten did what he did at the end, and also the way the actual ending was a bit too sweet… Silver linings are good. Stick and Bosten deserve and needed a silver lining, but I would have liked it not to be that ‘quick’… this was a rushed ending.

[ii] Adam Rapp, A.S. King, Barry Lyga, John Green, Sarah Dessen. I might also throw in M.T. Anderson and Gregory Galloway.

33 Snowfish (by Adam Rapp)

20 03 2013

33SnowfishAfter having read 3 Adam Rapp YA novels, so far there are a couple of constants. Thematically, violence and abuse are always key elements in his novels. Stylistically, on the other hand, Rapp is almost Faulknerian in his insistence on voice.

In an almost naturalistic way Rapp shows the influence one’s social conditions and environment have on the human character. And when one grows up in a highly violent environment, violence invariably begets violence. However, it must be made clear that there is absolutely no gratuity to the violence you encounter in 33 Snowfish. Boobie, Custis and Curl behave in a way that appears incredibly crude and cruel, and it really is, but it’s not violence in the “Fuck you, you fucking fuck” Joe Pesci kind of way. These kids behave the way they behave because they have had to grown up in situations that are so tough, so completely caught off from any form of human decency, a world in which violence, brutality and abuse are the norm rather than the exception. In a 2000 interview with Adam Rapp, Ann Angel aptly describes Rapp’s characters as “naively innocent adolescents caught in violent and emotionally isolated places”. The fact that someone like Custis – a 10-year-old! – is almost “naively violent”, in his acts as well as in his use of language, is what makes a lot of what happens to him so tragic: he’s never known anything else.  In that same interview Rapp says: “I am not interested in romanticizing or sensationalizing violence. I am interested in honoring what I know to be true.”

In the end though, especially Custis’s behavior is just that: the way he behaves. And it is a triumph of the resiliency of the human mind and spirit that he can get to a point where redemption seems possible after all that he has seen and done. However, we don’t need to be naïve or mistaken, either. Kids like Custis don’t all make it. Custis is boy who escaped from his pedophile kidnapper. Boobie is an arsonist who probably also killed his parents in his latest act, after which he just takes his baby brother to sell on the streets.  Curl is a 15-year-old drug addicted prostitute. There’s no way all three can beat the odds and Boobie and Curl’s stories show us the other options, both of which are as realistic as Custis’s chance at salvation is.

Style-wise, 33 Snowfish is not all that different from The Children and the Wolves (in which you also get three voices) or Punkzilla. In 33 Snowfish we get Custis (whose narrative dominates the novel), Curl and Boobie (whose voice consists of drawings only, drawings that are as basic and nihilistic as Boobie’s own acts and intentions). Language and voice are ways for Rapp to explore the world of his characters and both almost create the story. Stream-of-consciousness is then the almost logical narrative device to carry a character’s voice, giving the novel a certain cadence and musicality that is almost unique in YA literature today. It should come as no surprise that Rapp refers to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in the motto of 33 Snowfish. Like Faulkner, Rapp seems to believe that a true exploration and evocation of a character’s situation can only be done from the inside, not from a detached impersonal point of view (as could be equally tempting considering the subject matter). We get as close to Custis, Curl and Boobie as narratively possible, which is why in the end – despite the horrible things that these characters do and say – a reader can “sympathize” with them. Not pitying them or feeling sorry for them, though, but understanding them and thinking and feeling with them. Custis, for instance, is never guilty of self-pity (so the reader shouldn’t be either), but he acts and reacts in accordance to what he encounters in life, and as it just happens, what he encounters in life is painful, cruel, even nauseating.

In another interview way back in 2000, Adam Rapp claims to “admire Cormac McCarthy’s phenomenal gift of language”, but she shouldn’t be worried. He’s blessed plenty with that gift himself. As for the cat, I think I’m ready to read that Faulkner book again now.

The 12 of 2012!

22 12 2012

Here are the books that rocked the socks off of the cat this year. Books with a * were also published in 2012. After making this list, it’s striking that genre fiction didn’t really make the cut this year. After careful deliberation, Insurgent, for instance, didn’t make the 12 of 2012-list. Libba Bray’s The Diviners also just didn’t make the list. Just goes to show that the cat’s heart is where the realistic fiction is.


In alphabetical order (by author’s last name) because that’s just the way it is. The cat could probably separate the first 5 from numbers 6-12, but what’s the point really?

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Most honorable mentions:

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