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Libba Bray – Going Bovine

February 1, 2010

10. Going Bovine by Libba Bray (2009)

Read By: Erik Davies
Length: 15h 08m (496 pages)

Genre: Young Adult, Humor, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy (kind of)

Started: 13 January 2010
Finished: 25 January 2010

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I’d read Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle series and liked them well enough, so when I heard she had a new book I thought I’d check it out.
Verdict? Going Bovine just won the Printz Award, and I can absolutely see why. I’m going to be buying a copy of this to keep.

A dying kid goes
on a quest to save his life…
and the universe.

Summary: Cameron Smith is your average loser. Stuck between his strict, serious father, ineffectual and anxious mother, and pretty, popular twin sister, Cameron’s biggest ambition is occasionally getting high in the high school fourth-floor bathroom just to make it through the day. That is, until he finds out that he’s got Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease – otherwise known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease – which is incurable, and invariably fatal. He’s been having visions of a fiery apocalypse, and he receives a message from Dulci, an angel with pink hair and combat boots, that the two phenomena are somehow related. Cameron must set out on a quest – accompanied by Gonzo, a hypochondriac dwarf – to find the mysterious Dr. X, who may be able to not only stop the end of the world, but also cure Cameron’s disease. As Gonzo and Cameron travel from Texas to Florida, they come across a legendary jazz musician, the happiest cult ever, a conglomerate of snowglobe manufacturers, an ancient and belligerent Norse god in the form of a garden gnome, a televised spring break beach house, some insane theoretical physicists, and the dark and frightful Wizard of Reckoning, each of which will have their part to play as the end of days approaches.

Review: I’m going to put this right up front, so the folks who are skimming this review will still see it: Going Bovine was an absolutely beautiful work of fiction. It’s rare to find a book that can make you both laugh and cry so hard – oftentimes within the same paragraph.

I started this book with no foreknowledge of its contents other than the cover art (a shifty-looking cow holding a yard gnome), and my familiarity with Libba Bray’s previous books, which were female-centric historical fantasy. So, I’ll admit I was somewhat surprised when it turned out that Going Bovine was a) set in modern times, and b) narrated by a boy, who was c) kind of an obnoxious slacker pothead who d) swore a lot. Then he starts seeing visions of an impending apocalypse, and it looks like an punk-rock angel is going to be involved somehow, and I got really confused. But once they explain about the CJD, everything snapped into place, and I was able to sit back and just enjoy the rest of the ride.

As a kid, I imagined lots of different scenarios for my life. I would be an astronaut, maybe a cartoonist, a famous explorer, or rock star. Never once did I see myself standing under the window of a house belonging to some druggie named Carbine, waiting for his yard gnome to steal his stash so I could get a cab back to a cheap motel where my friend – a neurotic, death-obsessed dwarf – was waiting for me so we could get on the road, to an undefined place, and a mysterious Dr. X, who would cure me of mad cow disease, and stop a band of dark energy from destroying the universe. (Chapter 28f**)

And man, what a ride it was. Libba Bray manages to turn what could have been a complete downer of a topic into a totally hilarious roadtrip tale (loosely based on Don Quixote, although having read the one is by no means a prerequisite for enjoying the other). Actually, it’s even better than that, because even when you’re laughing your head off at the antics of the characters, you never quite forget the serious and beautiful and poignant undercurrent running throughout. Although this book is aimed at young adults, the message of the book is applicable to all ages, and it’s one that I think everyone needs to hear occasionally. The writing manages to get the point across without beating the reader over the head with it, while all the while remaining true to Cameron’s teenaged-boy voice, and seamlessly blending humor and pathos and sweetness and pain and joy and mortality.

Her lips are near mine, and when it comes, her kiss is like something not so much felt, as found.’ (Chapter 43d**)

One of the main complaints that I’ve heard leveled against this book is that it’s too long. Objectively, yes, it’s a long book. Cameron and Gonzo’s adventures are all over the place – literally and figuratively – incorporating all sorts of wacky randomness that I could see getting tedious if you weren’t involved in the story. Personally, though, I never felt like the story started dragging – or if it did, I was laughing too hard to notice. And the really great thing was that every minor escapade and every bit player and every seemingly random detail had its part to play somewhere else in the story, and the whole thing was woven together so intricately as to create these wonderful subtle patterns – and that these patterns themselves were part of the story, and of the message.

Maybe there’s a heaven, like they say, a place where everything we’ve ever done is noted and recorded, weighed on the big karma scales. Maybe not. Maybe this whole thing is just a giant experiment run by aliens who find our human hijinks amusing. Or, maybe we’re an abandoned project started by a deity who checked out a long time ago, but we’re still hardwired to believe, to make meaning out of the seemingly random. Maybe we’re all part of the same unconscious stew, dreaming the same dreams, hoping the same hopes, needing the same connection, trying to find it, missing, trying again, each of us playing our parts in the other’s plotlines, just one big ball of human yarn tangled up together. Maybe this is it. (Chapter 46b**)

The only complaint I had about this book was that “what was really going on” was pretty obvious from at least halfway through, if not before. I kept hoping for some kind of additional twist that never came, and for that reason, I’m docking it half a star. But, at the same time, I’m happier with a straightforward – if rather predictable – explanation of events than I would have been with a surprising twist ending that didn’t fit solidly with the rest of the story. And, even though I suspected all along where the story was going, when the climax finally came, I was still sitting with both hands pressed over my mouth, tears in my eyes, totally absorbed by the story. Can’t ask for much more than that. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: People who are extremely offended by teenagers swearing, smoking pot, or thinking about sex may want to steer clear… but they’d be missing out. I can happily recommend this book to just about everyone else, but particularly to fans of John Green‘s novels, those who like nerdy madcap humor along the lines of Adam Felber’s Schrödinger’s Ball and those who like books that can make them laugh AND cry AND think – all at the same time.

I know what he means, and I want to say something back, but I can’t find the words for how incredible this is, any more than I can pin the sky in place. I’m happy to be right here, right now. And I know, even as I’m surrounded by this feeling, that it will take its arms away soon enough.
We’ve left the moment. It’s gone. We’re somewhere else now, and that’s okay. We’ve still got that other moment with us somewhere, deep in our memory, seeping into our DNA. And when our cells get scattered, whenever that happens, this moment will still exist in them. Those cells might be the building block of something new. A planet, or star, or a sunflower, a baby. Maybe even a cockroach. Who knows. Whatever it is, it’ll be a part of us, this thing right here and now, and we’ll be a part of it. And if it’s a cockroach, well, that will be the happiest fucking cockroach on the planet, I can tell you that. (Ch 46b**)

(I’m going to assume he meant atoms, since cells don’t exactly scatter intact, but otherwise I am totally on board.)

**NOTE: All of the punctuation for the quotations is my own best guess, since I was transcribing them from the audiobook, and what’s typed here may not be identical to the printed version.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: – Libba Bray gives an interview about Going Bovine… while wearing a cow suit.

Other Reviews: A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy, The Book Reader, Em’s Bookshelf, The Good, the Bad, and the Unread, In Between the Pages, Largehearted Boy, The Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf & Book Review, Mrs. Magoo Reads, Nineseveneight, Reading Rants, Reading Rocks, Wood’s Books
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.

Cover Thoughts: It made absolutely no sense to me until I was a solid 1/3 of the way through the book, but now I can’t imagine it being any different.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2010 1:41 am

    I just checked this out on audio from the library – now I can’t wait to listen to it – especially since you recommended it to fans of John Green, and I’ve been immersing myself in Green this month! I loved Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska, and I’m in the middle of An Abundance of Katherines right now.

    • February 3, 2010 2:02 pm

      Carrie – It’s really great on audio. Erik Davies is a very good fit for Cameron’s voice, despite the fact that the way he says “inhaler” (INN-haler) bugged me, and either he doesn’t know the tune to “It’s a Small World”, or there were copyright issues that prevented him from actually singing it. But other than that, it’s great.

  2. February 1, 2010 2:25 am

    I’ll be on the lookout for this one. Haven’t read anything by Libba Bray but for the cover alone I’d probably buy this on a whim (assuming I haven’t read your review yet)


    • February 3, 2010 2:03 pm

      Lightheaded – The cover does make you go “what the….?”, doesn’t it?

  3. February 1, 2010 8:06 am

    I want to read this book so bad!

  4. February 1, 2010 8:42 am

    Wow, that sounds amazing! I wonder why they chose that cover – it doesn’t seem to fit the book.

    • February 3, 2010 2:04 pm

      bermudaonion – On first glance, no, it doesn’t at all, but once you get into it, it goes just perfectly.

  5. February 1, 2010 8:59 am

    Wow, this is so NOT what I expected from Libba Bray. You aren’t kidding about its being different! I’ve seen several glowing reviews of Going Bovine in the past few days – it sounds odd but good.

    • February 3, 2010 2:06 pm

      Jenny – It was way different from the Gemma Doyle books, for sure, so there was some major cognitive dissonance during the first few chapters between what I expected and what was actually there.

  6. February 1, 2010 1:34 pm

    I just could not get into this one, no matter how badly I wanted to. I’ll have to try another time.

    • February 3, 2010 2:06 pm

      endoux – Ah, that’s too bad. I can see needing to be in the right kind of mood to deal with the wackiness, though.

  7. February 4, 2010 1:53 am

    I am going to be reading this book this month as a buddy read. I am glad you liked it!

  8. February 4, 2010 3:38 am

    Great review! I have this on my TBR list and I’ve been hesitant to pick it up. It sounds so different from her previous books, but now I really want to read it! I’ll have to make time for it soon! Thanks!

    • February 8, 2010 9:04 am

      kay – I’m looking forward to hearing what you think!

  9. February 11, 2010 7:33 am

    This sounds fantastic! I’ve got to read it now, and the comparison to John Green makes it even more intriguing!

    • February 11, 2010 12:02 pm

      Joanne – I think the sense of humor is similar to John Green’s, plus the teenage-boys-on-a-road-trip comparison is unavoidable.

  10. February 19, 2010 10:02 pm

    I loved this book, too. It’s just so….NOT what all the other YA authors on the planet seem to be writing now. Weird, yes, but also brilliant.

  11. February 22, 2010 9:33 pm

    I wrote an open letter, on my blog, to the dirt bag who stole my copy of Going Bovine ;-j


  1. Review: Going Bovine by Libba Bray « Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
  2. Libba Bray’s Going Bovine « Jorie's Reads
  3. Jaclyn Dolamore – Magic Under Glass | Fyrefly's Book Blog

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