Saturday, September 13, 2008

Weekly Geeks Book Interviews: Black Box by Julie Schumacher and The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

For Weekly Geeks #16 (the first time I participated) we were paired up with an interview partner to ask each other questions about a book we've read recently. Ali from Worducopia asked me five questions about Julie Schmacher's Black Box and I asked her five about Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World (which is in my TBR pile).

Black Box is the story of a family with two sisters who have always been very close, Dora and Elena. When Dora is admitted to the hospital with clinical depression, Elena is set adrift in a world that doesn't make sense anymore, one in which her parents always fight and people stare at her in school. Will her life ever be "normal" again?

This slim novel is broken into 78 very short chapters, some no longer than 2 sentences. It's a very effective way of showing how mental illness can fracture lives. It's not a fun novel by any means, but it is very good.

Here are the questions Ali asked me and my answers:

Ali: Black Box focuses on depression. Is it a depressing book to read?

Lenore: It does seem like it would be, but it’s not. It’s actually manages to be highly enlightening and informative without straying into “afterschool special” territory.

Ali: The book is told from the perspective of Elena, whose sister Dora is suffering from depression. Which of these girls would you say was the main character of the story?

Lenore: Unquestionably Elena. Sure, Dora gets all the dramatic scenes but the novel spends more time on the effect Dora’s situation has on Elena and her parents. Elena also starts hanging out with a neighbor boy who claims his brother was treated for depression and warns her about the hospital treatment Dora is receiving and the "Black Box" (warning label) drugs she has been prescribed.

Ali: Would you recommend this book to young adults? How about to adults?

Lenore: Elena is in 9th grade and the book is being marketed as YA. But I think the very honest way the author depicts depression and its effect on family dynamics is something that would appeal to adults too, whether or not they know someone affected by the disease.

Ali: Author Julie Schumacher states, "I hope -- whether you have experienced depression or not -- that you will recognize some part of who you are and feel acknowledged; that you will feel steadied by the imaginative solace a good book can provide." In your opinion, did she succeed?

Lenore: I think she does. I have personally never known anyone with the kind of clinical depression Dora suffers but I can still relate to her in some way. When Elena asks Dora if depression is like sadness, Dora says no. She says, “I can’t describe [what it’s like]. I don’t know how.” I think we all have feelings sometimes that we either don’t how to describe or that we feel like we can’t share with anyone. And fiction is not only a great escape but also a reflection of the human condition.

Ali: Schumacher also states that someone she trusts told her to write the book if she needs to, but don't ever publish it. What do you think about this?

Lenore: Since her main motivation was not to sensationalize but to destigmatize depression, I think she was right to publish it. I like her “You are not alone” message: it is definitely an important one, especially to those still in their tumultuous teen years.


Now here are some questions I asked Ali about The Gone-Away World:

Lenore: The Gone-away World is a 500 pager - how long did it take you to read it?

Ali: I'm still reading it!

It's been a much slower read than I expected, actually. I've been reading it exclusively (meaning, no other books--I do stop to eat, sleep, and homeschool my children) for 10 days, which would normally be enough time for me to finish a book of that length ... and I'm on page 315. Why is it taking so long? Well, there's a pretty high ratio of exposition to dialogue, and the style is more dense than it first appears, partly because of the English style of humor. There's a lot that's funny if you read it right, but it might take a second look to get it. Also, it seems to be a pretty easy book to put down. I'm not staying up too late at night reading it, like I often do.

Lenore: Do you have any insight on why the author might have chosen the title?

Yes, it's a perfect title for the storyline, in which scientists invent a weapon that can make the enemy disappear completely. The bulk of the book takes place during and after an apocolyptic war, nicknamed "The Go Away War," during which this weapon is used and misused by many countries, with catastrophic consequences. Entire sections of the world disappear, and some living things become sort of half-real, before scientists invent the technology to stop the distruction. The main character and his team are striving to contain the stuff before the entire world disappears.

Lenore: The jacket copy touts the novel's "stunning futuristic vision a la A Clockwork Orange and 1984". Have you read these novels and if so, how does this novel compare?

Ali: There's definitely a similarity, in the sense that the theme is, "Where are we headed?" The authors of each of the three titles used fiction to extrapolate an undesirable future and thus asked the reader to evaluate the present. Actually, though, I would liken The Gone-Away World more to the movie Brazil.

Lenore: What is one scene that really stands out in your mind when thinking back on the whole?

In the middle of this horrendous war, the narrator is on the verge of falling in love with a nurse he's been unable to spend any time with outside the military hospital where he's been a patient. At her request, he asks her out on a date. But in the middle of a war zone, there's no place suitable for any kind of date.

His best friend, a young man of considerable influence, arranges a reconnaissance mission to an old abandoned castle-like building, and the team manages to turn one room into a "restaurant," with food ("a wild blend of Asia and Southern European), wine (made from mangos) and music to dance to (a paper-and-comb "harmonica," percussion, and jazz vocals). It's a fun scene and very indicative of the friendship between these two guys, and the fact that life and love must go on even in the face of war.

Lenore: This is Nick Harkaway's first novel - would you want to read more from him?

Ali: I would, but probably not another 500-pager. One reviewer raved about this book as "a sprawling epic." Sprawling: not an adjective that I, as a writer, would consider complimentary. A little tightening (say, 100 pages worth) would have made it a better novel. The first chapter takes place chronologically in the middle of the story. Then Harkaway devotes 270 pages to the background, starting when the narrator was a young boy. Much of it was crucial to the plot, much of it was funny or interesting. But plenty of it could have been cut to keep the momentum of the story moving back to the middle more quickly.
So there you have it: two very thought provoking novels to check out. Both Black Box and The Gone-Away World are out now in hardcover.


Ali said...

Thanks for being my Weekly Geek partner, Lenore! I enjoyed sharing interviews with you and can't wait to check out Black Box.

Anna said...

Great interviews! I'll be receiving Black Box soon, and I can't wait to read it. Sounds like a great read.

--Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Anna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Holly said...

Depression is definitely a topic of interest for me (it's kind of in my family history)...sounds like I would like this book.

Becky said...

recently I was allowed to preview a book that is very similar to "Black Box."

"Letters Between Us," written by Linda Overman is scheduled to be available in bookstores on October 6th. This book is about friendship, and the loss of a loved one, and mental illness. The main character in the book attends the funeral of her best childhood friend. After her friends' funeral she finds letters between her and her friend throughout 26 years of friendship, as well as journal entries. As she reads through the letters and journal she realizes that her friend had a lot of secrets that were never revealed to her. It really is a great book.

Serena said...

I'm finally catching up on this interview. Great set of books. I'm adding them to my good reads tbr pile now! LOL boy that list is getting longer.

Anna said...

Thanks for reminding me of your review! Now that I've read the book, I can say I agree with everything you've said. I especially agree with your assessment of the short chapters.

Diary of an Eccentric