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'Learning to Swear in America' features lively characters, exciting astrophysics

Katie Kennedy’s firecracker novel about culture shock, astrophysics, and maybe the end of the world, is a page-turner. 

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    Learning to swear in america
    Katie Kennedy
    Bloomsbury USA
    352 pages
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“America should come with a manual,” sighs Yuri Strelnikov. “Or is that what the Statue of Liberty is holding?”

An insightful question from a brilliant boy. Seventeen-year-old Yuri stars in Learning to Swear in America, Katie Kennedy’s firecracker novel about culture shock, astrophysics, and maybe the end of the world.

Earth has just three weeks to stop a head-on asteroid impact. The collision won’t cause planetary annihilation à la dinosaurs, but it’s definitely not good. The forecast includes a pulverized California, a giant dust cloud, and a tsunami.

The globe’s best scientists have gathered at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. They’re given one brutally simple objective: prevent it. So Russia loans astrophysics prodigy Yuri to the US, telling him to keep his head down and save the world.

Cultural dissonance registers immediately. As a university professor in Moscow, young Dr. Strelnikov is respected as an expert in antimatter. He’s accustomed to adults trusting him as an intelligent peer. At JPL, the American scientists see him as a punk kid who’s playing around with their futures. They dismiss his antimatter suggestions as outlandish, unpublished theories.

JPL plans to shoot missiles at the asteroid, blasting it into smaller pieces that will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. But when Yuri requests weapons specs to do his calculations, he’s denied without explanation. Frustrated, he makes a terrible move: He sneaks into the director’s office to find the specs anyway.

Once discovered, he’s labeled a national security risk. If JPL’s plan succeeds, he won’t be allowed to go home. (If the plan fails, they’ll all be dead anyway.) So now he’s stuck in the US as an involuntary defector, victim of what he labels a “bureaucratic kidnapping.” His phone is bugged, his computer activity is tracked, and his hotel room is monitored.

In the midst of the weapons imbroglio, Yuri meets someone – a reckless, self-assured, artistic California girl named Dovie Collum, who jolts Yuri’s world from black-and-white to every color in the rainbow.

Dovie is the exuberant daughter of hippie parents who refuse to follow the Gregorian calendar (“too oppressive ... designed to instill conformity in the population and inhibit independent thought”), instead celebrating the anniversary of the release of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”

She’s also the girl who defends her tardiness to class thus: “Punctuality was imposed on an unwilling populace during the Industrial Revolution, as part of the move from cottage industry to factory production. It runs counter to our biological needs, and is evidence of the extent to which our industrial overlords control our lives. I’m late because I’m raging against the machine.”

I loved this tiny but telling moment: Dovie introduces her brother as Lennon, like the Beatle, but Yuri mishears it as Lenin, like the revolutionary.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect antipode for buttoned-up Dr. Strelnikov than Dovie. Because Yuri’s life moved so quickly, he never had time for adolescence. Now, with his future poised on a mathematical knife-edge, he’s flooded with firsts: Have a friend his own age. Have multiple friends. Meet a girl outside of academia. Have a relationship. Attend a high school dance (the tone-deaf theme of which is “Catch a Falling Star”).

Where Dovie traffics in emotion and poetic interpretation, Yuri’s communication is tuned irrevocably to “adult/scientific.” Their diametrical experiences mirror the culture clashes that undergird the entire book.

Consider love through the lens of a young genius, who only knows how to process things in math and physics:

“If you knew the position, mass, and velocity of two bodies, figuring their motion was simple. Add a third, and it became incredibly complex. He was fine with Lennon, but when Dovie sat next to him and curled her legs up on the sofa beside him, everything was suddenly complicated. He was sitting up, but he felt like he was falling sideways. Dovie exerted a giant gravitational force. She was the closest thing to Jupiter of anyone he’d ever met, but you probably couldn’t say that to a girl.”

As the clock ticks down to the end of the world, Yuri and Dovie orbit each other in wonder. Dovie’s existence suddenly makes the world worth saving. Now, can Yuri pull it off?

Katie Kennedy writes with incision, fire, and euphoria. She drops Yuri in a linguistic, cultural, and emotional Sarlacc, but she guides the reader through each poignant moment.

On life in Los Angeles: “A city, and yet nothing like Moscow, with an aorta of river flowing out of its curled, ancient heart.… This hot, dry city felt wrong. The weight of speaking only English for days now, of signs written in the Latin alphabet, was oppressive.”

On Dovie’s smile: “Yuri wanted to tell her that when the light danced in her dark eyes it was both particle and ray.”

On Bob Dylan: “Bob Dylan sang as though he were filing keys with his voice box.… ‘He sounds like goat caught in hailstorm.’”

On baffling social interactions: “One really didn’t talk with the other people who sat at your table in a cafeteria – with people who weren’t of your party. Probably this was an American thing, being overly friendly, the way people made eye contact on the street. It seemed cocky, but probably it wasn’t meant that way.… So there were extra seats in the cafeteria, and people who needed seats. And it was rude for me to sit down, but it wasn’t rude that no one invited me to sit. America should come with a manual.”

“Learning to Swear in America” is the perfect YA interpretation for those intrigued by “Lucifer’s Hammer” and “Armageddon.” Yuri and Dovie have a touching relationship that echoes Eleanor and Park or Leonard and Penny of “The Big Bang Theory.”

Savor this one.

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