Premise: One school week in the lives of online Scrabble friends Charlotte and Ben are eventful. Charlotte’s begins with being called out of class with the news that her dad is in the hospital after suffering a heart attack. Meanwhile, Ben’s parents announce their divorce. Though the two kids do not attend the same school (they don’t even live in the same state), they both have to learn what friendship means in the midst of the most difficult challenges of their lives.
Rating: 3/5 Target: 3-7 grade
Title: The statement, “You go first” is repeated several times throughout the novel and has to do with taking risks and being vulnerable in relationships and other settings.
Main Character(s): 6th graders Charlotte (she/her) and Ben (he/him)
Motifs (not exhaustive): friendship, isolation, change, trauma, bullying, scrabble, board games, nerds, social group, empathy, public speaking, student council, regret
Great for…* (readers): who are experiencing the shifting sands of friendships during tweenagerdom or isolated socially.
Great for…* (teachers): structure! This is essentially two novels that parallel one another than then intersect. There’s not much in here that requires guidance for young readers, so it could be a great Lit Circle or independent reading book.
Parental Warning(s): None.
Interact: What’s your favorite board game (or online game played by more than one person)?
The structure is the meaning. The meaning is the structure. The structure’s in the meaning. The meaning’s in the structure. If that’s too much for you, you may want to either skip this read or read it without much care.
I admit it. When I started Anxious People by Fredrik Backman, my first Backman book, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the short, choppy chapters that read as unique short story submissions to literary journals with flashpoints in the final lines that change the entire reading of the story. Again and again and again. One was good. Two okay. Then, it irritated me. I couldn’t get my feet on the ground of this narrative without having Backman purposely launch me off them.
The interjections of interviews with equally irritating, if not obnoxious, characters proved nothing if not a nuisance.
Precisely as they were meant to do.
This will be a short review (if you can call it that) because I have no intention of revealing the plot resolution of Backman’s book featuring a bank robber without a robbery and a hostage situation with the “world’s worst hostages.” You’ll have to experience the details for yourself. But here is what I’ve come to conclude: despite all that Backman himself will tell you the book’s about (in the text itself, he will use the phrase repeatedly), if you can trust him, the story is about isolation and connection.
The jagged pieces that begin the book are reflections of the characters themselves: intriguing, well-crafted, but ultimately awkward in how they attempt to be more than alone. Because as the reader, I was somewhat lost in the nameless characters and their stories at the start, I found myself like them, weighing whether or not connecting to these characters is worth it. The more they revealed, the less annoying the characters were, and the more I recognized bits of myself in them.
That’s the genius of this narrative. You find yourself in characters who you assumed were nothing like you. You connect with them as Backman transitions from his short, stop-and-go chapters to lengthier ones. Even the shorter interviews reveal connections you may not anticipate and which bolster the meaning of the narrative.
The book is well done and meaningful. It is unusual and unique, like we are, yet immensely relatable, too. Also, like we are. If that seems enigmatic or problematic or paradoxical, well, you’ll just have to read Anxious People to understand what I mean.
Rating: 4/5 Target: adult readership, 16 y.o. (not due to word or subject-matter but due to nuance)
a pinkyandthebrainhomage by KZ Rochelle (of course)
When last we saw K and Z, stuck in the lavender home with blue violet trim on Wonky Way Lane, they were set to begin construction on their plan to escape their four walls through the Transportationonmeteration Machine and head to Tampa Bay.
“Now! My Internet Transportationonometeration Machine! Here are the directions, K. Let’s get to work.” Z held the scroll so that K could see its contents.
K read the directions, her finger smudging lines onto the mirror’s glass.
“1 large cardboard box. I’ll grab that.” K ran out of the bathroom and returned with a large box in hand.
“Three inkless pens. Yes, yes.” K pulled two from her back pocket and one from her hair.
“You’ll need the beach-scented candle. It’s very important if we want to get to Tampa Bay,” said Z.
“On the bedside table,” said K.
“Good, good. It’s coming together.” Z tapped her fingers together like the evil genius she was. Even if she wasn’t so evil. Or much of a genius.
They worked together. K gathered supplies, nailing and gluing the bits together. Z directed K. Until they were on the last steps of the process.
“My Internet Transportationonometeration Machine is almost done. Then we will be out of these four walls! Free to go about in the world as we will.”
“As we will what, Z?”
“As we will, K.”
K looked at Z waiting for elaboration.
Z continued. “As we desire. However we like. As we want, K.”
“As we want what, Z? Do we want a teddy bear? Or a blankie? Oh! No! How about some chocolates? I love chocolates. I would want chocolates. Or ice cream! Ice cream from an ice cream shop, Z. Can you imagine? That’s what I will!”
“Very well, K.”
Z calmed K down before noting the last remaining steps.
“All we need now, K, are four silver paper clips.”
“Four silver paper clips,” repeated K.
“Yes, four silver paper clips.”
K looked at Z. Z looked at K.
“Four silver paper clips?”
“Yes! Four silver paper clips! That’s what I said, K! Four silver paper clips!”
“Are you joking, Z?”
“Do I look like I’m joking, K?” Z’s face set in. Her eyes narrowed. Her brows furrowed.
“Don’t know,” said K. “What’s joking look like? I only know what it sounds like.”
“Good grief,” said Z, turning her face away in disgust.
“Z, this is what a joke sounds like. What kinds of dogs love car racing?” K paused.
Z did not respond. She did not even look K’s way.
“How about this one? How about this one? What streets do ghosts haunt?”
Still, K did not respond.
“Dead ends!” K guffawed again, pounding down on her knee.
Z looked at K. She waited.
“Are you quite done now?”
“Almost, Z. Because that’s what a joke sounds like.” K checked her knee for bruises. “I’m set now.”
“The four silver paper clips then,” Z said.
“Ain’t no such thing,” K said.
“Of course there’s such a thing,” said Z.
“Naw, ain’t no such thing,” said K.
“They’re those little curled up metal wires that hold your papers together, K!”
“I know what they is, Z. No one’s got them anymore. On account of no one uses paper. Everyone is virtual. Virtual working. Virtual learning. Virtual dancing. Virtual cooking. Virtual passing over and virtual Christmas with virtual presents. No one’s got paper clips.”
“Are you saying that no one includes us? As in we don’t have them, K?”
K emphasized we just as Z did. “We don’t have them, Z.”
“Then we can’t finish the Internet Transportationonometeration Machine. And if we can’t finish the Internet Transportationonometer Machine, we can’t get on the other side of the screen. And if we can’t get on the other side of the screen, we cannot escape the confounding confines of these four walls.”
K watched Z pace through the mirror.
“Is that a bad thing, K?” Z asked.
“It means we’ve failed, K!”
“Failed at what, Z?”
“Escaping these four walls, K.”
“But we got to hear Rochelle. And gather these goodies like a scavenger hunt. And make this Transmutation Machine. And tell good jokes. And…”
K went on and on. But Z was not listening. She’d begun pondering the activities for tomorrow.
“…and we still have a Zoom!” said K.
“Not me, K.”
“I still have a Zoom!” said K.
K ran to the nearest tablet, logged on, and proceeded to make silly faces at her nephew for the next hour.
While K was thus employed, Z stayed inside the looking glass in the bathroom in the lavender house with blue violet trim on Wonky Way Lane.
She muttered to herself, thinking through details for tomorrow’s plans, when they would try to escape the confines of these four walls.
a pinkyandthebrainhomage by KZ Rochelle (of course)
Outside the lavender home with blue violet trim on Wonky Way Lane, a pair of peregrine falcons chased each other out of a rabbit den, squawking and combating mid-flight. Prior peoples may have seen a harbinger herein, but those who roamed the land had long since considered ancient omens.
In front of the bathroom mirror in said Wonky Way Lane home, the following scene took place. Observe, Reader, from your safe distance on the far side of the screen lest you spiral into what you discover…
“What shall we do today, Z?” K asked the figure in the mirror.
“The same thing we do every day, K,” Z responded. “Escape the world enclosed by these four walls.”
Before K could agree with the brilliance of such an idea, cackling emanated from the walls and reflected off the toothpaste-coated tile floors.
“Rochelle? Rochelle? Stop that!” K hit the wall with the outside of her fist.
The cackling continued.
“RO-Chelle!” K pounded.
The cackling ceased but K already felt regret blooming in the form of a bruise on her wrist.
“Damn you, Rochelle.” K returned to Z’s fresh face in the mirror. She coated it with concealer. “Where were we, Z?”
“Where we always are, K. Escape.”
“Of course, Z. You’re rather a smart one, aren’t you?”
“Always dapper, yes,” Z said, petting down any lingering wrinkles on her sweater.
“Oh, you’re so witty. Smart. Dapper. Good one, Z.” K threw her head back in a chortle, knocking the back of her head on the hospital white wall behind her. “Ouch.” She rubbed the point of impact.
“Enough of this nonsense,” said Z.
K snapped to attention. But thought about the back of her head. And wondered if her thoughts came from that spot on the back of her head that had taken a beating. And if her thoughts came from that spot on the back of her head that had taken a beating and now that part of the back of her head had been hit by the wall….wait, no….had hit the wall, then perhaps her thoughts could radiate out faster. Like the pain itself. Throbbing its way from a single point like a ripple. Or, perhaps she’d cracked the spot that held her thoughts and the thoughts that came from that spot on the back of her head would fall into an abyss so dark and lonely they’d never be found again. Or maybe her thoughts…
“K! Listen to me!”
“We must find our way out of this place. We have been in here for a year. Isolated. Quarantined. Our lives placed on pause while the world outside swims through a COVID-infested ooze.”
“Oooh. Ooze. Is it like slime? I like slime, Z. Maybe we could go swimming too?”
“Yes! But no. Not in the ooze. But we need to get out and into the world again.”
“How will we do that Z?”
Z motioned K with a solitary finger. She beckoned her closer. Closer. Closer to the mirror where Z resided. Until BAM! K knocked her skull against the glass.
“Ouch. That hurt.”
Z rolled her eyes. This happened every morning. K hit her head from behind. She hit her head from the front. They were lucky when she didn’t end up lethargic for the day in consequence, but, still, the continual impact had its effect.
“As I was saying!” declared Z with stentorian posture and a downward struck fist.
K rubbed her forehead. And her backhead.
“Yeah, Z. As you were saying.”
“We must escape the confines of these four walls again today the same way we do every day.”
“Right-o, Z! Same way we do every day.” K nodded her head enthusiastically. Then threw up.
“You’ll have to clean that up before we escape,” said Z evaluating her cuticles.
They were out of Clorox and bleach and dishwashing soap and detergent and vinegar, so while K cleaned up her mess with a dustpan and some febreeze, Z turned the other way to bake honey banana cupcakes. Again. They always had bananas to go on.
Will K and Z escape their four walls before they go bananas? Find out next time in The Days of our Pandemic….