Monday, May 3, 2010

Tales of the Madman Underground

I've been going back to the local public library since they laid on (opposite of laid off?) my friend who worked there and began buying new books again. Last time I was there, my friend handed me a new YA book that hadn't even made it to the shelf yet, Tales of the Madman Underground, by John Barnes.

It was an interesting but ultimately disappointing book; it reminded me a lot of Whale Talk in that it was about a teenage boy learning to be tough and make it on his own. This boy, whose name is Karl but who is sometimes called "Psycho," is making it on his own because he's afraid that if he tells anyone how out of control his life is, he'll be taken away from his remaining living parent, his mother.

Tales of the Madman Underground is set in 1973, which I think decreases its appeal to the young adult audience. It's designed to appeal to readers, though, starting from Karl's introduction as a terribly sensitive fourth-grader:
"Mrs. Daggett was reading us "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," the part right before the end when the paper doll blows into the fire. I started to cry because I knew we were coming up on the part where they would find the tin heart in the ashes, and just knowing that was coming was too much for me."

It will also appeal to readers who live in small-town Ohio (although not those who used to live there and now feel nostalgic about it):
"Philbin was about as nice a shop owner as you're going to find in a little Ohio town--nicer, actually, most of them are fat hollering self-satisfied flag-waving assholes for Jesus, not to mention their bad qualities."

One of the best things about this book is the dialogue, especially between Karl and his friends, the other kids who have to go to school-sponsored therapy and call themselves the madman underground:

A car horn honked. When I looked up, it was Marti. She rolled down her window and said, "Hey, little boy. Wanna come for a ride in my car? I have candy!"
There's a rule or something that if a girl can crack you up, you have to do what she says. As soon as I had closed the door, Marti said, "I just wanted to say I'm sorry about blowing up at you last night. I mean, no wonder I've never had any friends, hunh?"
"You're pretty cool," I said.
"Really cool, or just cool for a titless genius?"
"I told you before those assholes meant for you to hear that."
"You know, when someone hurts my feelings, somehow it does not comfort me to know that it was deliberate." She went around a corner with a squeal of tires. "On the other hand, knowing that someone else thinks they are assholes helps a great deal."
"I think that's some kind of rule for the universe."

The other good--albeit discouraging--thing about this book is the way the passages in which Karl has to deal with school still ring true:
"'So,' Gratz said, 'you're going to defend calling one of the greatest books in American literature a story about a couple of queers on a raft.'
That was the third time I'd heard that phrase. Any time I was asked about Leslie Fiedler, obviously, I was supposed to say that he was the professor who had called Huckleberry Finn a story about a couple of queers on a raft. One thing about school, no matter how important or crazy or upsetting things are, there's always something trivial you should be thinking about instead."
My kids enthusiastically agreed with that description of a small-town Ohio high school.

And I was amused at this portrait of an English professor in 1973:
"He had on a Greek fisherman's cap....His corduroy jacket (with elbow patches and big lapels) matched his corduroy pants (with big cuffs). He had hair the color of Saturday night bathwater in a big family, all curly and fro'd up to hide its thinness, a big droopy mustache, and huge puppy dog eyes. He looked like an English professor that wanted to be a folksinger, which is to say, a dork who wanted to be a bigger dork."

Despite all these good things, though, the plot ended up seeming dated. Finally some adults notice the trouble Karl has keeping his life together with an alcoholic mother who locks him out of the house and steals the money he makes working five jobs. Finally his friends learn to stand up for themselves and each other.

The main thing I will take away from reading this book was remembering the effect it had on me when elementary-school teachers read books out loud. I loved--and still love--a book entitled Johnny Tremaine simply because it was read out loud to my class every day after lunch. Do you remember one book like that--one that you might not have loved if you'd discovered it on your own, but which you loved because it was read out loud to you by a teacher?


Jenny said...

This book Lizard Music, by Daniel (I think) Pinkerton. My fourth-grade teacher read it to us, and it's one of the weirdest damn books I've ever read. I doubt I'd have liked it at all if I'd read it on my own. But I have such good memories of her reading it to us, at the end of the day. This one time, when my bus was late, and I was the only one left in the classroom, she read me a chapter ahead. So thrilling! :P

Betty (Beth) said...

My sixth grade science teacher (she must have done this in home room I think) read us a book about a teenager stuck in his car (leg was stuck or broke I think) after a bad wreck. I have no clue what the book was called, but I remember being so completely absorbed in the story and I know I would never otherwise have looked at it. Wish I could remember the title...

Harriet said...

My third grade teacher read out loud to us every day and she was wonderful. The book I fell in love with there was Scott O'Dell's *Island of the Blue Dolphins*. I could hardly stand to wait for each installment. I had the immense pleasure of recommending it to a third grader who came into the library a few weeks ago. Now if only they'd let me read out loud.

Betty (Beth) said...

A little detective work on my part shows that my book was Trapped! by Arthur Roth. I might have to pick up a used copy. :-)

Anonymous said...

Mr Popper's Penguins -- read aloud in either first or second grade and then NOT FINISHED before school let out. I didn't have the wherewithal to get it myself from the library, so never got to the end until I read it to my kids. It wasn't as great at its initial premise. But still okay.

lemming said...

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing in Fifth grade. The teacher made it fun and interactive, and knew when to laugh at himself.

FreshHell said...

That book was reviewed in our paper recently but it didn't sound like anything I'd like and too mature for Dusty right now.

I remember my 2nd and 3rd grader reading to us - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was one, and other Dahl books but I was a voracious reader and I don't remember her reading us anything I wouldn't have read myself.

My dad read The Hobbit and the first LOTR book but I never picked them up again. He started Bambie which I ended up reading to Dusty a few years ago. That was so beautifully written, I almost cried.

Ron Griggs said...

Johnny Tremain, The Cricket in Times Square, Charlotte's Web, Call it Courage, and My Side of the Mountain. But I was the sort of kid such that--after a couple of chapters--I went off to the library and finished them myself. It didn't spoil my pleasure of hearing them aloud, though.

PAJ said...

Most if not all of my grade school teachers read books aloud in installments. I remember Mary Poppins, a favorite of mine, but think I had read it before having it read aloud to me. (Like Ron, I found that did not detract from the listening experience.)
My first "reading teacher" was my older-by-5-years sister, who was born with a flair for drama. She read aloud to me often, and when she discovered Sherlock Holmes, she shared every store with me. The moor has never been more frightening or the detective more clever than in her presentations. I still love mystery stories and currently feed my lifelong Holmes addiction with the Mary Russell books. (I repaid my sister's kindness by introducing her to that particular series a few years ago. If only it were still convenient for her to read aloud to me nightly!)

Trapunto said...

It sounds like this was good on the micro but not so good on the macro? All the passages you quoted made it sound really funny, actually.

I love Johnny Tremain! The last time I read it, I was reading it aloud to my younger siblings.

I had forgotten until readersguide mentioned it, but I heard Mr Poppers penguins in school, too. My third grade teacher read non-stop Hardy Boys. I never wanted to read them myself afterward, but I enjoyed them intensely at the time. Thinking back, she had incredible stamina; it feels like she read literally for *hours,* while we were doing our other work.

Jeanne said...

That's a somewhat wider selection of fiction than I might have guessed! It's interesting to hear what different teachers pick for different ages. The Hardy Boys strikes me as somewhat unambitious, but if she read a lot, oh well. And Sherlock Holmes strikes me as pretty ambitious! Also--Bambi is beautifully written? That really does matter when you're reading out loud. So does whether the book has pictures--I'd think Mr. Popper's Penguins is awfully easy for most elementary students, and the teacher would have to master that pre-school teacher/children's librarian art of reading and turning the pictures towards the audience at the same time.

Trapunto, that's just the way to put it--the bits I quote are the best bits. It's a pretty long book, especially for a YA title.

Liviania said...

I didn't think this one felt dated, speaking as someone born in 1989. I truly love this book - I champion it every chance I get.

I loved hearing my third grade teacher read aloud, but she read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Great Glass Elevator, both of which I'd read as a huge Dahl fan. But she did affect the way I read aloud.

Anonymous said...

@Freshhell - I am guessing that you meant "Fourth Grade Nothing" - is would actually be appropriate for your brood, IMHO. There's the typical "older siblings are bossy/ younger siblings are annoying" but done well, and a suitable bit of trying t find one's own identity. One of a very few books that has stood up for me over the generations.


Jeanne said...

Liviania, You might like Whale Talk, too, then.