Cracking The Bell by Geoff Herbach

Note: I received an advance copy of the book from the author.

I was finishing this book as news broke about Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement from the NFL, and I couldn’t help but see the connections. Isaiah in Cracking the Bell isn’t a multimillionaire with a degree from Stanford—he’s a high school senior with a history of concussions in his life. Literal concussions from hitting and being hit in football. Figurative concussions from the deaths of family members and the unresolved grief that follows.

But like Andrew Luck, Isaiah grapples with questions of what is worth risking for football. Questions of what we walk toward and what we walk away from. And author Geoff Herbach raises the bigger societal questions of football’s role in our culture and our construction of masculinity. To Herbach’s credit, Cracking The Bell is not simply a jeremiad against football—the novel recognizes how concussive young lives can be, inside and outside of football, and how football has served as a place of recovery as well as a place of pain.

As a conflicted football fan myself, I appreciate how well Herbach captures the game—too many novels involving sports fail this first hurdle. Cracking The Bell is thoughtful, timely, and more lyrical than I expected. I will be sharing it with my high school freshmen tomorrow.


Neanderthal Opens The Door To The Universe by Preston Norton—a book review

You begin the new school year with hope and good intentions. (If you don’t: stop teaching.)

Virus-free desks, virus-free computers.

But then one of the two cameras doesn’t work and School Picture Day Fiasco of 2018 ensues.

You spend four hours saunaing in the pillbox of football concessions, missing your nephew’s first start as QB1. Your team loses and your body exudes popcorn oil for eternity.

You miss the fourth day of school to travel one hundred minutes to a required class serving no purpose other than credentialism. All you learn is this fact: The same class was offered before the school year started, only you were not offered this choice. It rains for one hundred minutes on the drive back home.

One of your building’s wireless networks has to be shut down because someone has been illegally downloading a recent Hollywood blockbuster.

A student of yours misses the entire second week of school, and no one knows why.

A student of yours is sent away for placement.

Two weeks in and already the world is too much with you.

You need a shot of redemption, a growler of serotonin.

You pick up Neanderthal Opens The Door To The Universe by Preston Norton.

And you remember your purpose.


Cliff Hubbard, the narrator of Neanderthal Opens . . . , is larger than a CLIF Bar and nearly the size of an actual cliff. He is unlikely to eat an actual CLIF Bar, as his diet consists mostly of Pop-Tarts and pizza. His classmates can’t see past his bulk and his bracing disdain for everyone and everything but the movies he mostly watches alone. They call him Neanderthal—if they speak to him at all. They see his size and his silence as an invitation for harassment and bullying.

“Classmates” is the appropriate term, as Cliff’s only friend was his older brother, Shane. Note the use of the past tense.

High school is hell for Cliff, and home merely another level of the underworld, with a drunken, abusive father and a mother proving how a smile can be the ultimate form of denial.

Then the school’s star quarterback and living embodiment of toxic masculinity Aaron Zimmerman, fresh from fisticuffs with Cliff, suffers an accident that leaves him in a coma. Aaron emerges from the coma a changed man, convinced God has spoken to him, convinced God wants him to change his high school, convinced God wants Cliff to help Aaron make this change happen.

Convincing Cliff, however, may require another act of God. And actually completing the list? How hard could it be to redeem the school’s biggest bully? How hard could it be to convince the school’s meanest teacher to hit the reset button on his life and his career? How hard could it be to overcome the school’s version of the Spanish Inquisition?

As hard as . . . , well, I could the same figurative language as our narrator, but I’m not sixteen years old.

In turns scabrously funny and fabulously transcendent, Neanderthal Open The Door To The Universe successfully mixes the sacred and the profane as Aaron and Cliff team up with a motley crew of Breakfast Club outsiders, most notably the pint-sized, foul-mouthed spitfire that is Tegan, the younger sister of the school’s main drug dealer.

Elevator pitch: Deadpool meets Dead Poet’s Society—and it works.

Cliff isn’t a suited superhero, but he’s the kind of superhero suited to our broken present—the kind who makes us believe broken can be fixed.


Oh, and your purpose? Tegan makes it explicit (she makes most everything explicit):

“Sometimes . . . we get so caught up in the things we gotta do . . . that we forget about the people.”

And now Monday feel less like a burden and more like an opportunity.


The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold—a book review


Apophenia: the tendency to perceive meaningful patterns where none exist.

Noah Oakman is a kid of appetite; he even tells Circuit Lovelock (yes, that’s his name—bear with us) this the evening of their seemingly chance meeting at a high school party: “I think my appetite for life exceeds that of a normal human” (53). Noah’s appetite includes writing his own concise history, obsessing over a photo dropped by a singer who visited his high school, ritually reviewing a time-lapse YouTube video of a woman who took a daily self-portrait every day for nearly forty years, stalking an elderly man with a goiter who walks in his neighborhood, and consuming all available information about his favorite author, the enigmatic Mila Henry.

How do all of these appetites, these fascinations, connect? Noah is convinced they do, especially after his encounter with Circuit leaves his own circuits seemingly rewired, seeing a scar on his mother he swears wasn’t there before, the physical transformation of his family’s dog, the changing personalities of his gay best friend Alan and Alan’s sister Val. But not everything has changed: Noah’s younger sister Penny, for example, remains “pathologically authentic.” And Noah still has to make a decision about college and his future.

Arnold’s hyper-allusive young adult novel involves frequent David Bowie references (see also: the title) but it’s the Beatles who come to mind when I think about the patterns Noah finds. Specifically, “Eleanor Rigby”—”Look at all the lonely people/Where do they all belong?” Noah’s quest to find his place in the world, as it does for so many high school seniors, features the constant vacillation between the insistent dreams of the future and the resistant reality of loss. Loss of family, loss of friends, loss of self. A crippling fear that “the potential of loneliness is scarier than actual loneliness” (394).

If you’ve read Arnold’s previous novels, Mosquitoland and Kids of Appetite (and if you haven’t, fix that oversight), the mania, melancholy, and musings of Noah are of a piece with characters from those books. Until everything changes and Noah Oakman becomes Noah Hypnotik and we are figuratively taken across the universe.  The Strange Fascinations . . . makes Arnold’s previous novels feel positively restrained—the intentional bombastic sprawl of Arnold’s latest reads as though Walt Whitman decided “Song of Myself” should be a concept album and recruited some prog rock legends to record it. The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik is indeed strange, and hilarious, and strangely fascinating in its treatment of loneliness, longing, and loss. I encourage you to board the propulsive vessel of Arnold’s novel and float along in its most peculiar wake.



Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi



What to do when your enjoyment of a book forces you to confront a genre bias:

1. Quietly place the book on a shelf in your classroom library, work on plausible deniability.

“Emergency Contact? Not sure how that got there—maybe the publisher sent it to me?”

2. Declare the book a genre outlier, anomalous, and praise it with “Yes, but . . .”

“Yes, I enjoyed Emergency Contact, but mostly because the author breaks with narrative convention by using lists and replications of text messages, and her usage of pop-cultural references and neologisms like “snack-crastinated” creates a ludic narrative voice . . .”

3. Admit how you tore through the book because you loved the two main characters and dug how the author unironically/ironically embraced many genre conventions—and finally admit to yourself and others that enjoying a good romantic story neither makes you a Disney-fied cultural dupe nor destroys the last vestiges of your illusory masculine street cred.

Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi will make you put down your phone long enough to see what happens between first-year University of Texas student Penny and slightly older barista/baker/brooding budding filmmaker Sam, the supposedly off limits and unobtainable “uncle” (it’s complicated) of Penny’s UT roommate, Jude.

And then pick your phone up and tell all your friends to read this book. Even if, like Penny, you’ve never had many friends.

Blisteringly funny, alternately snarky and heartfelt, a winning mixture of the engagingly trivial and the disturbingly real,  Emergency Contact illuminates as much as it captivates, shining lights of varying intensities on issues such as female friendships, mother-daughter relationships, modern romance, sexual assault, race and class in America, and the ways social media and technology are changing how we construct our identities and connect with each other. Highly recommended.

tl;dr (didn’t read my review; you should absolutely read the book) —crying from laughing emoji/actually crying emoji/heart-eyes emoji.


This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada—a review

The last two years have taught us what we could not forget: that animals taste a lot like people.

And that’s how you hook a reader on the second page.


A twisty love story about identity and what makes us human, an explosive techno-thriller about playing God with genetic code, a dystopian survival story—This Mortal Coil is all of these things, and not once did I feel like shuffling off from its four hundred plus pages. (Kudos to Suvada for acknowledging the Monty Python connection in the title with a seemingly tossed off line late in the novel.)

Much like Elliot in Mr. Robot, Catarina Agatta is a young hacker with extraordinary talents and major father issues. The evil corporation here is Cartaxus, and when we meet Catarina, she is struggling to survive in the wilderness: survive her hunger, survive her isolation, survive the Wrath caused by the Hydra Virus that has led most survivors to flee to the supposed safety of the Cartaxus bunkers. But these bunkers are not for Catarina—her brilliant geneticist father, Dr. Lachlan Agatta, ordered her to stay in the wild when he and his assistant (and Catarina’s romantic interest) Dax were forcibly taken by Cartaxus operatives.

Two years later, and Catarina’s fragile existence in the resistance is threatened by the arrival at her cabin of Cartaxus soldier Cole. However, Cole, like nearly every character in Suvada’s engaging novel, is more complicated than he seems at first glance. He and Catarina join forces in a race to build a vaccine before the virus mutates further. This race for a cure leads Catarina to learn more about her own identity and the role her father has played in shaping this world.

Breathless in the best ways, This Mortal Coil pauses to provide nuanced discussion of the ethics of altering our fundamental genetic identities—and does so without every seeming preachy or pedantic. My students and I eagerly await book two, This Cruel Design, which is to be released this fall.


Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin—a review

“Why do you stay here? He seems really mean.”

“I don’t know where else to go . . .”

In the America of Lean on Pete, you’re either rooted or rootless, bound or footloose, but hounded always by the past. You live in the shadows, even when you live in the exposed skeleton of the desert. Hidden from view—children invisible to their parents, women invisible to the men who use them, drunk and disappointed dreamers invisible to the wider world. Or worse: those no longer dreaming, just damned.

This is the world of Charley Thompson, fifteen years old and living in a Portland shack with a sometimes father and a constant hunger. Running the streets (literally) to pursue his dream of playing football for his new high school when the school year starts, Charley is driven into the sadness of Del Montgomery, a hobbled horse trainer and trader. Working for Del provides Charley with some money, a further education into the corrupt soul of the American Dream, and a quiet friendship with a horse named Lean on Pete.

Circumstances drive Charley deeper into Del’s world, until Pete is too worn down for Del to lean on any longer. Choosing rootless over rooted in cruelty, Lean on Pete becomes travels with Charley (and Pete), a great escape across the northern passage of the American West. Though he feels damned at times, Charley still dreams, dreams of reuniting in Wyoming with the only family member he knows, his aunt.

With a parsimony befitting both the physical and emotional geography, Vlautin gives us a coming of age survival story in an America many of us willingly shutter, a novel illuminating the harrowing strain involved in chipping away at American rust.

I admit it took the positive buzz around the film version to bring this quietly devastating novel to the top of my to-be-read pile, but the subtle redemption of Lean on Pete should be read immediately.


Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson—a review


One of the most popular titles in my classroom this past school year, Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson reads much like the storm that raged this morning as I zipped through the final 200 pages—jolting thunder, cracks of lightning, and even when things seem calm, a persistent menace.

Fifteen-year-old Mary lives in a horror-show of a group home, ill-treated by those running the home, tortured by her fellow housemates, a lost soul in a crumbling juvenile justice system. But why should we feel sorry for her? After all, nine-year-old Mary murdered the infant her mother was supposed to be taking care of.


Justice moves slowly, and when a baby is killed, society prefers the viper strike of vengeance; thus Mary’s silence in the aftermath of tiny Alyssa’s death quickly combines with the testimony of Mary’s mother to send Mary into the isolation of “baby jail.”

Mary eventually ages out of “baby jail” and into the group home, where the few “freedoms” include community service. The nursing home where Mary “volunteers” leads to her meeting Ted, a fellow “volunteer” living a similarly adjudicated reality. Ted is the one light in Mary’s darkness, and when Mary reveals she is pregnant, Ted stays true to her.


Her pregnancy puts Mary in another kind of “baby jail”: the reality that the state plans to take her baby and put it up for adoption. After all, how can a baby-killer be expected to be a good mother? The prospect of having her baby taken away leads Mary to revisit her past and, with the help of strong women like her SAT tutor Ms. Claire and crusading lawyer Ms. Cora, rebuild a future where the truth about Mary’s past is revealed.


Brutal and disturbing in its depictions of broken lives, broken minds, and broken systems, Allegedly casts into question our notions of justice, sanity, and forgiveness, Allegedly uses Mary’s compelling voice to relentlessly push us forward, plot twist after plot twist, revelation after revelation. But for those who expect a clear light ahead after such darkness, Jackson complicates our “happy” ending.


After The Shot Drops by Randy Ribay–a review.

“Sometimes the corniest things are the things we need to say the most, the things people need to hear the most.”

I need help.

I miss you.

I should have told you.

I’m sorry.

I’m scared.


After The Shot Drops by Randy Ribay could have been titled The Importance of Being Earnest (I’m told this title is already taken). Sure, Ribay’s powerful narrative is also part of a LeBron-like run of great young adult basketball novels (The Crossover/Rebound, Boy21, Hooper, All American Boys, The Hate U Give), but like those novels, After The Shot Drops has higher goals and largely reaches them.

Ball is life for teenage prodigy Bunny, so much so that he transfers from his public school to an elite private school to maximize his potential and exposure. But has he left himself behind in doing so? Is his identity at St. Sebastian’s only that of a basketball god for hire? Can he handle the incredible whiteness of being at such a school? Has he betrayed his past?

His friends from Whitman seem to think so. In particular, his best friend and neighbor Nasir has ghosted him since the decision to transfer. Bunny throws himself into basketball with even more fervor and focus, and his game and his fame increase exponentially as St. Sebastian’s marches toward the state championship.

Meanwhile, Nasir (the novel is told in alternating narration between Nasir and Bunny) tries to help his cousin Wallace extricate himself from his difficult economic reality, a reality made even more difficult by Wallace’s life choices. Speaking of difficult, Nasir discovers Bunny is now dating Keyona, Nasir’s long-time crush from Whitman. Both Bunny and Nasir miss the solace their friendship provided, but pride/male stubbornness prevents the rapprochement both crave. Finally, circumstances (in other words, no spoilers) push Nasir and Bunny back together, threatening Bunny’s basketball dreams and more than just their friendship.

In a broader American culture where too many males are more comfortable handling weapons than their emotions, stories like After The Shot Drops are vital. Taking on the “guy code” and the “code of the streets,” Ribay shows in After The Shot Drops how friendship and honesty can crack these codes.


Eggshells by Caitriona Lally—a review.

I never know how to respond to people who want small complete sentences with one tidy meaning. I can’t explain myself to people who peer out windows and think they know the world.


So says Vivian, the narrator of Eggshells, a poignant novel about what it means to walk on the margins of our world. And how much you believe in her credo above will largely dictate your response to Lally’s novel. If you are looking for “one tidy meaning,” walk on. If you are looking for a narrator who sees the world slant, who compulsively lists the names for things, whose daily forays around Dublin in search of secret portals and social interaction inevitably end in failure, walk with Vivian and her new friend Penelope.

Vivian is mad, crazy, convinced she is a changeling, broken, isolated, vexing, annoying—she is every hygenically-challenged person you’ve ever avoided on public streets and transportation. But like Ray in Sara Baume’s magisterial Spill Simmer Falter Wither, Vivian sees the world in angles and dimensions the rest of us generally fail to: the earned perspective of a social isolate who has not stopped observing. People walking on the margins, fragile and largely forgotten—people whose attempts at human interaction largely falter because their perceptions of life are drawn to a different scale, people whose sense of language rings with half-notes and microtones inaudible to most.

Though heartbreaking, Vivian’s loneliness is also filled with whimsy and heroism; she can’t go on, but she goes on. Eggshells hints, toward the end, at causal factors for Vivian’s isolation, but those in search of cause and effect have missed the point of Lally’s novel. Or so I think, having peered into the window of Vivian’s world and left seeing our own a bit more slant.