A Review of Last Night I Sang To the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Cinco Puntos Press, 2009
By REBECCA, March 30, 2012
Zach Gonzalez: Smart, sensitive teenager who is afraid to feel, with good reason
Rafael de la Tierra: Zach’s roommate and surrogate father
Sharkey: Zach and Rafael’s roommate; not sold on the therapy process
Adam: Benevolent therapist in rehab
Amit: Zach and Rafael’s roommate after Sharkey
Mr. Garcia: Inspirational English teacher from before rehab
Santiago: Zach’s vicious older brother
When Zach wakes up in rehab he has no idea how he got there . . . or where he was before. How can he figure it out when he doesn’t want to remember?
“The tree’s name is Zach” (136)
When Last Night I Sang To the Monster begins, Zach has a plan: he’s going to get A’s in school, get a scholarship, and “go to Stanford or Harvard or Princeton or Georgetown or one of those famous schools where all the students were very smart. And very happy. And very alive” (15). But something goes wrong, and Zach ends up in rehab, frozen and dissociated. The novel follows what happens in between. Zach admits that he’s an alcoholic, like his father, but even while he relates pieces of his story to Adam and his therapy group he shies away from the incident that landed him in rehab like a sore tooth. Last Night I Sang To the Monster, then, is a slow excavation of Zach’s story as his sobriety and sense of safety let him see clearly.
As you might imagine, this book being set in a rehab facility, Last Night I Sang To the Monster doesn’t present a rosy view of the world. Each character has a difficult story to tell. Still, as you might also imagine, in a novel dedicated to characters trying to improve their lives, hope abounds. More important, though, is that Sáenz’s prose is stunning. So, in the prose, as well as in the story itself, is a sense that art—especially using art to communicate—is still worth something.
what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
Sáenz tried to fold back the layers of Zach and display, finally, the heart of the character. Zach says:
“I have it in my head that when we’re born, God writes things down on our hearts. See, on some people’s hearts he writes crazy and on some people’s hearts he writes genius and on some people’s hearts he writes angry and on some people’s hearts he writes winner and on some people’s hearts he writes loser.
I keep seeing a newspaper being tossed around in the wind. And then a strong gust comes along and the newspaper is thrown against a barbed wire fence and it gets ripped to shreds in an instant. That’s how I feel. I think God is the wind. It’s all like a game to him. Him. God. And it’s all pretty much random. He takes out his pen and starts writing on our blank hearts. When it came to my turn, he wrote sad. I don’t like God very much. Apparently, he doesn’t like me very much either” (11).
Because Zach narrates the novel, the audience is as in the dark about what brought Zach to rehab as he is. This builds the tension really subtly so that as readers we put the pieces back together with Zach. In this way, it is a kind of mystery that we try and solve along with him, each piece of backstory, dream, and desire providing one more clue. Bit by bit, without the warmth of alcohol, Zach is forced to acknowledge the warm feelings he is developing for others: his therapist, Adam, his roommate, Rafael, and the members of his therapy group.
Unusual for many young adult novels, Zach is the only teenager in Last Night I Sang To the Monster. Because he is in rehab, there are characters of all ages, so the novel doesn’t fall into any of the romantic stereotypes of rehab sometimes found in post-The Bell Jar novels. In fact, realistically, nothing really happens. It’s a true testament to Sáenz’s prose and pacing, then, that Last Night I Sang To the Monster absolutely captivated me from the epigraph—a (misquoted) line from Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Testing-Tree”—to the final paragraph.
I’m kind of a sucker for novels written by poets (which Sáenz is)—the prose is so controlled and intentional. I was reading Last Night I Sang To the Monster on the train coming home and there were passages that made me very glad that I was sitting along and wearing sunglasses, if you know what I mean. And if you don’t, I mean: I cried.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999). Another novel in which teen trauma takes away the protagonist’s ability to communicate; in this case, her ability to speak.
With or Without You by Brian Farrey (2011). Like Last Night I Sang To The Monster, With or Without You is great contemporary realism that features a sensitive male protagonist placed in dangerous situations. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but you can read the full review here!
Under the Wolf, Under the Dog by Adam Rapp (2004). Or, really, any of Adam Rapp’s novels. Steve Nugent is in a “facility” for addicts and suicidals, but he doesn’t really belong in either group. Like Zach, he needs to reconstruct how he ended up here in order to move forward.
Procured from: the library
Posted by Rebecca on March 30, 2012
A review of Elsewhere (Borderlands #1) by Will Shetterly
By REBECCA, Friday, March 23
Just Ron: Newly arrived in Bordertown, Ron has some growing up to do, but a good heart
Mooner: Half-elf and ersatz leader of Castle Pup, he’s charisma + recklessness + pride
Wiseguy: Mooner’s twin, she’s a badass and a fierce defender of Castle Pup
Florida: Mysterious little girl who just showed up one day . . .
Mickey: Human owner of Elsewhere bookstore, she ushers Ron into life in Bordertown
Goldy: Co-worker at Elsewhere and crusader for love through books
A Few of the Crew at Castle Pup . . .
Leda: Dreamy elf addicted to peca, the Dragon’s Milk, she also has a royal pedigree
King O’Beer: Will’s roommate, he and Sparks (their third roommate) are both in love with Mooner
Strider: Beautiful, regal elf, he seems like he’d be a dick but he totally isn’t
Sai: Resident mature, non-idiot, she is also Bordertown’s middleweight boxing champ
When you arrive in Bordertown, the city that stands between The World and Faerie, where spellboxes power motorcycles and gingerbread cookies beg not to be eaten, it isn’t very wise to piss off anybody.
image: humanoddity.blogspot.com (Annette Kurtis Clause)
When Ron Starbuck runs away to Bordertown in search of his older brother, Tony, the first things he does are get kicked off a moving train, call a pair of half-elven twin bikers “pointy-eared dinks,” and chuck a rock at them. Not a good first impression. But Mooner takes pity on Ron and soon he is zooming through the streets of Bordertown on the back of Mooner’s motorcycle, past “a ruined church that twisted around itself as if magic had brought it to life and someone had barely managed to kill it before it could slither away,” and along the Mad River that smelled “thick and soporific, sweet and fetid like sweat or blood or the beach after a storm,” (15) into Soho, where “something drifting from across the Border reminded [Ron] of waffles and orange blossoms,” and, finally, to Castle Pup, collective house extraordinaire (16).
Everything in Bordertown is cobbled together, carved out and layered atop of what used to be “any damn city in the World”—“Its soul changed, not its shape” (14). Thus, Elsewhere is a delightful romp through an urban landscape repurposed by teenagers and unpredictable, motley magic. Will Shetterly is a master at world-building through description; he’s also one of a fabled few who can use physical description well—in a way that shows how a combination of a character’s born physicality and choices of presentation can give some (limited) insight into her personality.
“wore a black leather jacked draped with chains, a gray Danceland T-shirt, and dirty purple chinos tucked into low blood-red boots. When she came near, I saw that her skin was as pitted as Mooner’s. His made him look dangerous. Hers made her look vulnerable as well, which made her look even more dangerous” (20).
“wore torn blue jeans, black cavalier boots, and a ruffled white silk shirt open almost to his waist. His white hair was tied at the back of his head like a samurai’s. His features were elvishly perfect: high cheekbones, flaring eyebrows, lips that seemed ready to laugh, eyes the color of smoke.
I didn’t hate him immediately. I pitied him. There are three desirable things that a guy can have: height, looks, and brains. The odds of getting all three are so slim that he probably needed help tying his shoes” (21-2).
Shetterly’s descriptions of Bordertown are Elsewhere’s worldview, too. In a city where places and possessions are hodgepodge and magic lives in the cracks of worldly pavement, things are not what they seem. Except when they’re exactly what they seem. Every scene of this novel is packed with delicious atmosphere, funny and smart dialogue, action, and, of course, magic.
what was this book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
I first read this book when I was around twelve or thirteen, and it’s absolutely one of my favorites. Each character—even those who appear for only a page or two, and there are many of these—is an individual, and we can read backstory in those brief sketches. This makes the place of Bordertown feel incredibly alive. The cast of central characters, too, is extremely well-drawn, each carrying the mark of her life in every action.
Characters make bad choices and do wonderful things; they are infuriating and lovely. There is not only magic, but also hair-cutting, cooking, dancing, and lots and lots of love, requited and un-. Shetterly shows the mundanities of life in a magical place, and he clearly shows Bordertown’s problems as well as its pleasures. This is one of the novel’s biggest successes, for me: gangs of elves war with humans and halfies; Castle Pup is threatened with a choice between folding from a lack of access to funds and turning itself into a business to stay afloat; King O’Beer and his boyfriend run into Elsewhere to escape a group of gay bashers; throughout the city, kids are addicted to peca and the water of the Mad River; magic backfires and harms people; magic intentionally harms people. The problems of any city run throughout Elsewhere, and Shetterly shows what permutations they might take in a place like Borderland.
Elsewhere is an original novel, but it inhabits the world of Bordertown that was originally created by Terri Windling in the anthologies Borderland (1986), Bordertown (1986), and Life on the Border (1991). Shetterly and Emma Bull (they’re married) contributed the story “Danceland” to Bordertown, and Elsewhere grew out of that story (as did Emma Bull’s 1994 Bordertown novel, Finder). You can read it here.
As Terri Windling explains here, in the late 1980s she was commissioned to create a “shared world” anthology for young adults—a world, that is, that could be built and then opened up so that other authors, like Will Shetterly, could write stories in that world. The setting she proposed, of course, was Bordertown, which she describes as “a modern city at the edge of a mysterious, magical realm—a border city where runaway children gather to create new lives for themselves . . . sometimes successfully, sometimes disastrously (reminiscent of Real Life teen meccas such as Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s).” The books gained a cult following in the 1980s and early 1990s, spawning, among other things, Borderland parties and raves. Count. Me. In.
Elsewhere is a wonderful read: great characters, awesome writing and—I saved this one—a little mystery that twines slowly through the book like a bike with a semi-busted spellbox. And, at the end, when Ron’s smart mouth pisses off the wrong person, magic turns him into something he could never have imagined. Check out Shetterly’s sequel, Nevernever, to find out what happens to Ron, and whether he can reverse the curse.
Note: in 2011, a new anthology set in Bordertown was published, edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner and featuring stories by such YA delights as Cory Doctorow, Jane Yolen, Will Shetterly, Annette Curtis Klause, Cassandra Clare, Terri Windling, and Neil Gaiman.
You can read Cory Doctorow’s story, “Shannon’s Law,” here.
And, hey, want to write some fanfiction or make some art in the world of Bordertown? Here are the guidelines.
The reason I picked this book up at a library book sale in Ann Arbor many moons ago is that I adore the cover. I guess I can see why someone might think it was ugly, but I challenge that person to a boogie-off at Danceland.
Ecstasia by Francesca Lia Block (1993). In this prequel to Primavera (1994), members of a popular band live in a magical world where youth and fun are the most valuable commodities; one by one they are driven underground or out of the city, some for love, and others by addiction.
The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar (1992). If Elsewhere is punk with elves, then this is elfpunk—well, fairypunk.
The Modern Faerie Tales by Holly Black (Tithe, 2002; Valiant, 2005; Ironside, 2007). Black’s trilogy also delves into the grittiness inherent in the seeming beauty of fey mythos.
And, of course, if you just like the world, anything in the Bordertown oeuvre.
procured from: a library book sale long, long ago (best $1.50 I’ve spent, not counting that one coffee that one time)