Saturday, October 21, 2006

RAIDER'S NIGHT by Robert Lipsyte

Raider's Night by Robert Lipsyte
4Q, S (Senior High School)
Strong language, drinking, language, sexual situations, and a graphic scene of sexual hazing

Peer pressure. Father pressure. The pressure to be the best. Steroids. Knowing what's right and having the courage to do it. "You have to get past the past to go forward." Being a leader means being responsible to and for others, even when you don't want to be. Whew. This book covers a lot of ground, and it's not pretty. But it is involving reading.

Matt Rydek is co-captain of the Nearmount football team. Matt's a good player, though he can never be good enough for his father. Truth to tell, Matt would rather play baseball, but according to his father, he has to play football, because that's where the scholarship prospects are. The co-captaincy is bait to get him to accept losing baseball. Another truth to tell: Matt would say "Scr*w the scholarship, I'd rather play baseball" if only he dared to outright defy his father. But he only dares to defy his father in little ways, because his father is not a man who takes defiance well. But Matt does try to be a good captain. He leads the workouts in the gym intelligently, and when tempers flare, Matt is good at keeping things from exploding. And tempers do tend to flare in this book, in part because Matt and the rest of the team are regular juicers at the gym. Once their workout is finished, they all troop into the gym owner's office, drop their shorts, and get their steroid shots. The steroids help bulk them up, but are the side effects worth it? Matt thinks they are.

Matt can't wait to get away to football camp. A whole week away from both his father and his girlfriend. A whole week of nothing but football and the guys. But things go terribly wrong at camp. There's a new guy, a sophomore tight end, who is really good. This is not good news for Ramp, the other co-captain, who is also a tight end. The trouble is, Ramp isn't all that good, and he can see that Chris is going to be a threat. And so Ramp (who is also pumped up on steroids, besides just being a garden variety jerk) decides to make things difficult for Chris. He humiliates him at every opportunity and tries his best to make him look bad as often as possible. And then he really crosses the line. Hazing of freshman isn't supposed to happen, but coaches know it does and many of them look the other way. It's no different for the Raiders. Chris isn't a freshman, but Ramp maneuvers things so that Chris is right with the freshmen when the hazing begins on Raiders Pride Night, the last night of camp. Though Matt has been able to keep Ramp more or less in line until now, this time, there's not much he can do without making things worse for Chris. But Matt has no idea just how far Ramp intends to take his harassment. When Ramp brutally takes the hazing to a sexual level, neither Matt nor the rest of his crew can react in time to prevent it. As horrific as that night is, what happens...or doesn't happen...after that night could be considered even worse.

Chris keeps trying to get in touch with Matt, but Matt can't face him. He doesn't know what he should say or do, and he really doesn't want to do anything. He wishes the whole mess would just go away. It's pretty clear to see that the coaches and even his dad know that something happened on Raiders Night. It's also pretty clear that they don't want to know the details. It's obvious that they just want Matt to help keep the lid on things. All his life, Matt's been told that team comes first. You do what's good for the team, even if it isn't good for you. Steroids are bad, but you need to be big to make the team bigger? You take the steroids. Hazing is bad, but it "helps to build team spirit"? You go along with the hazing. A teammate does something seriously harmful or against the law? Cover it up. You don't blow the whistle on a teammate. The team comes first. So he ignores Chris's calls and emails.

Matt doesn't want the responsibility. He never wanted to be captain in the first place. He doesn't know what to do or how to handle something this big. Maybe if he just pretends that nothing happened, nothing will happen. But life doesn't work that way. Matt didn't think things could get any worse, but they do.

There's a reason why Pete Hautman's books get starred reviews. He can tackle tough issues, but in a very approachable way. That being said, this is a quick read, but it's not an easy read. These are not easy subjects, and they are not presented glibly. This is a book that will at various times make you feel angry, helpless, repulsed, shocked, and sorry. You'll read it and hate some of the characters, particularly the adults who look the other way when they know rotten things are going down. Ultimately, I liked Matt and felt for him, even when I was upset about some of his decisions. It would be a fascinating discussion to sit in a room with a bunch of people and talk about Matt's actions in this book. Just what is he responsible for and why? Is he a likable character or culpably spineless? And it would be interesting to hear people's take on the parents and coaches, as well as Matt's teammates, some of whom are the epitome of the privileged athlete who run roughshod over any "lesser" beings and some of whom are waiting for someone to lead them in the right direction. Raider's Night is a book I think I'm going to have a pretty difficult time getting out of my head.

Edited to include a link to a column Robert Lipsyte wrote for ESPN Magazine about reactions to this book and the issues it raises.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

CIRCLE THE SOUL SOFTLY by Davida Wills Hurwin

Circle the Soul Softly by Davida Wills Hurwin
4Q 3P J/S

Katie O'Connor is starting a new school, thanks to her mother's upcoming marriage. Katie is desperately hoping that at this school, she won't be the clumsy, uncool girl she was at her old school. But pretty much as soon as she walks into the school, it appears that's made herself some enemies. The cool girls obviously don't like her. The situation only gets worse when Katie auditions for the school play and knocks everyone's socks off. That means she gets the part that Stacie (nasty cool crowd girl) thinks should have gone to her, or at least to one of her cool crowd friends. Getting the part does great things for Katie's self-esteem, but not much at all for her social life. But she does meet David while doing the play. At first it seems as though that's going nowhere, but after the play is over and she's pretty much given up all hope of having friends, let alone a boyfriend, the two start dating.

Over the next few months, David and Katie gradually grow closer. One of the things that brings them together is discovering Stacie's diary, which helps them understand why Stacie gets drunk, makes out (and more) with pretty much any guy, why she took too many pills at a party one night, and why she's so nasty and angry all the time. David knows the right thing to do. They turn the diary over to their drama teacher, Tess, who can get Stacie the help she needs. David is good at knowing the right thing to do. He knows how to sweet talk Katie's mom and, most of all, he knows how to romance Katie just right. Katie is sure he's the one for her. She's definitely sure that she wants to make love for the first time with David. But for some reason, when they try, Katie freezes. It's almost like she goes into a shell. She doesn't understand why. She loves David. She wants to make love to him. Why does her heart say one thing and her body and brain another?*

There's something called the Actor's Nightmare, which consists of dreaming that you're alone on stage and unable to remember a single line of your part. It's terrifying to realize that you don't remember something you know you ought to remember. It takes Katie a long time to realize that there are things she ought to remember and doesn't, that there are missing pieces in her life, and that she's living a real-life version of the actor's nightmare. When she finally does realize it, she doesn't know what it means. But little by little, she starts putting the pieces together, and she's devastated by what she discovers. Maybe she and Stacie have more in common than either one of them could have ever guessed.

Hurwin handles this story sensitively and well. From what I've read about this situation, characters react in realistic ways (well, except perhaps for David at times...see my * note below). I like the way that Katie's relationship with her brother changes over time, and it's nice to see a stepfather who is a good guy. Katie's relationship with her mother feels real, in that there's a good balance between bickering and love. When the truth comes out, that relationship takes a hit, but both women are strong enough to withstand it. As Hurwin has shown before (A Time for Dancing), she has a delicate touch with her writing. She knows how to press the buttons, but she caresses them, she doesn't stomp on them.

* (This is where David is just a little too good to be true. He's very, very understanding about this, where most adolescent boys would probably be very frustrated and angry.)

TEMPING FATE by Esther Friesner

Temping Fate by Esther Friesner
3Q 3P?

If you're looking for a quick, fun, light read, try this one on for size. Ilana Newhouse has been having a hard time finding a good part-time job. Maybe she should have paid a little more attention to her guidance counselor or newspaper articles that tell kids how to get a job. She might have thought twice about wearing that: ORC: The Other Green Meat T-shirt. And That Attitude Thing certainly hasn't helped, either. Ilana doesn't suffer fools gladly. (Well, she doesn't suffer fools at all, really.) And her sense of humor can be a little...odd (see ORC, above for proof). All things considered, she doesn't really fit all that well into her tiny, conservative, tourists-love-our-little-Connecticut-town-by-the-shore. And that's why she's wound up at D.R. Temp, Incorporated. This is her last-ditch, all-other-bridges-burned, last hope chance at getting a job this summer. If she doesn't get it, her parents have promised to come up with "something" to get her through the summer. And if that doesn't spell trouble, what does? (Well, "D.R. Temps, Inc.," maybe, but Ilana doesn't know that. Yet.)

Despite her best intentions (she even wore khaki, for heaven's sake!), things don't go well when she arrives for her interview. She's a little early, but still, this is a place of business, right? Surely somebody should be here? But no, nobody seems to be there, and nobody answers her knock. She knocks again, a little harder. She begins to doubt if she's gotten her appointment time right. But she confirmed her interview. Of course she's supposed to be here! She knocks again. And this time, she hears it. No doubt about it. Somebody is inside, giggling. Ilana does not like to be laughed at. She starts to get mad. She demands to be let in. More giggling. Ilana's had it. She takes out her credit card and starts to break in. Nobody is going to laugh at her! And that does it. The door suddenly opens, and Mrs. Atatosk, the head of the agency, is there welcoming her in with a "Well done!" Ilana, it seems, has earned points for her initiative and fortitude. She's just like her dear sister Dyllin (like that is something Ilana wants to hear!). But oh, dear...khaki? It's so...inoffensive!
But that a skull on her cheek? Maybe she'll do after all.

What the ...? It's not surprising that Ilana finds her head reeling a bit, with an introduction like that. It reels a bit more when Mrs. Atatosk informs her that the skills she needs to work at D.R. Temps are "imagination, innovation, motivation, and the ability to run away. Fast. Often. A lot." "From what?" Ilana asks. "You'll know it when you see it. Or you won't, and then it will be such a pity. Oh, but don't you fret. It's all covered in the Waiver." Gulp. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.

But Ilana winds up taking the job at Divine Relief Temp Agency. And that's when she discovers just how literal that name is. Ilana isn't temping at the local insurance company or dong clerical work for some law firm. She is working for the gods. You know, the gods...Zeus, Hera, Athena, those guys. In particular, she is working for the Fates, the three sisters who spin, measure, and cut the life-threads of every human being on the planet. To be precise, she's typing out Death Receipts. Ilana is not at all convinced this is the job for her, desperate or not. The job is weird enough. The sisters are very much weird enough. Oh, and we can't forget Arachne, the huge talking spider. (Do you remember Arachne? The girl who seriously pissed off Athena when she said she could weave as well as she could? Girl, you just don't challenge a god and walk away unscathed! Walk away on eight legs maybe, but that's not exactly unscathed, is it?)

And so Ilana's temping job begins. What has she gotten herself into?

If you enjoy humorous books with a dash of romance and fantasy, give this one a try.