le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Monday, December 07, 2009

Magic Kingdom in miniature, OR how my inside mind sees the world

Since one of my dissertation "texts" is Disneyland, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about/reading about/looking at images of Disney parks.  Disney (big corporate monster) launched a blog of their own this fall, and one of the earlier posts on it was this amazing little video of the Magic Kingdom in Florida. It's done using tilt-shift photography, which I have researched and still don't quite understand (my technical cognition skills are terrible). I don't really need to know how they do it, though; the result is awesome. What tilt-shift does is create the illusion of miniaturization - the scenes shot through the day look like they are happening inside a model Magic Kingdom, a tiny, miniaturized version of the real thing. 

The tilt-shift world basically looks like an elaborate dollhouse or model train set come to life. It's amazing and neat and fun, and is worth the two or three minutes of your life it takes to watch the video. Obviously, it's a promotional tool for CorporateDisney, but it's also a very interesting and accurate reflection, I think, of what the Magic Kingdom really is.

Walt Disney was heavily influenced, in his invention and planning of Disneyland, by miniatures: model train sets (he was an avid train nerd), dollhouses and other miniature sets from various fairs and expositions, Colleen Moore's famous dollhouse. He commissioned Disney Productions artists to craft him a series of small miniature dioramas, and at one point contemplated a kind of peep-wall for his park, in which guests would look through a peephole into one of his elaborate miniature sets.

When the park was constructed, it was built to a reduced scale; the buildings are all something like 4/5 of "real" buildings. Walt Disney even describes Main Street as specifically toylike, and goes on to say:
"the imagination can play more freely with a toy"

I've been interested in toys and play worlds, academically, for some time now (and I've been interested in toys and play world personally for my entire life). The rendering of the Magic Kingdom in tilt-shift photography transforms the park back into its originary form: the miniature. It's a lovely visual way of encapsulating my Magic-Kingdom-related dissertation ideas, as well.

and - hmmmm. I detect a paper (conference paper? or dissertation smidgen?) in the works here.

The mysterious misogyny of King Dork

In between all the other things I'm doing (or supposed to be doing) right now, I keep mulling over KING DORK. This semester of teaching is almost over - this is the final week - and while I cannot say it was my best semester ever (I've been far too distracted), I find that I'm thinking a lot more about the books we've read, post-class-discussion, than I normally do. Students make remarks, observations, suggestions that get my brain going, and then I end up trying to unknot the textual problems presented by their comments, rather than simply saying "good class, time for laundry/dissertation/vacuuming/etc."

King Dork is high on my list this term of Problem/Puzzlers. It's always been problematic - Portman's humming along nicely until a little more than halfway in, when suddenly, Deanna Schumacher appears with her unbelievable offer of a blowjob.

Once Deanna Schumacher shows up, the book slides headfirst into some seriously troubling misogyny - because there's no other way, really, to describe it. The only female in the book who really gets away unscathed is Chi-Mo's younger sister Amanda, and even she seems to be caught in a kind of Madonna/whore complex which, for Chi-Mo, is organized more as a guru/Mean Girl dichotomy.

Chi-Mo's system of classifying the girls at his school doesn't bother me very much; it's a bit cold, but it also does - I think - reflect a kind of realistic anthropology of the high school. HE doesn't see the girls as just numbers in a system; he is observing a pattern he sees repeat itself throughout groups of his female classmates. He IS guilty of dismissing Yasmynne Schmick, who "genuinely seems happy" to see him but is a #3, dressed in velvet, in a "perfectly spherical" body. Yasmynne is the one girl who never manipulates Chi-Mo (his mother, his sister, maybe even Doctor Hexstrom are guilty of manipulation), and yet - she is the least remarked-upon girl in the book.

The proliferation of blowjobs at the book's end is just plain creepy. It's like some teenage boy's fantasy-fulfillment via fiction, except it doesn't fit with the rest of the book, not really. WHY these girls are suddenly eager to "give [him] a little head" is beyond me, and much to his discredit, Chi-Mo never attempts to figure this out. He doesn't even puzzle over it, just tries not to disturb the balance of free blowjobs (these are entirely non-reciprocal events - I'll be damned if I can see what the girls get out of this, unless they are - as per the fantasy - girls who just really love giving blowjobs).
What's worse is the spitefulness of the cliques, the borderline-insane mood swings of Deanna, the Dud Chart, even Chi-Mo's mom, who is immature and spiteful about her husband's first wife (always calls her "Smellanie"), and moreover, is distant, sad and dishonest with her children.
The women in this book are out of control - except poor old Yasmynne Schmick, and maybe Doctor Hexstrom. The real puzzler is:
Is this Chi-Mo's failing, or Portman's?

I'm coming to see Chi-Mo as more and more of an unreliable narrator with every re-read. Obviously, he's unreliable - but the extent of that unreliability grows, for me, with each new reading. And I'm also coming to see the novel as a very carefully crafted pseudo-puzzler on the lines of The Crying of Lot 49, a book which is in fact referenced as part of the CEH library. The endless iterations of meaning, the promise of meaning and connection where there is (maybe) none - it's got Pynchon all over it, channeled via ex-dork Portman. It takes a certain level of smartness to construct anything that seems Pynchonesque, and so Portman's got some brains. He's also got some skills; there is so much in King Dork that feels very right to me - the voice of Chi-Mo, for example, is dead on.

But then - in perhaps classic Pynchonian behavior - I start to doubt the connectedness of the two novels. Maybe the reference to Lot 49 is a fluke; it gets mentioned once, and never again; Chi-Mo doesn't mention reading it; it's absent from Portman's amazon.com list of the CEH library. But are these intentional lacunae? Is this by indirection we'll find direction out? Or am I simply suffering from a kind of literary paranoia?

But what in Pynchon can help with the misogyny of King Dork?

Nothing that I can come up with. Possibly reading Gravitys Rainbow (the Grail, the Grail!) would help, but it isn't going to happen any time soon.

So again: what do I do with this book? Is King Dork a halfway - but only halfway - decent book? Or is it a paean to misogyny like its predecessor Catcher in the Rye? Is the Catcher connection also the explanation for the crummy (or rather, crumby) way women appear in King Dork?

I'm seriously tempted to email Frank Portman and just ASK him. But then - I resist the intentional fallacy. I refuse to take the author's word for it - because what does he know? He only knows what he can know, and to mix every damn kind of critical theory in here, Freud tells us that none of us (except Freud) can know very much about our own minds.

I'd love to write a brilliant, illuminating paper on King Dork, where I wield the critical scalpel with unparalleled precision and skill, dissecting, labelling and displaying all the inner guts of that novel. But I'm afraid I'd run into that ever-so-postmodern problem of multiplying meanings, and slippages, and the everlasting, sneaking suspicion that the center is not the center.

Then again, what would the book be - ANY book? - if I could pin it down to a specimen card neatly, tidily labelled, and then seal it behind glass for all time? If it was that easy to get my brain around a book, it wouldn't be worth my time.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

how to bring your kids up gay

I plan to revisit Eve Sedgwick's excellent essay soon - "How to bring your kids up gay" - but I know that, as awesome as it is, it won't answer my ongoing dissertation dilemma: how to think about/read/imagine gayness or queerness in a young child.

I hate to go to psychology for answers, though I imagine all kinds of studies have been done. Young children play at heterosexuality all the time -in all kinds of pretending games like playing "house" and the far more risque playing "doctor," or that old standby "i'll show you mine if  you show me yours" (both of these latter experiments at straightness I know only through rumors that assume the quality of urban legend, though I have no doubt millions of little kids are doing both, probably right this second).

Freud tells us a fair bit about the sexuality of children, though he does let them (and us) off the hook with that whole "latency" thing, but even Freud has his limits of usefulness.

I wonder about the frequency of same-sex/gender pretend-play; how often do two little boys play "house"? When I personally was a small child, I was friends with twin boys who used to LOVE coming to my house to play "house" with our toy kitchen and play food. But since I was the girl in the mix, it wasn't "house" with two daddies. Now that I think about it, I have NO IDEA how that triad arranged itself, and it probably doesn't bear thinking about too closely. Fortunately, I refuse to use myself as an informant; my own memory - everyone's memory - of childhood is simply too unreliable.

The "doctor" and reciprocal exhibitionism is, I think, more a sign of curiosity about sex difference, rather than a sign of sexual interest. Two little boys don't have much need to do a reciprocal show and tell; they already know what's what. It's the anatomical difference that's interesting, not the promise of some kind of voyeuristic pleasure.

There are plenty of anecdotes from gay men, reflecting on their early recollections of their own gayness; many report knowing that something was queer at a very young age. But what that queerness is seems to vary, or to be vague and unspecified.

So how to think/talk/write about queerness in the young child? I'm not even sure I know how to do a search for that kind of material without running smack into a whole lot of psychology work, which I really, really want to avoid. I need a model of talking about the unknown, which makes me think I need to go back to things like David Halperin's How to do the History of Homosexuality
I don't need evidence to write about queer children watching television; this much I know.
But beyond that?
It's a puzzle, but a directed and fairly specific puzzle, which is relief in this dissertation wilderness, where I am having to slog through the vast unknown of a very large, under-utilized archive and a severely undertheorized set of texts.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

choose your own adventure books

My book order for spring is almost complete, only a month late!!

I need to fill two more weeks - four classes total. the theme - a vague, broad theme - is adventure. I have books like Treasure Island, The Magic City, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Un Lun Dun, The Lightning Thief. For a surprise (even to myself) twist I have The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.

But I need two more weeks' worth - two novels, probably. but which ones?

I could do the horrible and assign an actual Choose Your Own Adventure book. I'm not sure any of us could actually handle reading one of those, though - but then again, from a narrational/structural point of view (not to mention the reader-response point of view), it could be AWESOME.  Those are the ultimate in reader-response. I'd have to brush up on reader-response criticism, but that might be a good thing - it could help with my dissertation. Stanley Fish just waits for me, lurking in my critical theory textbooks.....

but what else?
I've kicked around The Westing Game, The 21 Balloons, Larklight, The Amulet of Samarkand. There's also Mary Poppins, or The Wind in the Willows, if I want to go canonical. I have several fairly contemporary dystopias on the list, so I won't add in anything like The Giver, and A Wrinkle in Time is just kind of a crummy irritating book after awhile, so I'd like to avoid that as well.
The Book of Three is really tempting, especially now that I know about the Mabinogi.  Or something by E.L. Konigsberg - The Mixed-Up Files, or Up From Jericho Tel.

In my tireless yet perpetually fruitless efforts to please everyone, I'm dithering way too much over these last couple of titles. I've only ever had one class - one - that went mostly cheerfully along with me on every book on the syllabus, and that was an extraordinary class that I hope I never forget (they gave me a card on the last day! who does that in college? only truly awesome students, which I had).

decisions, decisions! what two books will I pick??????

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

the medium is the message (?)

I taught FEED for the first time this week; it's a book I'm especially fond of, and is obviously both readily and richly loaded with material for discussion. I also know, from past students who have read the book for other classes, that it goes over pretty well: a good book for the second-to-last week of the semester.

The class discussion ended in a way that surprised me, although maybe it shouldn't have. A number of people made the claim that the book is about materialism and consumerism, that a warning about the perils of too much consumerism is the "message" of the book. Aside from my personal belief (which is more of a conviction, bordering on a fact) that there is no one message in anything, this one surprised me. To me, for me, FEED is so clearly about the perils of a technocentric culture. The feed is the mechanism driving the consumerism, it's true, but it's also a consumer good itself; Violet tells Titus that she didn't get her feed for so long in part because her family couldn't afford it, and she goes on to tell him that something like 28% of Americans don't have the feed at all.
The argument propounded by my students seemed to be that technology - the feed - isn't a bad thing, in and of itself; it's the way it's used that's the problem.

I'm skeptical of this argument. Class ended before I had time to really think or talk it through in the way I would have liked, but I felt uneasy, thinking of the book as primarily addressing the evils of a consumer culture.

As one student said, the book tells us that technology kills; another student countered that technology has always killed.

Both of these arguments seem true. It's hard to look back at the history of human invention and not see a whole lot of violence and ugliness based on technological advancements - gunpowder as maybe an obvious one. Then you get examples like the Enfield repeating rifle, which sits at the heart of the 1857 Mutiny/sepoy/Indian rebellion against the colonial British. You get the automobile, which is the mechanism for thousands of deaths yearly.  Various forms of medical technology across the history of medicine have caused all manner of deaths, or at least failed to save lives.

But I think FEED is saying more than this. Anderson is so clearly engaged with language - with the devaluation, the devolution of language, of the ability to communicate in any meaningful way: the feed is responsible for this. References to things like the English-to-English wordbook, all the many moments when Titus can't think of a word and the feed supplies him with one, the horribly awkward, if not fractured, speech of Titus's father and of the President (whose speech sounds remarkably like Sarah Palin's), Violet's ability to read and write, Titus's inability to read and write - they all point to a larger issue of language and communication.
Communication, and a sophisticated linguistic system (written and spoke), are allegedly markers of civilization. It's what separates humans from animals, at least in popular mythology (never mind, for now, the language of primates and whales and dolphins and birds). The loss of the capacity of language production and usage through dependence on the feed marks a step back in human evolution, doesn't it?

And the feed shutters its user from the rest of the world. Titus and his friends can easily ignore the global unrest that the novel hints at, because their feed will protect them. He doesn't always interact with the others smoothly; the first instance is when the one female friend avoids the hacker in the beginning, comes to visit them in the hospital, and is lost in her own feed, "watching" a reality show. The telepathic messaging, the ability to screen out certain images, users, ideas - the feed is an isolating device. In some ways, it mimics the weirdly anonymous communal experience of theatre-going; it isn't my specialty enough to know much about it, but there is a fair bit of work done on the movie theatre as place/space, of the anonymity of the darkened theatre, of the individual yet shared experience of filmgoing. An audience is together in one room, but in the dark, not readily conspicuous even to one's neighbors; everyone is individually absorbed in the images on the screen; there is no communication between the humans present in the space. In some ways, it seems like the feed works in the same way.

I could just be reading the novel through my own techno-anxious lens; though I don't go in much for reader-response criticism, I'm perfectly willing to recognize that our own subjectivity affects the meaning we're able to discern from a text. And since I find the many kinds of portable electronics on market now to be very isolating, to be the illusion of communication and experience when they in fact devalue communication and experience, it's very easy for me to see the feed as a substantial problem in FEED.

The feed isn't just the vehicle for the insane consumerism of the book's dystopic America; the feed - the medium - is the message, in that (rather tired) old formulation.

OR ???


am I just a stubborn, vaguely reactionary technophobe?

then again: do these two need to be mutually exclusive?

Monday, November 30, 2009

foxes fantastic, encore & films of the future

I think I need to see FANTASTIC MISTER FOX again.

I'm going to try to give it a little more time, so I'm not seeing it in back-to-back weeks, but I really want to see that film again.

I'm also planning to see THE PRINCESS & THE FROG, when it's released on 11 December. I don't have any strong feelings toward it - princesses, even jazz-age black princesses from new orleans, aren't really my cup of tea, and frogs certainly are not (unless, of course, it is Frog of Frog and Toad fame).  But - like it or not - Disney is a cultural touchstone, and when a cultural touchstone produces an intentional, self-proclaimed milestone film (first African-American Princess!) - well, for academic and cultural reasons I need to see this one. I'm cringing already, since the First African-American Princess spends part of her movie in the form of a frog (why, Disney? why couldn't you have just gone with a straight human princess plot? there are hundreds of fairytales, thousands of stories, lurking in forgotten collections of folktales - many of which feature *only* human princesses).

It's rare for me to have so many movies lined up that I plan to see: THE PRINCESS & THE FROG, and then in February, THE LIGHTNING THIEF, and in March, Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

I go to about three or four movies a year in theatres if it's a good year. I think there have been years when I haven't seen a single film in a theatre. But I have three coming up in the next four months - and with the very fantastic MISTER FOX, that makes four in four months.

But an encore screening of FANTASTIC MISTER FOX is an absolute requirement for the near future. I can't get those characters out of my mind - and that's not a bad thing.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

the fox fantastic

I saw Fantastic Mister Fox last night - opening night, no less! - and was delighted. BEYOND delighted.

 A brief history: Fantastic Mr Fox is one of the few children's books I remember receiving and reading in my own actual childhood. It turned up in my Easter basket one year, probably when I was seven or thereabouts, and I remember being thrilled with it. My edition (like the one at left) has these wonderful, gorgeous illustrations by Donald Chaffin, which I think made me see the book in a very different way; as a softer, more tragic (and thus ultimately more joyful) book than if I had first encountered it with Quentin Blake's illustrations.
After plucking the book from my Easter basket, I sat down and read the whole thing in one sitting, no really great feat since it's only about 50 pages long (possibly fewer). But I've re-read it countless times since then, and it's always lurked in the back of my mind as my favorite Dahl book.

Which is why I was both nervous and excited when I first heard, years ago, that Wes Anderson planned to make a movie adaptation of Mister Fox. This was probably around the time that The Life Aquatic came out - 2004? I had seen The Life Aquatic and loved it, and have since seen most of Anderson's films - enough to know that he makes wondrous movies. He has a touch of magic in all his movies, a touch of the wonder-full, that is somehow exactly what I want out of a movie.

Fantastic Mister Fox has the best of both worlds: Dahl's and Anderson's. It's beautiful to look at; the aesthetic of the film is perfect to its content. The effect of the stop-motion animation is to give a very joyful, very whimsical tone to the movie, especially when the animals break into dance (which they do rather often). In particular, a scene in Ash's room, at night, featuring a toy train and then a real train, is heartbreakingly beautiful. The plot of the novel has been developed and carefully added on to - the spirit and sense of the novel is absolutely present, even in the new additions - like the Foxes nephew, Kristofferson (who is adorable) and the development of the youngest member of the Fox family, Ash, whose rivalry with Kristofferson and his desire to be seen as an athlete (and not as a little....odd) form a thoroughly Andersonian sideplot that somehow meshes perfectly with Dahl's original tone.

Ash is, by far, my favorite character. He's quirky and odd and growls and wears a cape - he first appears clad only in underwear, trying to avoid going to school. Denied a bandit mask, he fashions one of his own from a tube sock, resulting in a mask with a bobbling, periscope-like sockfoot above his head. He's strange and unaware of his own strangeness, which makes him even more endearing; he truly sees himself as an athlete, a capewearing hero.

What the movie does best - and what I love Anderson for - is to add more story, more heart, to Dahl's already outstanding story without ever stepping over the bounds of Dahl's resolutely unsentimental, funny aesthetic. Scenes between Mr & Mrs Fox, between Ash and Kristofferson, between Mr Fox and Ash, approach moments of sentimentality, of learning valuable lessons about life and love and what really matters -- but the beauty of the film is that these cliched, syrupy moments never actually come off. A gesture, an approach, is the closest we get, before the quotidian (or hilarious) intervenes and saves us from sappiness. A particularly fantastic example of this comes at the film's end and features a wolf.

The soundtrack for the movie is inspired. Though the opening 10 minutes of WALL-E will always be the best opening of any movie ever, the first few minutes of Mr Fox rates very highly in comparison. The soundtrack has lots of jazzy, swingy mid-century instrumentals, and songs by the Rolling Stones, the beach boys and Burl Ives, who is very heavily represented in the soundtrack. It's dead right for this movie, somehow - the gesture to sentimentality without ever actually lapsing into it.

After taking a class on Adaptation in my first year at Pitt, I've spent an inordinate amount of time puzzling over the problem of transmediating book to film, and how to "judge" the resulting movie. The standard assessment, which our class rapidly dismissed (perhaps hastily, very probably a bit scornfully) is fidelity to the original text. But the course also evolved a more complicated way of determining success, and that ended up being - for me, at least - a kind of fidelity to the spirit of the original text. The truly brilliant adaptations maintain the spirit of the original source - the meaning of the original text - but also add on new embellishments and flourishes that extend that original spirit and meaning, additions that make the viewer reflect on the original text in new and interesting ways. The two works become kind of like mirrors facing each other, but mirrors that manage to reflect and capture new angles. Once you have viewed the book through the prism of the successful film, the book is never the same again - in a good way. Likewise, watching the film after knowing the book alters the film - for the better, as well. They become both thoroughly independent and thoroughly complementary, intertwined works of art.

And that is what Fantastic Mister Fox does - it offers up the glorious original story while simultaneously making that original story more glorious through its own new additions.

in other words, and to paraphrase Mrs Fox "This movie is a fantastic film."

Friday, November 20, 2009

modern classics?

Booking through Thursday this week has a good one, brought to my attention via my remarkably well-read and articulate sister:

Do you think any current author is of the same caliber as Dickens, Austen, Bronte, or any of the classic authors? If so, who, and why do you think so? If not, why not? What books from this era might be read 100 years from now?

As I posted in her comments, this is a tough question. Even shakespeare got "dropped" for awhile before being rediscovered (he never really did go away, of course). And Dickens was pop fiction in his day. and some of the late 19th/early 20th century classics (Arnold Bennett, anyone?) are mostly unread today. Reading reviews of these authors' work published concurrently with the books in question is always a very revealing exercise (in fact, a project I recently dreamed up - and will never undertake, probably - is compiling a collection of contemporary reviews from as many older children's books as I can: Alice, Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, etc, as well as the shorter, less famous, works by Dinah Craik and Juliana Ewing and all the other (mostly female) writers for children).

There are loads of brilliant books being written nowadays. Haruki Murakami takes the cake for sheer poetic beauty, brilliance and craft; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore are absolute masterpieces. Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo might make the cut, as well, though Pynchon may end up being the Arnold Bennett of our time.

But in the children's bookworld, there are some stellar entries. Topping out my list of ANY modern classics (children's or otherwise) is Philip Pullman's exquisite trilogy. I get shivery just thinking about certain passages from those books. The scope and sweep of his project with His Dark Materials - and its intertextual relationship with Milton's Paradise Lost - virtually guarantees it a place in the canon of the future (if, of course, people still bother with a canon, or reading, in the future).

I'll place M.T. Anderson in my modern classics, as well, if only for his astonishing range of talent: the glorious historical fiction (plausible imitation 18th century prose!) of the Octavian Nothing books, the quasi-Gothic for younger reads of The Game of Sunken Places, the heartbreaking dystopia of Feed - the man can do it all, and he does it exceptionally well.

I'm in a swoon over Markus Zusak lately; the buzz is about The Book Thief, which is great and fabulouso and all (and what the hell, it's narrated by DEATH - how many books narrated by Death does one come across [probably more than I know of, actually....]), but I Am The Messenger just blew my mind so completely and so wonderfully. And frankly - though this sounds appalling - it's easy to wring tears and pluck heartstrings in a book about children during World War II. Nazis and the Holocaust make for loads of tragedy in any fictional story.  But producing an eloquent, beautiful, powerful book about a teenage taxi driver, his stinky dog, his equally shiftless buddies, and the grimy ends of a city?  THAT takes serious talent.

It's hard to make comparisons transhistorically, though; the quantity of books being written AND published now just vastly overtakes the quantity of books being produced in the 18th and 19th centuries. From the massive heap of books churned out today, it's hard to sift through to find the best. There's no accounting for future tastes, either; I'm sure there are plenty of 18th century dead people spinning in their graves at the thought of the canonization of, say, Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver's Travels.  So perhaps in 200 years it'll be all Dan Brown and Sue Monk Kidd and John Grisham in the university literature survey courses - who knows?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

death and the child

A few years ago, I was TA for a course dealing with children and culture. One of the articles assigned in the class (actually a book chapter, I believe) made me slightly crazy. I can't find my copy of it, so I can't provide the specific cite (I think it was by Viviana Zelizer, but I cannot swear to it). The article was about attitudes toward death and children, and the way those attitudes shifted substantially in the mid-to-late 19th century.

One of the claims made in the article - which I think was actually a simple repetition of one of Philippe Aries's claims - was that prior to the late 18th/19th centuries, most people had a very pragmatic, detached view toward child deaths. It also suggested that even in New England, during the colonial Puritan years, families wouldn't name their new children until the child had lived to a certain age. The students were assigned a writing exercise on this essay, so I read, over and over (times almost 50, the number of students I was responsible for), about the way that people in the Olden Days were relatively unmoved by the deaths of their children. One of the quotes that got used in all these student papers came from (I think) Aries - that people in the early modern era would simply throw the corpses of their dead children out like so much trash, or bury them in yards in the way we now bury our pets.

I always felt like this could not be true across the board. I wouldn't argue with the suggestion that occasionally, some (probably very poor) people disposed of their young dead this way. Just about everything imaginable has happened in the course of history. But to square that image of dead-disposal with the fact that, until VERY recently, Europe and North America were mostly exceedingly serious Christians - it's ludicrous. No Christian would throw away the body of a dead child; they would inter them in consecrated ground. And even way back in the medieval period, Christians took burial seriously. But I could never find real confirmation for my suspicions about dead children.

Two weeks ago, I was in Boston for a conference. I had a fair bit of free time, and decided to tourist myself around the city; I hadn't been to Boston since I was about five or six. I did the Freedom Trail, since it's free and easy, and while I felt very uneasy about the "Freedom" and "liberty" propaganda [I had just re-read Octavian Nothing], I mostly quite enjoyed it.
Especially the cemeteries.
I ended up in two very old, pre-Revolutionary cemeteries: Copps Hill and Granary Burial Ground. Copps Hill, located just a few blocks from Old North Church (of  one if by land, two if by sea fame), was really mesmerizing. Both cemeteries were, really, but Granary holds the graves of Hancock, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and was more touristy.
I spent a very long time inspecting the gravestones, and taking photos of them. They were macabre and worn, but beautiful in their way. And utterly fascinating.  The amount of text on the gravestones was surprising to me; one quoted Milton, which I found unexpectedly moving.  Paradise Lost is quoted and revered today, now, in 2009; the grave on which a line from the epic is quoted was established 260 years ago or more (only about 100 years after Paradise Lost was written!)

But I found the stones of a number of children, some of whom had their ages inscribed on the gravestone, along with their dates. The saddest of these, and the one that proved my earlier instinct that people were not just tossing out their unnamed dead babies with the trash, was for an infant born and buried in 1696.


Transcription of the epitaph:
Joseph the son/ of Joseph & /Hannah Dol/Beare. Born/ & Died Janua/ry 31, 1696.

Born and died on the same day, small Joseph Dolbeare, son of Joseph and Hannah, buried under a small stone in the Granary Burial Ground in 1696, near the then-heart of Boston. In the same small cemetery where John Hancock and Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and Peter Faneuil, and other leaders of the Revolution, would be interred.

Not exactly tossed out, uncared for, unloved, unnamed, like so much garbage.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Ear, The Eye & The Arm, and my brain

Tonight I tried teaching Nancy Farmer's The Ear, The Eye and The Arm for the first time. I'm fairly certain it was not a smash hit with my class; it was also one of those unfortunate classes where I felt myself talking seemingly ad infinitum (I do not like when this happens).

However, evidently my brain has been working hard at thinking about the book. One of the first questions that was raised was a great one: why is the book called The Ear, The Eye and The Arm? Ear, Eye and Arm are secondary characters at best. A number of people seemed baffled at their inclusion at all, and suggested the book might be better without them (or at least, that they are not necessary for the novel).

And I started babbling talking, and suddenly realized that the book is composed of a series of isolated communities: the group at Dead Man's Vlei, the Matsika family (including the Mellower) in their home, the English tribe in Borrowdale, the villagers of Resthaven, the residents of the Cow's Guts, the micro-world within the Mile-High MacIlwaine, the Masks & Gondwannans in their Embassy and hideout. Each of these groups is deficient in some way, damaged (or damaging) in some way. In a way, Farmer's novel seems a bit like a very oddball echo of Walter Benjamin's "The Storyteller" essay - all these disparate groups forming their own communities, and then the outsiders: Tendai, Ear, Eye and Arm. Rita and Kuda function as outsiders to a degree, but not quite in the same way.

It seems to me, somehow, that Tendai and Arm especially, but Ear and Eye as well, are integrative characters: it is their task to make sense of the communities and link them together into one. Both Tendai and Arm are possessed by the mhondoro, the spirit of the land, and are able to bring together - at the very end of the novel - a gaggle of unrelated people to defeat the outsiders, the Gondwannans. It is the She Elephant who levels one of the death blows to the Masks, but Arm, Tendai, Mother, diners and waiters from the Starlight Room all play a role in defeating the Masks.

There's just something very, very interesting going on in this book, with all these fragmented and fractured communities. Intentional withdrawal, exile, being cast out, being simply insular in a snobbish or reactionary way - and then in the midst, Tendai and Arm, both being lost in dreams and quasi-memories of other times and places, and Arm, poor wonderful Arm, being swept up in the tide of other people's emotions, being buffeted and crushed and occasionally, very occasionally, heartened.

I don't quite know what to do with any of this, to be honest, but I also was quite surprised to discover my brain had been working this out without my knowing it - because frankly, as I spoke in class, I was finding those words coming out of my mouth without my having planned them (a fact that was probably extremely evident, but was still sort of wondrous; I haven't had that kind of stream-of-conscious critical analysis in ages).

I still think The Ear, The Eye and The Arm is a remarkable book for the ways it privileges imagination and empathy, and for the way it blurs the lines of "good" and "bad" (whatever those terms mean). In particular, the privileging of empathy is so uncommon that to find it in a book like this one is like coming across an especially lush, large oasis in a desert.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Ask and the Answer

Read it today, just gulped it right down. I don't really know who this Patrick Ness character is, but this Chaos Walking series (thus far only these two books, The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask & the Answer) is pretty fantastic.

Knife was a little better, I think, mainly because it's narrated entirely by Todd (Todd! Who names their dystopic hero Todd?), and his narrative voice is absolutely unbelievably amazing. I'm staggered by Todd's voice. He's not - as a character - well-educated or fully literate, and his narration is full of misspellings, efforts to suppress his own thoughts/narration - it's just brilliant. So much of the book(s) really do feel like transcribed thoughts, the kind of stuttering slow-motion repetition of horror, fear, anxiety, love.

Ask veers away from this, by alternating the narration between Todd and Viola; her voice isn't quite as compelling as his, though her story in this book may be the more gripping. But after having re-read Twilight last week (for an informal grad seminar I'm participating in this semester, NOT as a voluntary exercise in masochism), the strength of Viola and Todd's connection, their relationship, rings so much more true than the relationship between the sparkly vampire and klutzy Bella.  Viola and Todd, as a pair, are infinitely more engaging, and because of the immediacy of the narration coupled with the urgency of the actual plot, the quasi-operatic heights of the relationship don't feel forced, fake or like overblown teenage puppy love.

The political subcurrents of the books are also quite shocking - the banding/branding of the aliens (the Spackle, the name of which - unfortunately - only makes me think of that plaster-patching goop) and the women, the mind control, the dependence on "the cure" (pills) - have obvious resonance with recent and contemporary Western life.

The comparison of these books to The Hunger Games and DuPrau's Ember books still definitely rings true, but Ness's novels are amped up and feel more sophisticated and pressing than DuPrau's, certainly (I'm not sure about Collins's books - I think I need to re-read Hunger Games before I can fairly compare; fortunately, we'll be reading it in my class in just about two weeks, so I'll have my chance).

As I was with Catching Fire, I'm antsy and irked that I'll now have to wait the aeons and aeons before the third book comes out in the Chaos Walking series (and since The Ask & The Answer was just released, I'll be cooling my heels for awhile). Something will come along to fill the gap - it always does - but the waiting is never the easy part.

Friday, November 13, 2009

art lust

I received a link today to Bloomsbury Auctions' catalogue for what looks like an incredible auction: Capture the Imagination: Original Illustration and Fine Illustrated Books.  The catalogue online is gorgeous in itself, and worth the time to flip through.

It's an auction of original art and fine books, all from the children's book world. The auction includes quite a substantial collection of pieces by Tom Feelings (including some hauntingly beautiful wooden sculptures originating with The Middle Passage), a number of prints and books from the so-called Golden Age (including a number of Arthur Rackhams, which make my heart hurt with the desire to own one - I LOVE Rackham's work), and a wide selection of contemporary/20th century art and books. Some of the highlights for me include pieces from Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel (Frog & Toad!), Paul Zelinsky, including a few of his illustrations for some of E. Nesbit's books, William Steig and Edward Gorey. One of the Gorey items is a handmade cloth beanbag silver bat, which Gorey evidently made mainly for friends and rarely for general sale.

Naturally, every single piece is priced firmly out of my meagre reach (being a grad student just doesn't pay enough to keep me in a manner to which I would like to become accustomed).  But this is a treasure-trove of children's book art, and I'm pleased that it's being auctioned for the kinds of prices that guarantee the pieces will be valued, loved and well cared for.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

post-it blog

This is the electronic version of post-it notes (well, probably an ACTUAL e-post-it note system exists, but this is MY version), since I have midterms and walter benjamin waiting for me in my bedroom.

Two things:
1) Tonight (today) I read THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness, and WHOOP! what a book! There's a sequel, recently out, and I MUST get my hands on it, since KNIFE ends on a cliffhanger. A customer at Ye Olde Bookestore recommended them - an adult reader, too, so I knew something awesome had to be inside the book. And it is. was. some very odd gender stuff going on, too, but also some serious good storytelling with a terrific narrator. Sort of like Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember/People of Sparks books meets The Hunger Games with its own amazing twists and turns. I am smitten with the narrator (Todd). There is Bad, Bad Violence to an animal, though, which makes my blood run cold. I can read about humans being murdered and dying, but animals - no. The relationship between Todd and Viola is amazing, truly amazing, without ever making me feel creepy and cliched, as I often do about unlikely duos' romantic entanglements.

2). A system of Dorks is needed.
No: a system of understanding DORK NARRATORS is needed. I've been mulling this one over lately, a lot, since rereading KING DORK. And I wonder about who we laugh at, when we laugh at a humorous dork narrator. And why we laugh. And what we identify with. It's very hard for me to tell, because I am, myself, a former nerd-dork (former? CURRENT). I was a weirdo in high school with no group of friends, only a few friends snared from other groups, none of whom seemed to like each other very much (my friends, that is). And I didn't feel actually close to anyone, really, not until late in my junior year of high school. I was more invisible than actively harrassed, though I came in for my share of snide comments.
But what about the people who read these books and WEREN'T dorks in high school? Yeah, everyone has felt isolated or picked on, but some people - some people were at the top of the heap. A lot more people were at the top or middle of the heap than were in the ranks of dorkdom at the bottom.
All the I Heart Nerds stuff I see, the I Love Nerdy Boys tshirts - it's all a total scam. When and if a real nerd came along (and believe me: I KNOW some real nerds), most people would be ready to laugh or ignore or snicker at the nerd. It wouldn't be all Vote for Pedro t-shirts. It would be sidelong looks and shrinking away.

So what the heck is going ON, anyway, with dork books? It's like, representationally, you're either this awesome, hip dork {and if awesome & hip, not a dork} or you're glamorous Mean Girls like Gossip Girls or something.

I can't get my brain around the problem of the first-person dork narrator.

Which leads me to a corollary issue: the narrator of Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK, Melinda. First person, and amazing - SPEAK is a sensational book. But how to reconcile the way everyone feels that book is speaking directly to their own experiences in high school, when Melinda is depressed and a rape victim? How to understand the gender issue - that boy readers and girl readers seem to identify with Melinda equally, that my undergrads agreed that this book was "gender-neutral"? NOTHING in this world is gender neutral, and rape is very, very far from gender neutral.

so again: what the hell is going on here?

Friday, October 30, 2009


as soon as i posted my blithering about not knowing what to put on my syllabus, i realized i had at least a second awesome title: I AM THE MESSENGER.

so: Un Lun Dun, and I am the Messenger.

now: build-a-theme workshop time.

what should I teach?

I have to put together my book order soon (today is the deadline, but that won't happen) for my spring semester of Childhood's Books. This may very well be my last semester of teaching at my university; I'm in my final funded year, though not (alas) in my final year of dissertation work. In light of this, I want to put together a fabulous syllabus - an especially fabulous syllabus, I should say, since I always strive for fabulosity.

But what to teach? I'm torn between teaching my favorites, willy-nilly, or putting together some kind of organized theme. This term, my theme is history (past, present, future). I've had smash hits with Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK, and with Rick Riordan's THE LIGHTNING THIEF. It's tempting to teach these again, because they get such a good response from the students, but then, I also want to branch out and try some things I've never taught before.

I suspect that I am placing WAY too much importance on this last syllabus; it may very well NOT be the last syllabus, and anyway, it's my sixth semester of teaching this particular course. I have a stack of well-planned syllabi for this class to draw upon, and to use for my eventual teaching portfolio.

But the problem remains: what to teach?

I would really, really like to teach China Mieville's UN LUN DUN. But other than that, I don't think I have any particular commitments to specific titles.

Syllabus making is one of the best parts of teaching, but it can also be the most stressful. And since right now, I have a pile of midterms to grade along with a conference paper to prepare, the syllabus work is exceedingly stressful.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

i continue to consume the book-crack

Lately, I've been absolutely addicted to reading, more so than usual. I cannot get enough - I'm just devouring book after book after book. I'm hitting almost all new titles, too, and branching into "adult" fiction (books for grownups), two things that do not happen very often, not with this kind of frequency or intensity.

I find myself, lately, drawn to books for grown-ups about children, or about childhood. And books about books, which have been some of my favorites ever since the term "metafiction" entered my life circa 1998. In the grown-up books about books AND children category, two standouts: The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly, and The Boy Detective Fails, by Joe Meno. Connolly's book is a dreamy, WWII-era fantasy of a boy, David, who loses his mother to cancer, and - too soon after this loss - acquires a stepmother and half brother. David's love of stories - especially fairy-tales, fantasies of knights and steeds and deeds and half-seen monsters - leads him into (?) stories, books, a fantasy world itself. Pursued by the uncommonly creepy Crooked Man, David must cross this strange book-landscape to find the weak and dying king, whose Book of Lost Things will provide all the answers David seeks. It's a chilling, dreamy book - the Crooked Man is terrifying, the presence of archetypes - The Woodsman, the knight - are both reassuring and unsettling, and Connolly injects a few thoroughly crushing, fantastical details of his own (like the identity of the lost king) that make this book more than just a meditation on the Power of Story, or a reworking of old fairy stories.

The Boy Detective Fails is a horse of another color altogether.
I was attracted by its cover, with its retro-looking illustration of a Boy Detective. Meno has taken familiar tropes - the mid-century child sleuth story (there is an explicit reference to the Hardy Boys) - and mixed in a bit of 1960s comic-book flair, then twisted it all into a heartbreaking modern story of loss, isolation, love and madness. I loved the plot of this book; I loved the characters; I even loved the absolutely crushing final revelations that explain the unsolved mystery of the boy detective's sister's suicide at age 16. But above these, I loved Meno's prose. He writes beautifully, one notch above simply - he has turns of poetic language, a kind of dreaminess that matches the tone of a trope (the boy detective) displaced onto a 30-year-old man living in a contemporary city. Throughout, Billy Argo (the boy detective himself) is most often simply referred to as "the boy detective," despite his age and situation (age:30; situation: living in a kind of halfway home for those moving out of a mental institution, working a peculiar job as a telephone salesman of wigs and false hairpieces [including mustaches] for men and women). A small, seemingly plain little book, The Boy Detective Fails had far, far more in its story than I ever expected.

Not about children, but about books: Pandora in the Congo, by Albert Sanchez Pinol. This one is complex, funny, sad, perplexing - a multitude of books heaped upon itself, a palimpsest of ghost-written stories. The narrator, Tommy Thomson, has undertaken to ghostwrite the story of one Marcus Garvey, manservant, awaiting trial for murder of the two men, brothers, who employed him on their colonial adventure into the Congo. Garvey's story intertwines with Tommy's until - as Tommy himself notes - they are nearly inseparable. Garvey's tale - in that heart of darkness - is a hideous mix of British colonialist arrogance, cruelty, foolishness, native loyalty and fear, British heroism and - oddly - a thoroughly unlikely but wholly convincing science-fiction narrative of a species from under the earth. Set during the first world war, in the final glory years of the British Empire, the book excavates story upon story, coming up, finally, with both Tommy's book, and the book we are holding, and an earlier book, alluded to briefly early in the narrative, all of them Pandora in the Congo.

Finally, today, I tore through THE BOOK THIEF. I had a few reservations about this one, due primarily to its popularity and its prevalence on the summer reading tables in the bookstore. After reading Zusak's I AM THE MESSENGER, I felt reassured about The Book Thief, even though I am wary of world war two stories involving children.

Zusak's prose is unlike any other. He is masterful, able to keep the narrative moving fluidly while at the same time poking - stabbing, at times - the reader with short, sudden profundity. The Book Thief has the distinction of being narrated by Death, in the first person (and Death's voice, at times, reminded me distinctly of the voice of Bartimaeus, from Jonathan Stroud's trilogy of the same name). The importance of books, of words, is central to the book, but so too is simple love of many kinds, of many complexities. Interspersed with Death's narrative are a couple of short, hand-crafted stories, with illustrations, by one of the book's characters (a hidden Jew) - these gems are almost stand-alone quality, though they take on more resonance with contextualization from the book. Stylistically, Zusak does interesting, clever things; likewise structurally. It's clear he is a man who loves books and words, and moreover, knows how to use them to best advantage. Death interrupts his own narrative flow repeatedly, with short, asterisk-delineated "notes" that usually convey some sort of devastating revelation.
Though this is a book set during - and very concerned with - the second world war (it takes place in Germany, and a hidden Jew and Mein Kampf are two very important aspects of the plot), this is not a book *about* the holocaust. It's a book about love, really, but not smothering or incredibly romantic love. It is love for family, for friends, for kind neighbors, for odd assistance in unlikely places, love of danger and triumph, love of beauty, love of truth, love of words and stories and books - finally, really, love of life.

Friday, August 28, 2009

I am the messenger

Tonight, in a headache-induced fit of lethargy, I read all of Markus Zusak's I AM THE MESSENGER. and I AM IN LOVE.

what a book! my god!

I haven't read the book thief, since I haven't been able to get my hands on a library copy, so this was my first exposure to Zusak.
He's a really excellent writer - the characters were great, the scenes were great, the plot (and plotting) were unbelievably great. The cast of secondary (and tertiary) characters in this novel are both inventive and totally, ordinarily real.

Because I'm an American, and because I have never been to Australia, nor have I read many Australian books, something about Australian books has always felt a little ... extra-ordinary, like they aren't set quite in this world. I don't know the locations, the slang, the pop culture in the way that I do for American and even British books. I'm sure this says something hideously provincial about me, but in a way I also like the mystique of mysterious Australia in my books. It gives them a very slightly dreamy edge.

And the particulars of I AM THE MESSENGER are dreamy enough to begin with. It's thoroughly realist at the same time, which delights me. I love books when the dreamy aspect of life is made evident through realism, or when the real world takes on the tones I wish it had.

I don't want to recap the plot, or give anything away, but my two favorite secondary characters are Milla and the Polynesia family.

But Ed - the narrator, protagonist, the one who is utterly uncertain if he will be the hero of his own life - is really the best character of them all, from start to finish. As I concluded the book, I thought of the Brothers Cheeryble, from Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, who are two of my absolute favorite characters in fiction.

What the Cheerybles share with Ed - or, rather, with Ed's story - is a sense of compassion, of kindness, of love, that is ridiculously rare both in fiction and in the real world. Zusak is a master because he manages to convey a fairly cliched message without it feeling cliched, or even feeling like he's conveying a message. This is not - not EVER - a preachy, or smarmy, or (shudder) sentimental book. It is more than occasionally brutal, often perplexing, lonely, sad, frustrating. But it never once preaches. It is not moralizing. We don't want to become like Ed - we already are like Ed. This is no Eric, or Little by Little. Ed is nobody's role model, nobody's hero, except in the ways that we are all always, already, heroes.

My keywords for life have lately become empathy and compassion, and this book suited those words beautifully, in a way that also satisfies my critical, judgmental, sarcastic streak that resists sentimentality, and boundless optimism.

I am not sure there are any good words to describe this book, and how I feel about it. It's an absolute must-read, and I can't think how I've missed it before now (it was published in 2002, for crying out loud!). I intend to get my hands on THE BOOK THIEF asap, but I also intend to purchase I AM THE MESSENGER as soon as book-buying comes into my financial grasp again. I do not buy books lightly; I do not choose just any, or every, book to add to my collection. My need to own this book is the highest recommendation i could give to it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

booking through thursday - quick edition

today's question:

What’s the lightest, most “fluff” kind of book you’ve read recently?

I've been hitting the popular YA lately, so I feel like lots of fluff has been happening. But of the ones I've COMPLETED, I'm going with Rachel Cohn's trio of books about Cyd Charisse - GINGERBREAD, SHRIMP, CUPCAKE.

I think SHRIMP was probably the fluffiest, though CUPCAKE also had its moments. Not bad books, just pretty fluffy. Bits and pieces of Serious Life Moments, but overall: fluffy, especially by my standards.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

booking through thursday

AH! Just the right question!

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

It's not technically a children's or YA book, but the protagonist is a child throughout the entire book (I think he's around 14 at the end).

The book?


Set in early-mid nineteenth century Oxford, this is an absolute dream of a book. I read it through in just about a day; it was like I was in a trance. I mean, a deeper trance than I usually am in when I'm reading.

It's a peculiar little book, almost more of a place-and-character study than a true plot-driven novel. But the moments when the text does ramble feel so entirely appropriate to the dreamy tone of the book in general that you hardly notice them. It's hard for me to even think of Garner, of an author - this is a book that has been dreamed and drifted into the world so beautifully it doesn't feel constructed at all. This is, of course, a major sign of brilliant craftsmanship.

Edgar is a compelling but always mysterious character; his parents are both sympathetic and pitiable, even, at times, loathsome. The others who inhabit the novel - very, very few actually inhabit Edgar's world - are an intriguing mix. Garner gets the tone of the early Victorian period just right, but the world of Oxford's dreaming spires is, in fact, dreamy, shadowy, full of invisible, or barely visible forces that border on the supernatural or magical. This is not a fantasy; there are no cabals of magicians, no faerie, no elves. It isn't even the magical realism of garcia marquez, though the book shares some of the hazy, beautiful qualities of 100 Years of Solitude.

The novel's conclusion is not an ending, in any sense. it is just the fading away of the dream-narrative. The nearest comparison I could make, especially with the novel's conclusion, is to Todd Haynes' amazing film Poison.

Totally captivating, this is the kind of book you want to simultaneously treasure and hoard and keep as a jewel-like secret, along with shouting from the rooftops of how great it is.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

new experiment: booking through thursday

I've decided to try participating in the Booking Through Thursday meme (a word I really do not like). This week's question:

What’s the worst book you’ve read recently?
(I figure it’s easier than asking your all-time worst, because, well, it’s recent!)

This is not an easy one to answer. I don't pick books that sound bad; I usually go for books that I've heard or read something positive about, or books where I know the author's other work and like it. That said, I guess I'd have to say the book I've read recently (in the last six months or) that was worst is Jay Asher's 13 REASONS WHY.

13 REASONS WHY has been pretty popular with younger readers; I guess vindictive, suicidal girls have their appeal. It's entirely possible that this *could* have been a good book; the premise isn't terrible, but Asher is not that skilled as a writer. Ultimately, the book left me cold and puzzled: Hannah's reasons for killing herself seemed awfully petty, and I never once felt, from the tone of her narrations, that she was in the kind of despair that leads to suicide. She sounds more petulant than anything else. Similarly, the position in which she puts the novel's main narrator, Clay, is appalling.
The novel ends with a weak attempt at producing a silver lining to Hannah's suicide, and this is maybe where the book is at its worst. Hannah's suicide – her 13 reasons – seem so utterly banal that it's hard to feel like any big impact has been made. There is NO silver lining to suicide, but the book wants to leave us on an up note, so Clay decides to be especially nice to a misfit depressed girl at school. The book closes on his decision; we never see if he carries through, or if he has any success.

This is not the most poorly written book I've ever read, but it's not particularly good, either. The prose is just so-so. Hannah's voice is not convincing; or perhaps, it's convincing as an unhappy, bratty teenager, but not one genuinely driven to the kinds of misery that lead to suicide. Clay is more convincing, but the narrative screws him over so badly it's hard to feel anything but misery for him. The misery is made worse by the book's belated effort at giving us something positive to latch on to (Clay's last-page decision to reach out to his classmate). Either leave us with the bleakness that attends suicide, OR give us something genuinely positive or hopeful to take away. The half-assed attempt at an up ending only highlights the shoddiness of the entire text.

Monday, August 03, 2009

reading YA nonstop

I have decided to start a notebook, keeping track of the books I read. This will include re-reads. I started the notebook around 29 July. It is now the morning of 3 August, and i just added the 11th title.

I may have a problem, a sort of addiction, to reading. But then again, other than a slight, very slight, dizziness, reading all the time causes me no problems, so I don't worry about it.

Most recently I read Rachel Cohn's Gingerbread, which proved to me that I still don't like YA novels about pretty teenage girls with money (even screwed up girls like Cyd Charisse, though the presence of the doll Gingerbread was a great touch); K.L. Going's King of the Screwups, which challenged me again - it was difficult to NOT feel sympathy for Liam, the narrator, and his angst over his nasty father and his useless mother; but he's 1) beautiful [model-gorgeous] 2) wealthy and 3) a large part of his conflict in the book is his attempt to become unpopular, which fails miserably.

I have a very hard time feeling sorry for beautiful, wealthy teenagers, even when they have shitty families. Cyd Charisse has a screwed-up family, but is not unloved; her step-dad (the only dad she's ever known) clearly loves her and connects with her; her mother is more difficult, but tries to do the right thing. Her bio-dad is a mess, but not in a bad way. Cyd Charisse has her pick of attractive boys/men, money to burn (literally - she stuffs a $50 down the garbage disposal) and a weirdly charming personality. From my standpoint as an ever-so-elderly 30-year-old, Cyd Charisse just seemed like a brat. I wonder if there are some YA books that simply don't work on non-YA readers. ......

Liam, in Going's novel, was a bit trickier. He's definitely less of a brat that Cyd Charisse; because we can see inside his head (he's narrator), we can see that the actions and remarks that seem callous and arrogant are actually just his thoughts coming out all wrong as a result of his anxiety over doing something wrong. But it made me grind my teeth that Liam's talent is for fashion and modeling - it's hard for me to not see that as frivolous. And the popularity that Liam is trying to slough off comes almost entirely from his appearance: he's drop-dead gorgeous, and he dresses extremely well. Girls, and guys, are going ga-ga to welcome him to the new school. It is very hard to feel sorry for someone who has instant entree to every social group he finds himself in.

Where Going really pleased me is with the cast of middle-aged glam rockers whom Liam ends up living with. His uncle - gay Aunt Pete - who lives in a trailer in a mobile-home park, and Pete's bandmates: flaming Eddie who runs a clothing store, Dino the cop and Orlando, the English teacher (in fact, Liam's english teacher) - all continue to practice and play in their glam band as they've done for decades. This is a great, queer batch of characters whose queerness matters but not as a stumbling block.

And this morning I finished MT Anderson's Burger Wuss, which for some reason I've avoided until now. I love Anderson, but this is not his best work, though it has its moments. Anthony, poor old narrator Anthony, is a weird, nerdy kid (a contortionist!?) trying to get revenge on a slick jerk for "stealing" ANthony's girlfriend of three months, Diana. Anthony's obsessiveness over Diana, coupled with his total unawareness of his obsessiveness, and its creepiness, makes him a very unsettling character.
The book reminded me a lot of a novel I read as a kid, called something like Burger Heaven - I think (main character: a guy named Kenny who works at a burger place, ends up robbing it, it all goes south from there. it's late 70s or early 80s, I think).

The absolute best - BEST - part of the book is Anderson's inclusion of a gang of grammatically-correct graffiti kids. They're teenagers who go around correctly the grammar of other graffiti and signs around town. There's a great moment, when the group finds a graffiti that says GUY'S SUCK, and the grammar kids fall all over each other laughing "like it takes the genitive!" Literally: two of the kids end up rolling around on the ground laughing.

Somehow, a band of grammar graffiti-bandits appeals enormously to me.
Really, I think maybe Anderson should have scrapped the burger wuss angle (though it does have, in Shunt, a nice anarchist, anti-capitalist agitator), and instead written a novel about the life and times of the Correct Grammar Gang.

I now need to set aside my YA readings and ramblings, and get down to business of reading some children's/YA historical fiction - particularly some older historical fiction - so I can finalize my fall syllabus. Historical fiction has never been my specialty, so I'm struggling a little. The Newbery Award has often gone to historical fiction, but all of it raises my hackles in one way or another (The Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, The Slave Dancer, the older stuff like Rifles for Watie), and I refuse to include it. I'm already planning either caddie woodlawn or a little house book, to demonstrate the "ills" of some kinds of historical fiction. I don't need another demonstration of this.

Monday, July 27, 2009

trick children/child stars

For quite some time, I've been uneasy to angry about the way our culture uses children for entertainment. James Kincaid includes a brief essay on child stars and their exploitation as the postscript to his 1998 book, Erotic Innocence; since I read that, around 2002, I've been very aware of child stars and trick children of all varieties.

Child stars are sort of a punchline - think of all those child stars of the 60s and 70s who grew up to be drug addicts, have eating disorders, be generally mocked and discarded after their cute years ended. Macauley Culkin is a good example of a more recent child star who outgrew his usefulness (ie, his cuteness, his child-ness). There have definitely been successes - child stars who grew up to have normal adult lives, child stars who managed to successfully transition to being actors, musicians, etc as adults. But more often, there's some kind of messy trauma around these kids who are used to satisfy the desires of adults.

Paul Petersen (former child star on the Donna Reed Show) has an advocacy group, A Minor Consideration, that focuses especially on the legal and financial issues surrounding child stars. Kids have been consistently screwed out of their earnings by their parents since - oh, since children started appearing on stages and on the screen. This was partially corrected by the Coogan Bill in the late 30s (a law which has since been updated).

But the bigger problem is that we LOVE cute kids. we love ogling them. and then, when they aren't cute anymore, we laugh at them. we take advantage of them. Worse, their parents exploit and take advantage of them. The absurd Gosselin family - the Jon & Kate + 8 people - highlight this in the worst way.

The cover story of US Weekly is about the Gosselins' breakup. And how the kids are suffering, experiencing this divorce very, very publicly, and being used by their parents. Well, NO KIDDING! They've BEEN used by their parents since day one. No one cared much then, when they looked like a well-scrubbed family of matchy-matchy kids with Solid Christian Values. But now, we pretend to have concern for the kids even as we're splashing their pictures all over magazines and tabloid tv.

Michael Jackson's death last month brought this all up again. Everyone sadly shook their heads over the way Michael never had a real childhood, etc etc etc. But you know who made it possible for that little boy's childhood to be taken from him? WE DID. us. we bought the product. the record labels and studios deliver what we want, and we eat that shit right up. Then, when the kid - Michael - grows up weird, we wonder why. Listen: Michael began performing publicly with the Jackson 5 when he was FIVE YEARS OLD. Their father - a truly appalling, greedy. crass man - took the boys to perform in bars, strip clubs and auditoriums when Michael was as young as six. That's a first-grader, a kindergartener. Michael was about 10 when the band hit it big and appeared on national tv. That's fifth grade.

The two little kids who acted in Slumdog Millionaire have upset me enormously; those kids came from slums, and were returned to them, even after the film made a ton of money and won academy awards. some trust funds were set up - contingent on the kids' finishing school! - but those children went back to sleeping under plastic and living in worse than hovels. And we think: how cute!

Kids may enjoy performing - acting, singing, etc - but they are also working. One of the creepy aspects of show business is that the product is a person - we consume the star, we devour them. Adults may not know everything they're getting themselves into when they launch show business careers, but they are certainly more aware, and more equipped to handle, these things than kids are. Even the most sophisticated, intelligent kid is still a child.

I am not some kind of sappy character who believes the children are the future. I love Lee Edelman's work in No Future. I do, however, believe that they are people- humans who are entitled to some dignity and respect and rights.

I try to avoid child-based products whenever I can. sometimes, it can't be avoided - there's some great television and film with child actors. But the gross commercialization and exploitation - as in the Gosselins, or pageant children (that appalling TLC show Tots & Tiaras!) - or even those Ann Geddes products with babies dressed up as bunnies and sunflowers - I avoid those like the plague.

It's important to remind ourselves of the costs of child stardom. It's far too easy, and too common, to say "what a cute kid," then forget about him or her. How often do people say "I wonder whatever happened to THAT kid?" about some child star who ten years earlier had been on covers of magazines. How often to the tabloids run articles about the drug arrests, broken marriages, bankruptcies and other crises of former child stars? All those breakdowns, rehabs, meltdowns - we are all partially responsible for those, and I think it's time we started paying better attention to what we're doing to these kids.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

notes on disney/pixar

Last night, I watched an advance promotional trailer, announcing the release date for Toy Story 3. That, plus this weekend's release of UP, Pixar's tenth full length feature film, got me thinking about how Pixar is changing the face of disney filmmaking.

Disney has been criticized (often rightly) for its conservative animated films. Critics point to a kind of overall hegemonic or normative quality in the films: primarily white protagonists; reinforcement of the heteronormative love plot; nonfeminist heroines (if not outright antifeminist heroines); stereotypes of all kinds of people.

Pixar changes all of this, and it seems to me that they have been overlooked in critiques of Disney coming from the world of children's literature. I'm late coming to the film party - most of my knowledge of my field is with books. But there is a substantial body of work on Disney films that crops up in ChLA publications and conferences, and that is what I'm primarily thinking of here.

It occurred to me this morning that, of the nine Pixar films I've seen [going to see UP next weekend, in 3-D), only a few feature a romance plot at the center (or near the center) of the film's plot. A Bug's Life, Ratatouille, Cars, and Wall-E each have a love story as part of their plot - for WALL-E, the romance plot between wall-e and eve is absolutely central to the film. For the other three, however, the romance is a secondary feature. For Ratatouille, the romance doesn't even concern Remy, the rat protagonist. And in all four films, the romance plot hinges on a semi-hapless male seeking approval and affection from a powerful, sometimes scornful, female. The males, generally, change for the better in their quest for affection from their fair ladies, rather than the females changing or compromising in some way for the men.

The remaining Pixar films barely mention romantic love at all. Woody and Bo-Peep clearly have a relationship of some kind, but it's so bracketed as to be barely visible. The primary relationships in Toy Story are between Buzz and Woody, and Woody and his owner Andy, and with internal conflicts that have nothing to do with romance. Toy Story 2 sidelines romance even more; it isn't until the last few minutes of the film that Bo-Peep and Woody re-emerge as a couple, and Jessie, the cowgirl, dazzles Buzz with her derring-do.
Finding Nemo has virtually no romance at all, once Nemo's mom has died (which happens in the opening sequence). The Incredibles likewise opens with a chase scene-cum-wedding, but the plot turns on the family dynamic, not so much the traditional romance plot. Monsters Inc gives Mike Wazowski a girlfriend, but Celia is not a main character, and their relationship is not central.

Pixar has made vast amounts of money for Disney, and has achieved enormous critical success as well. The way Pixar is discussed now in the press is remarkably similar to the early days of Disney's studio, when Walt Disney was pathbreaking in animation and cinematic technology. The Disney studios are continuing to work on traditionally animated features, but Pixar has really assumed place of pride in the company's stable. This shift in importance and popularity signals a change in Disney and in the viewing public, and needs to be recognized as such. The "rights" of Pixar don't correct the wrongs of Disney's previous releases, but I do think that, as critics, we need to give credit where credit is due. When a studio gets it right, we need to be supporting that, if we're going to call, publicly in our work, for new kinds of stories and departures from the old romance plot.

Monday, March 30, 2009

laurie anderson's wintergirls

Laurie Halse Anderson - author of the stunningly brilliant SPEAK - has a new book out, a new YA called WINTERGIRLS.

Like everyone else, I loved SPEAK - I thought it was incredibly honest and real and truthful. It resonated with me on a number of levels personally, and as a student of children's and YA literature, it absolutely rocked my world. Anderson's narrator in SPEAK, Melinda, is one of the best YA narrators I've ever encountered. Teaching the novel last fall to undergrads, I was amazed at how they all - ALL - responded so positively to the book. I was struck especially by the way a couple of the boys in my class felt connection with Melinda; I had been a bit anxious that it would read too much like a "girl" book (not just because Melinda is female, but because she is dealing with rape, self-esteem that links to sexuality and appearance, and the nasty world of teenage girl social relations). But somehow SPEAK managed to, well, speak to virtually everyone in the class, regardless of their own personal circumstances.

Naturally, after reading SPEAK, I scurried after Anderson's other books. I've read them all, I think, except the relatively recent CHAINS - and I've found them disappointing. The emotional depth, the cleverness of the prose, the stylistic tricks, the personality of the narrator - Anderson has not been able to come near her success in any of these areas since SPEAK.

Until WINTERGIRLS, which I read this weekend. I still maintain SPEAK as a better novel - because really, it's superb, virtually flawless - but Wintergirls comes very close to reaching the bar set by SPEAK.

Going into it, I was a bit anxious; Wintergirls is the story of two girls, late teenagers, who both struggle with eating disorders. Lia, the narrator, is anorexic; Cassie, her closest friend since childhood, is bulimic. Both girls dabble in drinking or drugs; Lia (if not Cassie) also cuts. The novel begins with news of Cassie's death, alone in a motel room. Lia is home from a recent stint at a recovery facility (but not at all recovered, and in fact secretly determined to drop down from 104lbs to 85lbs or less).

On the face of it, this seems like a standard teen-girl problem novel, but because Anderson is in top form, she's able to nail the psychology, the inner life, of her anorexic, unhappy protagonist. Lia's hazy world is our own world, and while as readers it is clear that Lia is severely troubled and impaired by her disorder, we are also pulled into a kind of understanding; we see Lia's world as Lia sees it, and this makes her behaviors more understandable (although not less frightening). Lia is haunted by Cassie - literally, sort of - and as the novel progresses it becomes clear that Cassie's "ghost" and Lia are locked into a battle of sorts, a battle that played out in their real lives prior to Cassie's death in a much less obvious, much less clearly dangerous, way. But the stakes are enormous now - literally, life and death - for Lia as she tries to negotiate her way in a world that is out of her control and unpleasant. Her feelings of responsibility for Cassie's death dominate much of her emotional world; on the night she died, Cassie left 33 voicemessages on Lia's phone, messages Lia did not get until after news of the death.

Lia is a broken narrator. She is manipulative of her family and her therapist, though in ways she understands as self-protective. She knows the correct lines to say at the right moments to assuage parental anxiety. She has endless tricks to deceive - sewing quarters into the hem of the robe in which she has her weekly weigh-in, for instance. She is unstable, haunted, distressed and disturbed - but this doesn't make her any less likeable.

But the book isn't about Lia's personality, necessarily. She isn't a helpless victim (as Melinda is, in some ways). Lia is unwell, and her obsessive control of her eating is in fact symptomatic of how wildly out of control she is. The book is really the story - the intense, emotional story - of a horrific battle between Lia and herself. Outside forces work on and against and for her, but ultimately, this is Lia against herself. The book doesn't shrink away from the horrific nature of that kind of internal, psychological battle, nor does it shrink away from describing some of the most frightening symptoms and results of severely disordered food behaviors. This is a story that takes place in the borderlands, where Lia herself says she exists - between worlds, between existences - and the content of the book is movement through those borderlands.

As someone who is deeply invested in food/eating disorders (both behaviors and thought patterns), and as someone who is also invested in representations of mental health (in fiction and in the real world), I found this book thoroughly disturbing. Anderson gets the desperate panic of disordered thinking down perfectly - the deceptions, the continuous, obsessive numbers attached with every bite or drink Lia takes. Numbers mark the book everywhere, as do textually different interior monologues, Lia's loop of self-loathing and directives to resist/refuse/deny/restrict. Anderson plays some clever tricks with language and typesetting to achieve the psychological effects she's aiming for. The result, I think, is a really amazing representation of emotional/eating disordered life.

A note of caution: I would not give this book to girls - or anyone - currently living with a food-related disorder; the numbers, the repeated negative self-talk, are likely to be triggers, consciously or unconsciously. As a person who has had some problems in the past myself, it was hard to look at those lists of food and their associated calories and not feel anxious, or triggered myself.
But for anyone else looking for a gripping, emotionally challenging story, WINTERGIRLS delivers and then some. It's a delight to me to know that Laurie Anderson is more than a one-hit wonder; though nothing will likely top SPEAK, which is truly her masterpiece, WINTERGIRLS hits the same kinds of emotional and literary highs.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

wide awake, feed, technophobia, teaching

I've been thinking a lot lately about technology and teaching. technology and human interaction, human exchange. technology and capitalism. My students are thoroughly plugged in - constantly whipping out mobile phones/text/internet machines throughout class, and throughout the rest of their days. they have cable in the dorms, televisions in most of their rooms or homes. Yet not one of my 25 college undergrads - largely juniors and seniors - knew the name Bernie Madoff when I mentioned it two weeks ago. None of them - except the business major - are following the economic news.

When I was in college, ever so long ago, television wasn't really an option for us. most people didn't have one at all, it seemed; at least, i only knew a few people who had them, with VCRs for movie-watching. the public tvs in the lounges didn't have cable. reception was abysmal to nonexistent, i think because of being next door to an airport. My first year, we were still on dialup. second year, we moved on to ethernet (i think), but - well, if google existed, i didn't know about it. no one had cellphones until my last year, when a few people had them. we all had landlines, but no one used them internally. if you wanted to talk to someone, you simply went and knocked on their door. or found their whereabouts, and tracked them down, if it was important enough. the campus was tiny and the population equally small; everyone knew everyone else, and everyone else's movements.

now everyone is strung together by wires and cables and satellite signals. but somehow - they seem less in touch.

I've been thinking about FEED a lot lately, MT Anderson's rather creepy dystopic novel. I need to read it again. I've only read it once or twice, but lately I can't stop thinking about it. specifically, i think about Violet. I think about not having the money to get the feed installed at a young enough age. i think about dying from technology.

I've also been thinking a lot about WIDE AWAKE, David Levithan's dreamy utopic novel. I think I wrote about it here awhile back, briefly. Levithan's imagined historical event, the "Greater Depression," has happened before the narrative opens (it's set in the mid 21st century - the protagonist's grandparents grew up in the 1990s). That phrase, Greater Depression, keeps knocking around in my brain.

I'm also seeing, in my mind's eye, the landscape of earth from WALL-E. the landscape of deserted parking lots, abandoned trains, cars, refrigerators, lightbulbs, televisions, soda cans, after the population has abandoned to ship, blasting off for the eternal false sunshine of their space cruise.

I wonder about being "too big to fail." what this means is that institutions are too big to be ALLOWED to fail. and i wonder what happens if, despite zillions of borrowed dollars, a bank or system that is "too big to fail" still crumbles. I suspect the Roman Empire thought IT was "too big to fail," also. The technological advancements of the Empire were remarkable; some, in the form of roads, aqueducts and walls, are still standing.

My students DON'T see these things. they somehow still seem to be gazing at the sunny-side-up of a dropped egg. a girl told me a few weeks ago that "everyone" now thinks homosexuality is fine, it's totally accepted.

there's a kind of obliviousness, a blindness, that I see in my students. largely, it's a historical blindness: everything that happened before their birth is "the olden days." they simply have no concept of WHEN things happen, what the pattern of history looks like, what time means. It doesn't feel, to them, like women's suffrage is a relatively recent development. It's something that happened "back in the day," a phrase they use to mean everything from 1980 to 1700 to BC Athens.

i wonder about these things. i wonder what to do about them, in terms of teaching. I wonder how to think about systemic failure, and change, and technology that alienates under the guise of connecting us all.

mostly, i wonder about the Greater Depression, and the feed.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Neil Gaiman Hurrah! - Coraline and The Graveyard Book

The Newbery Medal this year (2008 award) has been given to Neil Gaiman's THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. I'm thrilled to death, because it was such a phenomenal book (my post about it is below, somewhere). I'm also excited because I read and loved this book BEFORE it won the Newbery. I'm pleased and a little surprised that the committee selected this book; it's got some edge to it (the first chapter is a quite horrifying opening sequence about the murder of Bod's entire family, including his child-sister). The Newbery awards its prizes to a variety of kinds of books - not just happy fluff books, or gritty realism that teaches important messages - but The Graveyard Book is uncategorizable, to me - it's a Gaiman fantasy. I do think I need to think more about how to classify the book - as an intellectual exercise, not so much because I believe that books need classification. At any rate, Newbery medal winner The Graveyard Book is an astonishingly wonderful book, and I couldn't be happier about the win.

Now for Coraline.

For a couple of years, I've had a copy of Coraline on my bookshelf; I picked it up for 49 cents at a goodwill store. Then, for some reason, I resisted reading it. I have no idea why. But this Friday, coinciding with the release of Henry Selick's Coraline film, I read it.

And loved it. What a deliciously creepy, inventive book! I wonder about the eye motifs - why buttons? why eyes? why dolls? It makes me think of Hoffman's creepy "Sandman" story; perhaps it's meant to.
I thought the book was fantastic. I loved Coraline, the explorer-heroine. I loved her impulse to explore - it's one that I can connect with, both in recalling my child-self and in my adult-self now (and to be honest, I am not at all sure there's much difference between the child-self and the adult-self, in terms of imagination). I liked her bored snarkiness with her neighbors and family; not malicious, not bratty, simply - apart from the realm of what adults find interesting, or what adults think kids find interesting. Possibly my favorite line comes early on, when Coraline reflects on the dull or dumb things adults say: "She wondered who they thought they were talking to."
This sums up, brilliantly and concisely, Coraline's personality and also my own thinking about adult-child relationships here in my own "real" world. I often wonder, seeing adults clucking and cooing at small children, who they think they are talking to. Likewise with older children, who are people deserving of respect and honest attention.

Saturday night I saw the movie adaptation, which was staggering. Selick's stop-motion animation is just unbelievably well suited to the story, and he handles it marvellously. My only complaint, really, is the insertion of Wybie, the male foil to Coraline - he's not in the book, and he isn't necessary at all. Coraline can manage on her own just fine. I suspect Wybie of being an invention designed to bring in boy viewers, which - if true - infuriates me. Girls and woman have, for years, been expected (and been able) to identify with male protagonists, and male protagonists only, in texts where there's a real absence of meaningful female characters. So why can't boys and men learn to do the same?

The other-world Selick devises is obviously his raison d'etre for making the film. the lavish attention, the long sequences, on the delights and wonders contrived for Coraline in the other-world are the most gorgeous, dreamy moments of the entire film. The garden made for Coraline by the other-father is beautiful and amazing and magical, even before the camera pulls back and reveals that the entire garden has been grown in the image of Coraline's face. That detail only makes it more beautiful.
The mouse circus sequence was my other favorite, aesthetically (Spink and Forcible's burlesque act is HYSTERICALLY funny, a genius moment of "adult" entertainment that had the entire theatre giggling). Pink cotton candy is, to me, one of the most visually pleasing things in the world, and the cannons shooting out cotton-candy cones were a lovely trick.

The joy and beauty in the film - visually - is in the exquisite craftsmanship of the sets and characters. the entire thing - every piece - is handmade, and it gives the film an extra layer of magic, somehow. The textures of Coraline's sweater, her rainboots and slicker, the fluff of the cotton candy, the shine of the black button eyes - are all wonderfully vivid and real. It's a movie that makes me wish for a fabulous dollhouse, with a doll-garden, and finely detailed doll accessories.

Selick's adaptation necessarily contains changes; Wybie is really the only egregious one, the one I have real issue with. The voice of the black cat did not match MY sense of the cat's voice from the book, but it worked nonetheless. But aesthetically, Selick's film is a perfect match with Coraline the book. I was not lucky enough to see it in 3D (I would like to, if I can find a 3D theatre in town), but even barring that, Coraline was an extraordinary visual experience.