Friday, November 30, 2012

The Footbridge, by Josh Chapman: a Review

When the first squishy boy/girl scene flew by, I was thinking, “Oooh, and I getting old or what?” I think it’s “Or what,“ in the plot-rich but character-deficient The Footbridge by Josh Chapman. The plot is simple – got your temporal relativity boots on? Girl and boy are best buds since pre-K. Both become movie goodlooking teenage characters. Then, we get the old double narrator trick, in which the boy’s narrator is omniscient  - except for one huge blind spot. He’s crazy about the girl, and she’s crazy about him, but since he’s the jock, she’s waiting for him to make the move.  Neither character can see that the other is feeling deepening emotions, because they think of each other as they ware – and the risk of losing the friendship is a risk too big to take.

Kelly, the guy, may as well be a cardboard cut out of the jock character – but he foreshadows the repressed, unemotional, Jack Kemp sort of guy that he will develop into – in the sequel. Sally, the girl, is total emo at its worst. Her mom had her in high-school, or rather, conceived her in high school and then dropped out. The entirety of the first act is spent with Sally comtemplating suicide. That’s what you do as an emo girl.

Chapman sets himself a challenging task by attempting the double narrator trick. I tried that at the beginning of my own romantic fiction novel – until my writers’ group talked me down. They assured me that one of my narrators would get stuck with an unsympathetic character. Kelly is worse than unsympathetic. He’s BORING. He’s just too perfect. I want to decapitate him with his own lacrosse cross. Sally is her own kind of caricature. When reading the chapters narrated by the two separate narrators from their limited point-of-view,  I felt that the stories were alive, but not the characters. Add Alex, the role-playing dweeb, and Lauren, the trusty best friend, and I was tempted to set this one aside.

Now to the more interesting part – the plot. We find out that Sally isn’t a depressed emo girl because she was born to an alcoholic teenage mom whose seducer was a one night stand. It turns out that as the soldier of the next generation was making its way up her mom to form Sally, her mom observed something unspeakable. For the next seventeen years, an evil cabal of real estate demons, perverts, and low-level medical assistants conspire to make Sally’s mom a falling-down drunk and to make Sally so depressed that she cannot raise her head out of the botulized stew of her own life to pose a threat.

The accident that changes everything is that a temporal rift develops over the footbridge that Sally crosses every day to get to school. Now, Sally has a chance to change history, because her mother and the sperm source went to her high school eighteen years earlier. Now it gets good. Now we find out very quickly what the motivations of all the awful people of Sally’s present day lives are.

Josh Chapman clearly shows promise. I couldn’t stop reading the book after the dweeb character gets sucked into 1995. As a reader, I just shouldn’t be manhandled into investing an hour or two in wooden characters and predictable dialogue before the good stuff starts. The plot was thrilling – once I got there. I can see the movie in my imagination, and it’s better than the book.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Best Book for Very Old (and some very young)

“Nothing, nothing I try, nothing I say, nothing I do, gets through to her!” How many times have we, the sandwich generation, heard this lament from our friends, our bridge partners, our work colleagues, or even ourselves? The problem is that our aged parents are confronted with the growing loss of mental capacity. Not being a clinician, I am not able to say what degree of self-awareness the increasingly demented family member retains, I know that the children or caregivers of elderly people facing dementia do not enjoy “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

So what do we do? How do we make the hours we spend with the elderly any form of a reward – or at least, not so punishing to our hearts and to our psyches? Music therapy is great, and we know that music makes a connection. In his new book, Blue Sky White Clouds: A Book for Memory-Challenged Adults (2012, Rainbow Ridge Books), Eliezer Sobel creates a storyboard of twenty-six evocative photographs in which the story ranges far, far beyond the four or five 48-point words captioning the picture.

When I first tried to use the book with a senior, I chose for one example the picture of a row of pines blanketed in snow, arising from a deep cottony landscape with the ever-so-common grey winter sky, rendered much more friendly by the black-and-white format. I was able to create a conversation about visiting a friend’s house for Christmas. My elderly friend selected one of the trees in the picture and imagined decorations. I know that I could have led an entire therapy session if that were my profession, using Christmas ornaments, gingerbread cookies, and candles, then going deeper into a patient’s own background to make deeper and deeper connections. My friend was able to read the caption out loud, and with the book open to that picture, remain engaged for  fifteen minutes. What a gift!

Because I am an older dad, I was able to test out another hypothesis. I have long known that the cognitive abilities of children far exceeds their reading level or even their linguistic capacities. Might the rich, real, pictorial stories rendered in Sobel’s book hold the attention of people at the opposite end of the age spectrum? My own daughter, at five years of age just beginning to read, was able to turn to any picture and with some help, read the caption. More importantly, the pictures evoked stories, coming out almost without prompting from a little girl who has suffered from expressive language delay. Ten minutes talking about a brilliant black and yellow butterfly on a purple and white iris.

I am suggesting, although I don’t have research to back this up, that these evocative, rich pictures of the great and small, the very old and very young, the tiny and the vast, reach in and touch the cognitive function and emotional processing of the very old and the very young in a way that is usually reserved for the music therapist. At 26 pages, the book is more than manageable to the reader, and offers the caregiver the opportunity to connect in a rich and vital way.