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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I suppose I should start off by saying that I began my career in a residential school somewhat like the fictional "Roaring Orchards" portrayed in this book, so this book held a special draw for me. There were plenty of differences between where I used to work and Roaring Orchards. We worked with kids of all ages, not just teenagers. We were in an urban rather than rural environment. We had a much bigger staff and much more supervision.

But there were enough similarities that Dan Josefson's portrayal not only rang true, but packed a wallop. My school too was a rarefied, nearly incestuous environment that, despite being in a major city and affiliated with a major university, was oddly isolated from the outside world. I too was one of those staff barely older/more mature (and definitely less streetwise) than many of the students I worked with. I too struggled to understand and implement the therapeutic "process" and be part of the daily therapeutic "milieu". And I too saw the pathos and tragedy that ensue when so many severely damaged kids are isolated with only each other and staff with their own issues. I often found myself wondering if Josefson's portrayal of Benjamin were perhaps autobiographical - how else could he paint such an unbelievable, yet utterly accurate, picture of such a place?

Not only does Josefson's novel work on a psychological level, it works on a literary level. Our narrator, Benjamin, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. His story is ostensibly a first person narrative, but it shifts frequently to a third person omniscient point of view, including many events, conversations and even thoughts, feelings and dreams, which Benjamin could not possibly know. He tells us early on that everything came from what he later learned or was told, but it seems improbable, at best, that head master Aubrey would have told him his dreams, for instance.

Benjamin is brought to Roaring Orchards ostensibly just for a tour, but his parents leave him behind and hurry out without so much as a goodbye, apparently on the advice of Aubrey. But even that is suspect, because Benjamin must have known that it was more than a tour, or else why would he have kicked out the window on his parents' car? Benjamin is initially placed into "Alternative Boys" dorm, the mid-level dorm for somewhat higher functioning kids. He is thrown into a world of unfathomable rules and a whole new language of allegedly therapeutic terms - mostly developed by Aubrey. Students in the dorm have to stay grouped within arm's length or else the entire group gets "hand held". Problems are addressed in "candor meetings" where everyone might have to write their "fibs" - functional intimacy blockers. Students who run or get violent may get put in a "wiggle" (another acronym, although I can't remember and can't find exactly what it stands for), get "cornered", "sheeted" or "roomed".

Benjamin makes it clear, without stating it directly, that no one at Roaring Orchards, staff or student, can be trusted. In a therapeutic milieu founded on the healing benefits of honesty, everyone exaggerates, distorts and/or outright lies. Often those lies are taken as the truth and the ordinary truth is rejected as "dishonest". Benjamin himself is (was, as he's telling us the story) a student at Roaring Orchards, so he is telling us that he can't be trusted either. Yet somehow underneath the lies and the distortions, a kind of truth emerges - a truth of enmeshed relationships, human nature and the intentional and unintentional damage we do to each other, particularly those to whom we are closest - either physically or emotionally.

Roaring Orchards is a place intended to be glorious and magical. Most of the dorms are located in the Mansion. There's also an "Enchanted Forest", a fountain, a garden and a farm on the premises. All of these elements are intended to have symbolic meaning in the students' healing process. But even in the time Benjamin is telling us about, the school is worn, shabby, almost tawdry. The carpet is fraying, additions have been added on haphazardly, the farm consists of a goat, a pig and a handful of chickens that only the maintenance man ever tends to. These faded elements too have symbolic importance.

Benjamin is telling us this story many years after he himself left the school and several years after the school was closed down completely. The buildings are still standing, but only just. The Mansion is a barren shell, so rotten that Benjamin can't even make it up the stairs safely. The Classroom Building is still nearly the way it was left, if dustier. It is there that Benjamin - now an adult - encounters some reminders and begins writing his narrative of his youth at Roaring Orchards. To whom he is writing or why is left as vague and misty as all the other senseless, tragi-comic events in the book.

This book left me feeling both pensive and wistful, but it is not a sentimental book. The book is deeply sarcastic, ironic and contemptuous of humanity, its cruelty and the possibility of healing. Yet somehow there is also something redeeming and hopeful about it. It is a book to be mulled over and peeled away in layers. It is a frustrating book, one that defies explanation, one that may leave you feeling left out of the joke. Highly recommended for those who can tolerate ambiguity and lack of resolution. 4.5 stars.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 2012
The director of Roaring Orchards, a school for troubled teens, believes wholeheartedly in the therapeutic process of his own invention on which the school is predicated. Cockamamy? Yes--but not a bit more so than many of the weird therapies that were popular in the 60's. Josefson's intelligent, empathic, and always lucid writing brings the school to vivid life. The teachers are patient and well-meaning, but often bumbling and incompetent; the parents are desperate and hence gullible and trusting; the children struggle with mighty burdens of anxiety, anger, frustration, and desire as they attempt to follow "the process" in order to graduate. The book is sad and wryly funny, and everyone in it is so compelling that I was sorry when I got to the end.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 13, 2012
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
In 1971 I spent six months in a juvenile facility for troubled teens. In 1993 my daughter spent time in a half way house for troubled girls. It is now 2012 and I am now doing this work. Not many people have any idea what this work entails for those involved, both staff and kids. This books captures it in heartbreaking reality. I was completely captivated by the characters, the stories, the outcomes. The author is truly gifted and I am honored to have read this book, and to recommend it to anyone who cares about the next generation.

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2012
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I loved Meg Abbott's "Dare Me," and thought this book might be like it. It was and it wasn't. "Dare Me" digs more deeply into the psychology of the girls whereas Josefson lets actions speak louder than words. There are some very crazy actions.

Dan Josefson has created a dystopian school amid the traditional world of private schools. "That's Not a Feeling" takes place at Roaring Orchards, a boarding school for troubled kids. In an otherwise idyllic setting, Roaring Orchards, the school, is purgatory.

There is no real curriculum. There is no real adult around. The students are put into levels and different punishments on a whim. The cast of characters is wide, each with a highly unusual, negative trait.

The main character, Benjamin, was tricked into coming to the school on what he thought was a visit. Then his parents disappear, and he's stuck. He befriends Tidbit, a girl who seems to understand his own sense of disillusionment with the world and can play the words right into a teacher's face with a straight expression.

Although this is kind of a black comedy, with the various character names (Pudding for one) and constant teasing and psychobabble, Josefson looks closely at the use of drug therapies and self-esteem building programs that aren't working.

Truly, this is a book that lays it out plainly but in a comic way: don't mess with other people's brains and quit trying to get them to indulge in telling their secrets to strangers.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 13, 2012
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I think the author did a masterful job of messing around with the rules of storytelling in That's Not A Feeling. This is a first person narrative that slyly jumps around to third person while still being the recollections of a first person account. I liked the way that the omniscient perspective would be used in the same paragraph as words like "I" and "me", and yet never broke any grammatical rules. It all fits, as the structure of the story reveals.

What is key to believing that the protagonist is actually relating past events is that he is an unreliable narrator. He can 'remember' anything he likes, fill in the blanks of what other students and staff members are feeling and saying, at will. He clearly does, as it is doubtful he knows what the headmaster dreams of at night, or the darkest thoughts of staff while they fumble around in their intimacies.

So if you understand that Benjamin is making the story his, it's easier to buy in to the conceit of the POV.

What I found disappointing was the plot and pacing. I like cohesive storytelling, and this is more of a series of unrelated vignettes. True, the darkly comic and arch tone will appeal to plenty of readers. You have to be willing to work as a reader to keep up with the satiric asides and symbolic commentary. So while I would applaud the deft absurdist crafting of the book, I personally didn't enjoy it.

Moreso, I really wanted to love this novel! I have personal experience with group homes and mental illness, and was excited to see some of my own experiences reflected in fiction. The universe-within-a-universe rings especially true, with breaking people down and rebuilding them in a structured fashion of idiosyncratic language, social codes and privileges. Stockholm Syndrome is clearly at play here. Punishments are humiliating and vaguely cruel. And while all this is fascinating, I really wanted a story I didn't have to struggle to enjoy.

Recommended for those who like dark humor, complicated narration, and layered societal commentary. Not recommended as easy or pleasant storytelling.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2012
Narrator Benjamin is left by his parents at a "school" for troubled teens. Teens are organized into dorms, held accountable for the actions of not only themselves but their group, and are generally looked over by one or more inept dorm parents or teachers. They are all following a program set forth by headmaster Audrey, who seems to be the only person in the entire facility who understands his ideas (which is no surprise, as they are largely ethereal mumbo-jumbo).

Sounds interesting, right? Boarding school? Troubled teens? Crazy adults? An almost cultish leader whose ideas nobody can quite seem to grasp?

Sadly, the book falls flat. Very flat. The narrator's own story is very incomplete. We never understand why Benjamin was put away at this school. No one seems to make any progress. You will find them in the same state at the beginning of the book as the end. There is a traumatic event that unfolds 3/4 way through the book and still there is no character development. The narrator even refers to his return to the school as an adult, and yet no reason is ever given for his pilgrimage back to this place that must have affected him deeply.

I can't help but think that we got the boring pieces of this story. All the ones that sat right on the surface. Student A did this. Teacher B did that. I wish the author had dug down a little deeper to tell us not just what happened, but what it felt like.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2012
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
You do have to enjoy convoluted novels that ask a great deal of concentration and patience from readers to enjoy this one. Stay with it through the first quarter of the book, because after that you won't be able to put it down.

The specifics of Roaring Orchards have been covered by other reviewers. The contrast between what was intended for the school (a sort of feudal wonderland) and what the school actually is like (old buildings, listless animals, mud) is sadly hilarious. The treatment program, devised by a charismatic, narcissistic leader, has the shifting rules, enforced togetherness and made-up vocabulary (popped, sheeted, cornered, ghosted) of various cult-like organizations I have read about.

The baffled staff and confused student body are perfectly drawn. No one, staff or student, is at Roaring Orchards for any other reason that they have run out of other choices. No one wants to be honest about why they are at the school, including the staff. The medication is measured out and poured down throats, the classes are pointless, the "details" are basically ditch-digging, and the kids are genuinely disturbed. Is this funny? Well, yes, at time, it is.

But let's talk about the kids. Their mental illness looks like actual mental illness; diffuse, nonspecific, agonized and dishonest. The pain of suffering kids is played for laughs at times, as the book teeters on absurdist. But as you read it, you become uncomfortably convinced that despite the absurdity and chaos, something here is actually working for the kids. And that is what haunts the narrator, Benjamin, as he looks back at his time in Roaring Orchards; the suspicion that somehow, in some way, this place actually did help him.

This is why the book has such a powerful cumulative effect. Recommended highly to the right reader; read the reviews and see if you think that's you.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2012
That's Not A Feeling, by Dan Josefson, is the story of Roaring Orchards, a boarding school for troubled youth, and traces the experiences of Benjamin, a new student who encounters this strange world following two failed suicide attempts. After smashing out his parents windshield in the facilities parking lot, and believing he was `just on a tour,' Benjamin's parents leave him without a goodbye in the hands of staff who adhere to the school's philosophy that few can explain or understand. The journey of Benjamin, along with other students, including one particularly endearing and quirky girl named tidbit, is told in mixed narrative. Benjamin is admitted as Aubrey, the school `headmaster' and creator of this world, is sick and may be dying.

The title, That's Not A Feeling, comes from the list of accepted feelings a student, and a staff member, is allowed to identify when being challenged and confronted, and it just one of the many ways forced and feigned ways of being are put upon the cast of memorable and distinct characters.

My interest in the novel came partially from my short-lived experience as a social worker/counselor in similar facilities where they use what is called Positive Peer Culture, and yes, it is certainly its own culture. In Roaring Orchards, groups have to physically gang up on others who act out, students have to face walls, have their shoes taken away, and there is a whole esoteric dictionary of words, terms, and acronyms. This piece of fiction isn't untrue.

Children and staff alike in Roaring Orchards struggle with how much `buy-in' to have for the schools curriculum. Students can explain the reasoning behind the therapeutic interventions, but it is certainly not something they have faith in, and ultimately they feign issues so that they can then impress their therapists and show progress. Staff spends time mocking the children and seem to be as adolescent as those they serve, some pledging allegiance to the mission but others planning to sue the facility or finally tell the administrator off and demand it close. Just as the children plot to run, staff think of leaving, turning over "states-evidence," while those with idealistic visions are met with a steel shovel to the shins and a rude awaking. Parents who object to the punishments tone down their words when offered the chance to bring their child home, since then the rules don't seem so bad. The ultimate existential crisis for the Benjamin, and the rest of the youth, is to run, or not to run, and youth are often chased sprinting from the grounds of the school. The only true relationships in the novel are those that are undercover, with children bonding through secrets, shared rule-breaking, and secret plots to leave.

Genuine longings and hopes go unfulfilled, and it seems the author and the reader want more for these characters. The world the author has created is all game playing with various interventions that make it comically but darkly absurd. When you FIB you are using functioning intimacy blockers. Students get ghosted and nobody can speak with them since they aren't really there. They are put in their rooms until they remember things correctly, made to sit facing corners, split up into oddly named groups, and in an incredible birthing scene gone wrong (that just may have stolen the show) students recreate their own struggles in the womb, emerge to an idealistic mother, and `relearn' how to form bonds.

The author doesn't seem to be making a statement on a boarding school, what seems to fit more is that this is just a microcosm of the world we all live in. True relationships and connections that are ached for are not found in easy, outwardly ways, feelings are feigned to get along, masks are created with beaks to appease others. Sure, we can run, but where to? We may be incapable of surviving without these rules, and we want to stick around, just to see what kind of drama happens next. The author loved all of his characters, none of them are evil, their intentions and longings are very human and even grand at times, and the dialogue between them flowed wonderfully. Ironic passages where characters are constantly feigning how they are supposed to feel, unwittingly mocking the rules, all of them aware of the absurdity, and once in while rebelling with an axe or a fire.

The oft-occurring childhood violence is not searing, nor are the actions necessarily evil, they are matter of fact, done on a whim, with little spite and seem to be the only way a student can have any true impact on the environment. When they come, they often make sense, or at least aren't some sort of reflection of a dark human nature, and there's just enough empathy for the children and supposed theoretical principle to the school to make it seem legit, and just enough mastery by the God of his Universe, Aubrey, to keep it going.

Aubrey, like any charismatic leader, has tremendous personal power and abilities to persuade others. He asks questions, spins truths, and interrogates others in a way that undress any last bit of defenses. Yet this God is dying, maybe losing his sanity, because when he finally lets it all explode in a bit of a mea culpa; telling the children and staff what he really thinks of them, it's barely noticed. Their leader is lost, utterly disappointed in his failing and the flaws of those around him, but .everyone moves on without notice. This is chilling. Aubrey was maybe the best part of the novel and sprinkled about in just enough doses that you wanted more.

What made my jaw drop was actually not what was inside the novel, but when I saw that David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, has a blurb on the cover.

"Dan Josefson is a writer of astounding promise and That's Not a Feeling is a bold, funny, mordant, and deeply intelligent debut." --David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest

Nuff said, right? Why is anybody else even bothering doing a review? This is Warren Buffet admiring your stock picks, and Martha Stewart oohing and awwing at your decorative dishware. Wallace is the modern day face of so called "difficult fiction," fiction you have to work at as a reader. It was the last book blurb Wallace wrote, reportedly doing multiple rewrites to make the 22 words give the right emotional impact, and That's Not A Feeling was perhaps the last novel he ever read, before taking his own life in September, 2008.

This novel did take a bit of work, and my guess is there will be a splatter of one and two stars or "I gave it a chance, but I just couldn't finish it" where others will applaud the efforts and speak of its subtle hypnotizing nature. I was both of these during different moments, but I'm a marathoner, and I know that the first miles can be the toughest and once you get warmed up, it flows smooth and sweet. The novel is published by Soho Press, who pride themselves in presenting works that other houses ignore since they are not so quickly and easily digestible by the public. There's something noble in that.

The difficult parts were the inexplicable narration change. The novel begins in third person, but then switches to first person, and the reader wonders how the narrator knows things where he isn't even present, and how he can describe how other people felt as if he's omniscient, . You learn later that it's a retrospective, and at one point the narrator self- reflects about writing the actual book you are reading.

"Mr. David Wallace," if I could only ask, "were you referring to this unusual narrative stance in your praise?" Because what I kept feeling was that the author was cheating, using the immediacy and intimacy of a first person narrative, yet also the more universal storytelling tools of the third person narrative. Despite the intrusive narrative changes, however, it was a world I don't' want to run from, but certainly wanted and needed to stick around, just to see how it may end. In fact, after finishing the novel, I didn't' want to read anything else for a bit. It felt like having a unique dish, a rarely tasted flavor in my mouth, and I didn't' want any new flavor to spoil it.

It seems kind of cheap to use traditional ratings to grade a non-traditional novel; to buy-in to this 5 star system for a novel that mocks superficial buy-in, but like a Roaring Orchards child I'll play along, rather than run, and give it 4 stars, and will wait for the many future novels to see if indeed George Foster Wallace's spirit has lived on in the body of Dan Josefson.

Mark Matthews, author of Stray and The Jade Rabbit
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 31, 2013
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
"That's Not a Feeling" started off promising, but I lost interest about two-thirds of the way through and eventually gave up on it. The therapeutic boarding school set up was intriguing, but I didn't like how the author abruptly alternated narrative viewpoints. For instance, one paragraph would be told from Benjamin's point of view, and the very next paragraph would be from one of the dorm parent's point of view, and the dorm parent's paragraph may be referencing an event that occurred days or weeks after the event discussed in Benjamin's paragraph. This technique made it difficult for me to fully immerse myself in the book, as I had to spend more time than I would have liked paying attention to these shifts in perspective. I also felt that too many of the characters introduced in the novel were just names on the page rather than fully developed individuals. This made it hard for me to both connect with and care about them. I really wanted to like "That's Not a Feeling," but unfortunately, I ended up not even wanting to finish it.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I confess - I took a moment to read some of the other reviews before writing mine. In a way, I'm glad I did because it clarified something for me. I have absolutely no experience with any sort of group living facilities. Nor do I have any experience with suicidal thoughts, mental health issues, etc. I think I've been lucky.

However, when it came to this book, I think that lack of experience made it very hard for me to relate to anything in it.

At best, I felt I was dealing with an unreliable narrator. As I read, I kept thinking that I didn't believe him. I didn't know if Benjamin was straight out lying or if he was simply telling the tale as he thought it was. Whichever, it didn't feel real to me.

The adults at the facility felt even more unreal. While I realize that much of what we were reading about the adults was from the point of view of the children, and that probably added to the unrealness of it, it was hard for me to believe.

As for point of view, the book jumps from POV to POV in a seemingly random fashion, making it very difficult to ascertain whose story is being told at that moment. At times, I thought this shifting was due to the mental state of the narrator, but all it did was simply add to that feeling of a very unreliable narrator. I simply didn't believe anything he was saying - which may have been the point.

If these techniques were done purposely, I would understand and think that they added to Benjamin's character and the over all atmosphere of the novel. However, the style simply wasn't for me. The book left me feeling nothing at all - not entertained, not enlightened. Just nothing...
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