Friday, December 11, 2009

Going Bovine

Title: Going Bovine
Author: Libba Bray
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2009

Cameron is a 16 year old high schooler who gets straight Cs when he doesn’t fail and smokes a lot of pot. It helps him keep his mind off of the fact that his family is falling apart, and that he doesn’t care. Or maybe he does care, but he can’t do anything about it. But recently his waking hours have become stranger than even the pot can account for, involving giant flame monsters controlled by an armed and armored wizard and a lady punk rocker angel. Of course only Cam sees any of these things. It comes to a head when he punches out an ex football star… during class. Even Cam has to admit something strange is happening. Turns out he has Mad Cow Disease. Oh, and it’s fatal. Bummer.

Cam is taken out of school and put into the hospital for testing, hoping that they’ll come up with a miracle fix before his brain turns into a sponge. That’s when his angel comes back and tells him he has two options: Stay in the hospital bed and die, or go on a quest reminiscent of Don Quixote to find Dr. X, the only man who can cure him.

Cameron chooses the quest and drags along his hospital roommate, an asthmatic Mexican-American dwarf video game aficionado (not named Sancho) he met once in the druggie bathroom at school, because the angel claims the dwarf has to come along if they’re going to succeed. Along the way they’ll play jazz with the greatest horn player in the Big Easy, assist a Norse God trapped in Lawn Gnome form who is tired of being urinated on, and countless other things as they learn what it really means to be alive.

The characters Libba Bray uses are some of the most interesting ones I’ve run across. Even if you’ve never been the high school druggie, even if your family is the most tight-knit happy-go-lucky group out there, you can relate to Cam’s existence and feel what it must be like to have everyone give up on you. To give up on yourself, as Cam has. But through it all, despite the despair of Cam’s situation, despite his family problems, his intense internal and personal issues and drug abuse, there’s always hope. And that’s one of Ms. Bray’s best talents, is the constant infusion of hope into her novels. The sense that “yeah, it sucks now, but things will get better if you just keep trying and wait” is enough to keep everyone going. And it’s an important life lesson to remember.

Libba Bray’s Going Bovine plays with a reader’s mind, constantly making one question whether any of it is really happening. Is it, perhaps, all in Cam’s mind? Is he on a fantastic journey or is he hallucinating in his hospital bed, doped up beyond belief? Playing with the idea of parallel universes and death, Ms. Bray sets her reader on a path of enlightenment and discovery, dragging them to the lowest points possible and then offering up the best that life can offer. In that, it is an honest reflection of high school and adolescence, where one second is the worst a person can imagine and then, with a pop of a mystical bubble, life is better than it’s ever going to get. She reminds everyone, as Cervantes says, “Take my advice and live for a long long time, because the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die.”

Going Bovine is told in startling first person, dictated by Cameron as though you were sitting in a room with him as he told you his story. It’s masterfully done.

My Thoughts:
This book had me laughing from the acknowledgments that Ms. Bray writes at the beginning (because everyone should thank Pete Townshend and the makers of Rock Band®!) and crying (because no one should have a relationship with their father’s back, you know?) and everything in between. I was really hesitant going into the book because, well, it’s about a kid dying at 16. How fun can that be to read? But I was more than pleased with the way it all turned out. It was a book that made me think, made me reread things to see if I’d got them right, and made me look at the MTV world that is spoon-fed to our high schoolers (I should know, I was one) as what they should be doing/liking/etc in a new light. This book deals with a kid dying. Yes. But it’s about so much more. It’s about learning to live and making the best of the time you’re given.

Favorite Scene:
I love the conflict and eventual friendship that formed between Gonzo (the dwarf) and Balder (the Lawn Gnome) at the pancake restaurant. However, the first chapter, where Cam’s describing his best day ever (“happened when I was 5 ... I’m 16 now, so you can imagine that’s left me with quite a few days of major suckage.”) stands out even when you’ve finished the whole book.

Who this book is best for:
High School age kids will adore this story, if they can cope with some of the strange stuff that happens and I’d hazard that 7th and 8th graders would like it, too. Really though, adults can enjoy the book just as much if they don’t mind their main character being 16. There’re some references to sex later (but nothing gratuitous) so if you’re uncomfortable with your children reading about that, be aware.

Violence: 3 out of 5. The bad guy likes to blow things up and set things on fire. What do you expect when his henchmen are pillars of flame?

Stars: 4 of 5

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