Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Just Read: Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs...

This is an odd McSweeney's Young Adult anthology, designed as a fund-raiser for their non-profit tutoring center in NYC. The full title is Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren't as Scary, Maybe, Depending on How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn't Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out. The book is edited by Ted Thompson with Eli Horowitz, who are only credited inside the book.

No book could possibly live up to that title, and this one falls several miles short. I admit that I'm not the target audience, but I found most of it bland and uninspiring. The best story in it is Kelly Link's "Monster," which is a good story but not a particularly good Kelly Link story.

There's also something old-fashioned-feeling about this anthology; two of the eleven stories are reprints from my childhood (and, I suspect, the childhood of the editors), and those aren't particularly strong, either. The stories don't quite talk down to the reader, exactly, but they all seem to be framed as "stories for young people" in ways that don't help the book. It's quite possible that my tastes in YA fiction (which run strongly towards Daniel Pinkwater and Jonathan Stroud's current, brilliant "Bartimaeus Trilogy") are at odds with those of the editors, and so I was looking for a different book from the one they edited, but this felt stodgier to me than it seemed to want to be.

Actually, the best thing in the book is Lemony Snicket's introduction, which is a sly deconstruction of old childrens' story ideas, and which sets up expectations the rest of the book can't live up to. If the stories were more like the introduction, this would have been a great book.

The first story is "Small Country," by Nick Hornby, a tale about a boy who learns community spirit and soccer in the smallest (fictional) country in Europe. It's not quite heartwarming, but I got the uneasy feeling it really was trying to be. I've liked all of the Hornby books I've read (all but his most recent novel), and this was pleasant to read, but it's a bit of a jar coming right after the Snicket intro.

Next is "Lars Farf, Excessively Fearful Father and Husband," from George Saunders. It is, I fear, a Parable For Our Times. It's done reasonably well, but it's not a thing that really should have been done. Especially for a young audience, who might not realize just how creaky the idea is. I also have a lurking suspicion that it's all supposed to be a cleverly worked-out metaphor for The War in Iraq, or The Struggle Against Terrorism, or something like that.

"Mother" is next, which I've already mentioned. Link's prose is strangely subdued here, and she uses the characters full names a lot; it felt like she thought she needed to do that, for this audience. Again, the story is good, but not as good as it could have been; I got the feeling that if she had written this for an adult market, it could have been an award contender.

"The Contests at Cowlick," by Richard Kennedy, is one of the reprints; it originally appeared in 1975. It felt very familiar to me, and I expect many adults reading this book will also recognize it.

"Each Sold Separately" is some kind of very short metafiction from Jon Scieszka, who has written a number of really excellent stories for kids. This, I'm sorry to say, is not one of them; it's obvious and labored.

"Seymour's Last Wish" by Sam Swope is yet another Three Wishes story, and doesn't ring any particularly interesting changes on the theme. It's not obviously derivative of anything, but it is yet another in a long line of stories like this. The moral is also very old-fashioned; our hero just wants his mother to love him.

"Grimble" by Clement Freud is the second reprint, which originally appeared in 1968 (as its own book, I think). It's a bit long, meandering, and pointless, as a ten-year-old boy in England lives through a week in which his parents are in Peru, and sort-of learns to cook. That's about it, really.

"Spoony-E & Spandy-3 vs. The Purple Hordes" is a ten-page comic by James Kochalka, about whom I've heard good things. Perhaps he was having an off day; this is a pointless fight scene.

"Sunbird" by Neil Gaiman is one of the better stories in the anthology. I didn't love it, but it gets where it needs to go economically, and is a pleasant ride along the way.

"The ACES Phone" by Jeanne DuPrau is an animal story, so I'm not really qualified to comment on it. I'm not terribly interested in animals, and tend to stand there blankly while other people tell me about the exploits of Snooky-Wookums or how terribly cute Gunther the Wonder Pup is. People who like animals would probably find this story tremendously uplifting and wonderful; I found it short and acceptable.

And ending the collection is "The Sixth Borough" by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is apparently an excerpt from his novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I've got a copy of Extremely Loud, and I'm sorry to say this not-quite-a-story about an extra island just west of Manhattan didn't really connect with me or make me want to read the novel. It's written in a magic realist kind of style, which I usually like, but it just didn't work for me.

Final note: Yes, I did finish the Vowell book this morning (on my bus ride in) and then read this whole book today. (It's really not very long at all.) I've now spent about half as much time writing about it as I did reading it, which is a weird ratio. It's not at all the book I thought it would be -- that doesn't make it a bad book, of course, but Snicket's introduction promises one thing, and the book itself delivers the opposite.

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