shaken & stirred

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read a book: Godless

When the National Book Award noms came out (oh, so long weeks ago), I was immediately charmed by the reaction of one of the youth literature nominees -- Pete Hautman, nominated for Godless. He was quoted by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as saying:

"After I found out 'Godless' was nominated, they made me not say anything for 24 hours, and it nearly killed me. I kept telling our two poodles over and over. They're very literate," he said in an interview from the Golden Valley home he shares with author Mary Logue.

"I never thought one of my books would be nominated. It's dangerous to think about things like that. You can make yourself nuts. There is a lot of really good stuff being printed for children and young adults, so getting noticed gets tougher every year. A nomination like this gives you an edge where you are going to be looked at, especially by teachers and librarians who are important for young-adult writers. I hope wonderful things happen. I'll have more book sales, more readers. My skin problems will clear up."

It seems a little remarkable to me that someone could have the presence of mind to both be witty and humble at once after being told something so huge. And to be honest about the fact that it would help with sales. So, I resolved to make this book the first of the nominees I read (except for Madeleine is Sleeping, which I'd read and loved already). I immediately reserved Godless at our local library.

It turned out that all the political anxiety of the past several weeks has made young adult fiction the perfect balm, and I've actually read three YAs in the past couple of weeks that I'll talk about sometime during this one. The Christian Science Monitor posits that the youth lit nominees will get more attention because of Judy Blume's Lifetime Achievement Award and I hope that's true (CSM link via TEV). They all sound worthy of appreciation and I intend to make it through at least a couple more. But first Hautman.

Godless is a fantastic book. It's funny (in the same way that Hautman seems to be; it's always hard to know whether people's work will be) and the light touch with the absurd conceit of the book -- a group of teenagers decides to build a religion around their town's water tower -- makes something work that could ultimately wear thin. The exploration of religion is pointed and never shies away from pushing at sore spots. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if someone at some point doesn't try to ban this book because the Christian characters are mostly comical and unable to resonate with the narrator, who in the end does not decide to become "really" religious. Just to give you an idea, I'll include the section in which we're introduced to the group church sessions which form some of the funniest sections of the book:

While my mother is obssessed with my physical well-being, my father frets over my soul. Every Sunday, without fail, he drags me to mass at the Church of the Good Shepherd. In my opinion, he's a borderline religious fanatic.

A couple of months ago I made the mistake of leaving one of my drawings face-up on my desk. It was a picture of Bustella, the Sirian Goddess of Techno War. Bustella is very busty, and at times her clothing doesn't exactly stay on her body. In fact, in the drawing that my dad saw sitting on my desk, she was wearing nothing but a scabbard for her sword.

Next thing I knew he'd signed me up for Teen Power Outreach, better known as TPO, a weekly brainwashing session for teenagers held every Thursday night in the church basement.

My father believes in brainwashing. He's a lawyer. He thinks you can argue anybody into anything.

The head brainwasher is a car salesman named Allan Anderson, who insists we call him Just Al. Or maybe he meant we should just call him Al, but the first meeting I went to I called him Just Al and it stuck. Too bad for Just Al.

The conversations between the main characters are priceless (and at the TPO meetings: "How come only men can be priests? I mean, who wants to be a nun?" or "So, how do priests breed if they can't have sex? Do they send out buds like amoebas?"), and the characters themselves resist shallow or stereotypical definition. The bully also gets to have a brain and get the girl. The main character is overweight but still a charismatic force in the group. The girl is attracted to the bully and yet still smart. Shin, the book's tragic heart, is so timid and then so nutty that it's hard to read him. The chapters all begin with bits from the book Shin begins transcribing, since he sees himself as the chosen instrument of the ten-legged one:

And they looked up and they saw the great silver belly, fat and wet, and they fell down upon their knees on the moist earth and they bowed down before it and they named it the Ten-legged God.

There are grand expeditions to the top of the water tower and to swim inside it, with moments of true terror and exhilaration in the descriptions of those trips. But most of all, what Hautman gets right is how smart kids think when they begin to question religion. How acid-laced the humor is and how insightful the questions. And even while taking on something that big, he manages to tell a very human story, about events that do matter to the rest of these character's lives.

"Think about it, Einstein," he says. "You live to be a hundred, you're gonna remember it like it was yesterday. It was probably one of the great moments of your life. Sure, maybe they'll send you to ding-dong school, take away your DVD player, whatever. That's nothing. Who else you know that's swum in a water tower? How long you think it'll be before you have another night you'll never forget? Me, a few months I'll be healed up like nothing ever happened. But I'll still have last night. It was like a religious experience."

And that's before Shin goes truly nutty and the nail-biting conclusion. I'm glad this book was nominated for an NBA. Say what you will about awards, but I'd likely never have bothered to read it (even if I heard about it) otherwise.


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