Monday, May 4, 2009

Book Review: City of Names by Kevin Brockmeier

Kevin Brockmeier, City of Names
New York: Viking, 2002

When I was a kid, I lived at the public library. Sometimes I'd go to look something up or to check out a book I loved. But my favorite thing was to wander the shelves looking for something to call to me, something in the title or perhaps the shape of the spine, to pull it off the shelf and take a look. Many times the book went straight back where it came from, but if I was really lucky, I'd find a keeper. For some reason, maybe because it was my own discovery and no one told me about it, those books were often the ones that stuck with me the best. Natalie Savage Carlson's The Family Under the Bridge, Sydney Taylor's The All-of-a-Kind Family, and Meindert' de Jong's The Wheel on the School were several I found this way and all are still well-remembered and much beloved.

AJ has come to shelf-wandering later than I did. It is, I think, because public libraries are a lot different than they were when I was growing up. There are many more distractions -- computers with games and internet connections, playrooms, art projects to do. It wasn't really until first grade, when he got to go to his school library and pick out his own books that he started to figure out the pleasures of wandering the shelf and finding something good.

A couple of weeks ago, we all took a trip to the public library in the next town, which is much larger and nicer than our local branch. AJ was in a browsing mood and came out with a number of good books, one of which turned out to be a real find: City of Names by Kevin Brockmeier. AJ and I both enjoyed it. It turned out to be one of those books we read out loud at the same time AJ reads it to himself. He's read it 3 times since we checked it out and is hoping to squeeze in one more read before it's due back at the library next weekend.

City of Names is narrated by Howie Quackenbush, a fifth grader at Larry Boone Elementary School in the town of North Mellwood. Howie's been an only child, but his mom is pregnant and he's finding himself with a few too many Taco take-out dinners and a little more time on his hands. Howie looks forward to getting his school book club orders each month, but is surprised to discover that instead of the copy of 101 Pickle Jokes he requested, he gets The Secret Guide to North Mellwood, a map of his town with mysterious names. The map turns out to allow him to travel around his town, into homes and businesses even after hours. But Howie doesn't know where the map comes from or what exactly he is supposed to do with it. And when another unexpected book order delivery comes and leads him to mysterious underground rooms all over town, the mystery only deepens. Howie gets to the bottom of the mystery, with the help of his best friend Kevin Bugg and the girl who makes him blush, Casey Robinson, and his artist-Aunt Margie, just in time.

The story is engaging, but what really struck me was the quality of the writing, which is a definite cut above most books written for the 8-12 age group. His command of language and his way of spinning out a story was perfectly paced, and his characters were unusual, compelling and convincing. In lesser hands, this story would have taken much more than 137 pages to tell. Brockmeier's authorial skill should come as no surprise. Although this was Brockmeier's first novel for children (he has since written at least one other, Grooves, A Sort of Mystery ), he has written a number of acclaimed novels for adults, and has the sort of credentials that writers envy. He's a graduate of the Iowa Writers workshop and has racked up a host of honors including a Michener Fellowship, an O. Henry prize, and inclusion in Granta's Best of Young American Novelists (2007). As an author of adult fiction, Brockmeier is known for turning the sci fi genre on its ear. I was first introduced to him by an article in Slate a couple of years back called, "Who is Kevin Brockmeier", whose author Megan O'Rourke calls Brockmeier's A Brief History of the Dead, "a novel that gracefully captures modern-day anxieties about terrorism and futuristic decay—and a book that makes us feel, for a moment, how strange it is that humans live in glass and metal boxes suspended above the ground. This, after all, is what fantasy can do best: restore our sense of wonder."

There are elements of fantasy in City of Names as well, but it is the attention to realistic detail that had AJ from the beginning. He immediately identified with Howie as an only child, as a kid still trying to figure out where he fits, a kid who loves school and books but longs for adventure. And he loved the form that adventure took, especially that it involved kids exploring without much supervision.

Brockmeier so perfectly captures his narrator, that even though I'd forgotten which grade he was in as I sat down to write this post, I was certain he had to be eleven years old. Without browbeating the issue, Brockmeier delicately addresses Howie's ambivalence over his impending big-brotherhood and his uncertainty about his changing feelings for his longtime friend Casey. He is a boy on the brink of puberty, but he's not there yet and he's in no real rush to arrive.

AJ also loved the book's humor, the map (although he wished there'd been a copy of the map in the book to look at), the idea of "secret names" and the esoteric words used for those names -- we spent a lot of time with the dictionary because AJ wanted to know what words like "dolorifuge" ("something to drive away pain," OED) and "floccinaucinihilipilification" ("the action or habit of evaluating something as worthless," OED) meant. I loved the linking of the map with Howie's soon-to-arrive sibling in unexpected ways and the attention on the importance of what we call things. This book is highly recommended and was perfectly pitched for my second grader (who only squirmed a little at the very brief mention of kissing, but then, so did Howie), but could easily sustain the interest of older children as well. AJ is hoping to discover a sequel on the library shelf one day.


Anonymous said...

Oooh. Both of these look good.

Jeanne said...

Your description of this one makes me think it's a bit like Harriet the Spy for boys--an eleven-year-old narrator who gets to wander around on his own...