Okay, full disclosure here: I never would have picked up this book if the author himself hadn’t bought it for me. But when you work at a bookstore, strange things sometimes happen to you, and on this particular day, the strange thing that happened to me was that Richard Kramer, author of These Things Happen (and also creator of My So-called Life, oddly enough), came into the store and decided that the best way to make sure that we sold lots of copies of his book was to buy one for the bookseller behind the Information Desk.
Luckily for him, I was just about to go on break and wasn’t reading anything at the time, so despite being a bit weirded out by the whole thing, I took my new acquisition along with me and ten pages in, I was hooked. I guess Richard Kramer knew what he was doing.
These Things Happen is the exact prototype of an ensemble novel as I think of the concept. As that title would have you believe, things do happen in this book (as things are wont to do), but, really, it’s just about a tenth grader named Wesley, his best friend Theo, his father Kenny, his mother Lola, Kenny’s partner George, and Lola’s husband Ben. And it’s their distinct perspectives that drive the story, a swirling harmony of voices that combine to form something sweet and sad and funny and wonderfully, remarkably genuine.
Nikki Grimes’s Bronx Masquerade is kind of the Platonic ideal of an ensemble book in my head. It’s about a series of distinct voices, each of them fascinating and fully realized on its own, but so much better when taken as a whole.
One day, in a classroom in the Bronx, one of the boys decides that, instead of writing his assigned essay about the Harlem Renaissance, he’s going to write a poem. Why, he wonders, would a person write an essay about Langston Hughes when Langston Hughes was all about poetry—plus, poems are way shorter to write. The (fantastic, tough-lovey) teacher obviously isn’t letting him get away with that. Instead he makes him read his poem out loud to the class. And thus begins Open Mike Friday, a weekly classroom tradition.
As the students in the class read their own poems out loud every Friday, they each find their own voices and they begin to understand each other and come together as a community. I know that sounds cheesy. But the book doesn’t feel quite so cheesy when you read it—each kid’s poem is distinct and troubling and perfectly pitched in its own way, and they fit together as an awesome, readable poetry slam.
So the other day, Dana and I were gchatting about this month’s theme, and Elizabeth Haydon’s Rhapsody sprang to mind. I believe my exact words in describing it to her went something like this: “This fantasy novel that I love, even though it’s kind of ridiculous and romance-y. But it has one of my favorite character trios of all time.” (Actually, those were my exact words. The beauty of gchat.) Of course, then Dana asked if I was talking about Harry Potter and we had to spend a while debating whether Harry Potter can be described as ‘romance-y.’ (Consensus: Yes, but not in the sense I meant it.)
Anyway. Those remain the best words I can think of to describe this book. It is kind of ridiculous and romance-y. I mean, the whole thing hinges on an epic, centuries-spanning love story between two gorgeous, ageless people, one of whom has an elemental affinity with fire, the other with water. Yeah, like I said.
But put all that aside for a moment and you have three main characters: a rather irritatingly beautiful and righteous but still kick-ass lady, a giant ogre-esque drill sergeant who names his weapons and drops his ‘h’s, and a hideous, black-clad assassin with a vicious tongue and a surprising streak of decency. Thrown together by circumstance, they wander their complex fantastical world and navigate its many dangers as an odd but effective team.
And that is what makes this book worth your time—the interplay of these three hugely different personalities is hilarious, poignant, galvanizing, and beautifully done. Tearing through Rhapsody was some of the most fun I’ve ever had reading a book. And to be completely honest, the ridiculousness I mentioned earlier? All part of the charm.
So this is a little bit of weird one. But it’s so very good.
Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices is exactly what the title says—it’s a book of poems for two voices. Each of the poems in the book is carefully crafted for two people to read aloud together. One person reads one column, the other person reads the other, and their two voices mesh together to create one whole poem. So for example:
How cool is that?? So cool.
This is a book that I never would have discovered if I hadn’t been a bookseller at Politics & Prose (despite the fact that it won the 1989 Newbery Medal). It was just sitting on the shelf in the poetry section, and I was just sitting around with no customers late on a Thursday night, and we found each other. The next day I made several of my coworkers read out loud with me, because this book just begs to be heard, immediately. And it’s great on the page, but oh so much better when you read it as a team.
Sometimes the ties that bind people together are nice. Things like family and friendship, like shared happy memories and a mutual fondness for knitting, or basketball, or Dungeons & Dragons. But other times they’re not so nice. Carry the One tells the story of one of those times.
Right at the beginning of this book, something really, really terrible happens. I’m not going to tell you what, because spoilers, but suffice to say that the people involved—a small group of youngish adult siblings and friends—can never quite move past it and spend the next quarter century trying to make sense of its impact on their lives.
But don’t get the wrong idea, okay? I realize a premise like this makes the whole thing sound like a bit of a downer, but it isn’t. Really. This is the kind of book you’ll read in 24 hours for the sheer joy of it. Carol Anshaw’s characters are as real as any I’ve read; both individually and as a group, they respond to what happens the way people would: clumsily, painfully, and with surprising moments of humor and grace.
So, okay, yes, there are definitely sad bits. But only because life has sad bits. There are also funny bits and clever bits and warm, joyous bits. Because, you know, that’s how life goes. And that’s what this book is about—how life goes, and how life goes on.
I was lying around yesterday being lazy, just thinking about how it was going to be January 1 tomorrow (now today!), and on January 1 two things were going to happen: a) we needed to figure out a new theme for a new month, and b) Friends was going to be on Netflix.
And then I got to thinking.
The best thing about Friends is obviously the ensemble-ness of the cast. And there are tons of other awesome ensembles out there in the book world.
I told Serena my idea and she was like
So this month we’ll be talking about books with great groups of characters—characters who are good alone,
but oh so much better together.
Ah yes, I can smell the anticipation.
Oh, and PS, this month we’ll be linking to The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont. Hurrah!