Finalist, 2014 PEN Center USA Literary Award
Reviews of Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (by B.H. and Elizabeth James)
As we know, it’s up to our high schools and the English teachers in them to figure out how to develop the critical thinking and deeper learning promised by the new set of English language arts skills that most states have adopted. Method to the Madness provides details for high school English teachers in any high school on the rigorous reading and literature curriculum the authors have worked out for “credit recovery” classes in a California magnet high school, as well as the discussion questions and essay-writing activities they used to engage their students and develop their college readiness skills. What are some of the complex literary and non-literary texts English teachers can use for students like those in the James’ credit recovery classes? Read Method to the Madness and find out what worked for these authors.
-Dr. Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita, University of Arkansas
There are three tests for any book designed to help teachers be better teachers: first and foremost is how carefully it maintains a focus on the students’ experiences in the room; second, how well it lays out practical solutions to the ever-present challenge of keeping the teachers’ workloads manageable; and finally, how well it can defend itself to the current education standards. Elizabeth and Bill James’ book Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature passes all these tests, and even rocks the bonus question: How can we get our students to read and understand challenging literature? This is, in the end, an excellent textbook about teaching kids to think.
-Karen Gettert Shoemaker, PhD, author of “The Meaning of Names”
Reviews of Parnucklian for Chocolate
Hometown Pasadena 4/6/13
Review by Petrea Burchard
My parents lied to me: “Nobody cares how much you weigh;” “You’re the smartest girl in your class;” “Everything’s going to be fine.”
I’ll bet your parents lied to you, too, in small ways or large. But few children grow up hearing and believing the kinds of lies Josiah grows up with in B.H. James’ Parnucklian for Chocolate.Fewer still cling to those lies the way Josiah does.
In a feat of imagination and denial, Josiah’s mother (who is referred to throughout the book in only two ways: as “Josiah’s mother” and as “Dear”) tells him his absent father is from the planet Parnuckle, and that Josiah was conceived during a romantic alien abduction. Josiah is half Parnucklian, the son of a powerful Parnucklian official. Among other strange customs, Parnucklians eat nothing but chocolate. So Josiah eats nothing but chocolate, reflecting not only Josiah’s mother’s profound imagination but her profound guilt as well. Josiah’s mother has taught her son a few words in the Parnucklian language: “boboli” means chocolate, for example. I won’t tell you what “Andre Agassi” means but you can look forward to finding out.
The boy is deeply confused, first in his group home (where he goes to live after some serious acting-out), then in therapy (where he discovers that the goddess Cher is his real mother, who lives on Parnuckle), then in the home of his soon-to-be stepfather, Josiah’s mother’s fiancé, Johnson Davis.
When Josiah doesn’t know the words for something (and trust me, he’s lacking a lot of information) we get a description of it. It might be the swirly shapes on Bree’s bikini, or it might be her marijuana pipe, which Josiah describes as “the shiny blue thing.” Josiah’s story isn’t completely unusual, but the telling of it is. James creates a glib tone using run-on sentences and minutely specific descriptions to tell a heartbreaking tale, creating a sense of silliness that makes Josiah’s predicament palatable by giving us some distance:
“Having heard the screaming, two eighth-grade boys ran over from the room next door. One of the eighth-grade boys began hitting Josiah on the left side of the head with a two-inch-three-ring binder. The other eighth-grade boy began hitting Josiah on the right shoulder with Mrs. Lorrence’s rain stick, a hollowed-out stick with little bitty seeds inside of it for the purpose of making a sound that sounded like rain, but only when the rain stick was shaken lightly. When the eighth-grade boy was swinging the rain stick and using it to hit Josiah in the right shoulder in an attempt to persuade him to let go of Mrs. Lorrence’s nose, the sound coming out of it did not sound like rain.”
Josiah and his mother move in with her fiancé Johnson Davis, and on weekends Davis’ promiscuous, pot dealer daughter comes to stay with them. This confuses Josiah even more. No one has told him much of anything about life, relationships, or girls except his mother, who explains sex in Parnucklian terms while moving a bottle in and out of a cup.
Bree is slightly older and as worldly for her age (almost 18) as Josiah is sheltered for his (almost 16). To just about everything, Josiah responds with a shrug of the shoulders or an “I don’t know.” But his response to Bree overpowers him. He’s not prepared for her.
Throughout the story, James includes episodes from the past to enlighten the present. Did Johnson Davis learn his extreme repression from his parents? Did Bree learn rebelliousness from hers? Did Josiah inherit his imagination from his mother? And what has he inherited from his father? What does he stand to inherit when he gets to Parnuckle? A castle and a very good job, if his fantasy holds out.
Josiah’s life is rife with poisons: the chocolate, the drugs and alcohol to which Bree introduces him, the secrecy between his mother and her fiancé. But the worst poison is the lies he has grown up with. If he’s going to make it, he’ll have to shed the Parnucklian dream.
Much popular fiction fits into a genre: Romance, YA, Paranormal, Historical, etc. Parnucklian for Chocolate cannot be categorized, and that is one of the many brilliant things about it.
New Pages 8/1/13
Review by Courtney McDermott
B.H. James, a high school English teacher from California, wrangles his knowledge of teenagers into the inventive coming-of-age novel Parnucklian for Chocolate. In stark, self-conscious language, the author navigates parenting, psychiatric facilities, and what it means to not quite belong in your family—a feeling not alien to most teenagers.
Protagonist Josiah is part Parnucklian. At least this is what his mother has told him his entire life—that she was abducted in college by his alien father, who is from the planet Parnuckle. The novel opens on the heels of Josiah’s sixteenth birthday, as he moves back in with his mother and her new fiancé, Johnson Davis, after having spent time in a group home. Suddenly, Josiah is expected to learn new habits and explain his oddities in what is considered a “normal” home life:
Josiah first met Johnson Davis’s daughter Bree four days after moving into the home of Johnson Davis. Having decided at eleven years old that if he ever grew up and had people that he loved he would live with them all together in his home, Josiah thought that Bree, whom he thought was pretty, liking the way that she looked in her soccer uniform, may be someone he could love and have a family with and live all together with in a home, and by the end of that night, he was sure of it.
Josiah craves a sense of normalcy, and yet there is no hope of him getting it in this “family.” What is most amusing and ironic about Parnucklian for Chocolate is how Josiah ends up being the least alien of the characters. His mother’s inability to parent—the invention of Parnuckle in the first place—makes her one of the most bizarre characters in the novel. She completes Josiah’s homeschooling homework, only feeds him chocolate (because that’s what Parnucklians eat), and slaps him when he uncovers details about his real father. It’s no wonder that Josiah imagines that his real mother must be a Parnucklian goddess that looks like Cher.
Johnson Davis, the strict, “normal” stepfather, is almost robot-like in his regimen and “[l]ike the Greeks” in his child-rearing practices. Josiah was put in a group home for indiscriminately peeing on things around the house, and though his chocolate diet and lack of knowledge about the English equivalent for words (he thinks an Andre Agassi is a penis, for example) make him odd and amusing, in the end James reveals that Josiah may have the clearest sense of reality, after all. Imagination is Josiah’s most powerful protection; where his mother uses imagination to hide the truth about Josiah’s father, Josiah uses his imagination to make the most of his present situation.
Though Josiah is quirky, the greater interest of the story lies in Bree’s character, Josiah’s soon-to-be stepsister and love interest. She is evidence that even the “best” home life can alienate people. She is at times seductive, manipulative, cunning, bold—all to mask her vulnerability. Yet she is selfish, and by the end, no different than she was before. Bree is an Eve character—tempting and raw, but sex seems to be her only weapon, which lessened my empathy for her. In constructing Bree, it would have enhanced her character to use more than just sex and smoking pot to get across the message that she is stumbling through life trying to find her place. There is little original about Bree’s character, though her quick quips and colorful personality at least make scenes with her interesting.
James writes in long, meandering sentences, and the use of Johnson Davis’s full name and the technique of writing about things through an outsider’s perspective lend themselves to this tale of an “alien” child. However, some of these techniques felt like tricks, and though used consistently, were overwrought. In a short story, James’s style would have thrived and heightened narrative tension, but in the novel length they were exhausting. There is almost a staccato-like rhythm to James’s sentences, and repetition of names and information is reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, perhaps. This repetition, and distance that it creates, allows James to reveal disturbing scenarios—like the truth about Josiah’s father and mother—as though he is holding them out at a safe distance with a pair of tongs, far enough away to be examined without being discomfiting.
Forever Young Adult 8/12/13
Review by Brian Katcher
BOOK REPORT for In Parknucklian For Chocolate by B.H. James
Cover Story: Welcome Traveler by Ken Grant
Drinking Buddy: My Favorite Cellmate
Testosterone Level: Don't Go There
Talky Talk: Kurt Lives!
Bonus Factors: The Adventures of Dutch Lucas, The Many Loves That Dare Not Speak Their Names
Bromance Status: I Believe You
Cover Story: Welcome Traveler by Ken Grant
According to the back cover, the front cover is a painting called Welcome Traveler. So it's like an actual work of art. Which is interesting, and somewhat odd, since there's really nothing about suitcases in this book. But it's easy on the eye, and kind of has that literary feel about it.
Josiah is an odd boy. He eats nothing but chocolate. Nothing. He has a bad habit of peeing on whatever (or whoever) he feels like. He kind of lives in his own little world.
But it all makes sense. You see, Josiah is the son of an alien from the beautiful planet Parnuckle, where everyone eats nothing but chocolate. Josiah's father holds the important position of Keymaster of Gortho. Someday he will return for his son and take him back to the home planet.
Why does Josiah believe all this? Because his mother told him so. We're never told if she's delusional, a liar, or trying to protect Josiah from the harsh realities of life, but to Josiah, this is absolute gospel. In the meantime, he's living in a group home.
But hey, things are looking up! Josiah's mother is getting married to a man named Johnson Davis, who has a daughter named Bree, who is about Josiah's age. They're all going to be one big happy family, right?
Yeah, that's what I thought too. But this is a dark, dark ride. There's a lot of mental illness, repressed memories, and underage sexuality here. Josiah may believe he comes from a planet where people refer to their butt as a 'Thomas Magnum', but he could be the sanest one in this house.
Drinking Buddy: My Favorite Cellmate
Josiah, of course, has a difficult time functioning in school and society. He absolutely believes anything anyone tells him about his Parnucklian father. When he's away at the group home, Patrick, his roommate and pulp adventure fan, spins beautiful stories about how he pictures life on another planet. And what Josiah doesn't know, he simply makes up. He's like an innocent four-year-old who accepts anything anyone says.
But the world is not an innocent place, and people are not kind to the son of Vinz Clortho. Josiah mistakes lust for love, mockery for camaraderie, and mental illness for parenthood. You can't help but root for him. And if I were ever locked in a padded cell, he's the only one I'd want there with me.
Testosterone Level: Don't Go There
Josiah has led a very sheltered existence. He's never had a date and he has no idea what a boy is supposed to do with his Andre Agassi. Bree, on the other hand, is very worldly. She thinks her strange new stepbrother is rather sweet, and promptly shows him just how sweet she can be. Josiah, of course, immediately falls in love. And maybe Bree does as well.
Hey, it's not incest if they're not blood relatives, right?
Talky Talk: Kurt Lives!
If this book had been presented to me as a recently discovered, unpublished work by Kurt Vonnegut, I would have believed it without reservation. Blurring the line between science fiction and an insane protagonist? Check. Everyone has a dirty little secret? Check. Long but compelling asides about minor characters? Check. Odd way of phrasing things? Check.
I'm not sure who B.H. James is, but he has a unique way of writing. Josiah's mother is never named, she's only called 'Josiah's Mother.' His stepfather is always called Johnson Davis (and subsequently Johnson Davis's ex-wife, Johnson Davis's father, etc). When Josiah decides that the woman on a poster is his real mother, she's always referred to as 'Cher, the singer and songwriter and actress.' Every time.
I don't know if this is how James always writes or just a gimmick for this book. I must read more by him.
Bonus Factor: The Adventures of Dutch Lucas
Patrick, Josiah's roommate at the group home, loves a series of books about a hero named Dutch Lucas, a used car salesman who hunts for treasure and fights crime in his spare time (another Vonnegut connection, the book within a book). I know this was just a plot device, but I really, really want to read these. Especially the one with the Cyclops.
Bonus Factor: The Many Loves That Dare Not Speak Their Names
Amazingly, what happens between Bree and Josiah isn't the only incident of dancing around the whole 'crimes against nature' thing. It's times like this that I'm glad I'm not a high school librarian, because it would be a hard decision whether I wanted to shelve a book that's both so compelling and so dirty. So I'll give the book to the local high school and let them make the decision.
Bromance Status: I Believe You
I know this is a work of fiction, and I know Planet Parnuckle doesn't exist, but I don't care. I still believe it. It's out there. It's real.
Disclosure: I got a free copy of this from Red Hen press, which apparently exists in a cave under Tibet and only emerges ever fifty years to publish a strange and amazing book. But they were still too cheap to slip me a fifty.
The Lit Pub 6/26/13
Review by David S. Atkinson
By way of background, I do know Bill James. It isn't like we hang out and get hammered on the weekends, but we both attended the University of Nebraska MFA program. We hung out and chatted there from time to time and do still talk over Facebook and email once in a while. Bottom line: I know the guy.
My impression of Bill has always been one of a quiet and intelligent guy. Almost laconic, he talks well when he speaks up but doesn't necessarily speak up that often. At least, that was my impression.
The only reason I mention all of that is how utterly bizarre it seems when I hear Bill read or get a chance to read his work myself. For such a calm and soft-spoken guy (at least around me), the craziness of what he tends to write is flabbergasting. Quite seriously, it surprises me every time.
However, though I know this about Bill's writing, I was unprepared yet again when I picked up Parnucklian for Chocolate. Let's just take a quick peek at the very first paragraph:
Three weeks before his sixteenth birthday, Josiah was allowed to move back in with his mother, who had been impregnated with him during an alien abduction her freshman year of college. Josiah did not move back into the home he had grown up in — the home he had lived in with his mother — but rather Josiah moved into the home of Johnson Davis, his mother's new fiancé. Johnson Davis, with whom Josiah's mother had been living for the past four and a half months, also had a child: a girl, seventeen, fully-human, named Bree, who also lived in the home of Johnson Davis, but only on weekends.
Keep in mind; this is a relatively sane paragraph for this book. You will notice how the alien thing is just slipped into a fairly mundane seeming paragraph, almost as an offhand note. If it weren't such an odd thing to have as an offhand remark, the fact that Josiah hadn't been living with his mother and the fact he was moving into a stepfamily home would suggest menace and take precedence. However, put together the way James does it, we just can't be sure how to react.
The book only picks up from there. You see, Josiah's mother has told him all his life that he is special. He is special because he is the son of a ranking government official of a planet called Parnuckle, a place where the only food is chocolate. Obviously, there were some home environment problems and Josiah was removed. Now he is moving in with his delusional mother, her overly controlling though well-meaning fiancé, and her fiancé's wild-running daughter. A complex situation becomes even more complicated.
In short, the book is insane. It is wild, imaginative, and original . . . but also completely and utterly mad. Even the language of the prose has a certain amount of madness; it's own rhythm that sucks the reader in:
Josiah, who was twelve years old at the time, had his own room at the psychiatric facility — unlike his room in the group home he would be sent to in less than a year, which he would have to share — and each day a tall woman who smelled weird came to Josiah's room and led him down a long hall and a flight of stairs and another long hall to a room where Josiah met with a man who would ask Josiah a lot of questions. The room where Josiah met with the man was much different from Josiah's room at the psychiatric facility. Josiah's room at the psychiatric facility had been only a bed, a dresser, a table, a lamp, and a chair, but the room where the man asked the questions was filled with photographs of people hugging and photographs of people smiling — all in different settings, such as sandy settings and grassy settings and snowy settings — and some of the people in the photographs were the man who asked the questions and some of the people were not, and on one wall was a picture of an old house in a rainstorm and on another wall was a picture of a pink tree, and there were also several different types of chairs in the room, and two different couches, one long and one shorter, and both couches were the color of the walls, which were the color of wet wood.
Many more things in the room seemed to be made of wood, or to be the color of wood, unlike Josiah's room, where more things seemed to be made of metal and plastic, and the room where the man asked the questions was not as bright and not as cold as Josiah's room.
Strange choice and timing of detail, sentences that seem to go on forever or cut off abruptly, almost musical repetition–the above paragraph has it all. All that should be a mess, but it isn't. Just reading through it, you can feel how perfect the rhythm is. It's madness, but there is method.
Looking at the book as a whole, Parnucklian for Chocolate has to be one of the most surprising reads I've come across in a very long time. It is wild and crazy, but it is well crafted and touching as well. I think any writer would be justifiably proud to have created this work and it is interesting to think that this is coming from an author who is really just getting started. I'm sure there will be more, but you'll definitely want to check Parnucklian for Chocolate out.
People are going to be talking about this one.
Foreword Reviews 5/31/13
Review by Leia Menlove
“Three weeks before his sixteenth birthday, Josiah was allowed to move back in with his mother, who had been impregnated with him during an alien abduction her freshman year of college.”
So begins Parnucklian for Chocolate, a pitch-black story about growing up in an alienating world as, well, an alien. Young Josiah’s mother is deeply disturbed, having taught him that his father lives on planet “Parnuckle.” Josiah has (no surprise) spent years with Child Protective Services. When he is released, the pitfalls of teenagerdom and the conniving, nymphette daughter of his mother’s fiancé await. We follow Josiah and his new family into a comical pit of madness that is increasingly terrifying as the stakes rise.
Josiah’s yearnings for love, home and father are even more poignant when set against his polluted notion of reality (he even believes his true mother is “the Goddess Cher”) and disrupted family life. One day he will have a family, he uses, and “live with them, all together … and none of them would ever have to leave that home.” Young adult and adult readers will enjoy this crazy, sad ride into alien adolescence.
Library Journal 3/15/13
Review by Joanna Burkhardt
Josiah was told that his father was an important official from a planet called Parnuckle. Through his childhood Josiah wrote letters to the man, giving them to his mother to mail. Sometimes his father replied. Josiah had trouble at school when he told classmates and teachers who he was and where he was from. As the trouble escalated, the boy was sent to a group home and was eventually released into the custody of his mother and her fiancé, Johnson Davis. Davis's daughter Bree immediately starts to take advantage of Josiah and his extreme naïveté, introducing him to sex, drugs, and alcohol in the space of just a few weeks. When Josiah's "real" father appears at his door, light finally dawns for Josiah. VERDICT: James, an English teacher, has published in various journals, but this is his first novel. His prose is convoluted. His characters are absurd. Yet this silly story has a charm all its own and infers that we are all, maybe, a little bit crazy. It will appeal to readers of the absurd and to those who appreciate comic coming-of-age stories.
Review by Michael Cart
Sixteen-year-old Josiah is special. His father, a space alien, is the Keymaster of Gozer, a high position on the planet Parnuckle. Or so his mother has always told him. Routinely announcing this, the boy has socialization problems at the several schools he attends, and things don’t get any better when he and his mother move in with the mother’s fiancée, Johnson Davis, and Josiah falls in love with Johnson’s troubled daughter, Bree. In the meantime, Josiah decides his real mother is the singer Cher, who is a goddess on Parnuckle! A classic naïf, Josiah is reminiscent of Chauncey Gardner in Jerzy Kozinski’s satirical novella, Being There (1970). First novelist James seems to have similar satirical intent in his treatment of family and the condition, in Josiah’s case, of being an outsider. James’ deadpan, affectless style underscores that intent and adds a leavening of humor to his wacky premise. Though the novel falls apart at the end, the story is engaging and sufficiently offbeat to hold the reader’s attention throughout.
Publisher’s Weekly 1/14/13
The gradual awakening of a teenager whose mom protects him with a fanciful story reveals an unnecessarily cruel world. Josiah grows up believing, as his mother tells him, that he is the product of an alien abduction from the planet Parnuckle, whose inhabitants eat chocolate, never sleep, and don’t need to bathe. But when he and his mother move in with her new boyfriend, Johnson Davis, Johnson grows concerned about Josiah’s abnormal development— particularly after his daughter Bree, a rebellious teenager, crawls into bed with Josiah and begins to figure in his fantasies, to the alarm of both parents. Josiah clings to the story of Parnuckle, now a place to which he and Bree plan to escape, even as his new stepfather tries to convince him that the planet isn’t real. Tantalizing hints surrounding Josiah’s mother’s background aside, her absence as a complete character—her name is never even revealed—makes her stories that much more puzzling. Her inability to take responsibility for her son’s problems tears the family apart more permanently than Josiah’s bad behavior.
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