As you've probably already learned from Kelly and Liz, the three of us are giving Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War a close look this week. If you've read it, I'm guessing that even if you're hazy on the details of the plotting and the characters and the structure, you can still tap into your emotional reaction to it. It's been well over ten years since I read it last, and I know I can.
It blew my mind when I read it as a teenager, it blew my mind when I read it in my 20s, and I fully expect it to blow my mind again now. It's a brutal story—emotionally, philosophically, physically—and Cormier doesn't pull any punches or offer any platitudes. Life isn't fair, bad things happen to those who don't deserve it, justice isn't always served, and people can be broken.
And yet, despite where the story leaves him, there's something inspiring in Jerry Renault's attempt to matter, to find meaning, to disturb the universe. If you're interested in YA, and you haven't read it, you really ought to—Cormier is a cornerstone, and without him, we wouldn't have authors like Chris Crutcher or Chris Lynch—and if you have read it, but it was years and years ago, I'd say that this would be the perfect time to pick it up again.
So, without further ado, here I go, back into The Chocolate War.
Chapter One: Introducing Jerry Renault
First line: "They murdered him." In this scene, it's in the context of football, but of course, it's also some HEAVY DUTY MEGAZORD FORESHADOWING. Um, spoiler, I guess? Oh, wait, it originally came out in 1974. A twenty-year statute of limitations on spoilers is more than fair, I think. Jerry's response to getting nailed again and again in practice—to get up and keep going, almost despite himself, like his force of will is stronger than his logic—is, of course, also HEAVY DUTY MEGAZORD FORESHADOWING.
Cormier's description is killer: "A telephone rang in his ears. Hello, hello, I'm still here. When he moved his lips, he tasted the acid of dirt and grass and gravel. He was aware of the other players around him, helmeted and grotesque, creatures from an unknown world. He had never felt so lonely in his life, abandoned, defenseless."
In less than four pages, we get a strong impression of Jerry's personality and state of mind, a bit about his mother's recent death and a bit about what he's searching for without really being aware that he's searching. And Cormier does it all without overt exposition.
Also, there's the first of many references to masturbation—because, HELLO, high school freshman—which is one of the various reasons that this book still gets challenged again and again.
Chapter Two: Introducing Archie Costello and Obie
And now we shift to Obie, the mixed-feelings-having right-hand man of the school's resident sociopath, Archie. Archie is smart and charismatic and controlling and devious, and while sometimes I wholeheartedly appreciate characters like that, he's one who makes my skin crawl.
Archie's coming up with assignments for The Vigils, and while they aren't overtly explained—the assignments or The Vigils, another example of Cormier's avoidance of the infodump—it's pretty clear that The Vigils is some sort of underground student gang, and that whoever the assignees are, well, they've probably got some ugly days ahead of them.
Jerry Renault is the last boy that Archie puts on his list—along with the word chocolates—and he includes him in good part because of his mother's recent death. Which kind of says it all about Archie.
What else? Ah. The setting: a Catholic school is called Trinity.
Challenge fodder: Lord's name in vain, etc., etc.
Chapter Three: Jerry has a run-in with a hippie
Three days later, Jerry gets accosted by a jerk of a hippie—They really say man, Jerry thought. He didn't think anyone said man anymore except as a joke. But this guy wasn't joking.—and even though he's fully aware that the hippie is a jerk, what the hippie says—that Jerry is sleepwalking through life, just going through the motions rather than actually living—resonates.
This bit really got me, just because it's such a perfect encapsulation of where Jerry's at:
Why? someone had scrawled in a blank space no advertiser had rented.
Why not? someone else had slashed in answer.
Jerry closed his eyes, exhausted suddenly, and it seemed like too much of an effort even to think.
Chapter Four: Introducing Brother Leon and the chocolate sale
Back to Archie, who has just had a major realization: "Archie became absolutely still, afraid that the rapid beating of his heart might betray his sudden knowledge, the proof of what he'd always suspected, not only of Brother Leon but most grownups, most adults: they were vulnerable, running scared, open to invasion."
While I'm on the subject of Brother Leon: what a bastard. On the surface, he's just as horrible as Archie, but I think he's even worse because A) he's an adult, and B) while Archie does what he does because it's in his nature, Brother Leon does what he does because he's nasty and grasping and hateful and mean. I have such incredibly strong negative feelings about him that Archie almost looks good by comparison. ALMOST.
Long story short: while the Head is in the hospital, Brother Leon will be the interim head of Trinity. The annual chocolate sale is coming up, and he bought a ton of cut-rate boxes—twenty thousand of them instead of the usual ten—in the hopes of making double the money twice over. Brother Leon wants the Vigils to ensure that the sale is successful, but he can't come out and say anything about them, because obviously the school can't acknowledge their existence. Some cat-and-mousing goes on—the balance of power tips back-and-forth a couple of times—and it's a wonderfully tense scene.
Chapter Five: Introducing The Goober and the Room 19 assignment
Enter the Goober: Despite his height, he was easily six-one, he reminded Archie of a child, someone who didn't belong here, as if he'd been caught sneaking into an Adults Only movie. He was too skinny, of course. And he had the look of a loser. Vigil bait.
As the Assigner, Archie isn't technically the head of the Vigils—the President is Carter, a bruiser of a football player—but everyone (including Carter) knows that the Assigner is the true leader and the President is merely an enforcer.
Goober gets his assignment: he has to go to Brother Eugene's homeroom and loosen every single screw in the room. Every desk, every chair, the blackboard, everything. On the surface, that doesn't sound so bad—it'll take a long time, and it'll be a lot of work, but beyond that it seems tame—but as I know where the story goes, reading this chapter made me feel ill.
LOVE THIS. The Vigils have a fail-safe to keep the Assigner from going too bananas with his assignments: every time he gives one, there is a 1 in 6 chance that he'll have to carry it out, rather than his intended victim.
I can't help it. I know I shouldn't, because SHE IS SUCH AN ASS.
But I love her BECAUSE she's such an ass.
So, when I found out about The Bad Miss Bennet, a novel STARRING Lydia, obviously I HAD TO READ IT.
It's set three years after Pride and Prejudice, and a few months after Lydia's husband, George Wickham, died at at battle of Quartre Bras. Not due to any dashing act of heroism—that would have been totally out of character—but because he got thrown and then trampled by his own horse. Which seemed fitting*.
So, now Lydia is stuck living with boring Lizzie and pompous Mr. Darcy and, worst of all, the insufferable Miss Georgiana. After three years of relative freedom—Wickham wasn't a particularly good husband, but he wasn't particularly concerned with his wife's habit of flouting social conventions, either—staid life as an impoverished relation at Pemberley chafes.
Also, mourning is a HUGE DRAG. Black is just NOT. HER. COLOR.
So, the moment that opportunity strikes, Lydia heads out on her own, determined to live life on her own terms.
Sadly, The Bad Miss Bennet did not live up to my expectations. It was extremely scattered, in that it didn't seem to know if it wanted to be a sex romp or a mystery or a romance: it had elements of all three, but never settled on one long enough to dig in, so the plotting wasn't particularly strong. The story would meander in one direction for a while, and then it felt like the author just... got bored, switched gears, and meandered in another direction for a while, and then got bored again. And the end of the story felt the same way, just: BORED NOW, THE END.
Which, to be (possibly excessively) blunt, was pretty much my attitude by the time I hit the halfway mark.
So, the plotting didn't do anything for me. But what about the voice, right? I mean, if ANY of the non-Lizzie Bennet sisters ought to have a strong (if asinine) voice, it's Lydia. Not so here. She's got a few super lines, but overall, it certainly wasn't strong enough to carry the entire book.
Characterization? There's no growth whatsoever, and while that made sense in the context of the original text—everything got fixed for Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, so while she had the opportunity to learn lessons, she was never forced to—I found it hard to believe that she wouldn't have matured at all during her three years of marriage, and especially hard to believe that she wouldn't mature at all over the course of her independent adventures. Basically, she started the story as a caricature, and she ended the story as a caricature, and while that can make for a hugely entertaining secondary character, it doesn't work so well in a heroine.
Finn, a member of the especially brutal Comitatus, woke up three years ago with no memory of his past. Some of his fellow prisoners believe that Finn is 'cell-born', a child of Incarceron, created by Incarceron, while others believe he is simply half-mad. What he believes is quite different: He believes he came from Outside. Though no one has left Incarceron in over a century (except one legendary man), Finn believes his flashbacks of a life Before, his knowledge of things he could never have known or experienced Inside, could have come from nowhere but Outside.
On the Outside is Claudia. The Warden's daughter, she has been raised to be the next Queen. She lives in a world forced to adhere to the traditions, culture and technology of 17th-century life. Finn's world is brutally violent, and Claudia's world is no less so -- it's just less obvious. Violence, political machinations, blackmail and assassinations are hidden behind complex and formal etiquette. Within Incarceron, there are fights to the death. Outside, there are dangerous secret alliances, a secret society, even a secret religion.
I finally, finally read Sapphique a little while back... I should probably write about it, eh?
Today is my sister's birthday as well, actually, but as I've never covered Beezus and Ramona* here, instead, I'll simply point you back to my post about John Scalzi's Zoe's Tale:
A lot of the SF I've read has felt like it held me at arm's length. Distance like that prevents me from ever fully connecting with a story or the characters in it. This one felt so real and so close that it was almost like Zoe was in the room with me. She made me cry. Like, three times. She also made me laugh out loud while I was crying.
And now I am reminded that I really need to read more of his books, as I enjoyed that one so very much.
Relatedly, I am now suddenly tempted to go up to the attic and dig through my boxes of books to find my Beverly Cleary.
*She is SO VERY, VERY Ramona, and I am SO VERY, VERY Beezus.
“Ansel is whip-smart and uber-charismatic and everything I dreamed for Augustus Waters,” John Green tells EW in an exclusive statement. “I am by nature a cautious pessimist, but I’ll just say it: Now that we have Shailene and Ansel, I am completely, unreservedly psyched about this movie.”
I used to post about older books a lot more. Somewhere along the way, though, in an effort to keep up with the never-ending supply of review copies and new books at the library (and new books that I buy), that except for the rare special series, I've gotten away from that.
So, for the foreseeable future, I'm going to start covering older titles on Fridays.
I've been a huge fan of this series from day one, and it recently occurred to me that I've never actually posted about the very first book, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging: SO HERE I AM, POSTING ABOUT MY LURRRVE FOR IT*. Just so you know, there will be lots of quotage in this post, as A) I find it impossible to pick this book up without sharing** and B) it's Georgia's voice that makes it so wonderfully funny.
Fourteen-year-old Georgia Nicolson has a whole list of problems:
(1) I have one of those under-the-skin spots that will never come to a head but lurk in a red way for the next two years.
(2) It is on my nose.
(3) I have a three-year-old sister who may have peed somewhere in my room.
(4) In fourteen days the summer hols will be over and then it will be back to Stalag 14 and Oberführer Frau Simpson and her bunch of sadistic "teachers."
(5) I am very ugly and need to go into an ugly home.
(6) I went to a party dressed as a stuffed olive.
And that's all BEFORE she meets Robbie, AKA the Sex God.
If you step back and look at her critically, Georgia is pretty terrible. She's self-absorbed and vain; selfish, petty, and a mostly-awful friend. BUT. She's also a totally believable depiction of an extremely confused ("See you later?" What does that mean?), boy-crazy girl who's in that My Parents Are So Old And Uncool And Impossibly Dumb stage. This is her diary, where she can be as awful as she wants with no repercussions, and she's cheerfully raunchy and laugh-out-loud hilarious, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. She's also got a real gift for describing everyday embarrassments (being late to school, getting all red and sweaty running there, running into a hot boy) and making them seem EPIC and HORRIFIC and channelling her embarrassment so that you feel it, too. (Even as you're laughing.)
Also, despite her utter disinterest in school, she's a clever, witty girl! Her invented slang is a complete joy and totally contagious (I still use it on a daily basis), she's a reader (lots of Cosmo, yes, but she also mentions reading books on a regular basis), and she's prone to making terrible jokes along these lines:
The Peter started nuzzling my neck and I thought, Oh, we haven't done necks before, he's branching out a bit, and then I nearly choked to death trying not to laugh (up against a tree . . . branching out, do you get it?) . . . but I stopped myself. You have to keep reminding yourself about boys not liking a laugh.
As much as she tries to act with dignitosity and maturinosity, her exuberance and humor are both irrepressible, and as beastly as she can be to her parents, it's ALWAYS clear that she adores her (smelly) younger sister. While some of the cultural references are a bit dated—Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, Sharon Stone, payphones—fourteen years later, the emotional aspects of Georgia's trials and tribulations still ring true.
*Apologies for being so caps-happy lately, btdubs. I think spring is making me EVEN MORE textually enthusiastic than usual.
**Think I'm exaggerating? Just ask Josh. If given a test on these books, he'd totally ace it despite never actually reading one.