The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker.

A little fact about me: I like the end of the world. Always have. It’s not exactly something I’m looking forward to, per se — no zombie attack cardio training here — but I appreciate the apocalypse in fiction. It’s an excellent backdrop for drama, which isn’t to say that end-of-the-world stories are always well-written. When they are though, they can be the stuff of truly awesome nightmares, a pretty high compliment from me.

Another little tidbit of Nayiri info: one of my favorite kind of stories to read is the coming-of-age tale. Regardless of whether it’s a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird, a “modern” classic à la Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, an instantly-influential novel like The Secret History, a super-trendy title like The Perks of Being a Wallflower… I love them all. The idea of capturing a very specific time in which a character experiences a major chance that influences the rest of his or her life is fascinating to me, and when those stories are successful, it’s heartbreaking and heart-bursting to read.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Walker Thompson -- 10thirtyThe thing is, Karen Thompson Walker‘s much-hyped debut novel The Age of Miracles is neither here nor there, in terms of success. There are some surprisingly lovely moments, a great amount of creativity, and a whole boatload of schmaltz.*

First, the synopsis: one morning, the world’s rotation inexplicably slows, and eleven-year-old Julia narrates what should be a tumultuous time. Both the days and nights grow longer, quickly reshaping civilization’s reliance on a twenty-four-hour day — “We would fall out of sync with the sun almost immediately. Light would be unhooked from day, darkness unchained from night.” In spite of this, the beginning of a new era, Julia admits a truth: “But no force on earth could slow the forward march of sixth grade.” So we learn of friendships’ end, training bras, crushes on boys. We remember that youth can be lonely, that parents can disappoint, that feeling included can be everything. We experience all this as birds fall from the sky, neighbors grow sick, scientists speculate the cause of “the slowing,” and food sources diminish. It’s not that Julia — sensitive, observant, intelligent Julia! — doesn’t care or isn’t aware of the changes in the world, it’s more that her focus is on navigating her way through a time of dance parties and growth spurts: “Some girls were turning beautiful… I still looked like a child.”

This is what I like, what I find interesting, how a protagonist deals with and interprets something as universal as growing up against a creative and unique backdrop. I don’t need to know about the so-called science behind scorchingly-hot days and frosty nights. Julia wonders why whales are beaching themselves by the thousands on her Southern Californian shores, why it’s suddenly so hard to kick a soccer ball into a satisfactory arc, why earthquakes have begun pummel Kansas, and I do too… until Julia’s gaze turns to skateboarding Seth Moreno, object of her affection.

(An aside: Seth Moreno just may be as perfect a name as Jordan Catalano, or Marcus Flutie.)

The Age of Miracles, from the SFGate -- 10thirtyI’m all for young love and first love and, heck, love in general, but unfortunately this is where things can often get exceedingly sentimental. I’m sorry to say that Ms. Walker overindulges in mawkishness. To be fair, it takes her a while to get there, but once she gets going… watch out. There is a specific scene that I can’t discuss, primarily because Ms. Walker chooses to revisit it and use it as the finale of her closing sequence — man, oh man, if only I could talk about it. Let me say this: it reads as though it is designed specifically to cause a tightening in the audience’s chest and a tearing of their eyes. It reads as manipulative. It reads as cheap. It reads as formulaic.

What legitimately burns is that Ms. Walker is a talented writer. There are many passages that are elegant, and stunning, and magnetic. There are descriptions that cause the reader to pause and say, Oh, how fine. The trouble is there are just as many passages that cause that same reader to pause and roll her eyes and say, Oh, jeez. And because the last note Ms. Walker leaves us with is maudlin, that commercialized shade of sickly blue can’t help but color the rest of the novel.

Second photo from the SFGate.
* Don’t believe me? Check out the schmaltzy book trailer.

Atrocious + Terrifying.

I started writing about this yesterday, but found myself getting so mad that I stopped being able to form even the sort of thoughts that an amoeba would call intelligent.  When I mentioned this via email to my friend Beth, she wrote back, “Mad is good!  Get mad!”

So, people, I’m about to get mad.  To understand what I’m mad about, first you have to read this.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

To sum up, Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, just over an hour outside of Boston, is replacing their lovely-sounding collection of over twenty thousand books with the following:

  • flat-screen televisions;
  • laptop carrels;
  • electronic readers; and
  • a twelve thousand dollar cappuccino machine.

This would be a good time to try and calm me down.  No?  I’ll continue.

The administration’s argument is books are “outdated,” in the same way that once binding pages together became commonplace, scrolls soon became archaic.  They also state that the books take up too much space, and during the last school year, during a random library inspection, they found that less than fifty books out on loan to students.  Of that amount, over sixty percent of those checked out were children’s books.

In my mind, if students are mainly borrowing children’s books, it means that Cushing’s now-diminished collection must have had a spectacular range of literature geared towards those readers; in fact, the article even mentions that with the exception of “a few hundred children’s books and valuable antiquarian works”, the academy’s books had been donated to other local libraries and schools.  We all know I love a good piece of young adult fiction; you should know I adore a well-illustrated children’s tale as well — but where is mention of Cushing’s selection of relevant adolescent-centric works?  I can only assume that the library neither had nor focused on them, because I can practically guarantee you that if they had, the students would have read them.  I once convinced a book-averse sophomore to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Last Days of Summer for summer reading; later, his mother told me she couldn’t get her son to put either down.  If I could do this out of sheer enthusiasm for authors Stephen Chboksy and Steve Kluger, imagine what a trained librarian could do.

Obviously, Cushing’s librarian is opposed to the academy’s turning her workplace into a “learning center,” but even I, a Godzilla-like devourer of books, fail to be moved by her logic.

“It makes me sad,” she says.  “I’m going to miss them. I love books.”  She goes on to say that when the collection is replaced with Kindles*, something special will be lost: the smell, feel and physicality of books.

To me, this argument is sad.  It would be sad if a librarian didn’t love books, and wouldn’t mourn their loss.  It is sad that a librarian can’t evoke from within her- or himself the passionate debate that a child not encouraged to read — a child praised for Facebooking and Wikipedia-ing — is not one adept at imagining possibilities or producing an analytical deduction.  What’s the point of reading comprehension if all you have to do is type in your questions into a search engine (or a blog post’s comments section)?  All we will end up with is a generation of adults who know how to best formulate search queries and type really fast.  And what is the point of that?  So what if Google can generate answers faster than the human brain?  It is supposed to.  That is its job.

I hate to say this, but I will anyway: if the best argument Cushing’s librarian can rally up is that books feel nice and smell good, then perhaps her library should be taken away.

I’m petering out here, people.  What do you say?

* To be fair, I want a Kindle, but only because when I travel I pack an average of 1.5 books  per each day I’m away.  Basically, that’s my entire carry-on for anything up to two weeks, and a whole suitcase for anything longer.