Tag Archives: existentialism

Nothing by Janne Teller

“Nothing matters.
I have known this for a long time.
So nothing is worth doing.
I just realized that.” (p. 1)

On the first day of seventh grade in the fictional Danish town of Taering, Pierre Anthon stands up, declares that nothing matters, and takes up residence in the plum tree in front of his family’s commune.  Pierre’s classmates are left to puzzle over his bizarre behavior and the existential proclamations he hurls at them from his perch as they walk to and from school.  Could Pierre be correct?  All their lives they’ve been told they must be something, be someone, but the adults in their lives have not done much to explain how they will find this meaning.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there…does it?

Then Sophie has an idea:  they have to get Pierre out of the tree.  To do so, they must prove to him there is meaning.    The class begins to collect objects they believe have value  in an old, abandoned sawmill.  Dolls, hymnbooks, combs, and photographs pile up in the corner, but still, the heap lacked real meaning.  It’s here that things begin to get personal.

One by one, each person is made to part with something they truly love.  Once they give up their meaning, they pick the next person and the thing they will sacrifice to the heap.  It starts off innocent enough; favorite books, shoes, a fishing pole.  But things quickly take a sinister turn.

Translated from Dutch, Nothing is a thought-provoking, grim and haunting philosophical look at human nature.  The story is simple but packs a great deal of punch.  The inside flap calls it a “Lord of the Flies for the 21st century”, and I have to say, I had that novel in mind the entire time I was reading this book.  Kris’s review at Voracious YAppetite eloquently discusses the reason behind the impact of books like Nothing and Lord of the Flies:

“They hit home in a jarring way that highlights what we all know to be true at our core: That when you strip away the morals and societal structure that keep us all in line and accountable for our actions, people are driven by instinct — and the result of indulging in those basic instincts is not always pretty.”

Part of what made Nothing even more powerful is that it didn’t take place on an island, where the structure of society doesn’t exist.  It happened in a small town, with plenty of people around and laws in place that should have prevented these teenagers from heading down the dark and morbid road they were on.  But it didn’t.

I don’t think everyone will like this book.  It’s disturbing in a lot of ways that will make people uncomfortable and questions ideals we perceive as the norm.  Even I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it.  I do know this – Nothing will stick with me for a long time.

Other reviews: A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy, Oops…Wrong Cookie, DogEar, Bookish Blather.

Nothing by Janne Teller
Young Adult | 240 pages | February 2010 | Atheneum | 1416985794 | Library copy
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Filed under Book Reviews, Printz Honor Award Winner, Young Adult Literature

We Were Here by Matt de la Pena (2009)

“Your whole life, man, it can change in one minute.” (p. 99)

No one knows this better than Miguel. One day he’s living with his mom and brother, Diego, in their Stockton California home and the next he’s in a group home with a bunch of stupid guys and a surfer dude counselor, Jaden, who keeps trying to talk to him about what happened. But Miguel can’t talk about what happened. Not with Jaden; not with anyone. After getting in a fight with the skinny, bald dude named Mong, Miguel decides to steer clear of everyone in the house. He is completely and utterly alone.

When he awakes one night to find Mong standing over his bed, Miguel is surprised by Mong’s request. He wants Miguel to run away with him to Mexico. At first Miguel is hesitant, but he soon realizes he has nothing to live for anymore, and therefore nothing to lose. Miguel’s roommate, Rondell, joins their motley crew of fugitives.

“People always think there’s this huge hundred-foot-high barrier that separates doing good from doing bad. But there’s not. There’s nothing. There’s not even a little anthill. You just take one baby step in any direction and you’re already there. You’ve done something awful. And your life is changed forever.” (p. 119)

What follows is a compelling, at times existential, story about 3 boys struggling to deal with the lots they’ve been dealt. Even though Miguel, Mong and Rondell are considered criminals, the circumstances they’ve had to face are more difficult than most people would deal with in a lifetime. It was difficult for me to get into the book at first, but as time went on, I found myself drawn in deeper and deeper into Miguel’s world. He is a complex character (though I found his voice inconsistent at times) who has done a horrible thing but is not a horrible person-although he doesn’t figure this out until the end of the book. We Were Here is about mistakes, consequences, and, ultimately, forgiveness.

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Filed under Book Reviews, GSTBA 2010-2011 Reader Assignment, Young Adult Literature