In the midst of all the dystopian novels that are out these days, Megan McCafferty's Bumped separates itself from the pack with an amusing blend of quirky humor and a world that is frightening not only in its differences from our current world, but in its hyper-intensified take on the familiar.

Let's start with the changes: a virus that seems to affect almost the entire world population has resulted in fertility taking such a nose-dive that most adults are sterile by 18 or 20 -- which means the baby-making has to happen early or not at all. In response, religious groups pretty much marry girls off as early as possible, but the rest of the world is starting to warm up to a different, more capitalist approach: pregging for profit. Teens themselves might not be ready to be a parent and raise a baby, but they COULD offer it for adoption... and a cash incentive from potential adoptive parents (or, say, the prospect of a free ride to college and a car) means that more and more girls are looking to get "bumped" early on.

Now let's shift to the eerily familiar -- though technically we started on "eerily familiar" when we introduced the capitalist greed element. Technology has made leaps in communication avenues (there exists an online system of communication called MiNet accessible via contact lenses where blinking cues control the program). Parents push their daughters into the idea of pregging for profit (the same way they already push extracurriculars, except now pregging is in addition to those sports teams and orchestra performances). Oh, and high school is still a cliqueish hell on earth, but that's kind of an "always has been, always will be" thing.

Melody's parents are economics professors, who long foretold of the day when a teenage girl's fertility would be the most valuable thing on earth. So Melody, herself an adopted child, was raised with the knowledge that she, too, would join the ranks of pregnant teens -- but she would do it as a professional (Reproductive Professionals are know as RePros). The first in her school with an agent and a contract to preg for a wealthy couple, Melody made professional pregging a widely accepted option at her school -- to the point where the professionals and the amateurs actually experience some tension. Melody, meanwhile, may have started the debate but can't really enjoy full participation in the argument... as she isn't pregnant. Her wealthy couple is dithering on male gene choices, so Melody is stuck with her own nerves about them wasting her valuable time to get bumped before the virus renders her sterile... and that's on top of the general nerves that accompany bumping at all. Her super pregnant best friend is slightly useless for all this stress, which would normally send Melody to her other best friend, a guy, but things have started to get slightly weird between them and Melody's not sure what to do with that, either.

Now, let's switch to Harmony. You see, Melody and Harmony are identical twins, separated at birth. Harmony was adopted in to a cult/commune religious community and it appears that when she learned about her twin, she simply went forth to try and convert her sister to the path of righteousness... but it's quickly apparent that Harmony is not quite as simple as all that might suggest. In fact, it appears as though she fled her beloved community in order to find her sister and very little proselytizing is going on, though Harmony does spend a lot of time marveling at the society and technological advances. Melody is slightly appalled at Harmony's presence, because it devalues her own stock on the RePro market if there's another person out there offering the exact same genetic material. Plus, to have one's long-lost twin show up on one's doorstep is not exactly normal. Inevitably, the fact that they are identical twins leads to all kinds of mix-ups and confusions, particularly when Melody is offered the chance to bump with the world-famous Jondoe... but Harmony is the one he finds waiting at Melody's house.

This may be a lot of information to take (indeed, the first 20% of the book has a rather steep learning curve as you dive in), but if you can handle a complicated world (and a WHOLE LOT of new vocabulary and slang), then you'll find that Bumped is shockingly deep in its assessment of the issues that arise from this world. McCafferty somehow strikes a fantastic balance between light-hearted humor and intense philosophical thought when it comes to the choices teens make. And that's not just limited to her world, either. The question of when to have sex and with whom and for what reasons. The idea of doing something because society (including one's parent) says it's the right thing to do, even when you're not sure it's the right decision for you. What to do when faced with unspeakable heartbreak and tremendously difficult decisions. Pretty deep for a YA novel that's core premise involves having sex and getting pregnant. Given that premise, parents may not think this a book for very young teens, but it's also not explicit or graphic, so I wouldn't really worry about it too much. Besides, it might even remind girls that sex is a complicated subject and shouldn't be something they rush in to without thinking of the consequences, both physical and emotional.

While you might grow a bit weary of the slang that the book creates (and you might have to keep reminding yourself exactly which twin is which), you'll also find yourself seriously thinking about the plot of this book (and the shocking cliff-hanger of an ending) for a long time after you set it down. Bumped is funny and thoughtful -- a combination that will keep you devouring page after page, desperate to know what decisions Harmony and Melody will make as their lives get even more tangled up. Now we only need to wait and see what interesting issues will arise in the sequel, Thumped, because even if certain plot points will be obvious, I would bet that McCafferty still has some surprising and fascinating things up her sleeve.

Full disclosure. This book indirectly factors in to my professional life. This is a personal review, but feel free to let that info factor in to what you make of this review.



Note: if you are someone who enjoys audio books -- heck, even if you aren't -- then I highly recommend that you listen to the audiobook instead of (or in addition to!) reading the physical paper book of Bossypants.  It's unabridged and Tina Fey herself reads it... I imagine the text would all be funny in print, too, but she frequently kicks in to actress mode and/or does voices.  It's very very worth it.

To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what Bossypants was about when I purchased it.  I only knew it was by Tina Fey and everyone seemed to be in a tizzy about it.  So with a round trip bus ride to Boston in my immediate future, I went to Audible and bought what I knew would be an entertaining listen.  I certainly wasn't disappointed, though I wouldn't use terms like "hysterical" or "riotous" to describe the funny collection of essays of which Bossypants is comprised.  I snickered enough to get some looks on the bus, but I never really burst out laughing. If you've ever seen 30 Rock, then I think you know the style of humor that you're in for.  Having not seen 30 Rock prior to listening, I still kind of knew. The ridiculous mixed with the so-real-it's-funny-but-also-kind-of-hurts. 

Bossypants isn't strictly a humor book -- there's a reason it's in the memoir section. Consider this a collection of vignettes from Fey's life, ranging from her own childhood to motherhood. Snippets from behind the scenes on 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live were amusing. Perhaps my favorite simple observation was that when everyone started commenting on what a good Sarah Palin she would be, she realized no one (of the general public, that is) knew she has a new show and was no longer working on SNL. That said, her comments and observations on McCain and Palin are very interesting, indeed! In addition, Fey's perspective as one of the few high-profile comediennes out there puts her in an interesting position. Her feminist commentary on the state of the industry and the gender roles of comedy are fascinating and definitely became my favorite parts of the book. Here's one particularly fantastic selection featuring Amy Poelher:

Amy Poehler was new to SNL and we were all crowded into the seventeenth-floor writers’ room, waiting for the Wednesday read-through to start. There were always a lot of noisy “comedy bits” going on in that room. Amy was in the middle of some such nonsense with Seth Meyers across the table, and she did something vulgar as a joke. I can’t remember what it was exactly, except it was dirty and loud and “unladylike.”

Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time, turned to her and in a faux-squeamish voice said, “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.”

Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit. (I should make it clear that Jimmy and Amy are very good friends and there was never any real beef between them. Insert penis joke here.)

With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.

I was so happy. Weirdly, I remember thinking, “My friend is here! My friend is here!” Even though things had been going great for me at the show, with Amy there, I felt less alone.

I think of this whenever someone says to me, “Jerry Lewis says women aren’t funny, or “Christopher Hitchens says women aren’t funny,” or “Rick Fenderman says women aren’t funny…Do you have anything to say to that?”

Yes. We don’t fucking care if you like it.

I don’t say it out loud of course, because Jerry Lewis is a great philanthropist. Hitchens is very sick, and the third guy I made up.

Unless one of these men is my boss, which none of them is, it’s irrelevant. My hat goes off to them. It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.

If you're a fan of Tina Fey, then you've probably already read Bossypants by now, so I'm not going to spend time convincing you to read it. (Though you should go listen to the audiobook if you missed out.) If you're not already a fan of Fey, then this could very well push you in to the camp of a very funny lady... but more than just being a funny lady, Fey is a very smart person. When those two traits are combined in to one slightly awkward person? Well, then you have quite a force to be reckoned with in comedy and social commentary. Do yourself a favor and read (or listen!!) -- you won't regret it.


The Midnight Zoo

A strange and heartbreaking tale, The Midnight Zoo is the latest literary gem from author Sonya Hartnett and features lovely illustrations by Andrea Offermann. Two young boys, Andrej and his younger brother Tomas, are walking through a war-ravaged countryside, scrounging up whatever they can to survive while they protect the precious bundle they carry -- their baby sister Wilma. As gypsies (known as Rom), the boys are used to the life of wandering, where every day brings them to a new place, but taking care of themselves is a very new responsibility and obviously has its roots in tragedy. While wandering through a destroyed and empty town, the boys stumble upon a very small zoo, whose animals are still captive in their cages despite the near-total annihilation of the human dwellings. The zoo contains a wolf, an eagle, a monkey, a bear, a lioness, a seal, a chamois, and a llama. Shortly after identifying the animals that surround them, airplanes appear and a sudden air raid threatens all their lives. When Andrej and Tomas wake up, the animals are speaking to them. Nearly everyone has a turn at telling his or her own stories of captivity, including the boys, but when everyone has been displaced and there's no way to return them to the lives they should have been living, what can possibly be done to go on?
Yes, the main human characters are children; yes, it's relatively short; yes, there's a fable-like quality to the story; but does this mean this book could only be classified as exclusively (or even primarily) a book for children? Most certainly not! As I read, I found myself thinking of this as an introduction to magical realism more than a story which depicted the magic of a children's book. Of course, magical realism is certainly not a concept that can exclusively be applied to books for adults, but somehow I feel like this novel merits the acknowledgement of providing a beautiful and quiet illustration of the concept for those (children or otherwise) who might otherwise only have encountered fantasy depictions of magic. It subtly creeps in, begging the question of what is real and asking the reader to suspend his or her disbelief for the sake of coming to a deeper understanding of what it means for any creature to be safe and free. Children and adults would have similar reactions to the emotions brought forth in this novel of war, tragedy, and flickering hope. Technically, the setting for this tale is obviously World War II, but after reading it, one feels as though this could be a theme that applies to any war which ravages countries and lives, putting innocents in danger. It is a novel to be read with a heart that aches for the world and its inhabitants... and at the core of all that is the desire to shape one's own destiny and the longing for freedom from many different kinds of cages.
I imagine that The Midnight Zoo is destined to be taught in classrooms or suggested for book reports. I can even see the prompted questions now, revolving around the meaning of freedom, the logic behind a story told largely by talking animals, the lack of explicit closure and open-endedness of the final chapter, and the possibility that the children and animals actually died in the air raid. It is a novel that easily yields itself up to questions because that is its goal -- to provoke the reader in to asking questions. I would urge adults to treat this as a novella and enjoy the multitude of topics which will undoubtedly now stir in their minds... topics which might not otherwise have large purchase, even for sensitive souls: the animal nature of human beings; the questionable justification for wild animals being tamed; the definition of a cage; the repercussions of even our well-intentioned actions on the lives of those around us, human or otherwise. The Midnight Zoo will stay with you long after you finish reading and reflection upon the story and its themes only makes it feel richer. I'm delighted to have been exposed to this beautiful novel and I look forward to discovering Sonya Hartnett's other work.