Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book of the Week: DEAR GEORGE CLOONEY, PLEASE MARRY MY MOM by Susin Nielsen

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0887769772/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=211189&creative=373489&creativeASIN=0887769772&link_code=as3&tag=midgranin-20
Have I got a book for you this week, Esteemed Reader! One of the things I love about being the Ninja is that reading a new middle grade book (at least one) every week forces me to check out books that I might otherwise have skipped. Here is a book I picked up on a whim because I thought the title was clever. But there aren't any monsters and the premise doesn't promise a whole lot of action, so if I weren't out there scouring book shelves to find new books to share with you, I probably would have missed this one. And that would have been a great shame.

Don’t let this happen to you, Esteemed Reader. Susin Nielsen has crafted an absolute masterpiece of middle grade goodness and you do not want to miss it. Speaking of Susin Nielsen, she’ll be on Thursday to face the 7 Questions. Yea! She actually wrote 16 episodes of Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, which I’ve never seen, but I’m told it’s quite popular. So come on back on Thursday and we’ll pick Susin Nielsen’s brain for writing advice together.

To really show you just how wonderful this book is, I would pretty much have to reproduce its entire 229 pages here, which would probably get me sued. So I won’t do that. But I am going to share some of my favorite passages with you. Truth be told, I highlighted almost the entire book, so even picking out favorite passages of my many, many favorite passages has been a chore. I’m going to limit myself, therefore, to passages from the first half of the novel so I don’t spoil too much for you. Because seriously, you’ve got to read this book.

So let’s start by taking a look at the opening line from Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom:

FOR THE RECORD: I did not mean to send my two half sisters to the emergency room.

Now that’s a hook! From the first sentence Nielsen grabbed me by the throat (in the best way) and yanked me into her story. What agent or editor could turn down an opening like that? It’s got everything. It introduces conflict, character, and the tone of the novel all in just sixteen words!

The situation here is that twelve year old Violet and her sister Rosie are in LA visiting their dad and his pretty new wife and their new twin daughters. It isn’t going well. I try not to hate fictional characters, but I hate Violet’s dad. I want to find him wherever he is and punch him in the face. He’s a television director and he left the girls and their mother for a pretty blonde actress named Jennica (how perfect is that name?). When the girls arrive, their father and their new stepmother make a big show of paying attention to the new twins and he treats Violet and Rosie like guests rather than his first daughters. See how effortlessly Nielsen captures Violet’s feelings about all of this in just three paragraphs of description:

Lola and Lucy were so cute, it hurt. They were just under two years old, and they'd inherited the best of their parents' genes: Jennica's thick blonde hair and big brown eyes, and my dad's chin dimple and megawatt smile.
 
Rosie and I hadn't been nearly as lucky in the gene pool lottery. Despite having the same father and a very attractive mother, all we'd inherited was Dad's mousy brown hair and his poor eyesight. He wore contacts; we wore glasses. I'd managed to get his big feet and ears, too, and his bulbous man-knees. All these things looked good on my dad, but transplanted onto a scrawny girl like me, it was seriously unfortunate.

We played with the twins for a long time in that sandbox. They adored being with Rosie and me, and I would have loved them with all my heart if I hadn't hated them so much.

What Nielsen does next takes real courage. In response to being treated so shabbily by her father, Violet feeds these sweet little baby girls who never did a thing to anyone cat turds. She tells them its chocolate and laughs as they swallow actual poop. Stepmom Jennica freaks out and rushes the twins to the hospital, thusly fulfilling the promise of the opening line.

Now I’m not in favor of feeding children poop, but I understand why Violet does it. I suspect not every reader will. Nielsen takes a real chance of turning some readers off in the first chapter. But by doing so, she creates in Violet an immediately sympathetic character I think far more readers will relate to. After this, I was ready to read about anything Violet did. And although eating poop is gross, the (nonexistent fictional) twin girls are fine.

Next, we meet Violet’s mom. Nielsen is a master of writing description. She uses plain, straightforward language that doesn’t draw attention to itself by being overly lavish. She simply tells us what we need to know, hones in on a few details that illuminate the character, and moves on. She is, in fact, so skilled a writer that if I did not do my reading Ninja style with a highlighter and pen, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. That’s the mark of a true great; the reader is sucked up into the story and forgets there is a writer. But there is a writer, of course, and just look at what she does here in her description of Violet's mother:

It was her clothes I couldn't stand. She'd started dressing differently after the divorce papers were signed. Her jeans were too tight, and her shirt was cropped to let her stomach show, a stomach that had had to stretch not once but twice to hold babies. A soft layer of flab drooped over the waste of her pants. To top it off, her belly button was pierced--a belated birthday gift from her friend Karen after they'd had a few too many margaritas one night.

Violet’s mom is a long way from perfect, but I like her a lot better than Violet’s dad. But what I really like is that there are no perfect characters in this book, particularly in the land of adults. Violet’s mother does some things readers might not agree with and later in the story some Facebook photos of her looking and acting like, well, a hoochie, I guess, create some major story issues for Violet. Because Violet’s mom is doing everything she can to find a man, she gets a bad reputation, and she goes through a lot of loser guys. But Nielsen can tell you better than I can:
As we continued our leisurely descent, I said my little prayer: Dear God, or Allah, or Buddha or Zeus or Whoever-You-Are, please let this one be okay. Please don't let him be a cheater (Jonathan), a cheapskate (Alphonse), an alcoholic (Carl), a creep (Guy), married (Larry), or a general, all-around jerk (Dimitri, Paulo, Jake, Yuri).
I said this prayer even though I'm a cynic when it comes to love because I know that my mother is not. You'd think, after what happened with Dad, that she'd given up on men and found contentment in a life dedicated to child-rearing, hard work, and celibacy. But no. Despite a growing list of epic failures, she had this freakish need to have a man in her life. So she dated like there was no tomorrow, always hoping the next guy would be The One.

Much of the plot centers around Violet going to great lengths to protect her mother and by extension her and her little sister from her mother’s loser boyfriends. There are some particularly fun sequences in which Violet spies on the men with binoculars. Finally, Violet comes to the conclusion that she will have to find a suitable mate for her mother and stepfather to her on her own. And who better than George Clooney? Yes, that George Clooney. Violet writes Clooney letters and sets out on a mission to convince him to marry her mom.

Needless to say, George Clooney shows up and saves the day, the end. Or maybe not. I think it’s best that I leave the plot description here, lest I spoil too much of the book for you. But as I see we have not yet had one of my routine editorial asides about Batman this week, allow me to amend that now: I love George Clooney. From Dusk Till Dawn and Out of Sight are two of my favorites, but I cannot forgive him for Batman and Robin. It’s true that the film’s director, the heinous Joel Schumacher, is secretly the devil and I have been boycotting his movies ever since. But you knew what you were doing, George! You’re a grown man. You stood in front of the neon sets and the various male stripper extras and said nothing! You wore rubber nipples and recited lines like “Freeze, the heat is on.” You let them focus their camera on you backside and didn't walk away. You sold out Batman for thirty pieces of silver. For shame, sir. For shame.

But no matter. Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom has almost nothing to do with George Clooney, so I can repress my deep sense of injustice as a Batman fan for another day. I’m not even going to tell you if George Clooney shows up in the story or not, and it wouldn't really matter if he did, because this book isn't about him. This is a book about families and the constantly shifting definition of what constitutes a family these days.

Okay, I see we’re running over—probably because I spent so much time ranting about Batman and Robin. That happens. But let me wrap this thing up by stating for the record that I absolutely love this book. It’s everything I want my own writing to accomplish and I’ll be studying parts of it for awhile. Nielsen’s prose is articulate, but not needlessly ornate, and she employs lots of white space which allows the pages to fly by. She’s crafted a great story that is equally hilarious and heartbreaking. Whatever else you do this year, Esteemed Reader, buy this book!

And now I’ll leave you with some more of my favorite passages from Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom and a funny Batman video:

The guy blinked like a startled mole... He was pudgy. His pale skin was sprinkled with freckles. His ears were too small for his head. His hair was reddish brown and thinning. He was wearing a loud multicolored sweater. Its loose fit did not manage to hide his man-boobs... "I'm Dudley," he continued. "Dudley Wiener."
Groan. I'd seen enough. I turned away without another word.

"Anyway," Mom continued, "he'd like to meet you both."
"Why? Is he a pedophile?"
"Violet!"
I was getting on her nerves, and it felt quite satisfying.
"What's a pedal file?" asked Rosie.

"Are you Scottish?" I asked him.
"Um, twenty-five percent, yes. On my mother's side. Why?"
"Your sweater-vest. I thought maybe it was your clan tartan."
"Violet," said Mom in her warning voice.
"What? Andrew MacDonald, in my class? He did a presentation on his Scottish heritage and came to school wearing a kilt. He told us each clan had its own tartan."
"What's a tartan?" asked Rosie.
"It's an ugly plaid pattern," I told her. "Like that." I pointed at Dudley's vest.

"It has nothing to do with you, sweetie. It's just that sometimes adults... they fall out of love." (Violet's punk dad--MG Ninja)
"You've fallen out of love with Mommy?"
"Not exactly. I still love her. I always will, in a way."
"But you love the blonde lady with the boobs better."
There was a pause. "Jennica. Her name is Jennica."




And now Batman and Robin director Joel Schumacher with an apology that is too little, too late:





STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.


7 comments:

  1. I've heard of this novel! It's been on my to-read list. Thanks for review. I really can't wait to read it now! I'm looking forward to the 7 questions with Susin Nielsen!

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  2. This looks like a great book. We saw it in Vancouver when we were visiting this summer (Nielsen's from there, I believe) and bought her novel "Word Nerd" for our 13-year-old. He then got "George Clooney..." out of the library, but there was only one copy and someone else put a hold on it. He can't wait to get it back. (Why didn't he read it in one sitting, you may ask? Because he reads about thirteen different books at once. Crazy, I know!)

    Thanks for a great review. I'll be sneaking his copy away soon.

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  3. Um ... I'm sure it's totally gauche for the actual author to write a response, but - THANK YOU, Mr. Ninja! (I'm assuming all ninjas go by "Mister.") What a lovely review. I look forward to my 7 questions too, as I don't remember what I said ...

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  4. Definitely reading this. There is a huge need for funny books for middle school boys.

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  5. Great Book! I am using it as a text for a Unit Plan for a 6th grade language arts class.

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Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.