Monday, January 12, 2015

Book Review: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

From Goodreads:
Sixteen-year-old Austin Szerba interweaves the story of his Polish legacy with the story of how he and his best friend , Robby, brought about the end of humanity and the rise of an army of unstoppable, six-foot tall praying mantises in small-town Iowa.

To make matters worse, Austin's hormones are totally oblivious; they don't care that the world is in utter chaos: Austin is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, but remains confused about his sexual orientation. He's stewing in a self-professed constant state of maximum horniness, directed at both Robby and Shann. Ultimately, it's up to Austin to save the world and propagate the species in this sci-fright journey of survival, sex, and the complex realities of the human condition.
Writing
I went into this one with some sense of trepidation, because I disliked The Marbury Lens, also by Andrew Smith.  I had also heard that this is heavily geared towards the mind of a teenage boy and, if there's anywhere I don't really care to be, it's in the mind of a teenage boy.  I probably wouldn't have read it if it weren't a pick for our FYA Bookclub, but I did know that whether I enjoyed it or not it would inspire some good discussion.

To my surprise, I actually found the book to be delightful, if a bit on the raunchy side.  Smith really does manage to capture the essence of teenage boyhood, particularly what it's like to be a teenage boy at this point in history.  And I love the bizarre way he uses the end of the world (as brought about through praying mantises) as a backdrop for Austin to discover himself and how he fits into the future of humanity.

I'm very impressed with the author's characterization, at least for Austin and Robby, although I was a bit disappointing in the book's portrayal of women (more about that later).  Overall, I think this is very successful in terms of writing for a YA audience.  It's not going to appeal to those with a more literary bent, but it's fun, fast-paced, and has enough going on to keep the reader's interest, in addition to sympathetic and well-developed characters.

Entertainment Value
I thoroughly enjoyed my reading experience, but I feel like I have to make two points here about what I found troubling and what I think other readers may find troubling.  I was personally bothered by the way that women were portrayed in the book as a whole.  I've really debated (both with myself and with my book club) whether or not the fact that we have a male narrator justifies the one-dimensional portrayal of women.

Every woman in the book is seen, at some point, as a sex object.  On the one hand, I believe Smith that this is how many teenage male minds operate.  On the other hand, it's disconcerting as a female reader to see women as nothing more.  Even Austin's girlfriend has almost no personality and never interacts with the reader in any way other than as a sex object for Austin to lust after.  While the book is groundbreaking in its treatment of LGBT characters, it ignores the female characters.  They have no agency or voice and Austin is never called out on his sexualized view of them.

Another aspect of the book that I think will turn off many readers (although I wasn't especially bothered) was the sheer amount of sex and violence talk.  I want to be clear that the book is certainly not explicit.  We know two characters have sex, but it is done in a fade-to-black style setting.  I expected it to be much more graphic.  That said, the narrator does spend a lot of time thinking about sex and how much he wants it.  There's also a fair amount of violence, as you'd expect in a book about giant praying mantises devouring humanity.

Overall
My book club was divided on this one.  Most of us enjoyed it, but some were put off by the amount of frank sex talk, violence, and crude language.  I think it's going to depend on the reader and how much information they consider "too much".  My personal problem with the book was the depiction of women and their objectification.  I'm still torn on what I think Smith's responsibilities are in terms of providing YA readers with a respectful view of women and a believable portrait of a teenage boy.  That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the read and recommend the book to those with a taste for the bizarre, who won't be too put off by being in a teenage boy's head.

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