on May 13, 2011
A few years ago, I lamented to a coworker that great Southern storytelling - the kind that held you to the feet of your grandfather, hanging on his every melodious word as he took you to a place that was distant yet familiar; heart-wrenching but hilarious - was dead. It was a lost art of a past generation.
I was wrong.
John Corey Whaley proved me wrong and I'm grateful.
Where Things Come Back immerses you into the quirky world of the small Southern town. Like many small towns, it's a place where everyone knows everyone else....on the surface...but rarely get to know the underlying fears, motivations and anxieties of the people they interact with everyday. It's a place where the unique lifelong bond of brothers is made stronger by sharing not only blood, but an intellectual curiosity that is outside the norm. It's a place where close friends are often the only salvation from chronic, terminal boredom.
I had such a great time reading this book that I bought an extra copy - one to keep for myself and one to pass along and share with family and friends.
on April 30, 2011
You know you're reading a fantastic book when you read the last paragraph and immediately turn back to the beginning to start it over again.
Where Things Come Back is just such a book. Personally I don't know just what it was that made this as irresistible read as it was. I don't know if I should praise the realistically flawed yet endearing characters. The fascinating mystery/introspective nature of the story. Or just the general captivating nature of the writing itself.
What I can say is that Where Things Come Back is a must read book for everyone, both teens and adults. And that if you had to only read one book this month (I say month because there are some other fantastic books that came out this year and I'd hate to limit you), then it should be Where Things Come Back.
on October 21, 2012
Since this novel has received so many awards, and since it is narrated in the voice of a teenager stuck in a small town, I was excited to read it. I grew up in a small town and couldn't wait to escape it! And while I will say that Whaley does capture the feeling of cynicism felt by many teenagers stuck in small towns who have little vision of the future, that feeling of cynicism is pretty much the only thing I could identify with in the novel.
The story is told mainly through the eyes of Cullen, a bored teenager who works at a local convenience store and hangs out with his friends. Cullen and his crew are amused by the current excitement in their hometown, Lily, over the possible reappearance of a long-extinct species of bird named the Lazarus Woodpecker. Alternating chapters are told in third person and describe the lives of Benton, raised to be a missionary by his dictatorial and overly-zealous father and Cabot, college-boy player extraordinaire turned nutcase. Eventually, the bizarre connection between the three narratives becomes clear.
Although the author skillfully weaves truisms into the dialogue that I appreciate as insightful, usually through the words of Cullen or Gabriel, I still have difficulty identifying with characters in the novel. Gabriel's character is too briefly seen, Lucas and his girlfriend are ever-present, but have little to say, and reading about Cullen is, in the words of his own mother, "like watching someone with multiple personalities." Even Ada and Alma, Cullen's female companions for lack of a better description, are barely distinctive--not only do their names have similar meaning--but they both take advantage of Cullen and have little interest in him as a person. In short, the characters are very flat, and none of them (with the exception of perhaps Cabot) are particularly dynamic. Perhaps Whaley is attempting to write a modern Holden Caulfield, and indeed the text does have a literary edge to it, but Cullen is no Holden. The symbol of the Lazarus Woodpecker is a bit over-the-top, and frankly the symbolism of many of the names, for instance Gabriel, while perhaps necessary to incorporate the religious zeal, are overstated. Let's face it, most teens just want a great story, one they can connect with, one they feel accurately reflects issues and concerns in their own lives, and one that moves. Perhaps teens may connect with Cullen's feelings of negativity and isolation, but only if they can continue past the first few chapters. Couple the dragging plot with the dull cover, and without those award winning stickers, I doubt teens would pick up this novel, let alone finish or applaud it. Perhaps Whaley's work would be more appropriate for older readers with more patience to trudge through the heavy handed symbolism and bizarre circumstances that bring this work to its completion.
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley is the kind of book that both mystifies and grows on you. It's an odd little story that I'm not completely comfortable with, but yet there were moments I was completely captivated and caught up in the ridiculous yet mundane goings-on of Lily, Arkansas.
Cullen is just like most seventeen-year old boys in small towns. He's bored out of his mind, he hopes he'll have a more exciting future ahead of him, but while he's stuck there, he's going to make the best of it. Then, celebrity lands in Lily in the form of the long-thought extinct Lazarus woodpecker. Cullen is indifferent to the supposed woodpecker but that indifference turns to anger when his younger brother, Gabriel, goes missing and his name does not make the headlines. Gabriel Witter's disappearance is buried under the infatuation with the woodpecker.
I couldn't help thinking what sly insight the author has into our society as a whole. When something garners its fifteen minutes of fame, in this case, the woodpecker, other more important matters go unnoticed. A fifteen-year old boy goes missing for over eight weeks and there is definitely not the search and rescue parties one often sees in cases like this. The local law enforcement was not helpful and Cullen continues to grow disenchanted with his hometown.
Intertwined with Cullen's story is that of a boy named Benton and his college roommate, Cabot. I honestly found their story more interesting through the first half of the book, until Cabot went religious crazy which always rubs me the wrong way. However, how the author makes these storylines work together is inventive and brilliant. And, the author does a great job, writing wise, of making Cabot seem crazy (at least I thought so). One of my favorite lines in the entire story was on page 166 which reads "He had taken Benton's notes and not blown them out of proportion so much as he had strapped an atom bomb to every letter of every word." It's this kind of larger than life writing style that makes these characters come to life.
This book is different. It doesn't have a love triangle, it has a strong male friendship, it has two siblings and a family who patently care about each other but yet, there is dysfunction of sorts within all these relationships. How that plays out on the page keeps you reading. The fact that this book is very different, yet very normal (teen stuck in a small town, girl troubles, envy at the popular guy who has the girl he wants, etc) will resonate with teens. There is scorn, there is heartache, and there is family. On first looking at the book, it doesn't look as impressive as it appears to be, but there is definitely something special about this story. On the other hand, I think there are spots where this book suffers from lack of movement. The story gets bogged down in descriptions of actions, rather than dialogue and actual action so that, at least for me, led to me skimming several passages throughout this story (pages 184-187 in particular seem to suffer from this problem). The long paragraphs of text do not make for necessarily easy or even pleasant reading.
On the other hand, Cullen is really just a normal teen boy and I like that about him. Nothing flashy, no extraordinary talents, at least outright visible like athletics or something. He's just a guy who cares about his brother, has a crush on an unattainable girl, and is not impressed with the Lazarus woodpecker. Reading about the utterly normal has a power all of its own and I think John Corey Whaley showcases that very well.
on May 6, 2011
Growing up in a small town, I identified immediately with the characters of Where Things Come Back. I think the author did a wonderful job painting the dullness of small town life. There were points where I thought Whaley was literally writing my life story, but I think that's what drew me in the most. I think one of the characteristics of a great book is that it not only tells the story of the book's characters, but also tells you your own story. It forces you view the events of your life, the defining moments and the mundane ones, through a different lens. By touching on the aspects of life we can all empathize with: the bond of brothers, family tragedy, first love, faith, and redemption, Where Things Come Back is one of those books where each reading reveals something new, both about the storyline and ourselves.
on April 12, 2012
I really thought I was going to like this book, and there were some moments that made me think I would like it. However, I had some major issues with it, mostly I got the feeling that the author wanted to portray Cullen (the main character) as someone that had no idea why he did the things he did but at the same time Cullen also seemed to have a pretty good idea of who he was. Another thing that made me not like this book is the fact that people seemed to do things for no reason at all except that the author wanted them too. I think we didn't really get to know any of the characters in this book, especially Cullen's brother. I just felt like I had no idea why they did what they did throught the whole book, even though the author tried to explain what they were like. Most of the book told from the point of view of Cullen but the author does this annoying thing where he switches points of view, one minute Cullen will be saying "I did...." and the next he says something like "when one sees....he feels...he imagines" this happens at the end of almost every chapter and I think, was supposed to be used to show something but really just got on my nerves. I was not aware that this book was going to be so religious and the way it was religious really bothered me, I also found the whole 'second' story to be very unlikely and just weird. The Book of Enoch was mentioned a lot without really telling the reader why it was so important other than that it was banned, and it did not explain anything. The character Cabot (who is half of the second story) just seemed to suddenly switch from normal to crazy with no warning and no prompt. It was just ridiculous and unbelievable. It seemed like the author was just trying to find a way to tie things together. The plot had many interesting ways it could of gone and I was disappointed in the way it ended (which is the only reason I kept reading it, to see what happened). I suppose this book was just not for me, as some people seem to think it's very good but I feel as if I wasted my time reading it and gained nothing from it.
on July 17, 2012
When one attends a young adult author event in which a Printz prize winning novelist is in attendance, one usually buys his/her book and kindly asks/begs/seduces (if you must) the author to sign it. I, however, failed to take my own advice and when the opportunity came to have John Corey Whaley sign Where Things Come Back, I left empty-handed.
Guys, I WAS THIS CLOSE!!!! *Napoleon Dynamite kick* Gaahh!
If you ask me, Where Things Come Back can only be described as depressingly hilarious. Or maybe it's hilariously depressing? The story delivers such a heady mix emotions that it becomes hard to sort out. But that was just a part of it's beauty and what I enjoyed most. It's honesty shines through and becomes its own human comedy.
While the story is told through alternating POV's, off-beat Cullen is most certainly my main man. I wanted to be friends with him despite his overly cynical nature. Worry not, his smart-assedness is completely warranted. His brother has gone missing and he's stuck in a town he's just dying to get away from.
Where the harsh realities of Cullen's current misfortunes are something I would usually shy away from, I found myself reveling in his heartbreak and confusion. In some weird and masochistic way, I enjoyed being pulled and dragged along with his pain. Having been there a time or two, I easily slipped into his shoes and welcomed his cynisism as a companion throughout the novel. They made the developing and crumbling relationships all around him that much more interesting.
Not to mention the zombie daydreams. Oh yeah, there were zombie daydreams!!
While I would be hesitant to see another author pull this off, there is something uniquely charming and entertaining about Whaley's prose. He manages to weave two very delicate tales with fluidity so that when it all comes together it unleashes a thought-provoking conclusion. By the end, I was overcome with emotion. I didn't know if I should slam the book across the room or find John Corey Whaley and hug him.
At this point, I would go with the latter.
Despite my oh-so-huggy feelings, I'll admit that Whaley managed to break my heart and mend it all in the span of some 200-odd pages! The novel's lessons really resonated with me and I couldn't get enough. I was a mess by the end of it, but I set the book down with a renewed sense of hope.
on October 22, 2012
I picked up John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back because it won the Michael Printz award. After reading Looking for Alaska by John Green (my favorite YA novel) for the same reason, I thought Whaley's book would be promising. This melancholy novel is an account of two characters, Cullen Witter and Cabot Searcy, whose stories are told separately until they meet in an odd coincidence near the end of the book. With only a few mildly enjoyable aspects, this novel just didn't do it for me.
Cullen Witter's brother, Gabriel, has gone missing. I spent the entire book reading just to find out what happened to Gabriel. Will he come back? As the title hints, he might. What actually happened to Gabriel is insane, and while crazy stories are usually interesting, this one is not. As we follow Cabot Searcy, we eventually find out that Cabot is involved in Gabriel's disappearance.
Cabot Searcy's college roommate, Benton Sage, was incredibly religious. Benton's influence on Cabot was life changing, so much so that Cabot felt himself to be called by God to fulfill a sort of prophecy which ultimately leads him to Cullen and Gabriel.
The book is full of references to the bible and hints at some symbolism in the form of angels (the angel Gabriel), but it really is difficult to muster. How does it all connect? How does it all make sense? It does't seem to have any real sort of significance, which is what makes this book so frustrating. By the time I finished the book, I said to myself, I can't believe I spent all this time reading this.
Also a warning, Where Things Come Back does not portray the Christian religion in a positive manner, which may upset some readers or parents of teen readers. While this does not bother me personally, I can imagine some religious families objecting to this novel.
Perhaps Whaley wanted the book to be frustrating, as life is. The book is full of depressing moments and moments that just don't make sense or seem right. In the last chapter the main character offers some kind of answer: "But I'll tell you the meaning of all this. . . the meaning of this was not to save you, but to warn you instead. To warn you of confusion and delusion and assumption. To warn you of [things or people] who say they can help, but never do." The author seems to be saying that life will be full of horrible moments, people will disappoint you, and things will not make sense. Yet in the end it all works out the way it is supposed to? Even if it seems to be meaningless? What?
When Cullen asks about the meaning of life, he gets this response from his counselor, Dr. Webb: "life has no one meaning. It only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own."Again, this was in the last few pages, and while it was somewhat enjoyable to contemplate such things as the meaning of life, the resolution was still aggravating.
I like the bittersweet tone of the book, a mix of desperation and hope as Cullen Witter yearns to have his brother back. Cullen's voice was somewhat entertaining; I enjoyed his tendency to speak about himself as "one:" "When one is sitting in his bedroom and, happening to glance out the window, sees his little brother walking slowly down the driveway, he immediately jumps up..." (228). His occasional launch into third person storytelling provided a change of pace that was needed.
Even so, these moments were not enough to redeem this book. Perhaps I didn't look deep enough. Perhaps I wasn't open minded enough. These are things I tell my high school students to do. Look at the symbolism! Perhaps the author wrote it that way so you would ask questions! He wants to make you think!
Thinking about this book is a pain. It's not rewarding. I very much enjoy books where you have to draw your own conclusions. Unfortunately, after pondering the theme of this book, you're likely to find yourself hitting your head against the wall. Whaley's initial storyline and conflict kept me reading, but I wish I had stopped when I started.
on January 16, 2012
There was so much about this book that I loved and I'm not really sure how to fit it into one review. I guess I will start by saying that Corey Whaley captured life a as a teenager in a small town so perfectly, that I felt like I was 17 again. It's not just about small town life, but experiencing something tragic in a small town where there is no escape from the sympathetic looks and the questions. Somehow, the writing in this book captures that confusion about the future, resentment of authority and fear of actually leaving home that every 17 year old on the planet experiences. There is just something about Cullen's voice that reaches out, grabs you and makes you feel as if you know him and you are him, all at once. He is hopeful, in his own pessimistic way, about the future and his ability to get out of Lily when he graduates. Beneath his disdain for small town life is a real and deep love for those that make up his circle of support. I felt very connected to all of Cullen's family, including his best friend, Lucas, and the other quirky characters in Lily.
The book also tells another story of a young missionary who is sent to Africa and while this might seem like an odd departure, the two journeys weave together brilliantly. This book takes you into the the middle of a family that is hurting, a small town hoping for something big to happen and then beautifully illustrates how much we are all connected. It was almost magical in its ability to pull me into the lives of everyone in the story and I was sad to leave Lily when it ended.
on March 19, 2012
I's say 3.5 I loved the idea of this book, and was hoping for one of those coming of age novels that leaves lasting impressions and insights. And while the novel began that way as the main chracter explores himself: his motivations, drawbacks, limitations etc. in the end I felt left hanging with no big AHA moment. Many of the divergent plot lines do come together, but others are left naging or tied up too neatly and not in a satisfying way. Also, and don't get me worng, I have no aversion to bleak, but this book was - in the end - only that. Bleak. Yes there are some positive solutions as the book closes - don't want to give anything away, but they did little to satisy the let down created by the whole story.