Monday, June 04, 2007

Side by Side by Sonnenblick

Oh the joys of funny, funny novels. I recently read two of them, by the same guy even -- Jordan Sonnenblick, (former?) middle school teacher and novelist extraordinaire. (Jordan was on sabbatical lately, and I'm not sure whether he's back to teaching or no.)

Of course my title is a bit misleading, as I can't figure out how to post the book reviews next to one another, so they'll be more like "One After the Other by Sonnenblick". Only you can see how that title's not quite as catchy. Nor does it reference musicals. And with all the music inside Jordan's books, I wanted music up there, even if that coinkydink didn't occur to me until this morning, after I'd already decided on the post's title two days ago.

Both of Jordan's books are extremely funny books about serious topics. His first novel, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie examines the life of an eight-grader whose entire life is thrown into chaos when his younger brother gets leukemia. The second, Notes from the Midnight Driver, brings us a year in the life of a sophomore whose life is thrown into chaos after he decides to drive while intoxicated -- and underage -- and then lands himself in a probationary stint with an irascible old man who is dying of emphysema.

First up? Jordan's more recent novel, Notes from the Midnight Driver, the cover of which features a mischievous looking garden gnome.

Notes from the Midnight Driver is the story of almost a year in the life sixteen-year old Alex Gregory. The book opens with three paragraphs from May, then flashes back to September, coming forward through May to the end of the school year. Ordinarily, that is a thing I despise, but in the case of this book, I totally understood the decision. Because the three paragraphs from May let you know that the main character is sitting in a hospital near someone who is dying. (Really and truly -- this is not a spoiler. It's the first page of the book.)

If you didn't know that, you might not care about the first real chapter, a hilarious romp through the world of underage drunk driving. And no, I'm not kidding. You get the benefit of living with Alex as he makes disastrous decisions (vodka, swiping his mother's car, plowing down a neighbor's lawn gnome, arrest, vomit, well . . . you get the picture). On the one hand, it's funny, because the MC you're hearing from is drunk and finds it all funny. On the other, it's an excellent cautionary tale about drinking and driving, with possible consequences (killing an actual person) front and center.

But if you just launched into the first chapter, in which Alex is already impaired and making patently bad decisions, you might think he lacked substance and moral fiber. But the flashback from May makes it seem like perhaps he's got a little bit of depth to him, and is worth sticking with. And you'd be right.

Alex is a typical teenage kid, willing to make excuses for any and all behavior. Lots of excuses. It's not his fault he decapitated the lawn gnome -- it's his parents' fault for getting a divorce; it's his mother's fault for leaving the house, which contained both vodka and car keys; it's his father's fault because Alex was off to yell at his dad when he damaged the neighbor's lawn; it's his friend's fault for not being available to hang out with him. (Sonnenblick has said that this particular idea -- of a person set on making excuses -- came to him after he asked a class to write letters of apology and almost every kid turned in a letter full of excuses.)

Early on in the book, Alex is sentenced to quite a bit of community service, for which he is to be paid, but all the pay has to go to compensate the neighbor for her expensive garden gnome. Alex's mother assigns Alex to hang out with Sol Lewis, an elderly Jewish man dying of emphysema. Sol's gruffness and use of mildly abusive Yiddish bothers Alex for quite a while, but eventually they establish a rapport. And when Alex brings his jazz guitar along, things get interesting, and we begin to learn more about the difficult Mr. Lewis, and his own guitar-playing past. And, like Alex, we learn to care about him. Which is (again) why that opening page was so important. Because it doesn't take long to figure out who's going to die, and that knowledge shades the reading of the entire book -- even the funniest passages are seen through that prism.

And there are a lot of funny passages, because Sol is a funny alte kacker (we'll go with the more polite "old fart" as its meaning), and a truly colorful character. Also, Alex's relationship with his friend Laurie is good and funny, because Alex has started to notice that she's, well, y'know, a girl, but isn't sure that she's noticed he's a boy. In that way. And really? The letters between Alex and the judge who sentenced him to community service are pretty entertaining as well.

Also good about this book? We get to see two characters from Sonnenblick's first book, Steven and Annette, whom Alex calls "the ka-CHINGS" because of how in sync they are. And it's nice to know that Steven and Annette are doing alright, to say nothing of the update on the health of Steven's brother, Jeffrey.

Which brings me to the next book, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie. Since I own the paperback, that's the cover I'm showing you:

Steven, a drum-obsessed eighth-grader, has a much-coveted (among music kinds) spot in the All-City Jazz Band, a crush on the hot girl in school, and an annoying six year-old brother named Jeffrey who idolizes Steven. When Jeffrey falls off the kitchen stool one morning and gets a bloody nose that requires medical attention, the family learns that Jeffrey has a particularly insidious type of leukemia.

Within what seems like only minutes, Steven's schoolteacher mother has taken a leave of absence and taken Jeffrey to a Children's Hospital hours away, while Steven and his dad are left home alone to cope. Only Steven's dad's method of coping involves spending more time at his accounting job, and so, in the end, Steven is basically left home alone, and is kept out of the loop, unaware of the medical horrors his younger brother is facing.

Steven copes with his stress by spending more and more time drumming, and less and less time doing homework or anything else. The story really truly takes flight when the school counselor intervenes with a useful piece of advice: "Instead of agonizing about the things you can't change, why don't you try working on the things you can change?" From then on, Steven starts to make decisions . . . he becomes active instead of passive, just the way that Alex (the Midnight Driver), does. Which includes him making up his homework, looking for ways to save money in order to help the family afford the devastating medical bills Jeffrey incurs, standing by Jeffrey, and making new friends at school.

And even though the topics are serious, and even though there are parts that will make you cry, overall this is still a funny book -- one where you'll find yourself rooting for Steven and for Jeffrey. One of those great books where all the characters are nice and round, even the hot cheerleader. No wonder Frank McCourt gave it such an excellent blurb. (And yes, McCourt was Sonnenblick's high school English teacher -- which explains HOW Sonnenblick got the blurb, but not the wonderful content of that blurb.)

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