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)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

educate yourself

One of my favorite discoveries on the internet this year is the writing and visual arts work of Frank Chimero. Today, he writes about something that, coincidentally enough, is something I'm currently dealing with myself: online learning.   He defines the type of "class" he's looking for thus:
Why don’t more of these things exist for every topic? I’m going to call them SurveyCasts in lieu of a good name, mostly because they act as those typical 101-level surveys of topics most students are asked to take at liberal arts universities. Except these are created, made for, and distributed using digital technology and the web instead of classrooms filled with students in chairs.

 Serendipitously, I'm trying to learn all about classical Greek and Roman history and mythology in advance of teaching a class on Myth & Folktale in the spring.  Though I know the myths themselves, I don't know much about them, or the history (cultural, social, political, military, literary) that gave rise to, and perpetuated, them. So I did some googling and found, via "Open Yale," the class lectures from a basic history class on Ancient Greece. I listened to part of one, and it's immensely interesting; the problem, as Chimero points out, is  "no one wanting to watch a 50-minute video of a guy speaking at a podium, but also how the courses are built on the semester schedule, and 16 weeks is entirely too long for a successful SurveyCast."

My own needs would be extremely well served by these "SurveyCasts" that Chimero suggests, especially ones in history and science.

But then I think, as well, that I would LOVE to curate my own survey - I love, more than anything, talking about books. And teaching, of course, though to create these surveys one would be operating in lecture/presentation mode, rather than discussion-leading/teaching. But I'd love to do such a thing, had I the technical wherewithal (and, let's admit it, the time) to do it.

But what would I - what could I teach?
One of the issues the SurveyCast idea raises, for someone with my pedagogical orientation, is that literature anyway isn't a question of pouring in knowledge. It's not accumulating a series of details, dates, events into a neatly memorized timeline. It's about...grappling with a text.
But then again, I could see a SurveyCast doing just this, being an example of excellence in close reading as well as in teaching. Say my survey is Golden Age Classics of Children's Literature (how original). So each SurveyCast would be on a different text, and there'd be maybe 15 episodes all together. Maybe 10. Each no more than 15 minutes in length. Let's take Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as an example.

Images! the episode would need to include images: photos of Charles Dodgson, just for kicks; photos of Alice Liddell and her siblings, taken by Dodgson. Images of Dodgson's original, handwritten manuscript with his accompanying illustrations; images from Tenniel's editions. Maybe a sort of montage or collage of other editions - the Sabuda pop-up, the Helen Oxenbury edition, Arthur Rackham's illustrations.

Intercut with the images, or perhaps as voice over, the little biographical note I give about Dodgson when I teach Alice. I try, when I do this, to explain Victorian photography and Victorian attitudes about children and sexuality (ie: very few Victorians would look at a photo of a child and think: "erotic art!"), but to do it in a fairly brief way that doesn't make a huge issue out of the obnoxious question: Wasn't Lewis Carroll a pedophile? Instead, I focus on his documented work and interests - his mathematics and logic work, his photography, his writing, his relative conservatism, his work as a deacon.
I also try to position the book in children's literary history; the Golden Age narrative, the Alice-as-watershed narrative. I don't embrace this wholeheartedly, because I think you can find examples of "delighting" texts prior to Alice, but I do think that Dodgson's book marked a large shift.
I might mention nonsense verse, especially Edward Lear's work, and its relation to Alice.

Then the Myth of the Creation of the Story: that "golden afternoon," the boating excursion, etc.

Then, on to the text! Assuming knowledge of the plot, I'd point out some of the institutions being question or attacked: the judicial/legal, royalty, social norms, education, etc. I'd talk about Alice's out-of-control body, and some of the critical hypotheses about that. I'd talk about the peculiar conclusion. I'd talk about wordplay, and punning, and who the audience really is for this book. I'd talk about its persistence in our culture, as text/story for adaptation and re-telling, and as a referent. I'd probably do a close reading, or something like it, on the Tea Party chapter, particularly because it gives an opportunity to look at Alice's rather unpleasant personality.

Could this be done in an entertaining 15 minutes? i don't see why not.

It would be an intriguing project to undertake. I can't, of course, since I lack all necessary technical resources, but it's kind of interesting to think about.

I can think of several people off the top of my head who I would LOVE to see do this kind of SurveyCast, though. I love the idea of it. The shared knowledge that comes out of a small class discussion, when the classmates are all engaged in the material as well as involved with their own academic interests - it's one of the things I miss most in my post-class-taking (frankly, post-New College) life.

So: SurveyCasts! Consider the possibilities.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Dear Glee:

Glee, I love you. I really do. Mostly, mainly, I love you for Kurt and Burt Hummel. This week, I love you for Brittney and Artie.
But Kurt is the reason I come back, time and again, Glee, because you have shown - beautifully - that you know how to handle a complex character. Your episodes on bullying were remarkable.

But. BUT! Glee - what are you doing? You've added Ashley Fink as Lauren into the Glee Club (which is cool! I liked her on Huge, and she's been a cool quirky bit player on Glee since the first season).

Except, Glee, you're....you're being mean. You're being sizest. You are perpetuating some very, very unkind and narrow-minded stereotypes about fat people, which is, in essence, a form of bullying. Every time we see Lauren, she is eating, and/or talking about food. She demands food as a requirement for joining Glee club. She demands food before she'll perform at sectionals. You've done a pretty shoddy job in making her a real character - you've made her a caricature, a rather tired, unpleasant stereotype of a fat person who eats all the time. 

This is not cool. Do you not know any of the statistics about women - especially young women - and body image? I understand if you're not up on the latest in academic Fat Studies; I wasn't, until fairly recently. But Fat Studies intersects with body politics, which intersects with Queer Studies - and Glee, I know you know about that.

Glee, I expect better from you. I expect WAY better from you. You've done amazing things - amazing - with your representation of a gay teenager. Kurt's character has been dazzling to watch, especially this season, as you've given him a gay love interest. You know how to push boundaries and change the way people think and talk about things. You can do this with Lauren's character, too, and it doesn't even need to be a big plot point. Just turn her into a person who isn't just, only, and all about eating. As Marilyn Wann (a leading Fat activist and Fat studies pioneer) writes in the introduction to the Fat Studies Reader, the only thing you can tell by looking at a fat person is the level of your own prejudices.

Making Lauren into a fat person who does nothing but eat and/or talk about food is no different than any other offensive or bigoted stereotypical representation. Glee, you do a good job of being playful about difference, but you also are always respectful and supportive of difference. Except in the case of Lauren (and sometimes Mercedes), the non-thin members of the cast.

You can do so much better than this, Glee. If you're not sure how, please watch a few episodes of Huge. If you don't want to watch a show from a competing network, why not go read Lesley Kinzel's extremely intelligent blog?

I don't want to have to stop watching Glee because of indirect body shaming and fat jokes. I will if you continue, but I'd rather see Glee do what it does well (superbly well, in the case of Kurt) - push its viewers and its cast toward a more inclusive, comprehensive view of the diversity of human existence.

most sincerely yours,

Kerry M

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Tangled up & new

I saw Tangled this weekend, courtesy of the strong-arming of two friends of mine. Though I like Disney, and I'm crazy about Pixar, somehow I don't always do a good job of getting to the Disney animated films when they open (case in point: still have not seen Princess & the frog).

But I am glad I saw Tangled, especially since I very recently taught two pieces of Disney criticism to a class, and so had my Disney-critic brain finely tuned. A lot of people in the children's lit academic community are passionately opposed to Disney, for a variety of reasons (many of them pretty good reasons, too). I do not share this wholehearted opposition to Disney, though I am pretty much on board with the skepticism and disapproval of the "princess" films and attendant marketing, etc.

Tangled does the Rapunzel story with some nice twists. The original story, collected by the Grimms, is not particularly charming nor enlightened. It seems that Disney's collaboration with Pixar, and perhaps, response to criticism, has created a more serious effort at remedying the outdated princess formula.

We get the backstory in an opening sequence: the magic golden flower of the sun takes the place of the rapunzel-lettuce; the generic man & woman are replaced with the king and queen - but essentially, we get the gist. Gothel steals the baby to use the magical powers of her golden hair, which is how Gothel stays young (youthfulness and healing are its powers, incidentally). Rapunzel is raised in a tower in valley enclosed by cliffs and a waterfall.

But what Disney does is give this princess an actual personality, with some real psychology. We see Rapunzel going about her daily activities (accompanied by a forgettable song) - she bakes, cooks, reads books, sews, brushes her hair, looks out her window, dances - and paints. Rapunzel's paintings are one of the most charming effects in the film - soft washes done on the walls of her tower. They tend to imagine scenes featuring Rapunzel and her immense quantity of hair, but they have a very charming style, especially the van gogh-esqu central piece picturing the floating night lanterns released by the kingdom annually, in honor of the lost princess.

Gothel, the villain of the piece, is a masterful and terrifying piece of psychological abuse. She is sickeningly sweetly passive-aggressive, wearing down Rapunzel's natural curiosity, playing on her emotions, telling her she is getting "chubby," telling her she is too weak to handle the world outside. Gothel & Rapunzel have a truly disturbing dysfunctional psychology between them, and it's the most realistic thing in the film. It's scary. Gothel's big number is titled "Mother knows best," and its manipulative force makes it perhaps the most frightening villain song of them all (though Scar's nazi-esque "Be Prepared" in The Lion King is pretty creepy). This psychology is continued consistently throughout the film - we get a number of scenes of Rapunzel alternating between joy at freedom and weeping and wringing her hands in anxious self-loathing and self-reproach at leaving her poor mother.

Having just taught June Cummins' essay on Beauty and the Beast ("Romancing the Beast"), I was especially aware of Rapunzel's dream or motivation. Cummins points out, accurately, that Belle initially wants to travel, explore, see new places - but jettisons all of that for life in the castle which (oddly) creeps ever-closer to the village as the film progresses.
Rapunzel's dream, her one goal and desire for a large part of the film, is to go in person to see the night lanterns.
That's it.
That's her goal, and she sticks to it.

Enter Flinn Rider, our erstwhile Hero, who is a bad guy (more like an arrogant guy) at first but eventually, of course, softens into a sweet romantic hero.
I don't expect, in a huge and hugely mainstream movie, to see the heterosexual romance plot disappear. I'd LIKE to see that, but I don't expect it. I don't expect it in Tangled, in Love and other drugs, in any of those comic-book-movies. Feeling angry, disappointed or frustrated in the presence of this plot, in this kind of film, is truly counterproductive. The Disney princess films - and this one especially - operate as fairy-tale romantic comedies, and those follow a very set formula. Even the really great ones (Bringing Up Baby) follow the formula. We can criticize the heteronormativity of this love plot - and we should - but to react as if Disney is doing something unusual and/or unusually bad in continuing to follow this pattern is simply unfair and unrealistic.

But Rapunzel is - despite her creepy appearance, which is a cross of Precious Moments figurine and Bratz Baby doll - a truly spunky heroine. The movie isn't paying lip service to the spunky heroine, as I think it does in Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Rapunzel is in charge of her quest from minute one, when she clocks Flinn Rider with her cast-iron frying pan and locks him in her wardrobe. She keeps her hold on that frying pan for much of the movie, in fact. She bullies Flinn into guiding her to the city for the night lanterns, and emotional outbursts about her mother aside, keeps a pretty solid grip on things.
Look at this still: this is essentially a bondage scene, with a dominatrix. Rapunzel has the upper hand here, and not because she's captivatingly beautiful - it's because she's got some weapons (frying pan, and her hair, which she wields like a lasso, a rope, a whip), and she's got a whole lot of determination.
Even the moments of romance or sentimentality are cut with Rapunzel's almost-edgy sense of humor. In the Snuggly Duckling, the tavern to which Flinn guides her in an effort to get her to renounce her quest, the viking-esque thugs who threaten them all are disarmed when Rapunzel yells "Where is your HUMANITY? Don't you have a dream?"

The opportunity for treacly sentiment is huge, but the movie doesn't take it: Mandy Moore puts an edge in Rapunzel's voice, and she sounds more exasperated and impatient than saccharine. There's no soft focus here. The song that follows, sung by the thugs, reveals that all of them do in fact have dreams - and those dreams have a decidedly queer tone (one wants to do interior design, one wants to bake, one wants to be a concert pianist, another is a mime, and finally one is passionate about collecting tiny ceramic unicorns). But the number is staged as a kind of comic tavern-song, reminiscent of Gaston's big song in Beauty & the Beast (but much, much more positive and much, much more playful about gender norms). These same thugs reappear to aid Rapunzel and Flinn, and their arrival is signalled by the presence of a tiny ceramic unicorn placed strategically for Flinn to see.

Throughout the film, we see Rapunzel insist on her own dreams; we see Flinn agreeing to help, and then helping (but not taking over) along the way. Rapunzel rescues him more than once from various sticky situations - the Snuggly Duckling is just one of these - and it is only at the very end of the film that Flinn sacrifices his own life to rescue Rapunzel from Gothel.
The scene when Rapunzel realizes that she is the lost princess is done with psychological smartness; you do not feel like you're watching a Disney Princess soft-focus number. There are "camera tricks," which of course are animation tricks, there is horror registering in Rapunzel's (still disturbing) babyface. It's a moment with as much emotion as the scene of the Queen's transformation to the Witch in Snow White, a scene that was (and is) much heralded for its effectively. Rapunzel decides to confront Gothel with her new realization, and fight for her own life, her own self - unlike princesses of old, who usually attempt to flee when something goes kaput.

Visually, this movie is lovely - Rapunzel's hair is an absolute masterpiece of digital animation. The scenes with the night lanterns are beyond stunning - I want to live in that kingdom. I'm partial to floating lanterns anyway; ever since the millennial new year's celebrations and the glorious, gorgeous lanterns released from - Thailand? I think. But this is rendered beautifully, affectingly - it's the moment of Rapunzel getting her wish.

The movie also takes up what happens after your dream comes true, in a way that works really well. Flinn and Rapunzel discuss this more than once, coming to the conclusion that when you achieve your dream, you move on to a new dream. There are always more dreams to be had. It's uplifting in a matter-of-fact way.

This movie does not fix all of the problems with the romantic comedy and/or fairy-tale genre. It doesn't shatter fairy tales the way Angela Carter does in The Bloody Chamber. Like all romantic comedies, you know the outcome from the first moment you see the two main characters - you know before you get to the theater that Flinn and Rapunzel will live happily ever after. But Tangled does something different, for a Disney film: it gives us psychologically developed characters, with complications and personalities of their own. More than that, it places Rapunzel in the true center of the film - she is the sun around which the whole story orbits. It is her gravitational force directing this show, and none of the characters are allowed to forget it. Compared to Disney princess films of the past, this one has made some very big leaps forward. It isn't perfect, for sure; it's not a masterpiece of feminist rhetoric. But it creates a space in which that kind of progressive ideology can be glimpsed, and even achieved, in moments.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Magicians: potter, narnia & frustration

At the prompting of a couple of my Adolescence class students, I finally caved and checked out Lev Grossman's The Magicians from the library. I stuck with it, despite wanting to give up after about 50 or 75 pages; I got stubborn about seeing it through.

I find myself crankily perplexed, now that I've finished reading. The book is a weird mishmash of things, with a take on children's fantasy that I don't quite know how to read. In essence, it's a coming-of-age magical school story; the bulk of the narrative occurs during Quentin's years at college:  Brakebills school of magical pedagogy (which seems, somehow, to be a slight misuse of the word pedagogy; at any rate, I wish my own pedagogy was magical). My students brought up the book when I mentioned (after a question in another class) the relative rarity of novels set during college, with college-aged protagonists -- in particular, the rarity of such books aimed at a younger readership (Pamela Dean's Tam Lin is an exception; it seems that most YA college-setting books are also fantasy fiction, frequently set in fantasy lands with fantasy universities of Magic - Diana Wynne Jones's Year of the Griffin is one such example).

Quite a long time ago, I read a book that my sister had read (I think for college - so this would have been mid-90s). I can't remember what it was called or who wrote it, except that it was set around college-age, and in New York City (I think), and felt grey and gritty and slightly headachey. I think there was a character in it named Flavia, which I remember only because it was the first time I came across that name.
Anyway, I read the book as an early-high-schooler, and didn't really care for it (most likely because I didn't really understand it, not on an emotional experiential level). The impression I have of that book is just flat and grey like that awful grimy dead snow and slush that collects in street gutters in the very late winter.

The Magicians was very like that. I am a fan of books (and films) about great unhappiness, or bleakness, or depression. Someday this pain will be useful to you leapt to the top of my list of favorites after I read it. The movies I love most leave you feeling, as a friend once said, a little bit like you wish you were dead. I do not like uplifting or rollicking stories. I don't like happy characters.

But the characters in this book were painfully flattened, paper dolls really, tricked out with window dressing from Rowling's books (obviously) and retreading ground already well laid by the unbelievably talented Diana Wynne Jones. I have no idea if Grossman ever read Jones's work, but anyone who has cannot miss the resonances and echoes of her ideas and themes. This is not an accusation of plagiarism, but what it does do is make Grossman's work pale by comparison. Pale to the point of nonexistence, really.

Fillory, the books-and-world within The Magicians, is a straight-up ripoff of Narnia. This is also, evidently, intentional, but it doesn't work right. Neither do the Potteresque references, oblique or direct. It's as if Grossman read the Potter series, then said "I can do better than this, and I can make it more sexy and add drinking and make is Edgy and Raw and Powerful."
 Then sat down and overhauled Rowling's books.
Except he inserts all kinds of crap instead of improving.

The Potter and Narnia aspects of the Magicians are too large, too significant, to be just references or allusions or even, as reviewers like to say, sly jokes or tongue-in-cheek jabs. Too much similarity just makes the book feel like it's a mashup of these two fantasy series, refracted through the grey, snow-grimy lens of flat, frankly unlikable, characters. The characters who struck me as most interesting - Eliot and Alice - get desperately short shrift; neither is at all developed. They're shorthands, and dull ones at that: Eliot, a fop, a connoisseur of wines, an unrepentant alcoholic, effortlessly talented at magic. Alice, small, a bit mousy, fiercely talented and intelligent.
But we know nothing about what these characters are, or want, or feel, or believe - they are figures being moved around the book in a way that feels desperately disjointed and desperately, insufficiently, clever.
Grossman's attitude toward the fantasy genre is obnoxious, especially since he owes his entire novel's publication (and maybe its existence) to the genre and that genre's popularity. The Magicians would not exist were it not for the Potter phenomenon. Yet he seems to be smirking sidelong even as he borrows and incorporates elements of those books into his, as if to say "this is REAL Littrature; your poor fluff is just for foolish, deluded adults and unknowing, inexperienced children. True sophisticates will appreciate the cleverness of - ha ha! - a secret teenage wizard who is unhappy for no obvious reasons!"
There might as well be a sticker on the front cover that reads: THIS ARE SERIUS LITRATURE. SERIUS LITRATURE IS SERIUS.

The total absence of anything approximating joy or even mild pleasure left me impatient and irritated with every character in the text. Again, I love misery, but I don't want to see people wallowing in it without knowing how or why they're miserable. Quentin does not have anything that looks to me like depression or true anxiety, anything like a mental illness; he also has no external causes for his misery. He has serious anomie, a state of life I can relate to, but have no desire to wallow in vicariously. Moreover, Quentin's anomie doesn't lead either him OR us as readers anywhere, except into a totally obvious anticlimax in Fillory that is hugely unsatisfying narratively and emotionally.

I am still not really sure what Grossman is trying to do - or thinks he's doing - with his Narnian world. There are some nice touches to Fillory - the clocks embedded in trees, the Cozy Horse (though that is a bit cloyingly saccharine, and sounds like it belongs in the Raggedy Ann books), the large "soft and sympathetic" sailor bunnies. But all of these things are really just slight turns on creations from Lewis's fantasy world; it isn't Grossman's originality or creativity here at all. The Neitherlands, the world between worlds, full of pools through which one passes to another world, is a straight ripoff of The Magician's Nephew - and plays too prominent a role to be just a riff, an homage, a reference. You cannot pilfer from books and then pretend to have done something original and clever by surrounding your pilferings with dour, unlikable characters.

In the end, this book is more of a problem than a delight, and it isn't a problem in a bright and intellectual way, either. The pleasures of wrangling with this particular text are relatively few; Grossman is doing nothing subversive with children's fiction at all. He's hewing to the old line that those silly books are for children, and we adults are just too wise, too sophisticated, too knowing to believe in that kind of foolish crap. And look what happens to the sucker who, even as an adult, does return (literally and metaphorically) to fantasy land! 

If anything good has come out of my reading of Grossman's novel, it's that I now appreciate, even more vividly, the brilliance of writers like Diana Wynne Jones. Even Lewis's Narnia, for all its many problematic aspects, still has a glow of originality around it. The Voyage of the dawn treader is a glorious book, one with truly complex emotions and themes, far more so than anything Grossman can come up with. And for fantastic college stories, Dean's Tam Lin blows Grossman out of the water.

And realizing that Narnia and Tam Lin and Derkholm are even better than you initially thought is nothing to sneeze at. Though I don't advise you discover their greatness via Grossman; instead, re-read those old classics with a smart but affectionate eye.

Monday, November 22, 2010

teenage dream: Glee and gay boys

I watch Glee with a mix of delight and frustration; it's inconsistent, it has an infuriating habit of starting, then dropping, plotlines, it has an obnoxious tendency toward "special" episodes of guest stars or themes that disrupt any momentum the show may have developed. But it also has some great secondary characters (ones who chew up that scenery like crazy), some thoughtful and captivating plotlines, and the best parent on TV.

A couple of weeks ago, Glee hit it out of the ballpark with "Never Been Kissed." I've been thinking about this episode a lot, and not just because it introduces a new location, an all-boys high school that I have been referring to as gay hogwarts (it's the blazers and the senior common room that got me).

THE moment of that episode is Kurt's visit to gay Hogwarts, when he meets adorable Blaine, who sings with the Warblers, the school glee club. In this delirious alternate-reality, the Warblers are "like, rockstars" who stage impromptu performances in the aforementioned common room. Blaine and his cohorts launch into a cover of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream," sung to Kurt (played with even more than usual aplomb by the staggeringly fantastic Chris Colfer, about whom I cannot say enough in praise).

Watching the episode the first time, I kind of groaned; I don't really like the song and so that made the moment less charming than hoped for.
But then I read the post Tom and Lorenzo wrote about the episode. And ever since reading that post, I can't stop thinking about "Never Been Kissed."

TLo write:

Sure, teenage romantic fantasies are inherently silly to adults because they come from a place of such inexperience and naivete, but they serve an important function in the sexual development of kids. They train them to dream about the best possible outcome. Just as they've been trained their whole lives as to how to make that outcome happen.

Which is some incredibly astute theorizing on adolescent fantasies about romance.
And then, because they're amazing, TLo go on to say:
Teenagers see thousands of murders depicted onscreen by the time they reach 18 but most of them never see a boy kiss another boy or sing him a sweet love song. You want to prevent gay kids from killing themselves? Push for more scenes like the above. Giving a young gay boy the dream that someday Prince Charming will come and sing a love song to him? You cannot imagine. You simply cannot imagine how revolutionary such a thing is.

And even though I spend my days thinking about queerness, thinking about adolescence and childhood and queerness, even though I was more aware (and I sincerely hope, more sensitive) of queer issues when I was in high school - despite all that, TLo are absolutely right: I cannot imagine. I simply cannot imagine how revolutionary such a thing is.

Because of the way criticism works, though, and because I think about what I read, I am beginning to both imagine and understand how revolutionary such a thing is.
even if Glee falls apart again, even if the show goes downhill from here, I will be thoughtful and thankful for this episode that shows us - not in a jokey dream sequence, not in a way we giggle or sneer at - the teenage dreams of a gay boy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ah-ha moment, courtesy John Hench

from the back page of John Hench's Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show
quote on the illustration is not attributed to anyone else, so I assume it's either Hench or Walt Disney himself.

spring semester, planned!

I bit the bullet and slapped together my spring booklist/rough schedule for the adolescence class. This sounds much more haphazard than it really was; I've been musing for weeks now what to add, what to subtract, what to recycle, what to try new for the spring version of this course. I've read and read, I've made lists, I've informally polled my students. Finally, I realized I can't fiddle with the list forever - book orders were due three weeks ago - and so I just went ahead and put down the books that, for today anyway, seem most interesting/useful/engaging.

The list, in roughly the order in which we will tackle them:

The Breakfast Club
Freaks & Geeks
King Dork
Fancy White Trash by Marjetta Geerling
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers
Huge (TV show)
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
Liar by Justine Larbalestier
King of the Screwups by K.L. Going
I was a Non-Blonde Cheerleader by Kieran Scott

along the way we'll read an introductory bit of queer theory, and an introductory bit of fat studies from Marilyn Wann.

It's a little trauma-heavy, but then so is the entire YA catalog. LIAR absolutely broke my mind, and I'm very keen to try it out on unsuspecting undergrads. The non-blonde cheerleader has the huge advantage of being set in Florida (a deliciously weird place), and is relatively trauma-free. It's a girl-centric book without being TOO annoying, and it - like King of the Screwups - turns the idea of "the outsider" on its head [sometimes literally, in non-blonde cheerleader].
Cracked Up to Be was pretty great, though it uses some of the same old cliches and tropes, but it does some interesting things as well, and is very dark. I think it'll be a nice trio with Speak and Perks of Being a Wallflower.

I'm excited about this semester.

Now, I just need to get my Myth & Folktale class organized, which - of course - is the real challenge.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

reading Madapple

After trawling the lists of best books at the YALSA website, I collected a pile of teen fiction at my library on monday. Last night I started reading Christina Meldrum's Madapple, and it's thoroughly fascinating.
It's a terribly strange premise: girl raised by brilliant but wacky mother, kept isolated from modern life, essentially: no electricity, no running water, no mirrors, no television, no contact with other humans. Homeschooling - heavy on the science and botany/herbalism, other books with many passages redacted. Girl beaten for reading a hidden copy of The Scarlet Letter. Mother dies, girl has to cope.
Meldrum's got BIG themes and issues going on - metaphysics, theology, mysticism, along with all the other good stuff about family and identity and being that one finds in a really good YA novel.
I stayed up far too late last night reading, and I'm a little sulky now because I have to go to school, where I'll be busy all day and unable to read more.

In other news, I think I've decided on a general "theme" for my adolescence class in the spring, a theme so broad it's practically no theme at all. But the organizing principle is going to be .... difference.
I think I am going to put I was a Non-Blonde Cheerleader on the booklist. *cackle* *cackle* *cackle*

now, off to teach grammar, and then day one of discussing K.L. Going's King of the Screw-Ups.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fabians and Glenn Beck

As posted earlier, I'm doing some Glenn Beck research. I found a transcript of the program in which he discusses Fabian socialism; I've been reading it and struggling to understand Beck's point. [Note: I decided to do this as a break from reading freshman comp essays. I understand Beck is speaking, not writing, but his abuse of pronouns and his general incoherence on the structural level is far below what I would consider acceptable from my freshmen]

So he starts off by talking about "they" and "them," and shows clips from British television, neither of which are contextualized. I am thoroughly unclear about who "they" and "them" are. He uses a number of categories to describe potential "them"s [environmentalists, progressives, liberals] but is not specific about which he's referencing at what point.

Beck goes on to quote from a number of news sources (which, to his credit, he documents) which themselves quote a variety of persons (Robert Kennedy Jr, a NASA employee, etc) asking questions like "when do we jail global warning deniers?" and asserting that denying global warming is treasonous.
I don't have time - or, frankly, interest - fact-check every single one of these quotes. I'm willing to go along with Glenn on this one and say: "golly, these are overblown responses." Sometimes, I like moderation.
But then things get weird.

Beck says, and this comes from the foxnews transcript itself:
Where did these ideas come from? Well, you can find them all from the same place — progressivism here in America, Marxism overseas and Fabian socialism in Australia, New Zealand, England and Europe. They are all the same thing. They are all the same stock of people.
I've talked to you a lot about progressives and Marxists, but Fabian socialists — look them up. You will be astounded what you find. It's all the same pool of people."
Never mind that political or ideological positions aren't really a "place." I'm creeped out by Beck's use of phrases like "stock of people" and "pool of people" - it just feels a little (a LITTLE) like the language of early eugenics-movement proponents. I guess it's "stock of people," which makes my mind immediately leap to racial stock, or genetic stock. This is very likely my own personal bias; I doubt very much that Glenn Beck is a eugenicist, unconsciously or otherwise.
Now we get some history about the Fabians, a topic about which I know more than the average schmuck because of my decade-long scholarly interest in Edith Nesbit. Just this summer I checked out a gazillion library books on Fabianism for my dissertation.

But Fabian Socialists was a society that was founded in January of 1884. The members sought to influence public opinion on socialism. But what they — what made them unique was, at the time, if you wanted to be a socialist, you needed a mass revolution. Well, they preferred the selective education — selective education. You've seen it here beginning under the Woodrow Wilson administration. It was the education of the powerful few, especially those in government and the media who could lead reforms in government.
It is why our media is so screwed up. And they all think alike.
Their strategy is called doctrine of inevitability of gradualism. What does that mean? The doctrine of inevitability of gradualism.
 Oh Glenn. I'm going to treat this like a student paper.
First we get the assertion that you need a mass revolution if you want to be a socialist. I don't deny revolution and socialist reformers go together (reformers want change, after all), but Beck's got it backwards: it's your socialist beliefs that lead you to want mass revolution, not the other way round. You don't start with revolution. It's where you end up.
Now, onto selective education (which I think is how Beck ends up with his anti-media line, which lacks transitional phrases surrounding it, and thus is simply tossed into the mix here almost at random).
Here's the thing: late 19th century social reformers (ie, the Fabians) were intensely interested in helping the poor and lower classes. They believed the best way to do this was through education. Socialists of all stripes, including Fabians, were founders and proponents of educational centers, often referred to as workingmen's institutes, where workers (and others) could go hear lectures, see performances, read periodicals and newspapers, read books. Yes, there was political content to some of this, but not all of it.
I don't know about you, but Victorian laborers have never struck ME as belonging to the "powerful few." The powerful few, who have existed in every culture across every nation and every age, are almost always already well educated. And since we know that, even late in the 19th century, there were more workers/lower-class folks than wealthy, any drive to educate the poor is by definition not selective, nor does it target the few.

Now onto the "inevitability of gradualism."
Beck later describes this as "baby steps," and to an extent he's correct. My reading notes from a biography of Nesbit references either Beatrice or Sidney Webb (founders-in-chief of Fabian Society) as believing that "dawning conscience and increased social intelligence" would convince people of the rightness of the Fabian cause - not revolution. My copy of part of an article on the history of fabianism leads with a quote that states that their aim was "to help in the reconstruction of society in accordance with the highest moral possibilities." It was a slow campaign of rational persuasion. So, Beck is wrong again: to be the Fabian kind of socialist, you needed to eschew revolution, not embrace it.

Next up, the origin of the Fabians' name:
Beck says:
"OK. Now why the name "Fabian" — the Fabian society? Well, this is after General Quintus Fabius Maximus. He had a brilliant strategy. He advanced in his battles not through front-on battles, but instead through harassment and attrition.
The early Fabian Society adopted as its motto "when I strike, I strike hard." Their logo, their mascot, was the tortoise. The tortoise.
Quintus Fabius was known, initially derisively, then with approbation, as "Cunctator," which means "delayer." Fabius's military strategy of delay was deployed during the attempted invasion of Rome by Hannibal, when Hannibal's forces far outnumbered the Romans.
And Beck is right: the strategy of Fabius depended on indirect actions, harassment, preventing the opponent from obtaining supplies; essentially, on everything BUT direct engagement.
Beck makes a weird and kind of pointless analogy to rebuilding a carburetor in the living room, and then says "Gosh, is it becoming inevitable that we just can't get out of this debt bubble? A little step at a time?"

This one is inexplicable. I have NO idea what he's trying to say here. Again, if this was a student paper, I'd write "Transitions needed? What is the connection between this and your previous statements?"

And finally, Beck gets on to running down old George Bernard Shaw. He plays a clip of Shaw espousing some of his eugenicist beliefs. He mentions that Shaw received an Oscar and the "Nobel Peace Prize." [at which, after the world's shortest google search, one can see clearly that Shaw - primarily a playwright - was in fact awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Big difference, Mr Beck, especially when you're going to toss around the eugenics accusations].

Fact: In the early 20th century, eugenics was part of medical science. It was not a creepy racist fringe belief, practiced by evil maniacs. G. Stanley Hall, the man who practically invented the category of adolescence, a man who pioneered both psychology and education in the United States, was a eugenicist. Francis Galton, who coined the term "eugenics," was a British eccentric and polymath whose work gave us the techniques and uses of fingerprinting as a method of identification. 
It really isn't until the 1930s - right around the time the Nazis get their hands on it - that eugenics begins to decline and experience a backlash. This after forced sterilization programs in countries like Belgium and the United States - primarily targeted were mentally ill patients, criminals and persons of undesirable nature (prostitutes, alcoholics, the undeserving poor). 

Beck's discussion of Shaw just gets weird, and he wanders way off course - again, frankly, I don't know what he's saying. He calls out George Soros, he rants against secular humanists, he invokes God God God repeatedly. He tells us that George Bernard Shaw invented the gas chambers (this seems to be untrue. I think Shaw was probably busy having affairs and writing plays, not inventing death devices).

And on and on. And then winds up railing against the environmentalists again.  And perpetuating some of the most revolting abuse to pronouns that I have seen in a long time. Beck winds down with this:
When you think the way they do, you tend to dehumanize individual situations. Suddenly, you're convinced that it's OK to kill one person or two in order to save thousands or end suffering for either thousands or for one.
Erm, good sir, this is precisely the reasoning that led to the dropping of the bombs are Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I wonder if Beck argues against that?
And it's also, if I'm not mistaken, part of the reasoning behind the "doctrine" of preemptive strikes created by that wacky Marxist socialist liberal madman, George W. Bush. 
It's a thorny moral decision, really: if you knew that killing ten people could save 10,000, what would you do?
But this is a complex question and Beck doesn't deal in complexities.

After this delightful exercise, I will never again attempt to read and analyze anything said by Glenn Beck. It's more exhausting and infuriating than grading terrible student papers.

But I could not let slurs against the Fabians go unchecked, even weird, vague, inaccurate slurs. E. Nesbit is one of my absolute favorite writers, and she's one-third of my dissertation. People - Glenn Beck or anyone else - can't just throw around anti-Fabian remarks. The sloppy misuse of "history," too, is a big problem. My students do this too - they give "evidence" in the form of huge generalizations with NO context and NO supporting documentation. I mark off for that.

So, Glenn Beck, your grade for this assignment is an: Unsatisfactory, with the additional comment of "see me." At which point I will recommend you go to the writing center for some intensive remediation, because you're unfit to go forward with your speaking/writing career.

to be investigated: fabian socialism & glenn beck

I've checked in periodically with the livestream of the "rally for sanity" via comedy central. Stephen Colbert just showed a montage of fear-mongering, name-calling from a variety of tv "news presenters."

and one clip - just a few seconds - was of Glenn Beck, standing in front of his confounded blackboard, saying - in grim, serious, ominous overtones: "FABIAN SOCIALISM."


I need to do some digging and find that clip and see why on earth Glenn Beck was talking about fabianism, on fox news, circa 2010.

Fabian Socialism - the Fabian society - was founded in the late 19th century, in England, by a group of particularly earnest and intellectual reformers, including (and this is why I know anything about it at all) Edith Nesbit. I've written about the Fabians for grad seminars, and very likely will have at least a footnote about them in my dissertation. And - like many other 19th century British reform movements - it had limited efficacy. The Fabians still exist, but in altered form. They are not, at least unless things have changed dramatically, a hugely powerful group.

What Fabianism has to do with Glenn Beck is a mystery I will attempt to solve later on, since i have no real time for it today. But it is a mystery that baffles me endlessly, so it MUST BE SOLVED. I'll get Nancy Drew on the case.

Monday, October 25, 2010

adolescence, again

Book orders for the spring semester are due in a week, and I'm teaching Representing Adolescence again. Because I like to mix it up, and because it feels a little shocking to me to teach the same syllabus twice in a row (like cheating, somehow), I'm going to do a mostly new booklist.


So far, the only title I have settled on for sure is Justine Larbalestier's LIAR.

But what else would be good? I haven't organized a theme or anything yet, I just know that I need to teach Liar.  I'm contemplating Courtney Summers' Cracked Up to Be and/or Peter Cameron's Someday this pain will be useful to you, because they are books I like a lot, but I'm not quite sure that I really know what to do with them.

I'd like to stick to mainly realist fiction, novels or films. I may do some TV again - some Glee, perhaps, maybe some bowing to the inevitable and some Freaks & Geeks.
But the books are the essential, and I'm just not sure which to choose. The course, after all, is about representing adolescence, so the books need to lend themselves to thinking about the ways in which adolescence is represented, regulated, etc.

Any suggestions? I'm vaguely tempted to do some of the books I have real problems with: Twilight, 13 Reasons Why, Like the Red Panda because I think they'd provide good discussion. At the same time, do I really want to read any of those books again?


Thursday, October 21, 2010

international reading: booking through thursday

This week's Booking Through Thursday:
Name a book (or books) from a country other than your own that you love. Or aren’t there any?

Well, OF COURSE there are!
The easy answer here is British literature, which is really where my heart is. My favorites are largely British: Dickens, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, everything by Diana Wynne Jones. Lately, I've been zipping through Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, as well.
Dylan Thomas (Welsh) and J.M. Barrie (Scottish) are also high on my list.
And recently I fell head-over-heels for Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road, which brings Australia into the Anglophone favorites list.

But these are all still Anglo/English language, so I'm going to look further afield.

Non-Anglophone favorites:
Petersburg, by Andrei Bely (Russian)
Crime & Punishment, Dostoevsky (Russian)
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez (Colombia)
Wind-up Bird Chronicle  and Kafka on the Shore, both by Haruki Murakami (Japan)
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (France)
If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino (Italian)

This is in no way a comprehensive list, just a few highlights. But it's a sad truth that most of my reading is solidly Anglophone; it's just not as easy to find great non-Anglo books as it is to find great Anglo ones. It isn't especially difficult to come by the non-Anglo titles - searching out Nobel Literature winners' titles, for instance, is pretty easy. But the majority of what's placed on ready offer, in conspicuous locations, is Anglo - British or American. Even Canadian and Australian titles are more obscure. This is unfortunate, because the rest of the world surely does have great writers and great things to say. Language is limiting in ways that are maddening.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

a place holder: walter pater & kids these days

James Kincaid gave a brilliant kaleidoscopic talk at school on Tuesday. My head is still swirling with it - he did that wondrous academic thing I love, of taking a number of textual examples and ideas that seem mostly unrelated, throwing them together into a big pot, then letting them marinate with brilliance and insight until, finally, there's some kind of stew of genius.

I'm still thinking it all over, and suspecting I missed more than a few crucial pieces of information (listening to the mostly-faculty audience loudly singing "Big Rock Candy Mountains" overrode most of my other intellectual capabilities), but I want to note one thing that leapt out at me.
Kincaid quotes Walter Pater, a man whose work is mostly unfamiliar to me, except for the brief snippets I skimmed in my history & theory of criticism class ages ago. My ignorance about Pater is one of the newest bits of solid evidence suggesting that I really am not, in fact, a Victorianist at all. But never mind that academic identity crisis.

The Pater that was quoted, and discussed, is from the conclusion to his Renaissance book, where Pater writes that "not the fruits of the experience, but the experience itself" is what is important.
He's saying - foreshadowing, setting up, whatever - what Kerouac writes in the beginning of On the Road  - that the way to live is to burn burn burn like a Roman candle.

That what you take away from an experience - the fruits - isn't the point; it's the experience itself.
This makes me think of my Kids These Days...angst, which is really about people and technology, and the problem of constant documentation of things, rather than engaging in things themselves.

and a million other things, also arising from both Pater and Kincaid's talk.
But those are for another time when my brain is less fogged from grading, a head cold that won't leave, and sleepiness.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

discomfort in the classroom

I'm thinking about the uses of discomfort in the classroom lately.

One of the very excellent grad student teachers in our department has, as a standard clause in her syllabi, that uncomfortableness will happen in her classes. That discomfort is part of the critical learning process. This instructor, who is BRILLIANT, is a person whose gender is not readily obvious, and who in fact doesn't fully occupy either side of the (false) gender binary. This - along with the content of the courses - is part of the discomfort.

She was one of the instructors and mentors we had as first-year teachers, and I vastly admired her position on this - it reminded me in certain ways of a strand of New College-esque "fuck shit up" attitude that pervaded a number of my classes there. From the queer activist perspective, shifting and dodging and denying binary identifications and categories is all part of the plan for disrupting those binaries. It forces the undergrads to confront categories that they may never even have considered before. Discomfort is a good thing.

This week, I have been teaching the extraordinarily smart (and now, depressingly, canceled) ABCFamily show HUGE.  In conjunction with the three episodes I selected for viewing, I also asked my class to read Marilyn Wann's "Foreward" to The Fat Studies Reader (2009).

One of the first comments a student made about HUGE is that watching it made her somewhat uncomfortable, but that she grew to like it and in fact ended up watching all 10 or 11 episodes over the weekend.
I asked them to consider the opening scene of the pilot episode - an overhead camera shot of the kids on the first day at Camp Victory (the so-called "fat camp") where the show is set, milling around and waiting for their turn at the weigh-in. The camera slowly moves in and down, panning across the kids standing around in pairs, in awkward knots, as individuals who don't yet know each other.

All of the kids are wearing bathing suits.

All of the kids are fat (in varying degrees).

It's dis-comforting. We're not used to seeing images of large groups of mostly-unclothed fat people. We're not used to seeing fat people without either the fuzzy black bar of shame obscuring their faces (in stories about the OBESITY EPIDEMIC!!!) or the punchline of a mostly-cruel joke at the fat person's expense (sometimes told by the fat person herself).

When Will, the main protagonist, played wonderfully by Nikki Blonsky, finally takes of her shorts and t-shirt, mimicking a striptease right in front of the camp director - intentionally aimed at the director - we get lingering shots of Will's body in all its fat glory, in relatively close-up, well-lighted shots.

Both Wann's foreward, and HUGE, ask us to reconsider, or consider at all, a number of things we're mostly used to ignoring. Wann does it more stridently, more explicitly, and more forcefully; HUGE does it more subtly, more emotionally. But both say: LOOK.
Wann makes the great observation that all one can diagnose from looking at a fat person is one's own level of prejudice and stereotyping. The act of looking at another can - and often does - tell us vastly more about ourselves than it does about that other person. This is not a new or original idea; it's part of what makes the critical concept of "the Other" circulate so frequently and potently through almost every kind of subaltern studies that exist. Looking at the Other is a way of looking at the Self. If your gaze is properly calibrated - say, by reading Marilyn Wann, or by watching a show clearly framed through a fat-positive, queer sensibility - this Other/Self looking can be revelatory and positive for both parties.
Examining your own life of privileges and oppressions is essential, Wann argues, for critical work in the field of fat studies.
But this is the case in all fields, in all areas of life: ignoring or failing to properly address one's own privilege and oppression makes it almost impossible to speak well and convincingly about anyone's privilege and oppression.

But to look at yourself, to say "I experience these privileges every day, because I am thin/beautiful/male/young/straight/affluent/healthy/white/etc" is hard. It's even harder to say "I experience these privileges at the expense of people who are not thin/beautiful/male/young/etc." It's hard - though maybe less hard? - to say "I experience those oppressions because I am fat/plain/female/old/differently-abled/poor/brown/etc."
It's even harder to realize that you can exist in both privilege and oppression simultaneously: Wann points out that the very thin anorexic knows as much about fat-shame and oppression as does the very fat person.

But seeing one's own privilege, when before it always appeared simply as "the way life is" - THAT is uncomfortable. Having to look where before we looked away, or were simply not shown something - THAT is uncomfortable. Having to address our uncomfortableness - THAT is uncomfortable.

It's also learning. It's education, it's critical thinking, it's cracking open your brain and your perspective. It's like being given glasses that allow you to see a whole new color in the spectrum, one you never even knew existed. And now that you know about it, you can never unsee it, or forget it. Even if the glasses are taken away, your mind and memory retain the impression of that new, unexpected, unlooked-for, color.

It feels sometimes like I'm being lazy in the classroom, that I'm not actually actively teaching anything. I felt like this last year, over Octavian Nothing: Kingdom on the Waves. The ways in which my students responded to that book - what they focused on, how they reacted, what confused, upset, pleased them - all had to do with the content of the book, not specifically with anything I said in some brilliant lecture [I don't lecture, to begin with]. Same with Marilyn Wann, and watching HUGE - the moment they saw that opening scene of all those fat kids in their bathing suits, the work of discomfort and learning began. I didn't do anything except provide a context, and choose the texts.

Is this even teaching?
But perhaps that is a question for another day, another post.

Meanwhile, discomfort reigns in my classroom, and I am making us all continue to stare at it, to live in discomfort - at least for one more day.  

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

thank a teacher

sunday night, I read the (now-removed, soon to be reposted) story of an amazing english teacher who fought the good fight for good YA books and lost to an unsupportive administration who caved to parental book-banning pressure. It was a remarkable story, even before the book-banning appeared to give the story a dark turn; this english teacher got her students reading: in class, in a book club that swelled to over 100 members. these students, in turn, demonstrated the benefits of reading books you like by performing better on standardized tests.
Somewhere online, I came across a mention of National Teachers' Day, and got to thinking about teachers (again, as always, big surprise).

I'm a pedigreed teacher: both my parents taught in public schools. Both hold masters degrees in education. I, of course, teach the mostly-privileged at a university. I was raised to be respectful and appreciative of my teachers, a thing that probably would have occurred anyway, because I loved school. so, a brief ode to some great teachers, and some thoughts on queer teachers.

Second grade, Mrs Eva Chapman, teacher extraordinaire. Evidently reported to my parents, during a parent-teacher conference, that I was "perfect." [I only learned this much, much later, like late in college. no swelled heads in our family]. What was perfect was Mrs Chapman's teaching, which introduced to our second-grade classroom classics of art and music (I learned about Van Gogh and Renoire and Haydn in her room, as well as Don MacLean and The Marvelettes). We were told the story of "The Elephant's Child" via feltboard; I pestered immediately for my own copy of the Just-So Stories. We learned about winnie-the-pooh, accompanied by shepherdesque stuffed animal friends. We learned nursery rhymes and coloring, we learned about breeds of dogs, we put on an Extravaganza of singing and dancing (that, in retrospect, should have warmed the little flamboyant hearts of any babygays in the class). I learned to be curious in her classroom, or rather, learned that my curiosity had a place in school, in education, in the world. And that the payoffs to following my curiosity could be fantastic - i mean, Van Gogh! what a light at the end of the tunnel of learning....

There were some lean years of uninspiring teachers, but in highschool, my history teachers more than made up for it. Mr Bogey, AP European teacher, filled my notebooks and my brain with details and information and stories that still crop up from time to time. A few years back, in one of the last classes I took in the PhD program here, the subject of Italy's unification came up, and I, without even thinking, murmured the crucial dates and names. AP Euro was a lot of wars and dates and names, but there were also a lot of stories, and ideas: there was art and architecture, there were all those philosophers and thinkers and writers.

Mr Neubauer was THE teacher, though, in my junior and senior years. AP American History, AP Government & Politics, respectively. The knowledge acquired in those classes is also still handily tucked away in some fold of my brain. but more than that, mr neubauer gave us power. he taught us some fundamentally important Supreme Court cases dealing with free speech and expression. He taught us that West Virginia v. Barnett meant that we could not be compelled to pledge allegiance to the flag. he encouraged us to ask questions, to argue, to debate. He ran his classes like the best seminars I ever had at new college, and he did it with a bunch of relatively close-minded teenagers from very affluent, conservative families. He let me be the oddball outspoken lefty liberal and somehow, quietly encouraged me to feel like it was right and good and okay to be that person. he laughed sympathetically, commiserating when I came into class freezing cold with sopping wet hair from swimming in gym class. he let me, and a few of my cronies, sit on the window ledge during class, not in desks (initially, i began sitting on the window ledge to try to absorb what little heat i could from the heat vent on the ledge - see wet hair, above, for more details).

His class was the "radicalizing" moment of my life, I guess. We had to write about controversial topics, choose a side and argue it, and somehow, I can't remember why, I picked gay marriage as my topic. I really don't know how I came to choose it, but this was fall of 1996, and anti-gay feeling was free-floating in the world. And I picked it and - because we had to - made public my pro-gay attitudes, which somehow led to a whole slew of other things, including an effort at forming a gay-straight alliance in our high school (though we didn't know to call it that; it was just a before-school meeting of a very few gay kids and their very few allies, in the office of the district social worker, who, it turned out, was sticking her neck WAY out for us).
We caused a commotion, somehow, without necessarily meaning to; we weren't allowed to put up posters about our little group. We couldn't "recruit," as it were. We couldn't let the closeted queer kids in our school know that there were friends and allies and other queer kids, and that we were all there to help each other. Yet the Christian Prayer group was allowed to meet in the school building, with announcements on the PA, praying publicly around the flagpole in the mornings. It was gross and appalling discrimination, and Mr Neubauer made sure we had the intellectual tools we needed. He couldn't or wouldn't join the fight, for reasons I grudgingly accept and understand, but he taught us what we needed to know to go to law books, to do research and articulate our (lost) cause.
We failed in forming a lasting group. We were forbidden from posting signs or making announcements about our "diversity" or "tolerance" group. I came home after the final meeting with the principal, and burst into tears at the injustice of it. That we were right - legally, morally, ethically RIGHT - and still lost was an unbelievably bitter pill to swallow. It still sticks in my throat, to remember that feeling.

Our district social worker was threatened with being fired or disciplined for her support of our group. She stuck with us.

After school ended - our senior year - we had a little picnic in the park. The queer kids and their allies (all eight of us, I think - it was a small group) met up and had snacks and picnic food and pondered the future.
And a teacher from our school came, and brought her partner.
This was not a teacher I ever had, or knew; she had been almost silently instrumental in the forming of the group. She had spoken to the social worker after several of the queer kids (and their friends) wrote or mentioned the desire for a place to talk about being gay in a gay-unfriendly environment. There were NO openly gay kids at our school until that year, until two boys whose courage I can't even begin to truly emulate, came out. One of them was in this teacher's class, and was one of the students who wrote about the issue.

I was impressed at the time that this teacher would attend the picnic and bring her partner, but it wasn't until years later that I actually realized what an amazing thing she did. In the town I grew up in, there simply were NO visible gay people. The gym-teacher-lesbian jokes circulated, and occasional other, similarly unkind rumors - but there were NO out queers in that school or that community. And, as evidenced by the attitudes of other students and the principal, when we attempted to go public with our nascent GSA, it was an environment that was extremely hostile to gay people. At a bare minimum, it was grossly, offensively ignorant of the needs of gay students; the ever-delightful principal said "i can't have a support group for every kid who gets a pimple," as if that was the equivalent of being queer.

In a town where very conservative religious people dominated the scene (Mr Neubauer said - and I don't think it was a joke - that our town was the only one in New York to carry Goldwater in that election year), being an out queer teacher must have been an impossibility. To say, publicly, that you, a teacher, were also a lesbian - that was a very dangerous proposition. I don't know what would have happened if it became known throughout the community that an actual lesbian!!! was teaching Our Children!!! but I can imagine, and none of my imaginings are very nice.

So for this teacher to voluntarily attend our sad little picnic, with her partner, after being closeted for who knows how long - my god! what a thing to do! what a gift to give your students, some of whom weren't even really her students.
And how crushingly sad, to have to live and work and teach for years and years while hiding. One of the "It gets better" project videos is a silent one, from two queer teachers who keep their faces hidden and who hold up cards with text on it. It's heartbreaking to see these women saying "it gets better," even while hiding their faces. But they are saying: We are here for you. We, your teachers, are here to help you.
And this teacher, who wasn't my teacher, did a herculean job of this. She went to the social worker and said: these kids, my students, have a need. they need a safe space and safe people to talk with about being gay in a place where gays are erased. they need help. they need more than i can give them, because my position is tenuous. but they need help.
and we got it. she made that happen. she said, silently, through what she did: I am here for you. I know how you feel, more than you can possibly imagine. and at that picnic she said: I trust you enough to bring my partner. I trust you enough to be fully myself with you.
It's an expression of care that blows my mind to think of now.
I wonder what it felt like, for her, to walk with her partner across the lawn to the picnic tables where we sat, a bunch of 17 and 18 year olds preoccupied with boys and girls and college and the end of school and ourselves and our own lives.  I wonder if she was scared, or proud, or if her partner was scared, or proud, or bored. Not bored; I can't think bored was in it.
I wonder if that teacher knew, or knows, what she did for us all, and how much it mattered.
The courage and actions of quiet everyday people, in their quiet, everyday lives, can sometimes make a world of difference. It's not heroic, it's not grandstanding, it may not even be noble or proud; but very often, teachers provide us with a safe space in which to be ourselves, which is one of the biggest gifts anyone can ever give.
It's what Fred Rogers did, essentially, except it's squads of teachers, saying and doing (in dozens of ways): "you're okay." and the good teachers, these teachers who say and do and make meaning in all these many ways, these good teachers hold the world at bay for a short while for us, while giving us the information and tools and knowledge we need  to carve out our own safe spaces. 
Some teachers sacrifice a lot, like the english teacher who ended up leaving her position after her books were banned. Some teachers risk a lot, like my not-my-teacher, coming with her partner to a silly little picnic. Others don't take obvious risks but, like Mr Neubauer, solidly, stolidly provide the tools and ability and confidence needed to make revolution happen, knowing exactly what it is they're doing, and why.

I am grateful to these teachers, and to all the teachers who were never my teachers, but who did for their students what mine did for me. The teachers who fought, quietly and loudly; who protected their students and gave their students the ability to build their own defenses; who made it clear that, though they may give grades and write hall passes and assign detentions and scold you for talking too loudly in study hall - who made it clear that, for all that, they were on our side.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Why Mister Rogers Matters

A lot of academics spend a great deal of time trying to explain why their scholarly work matters. I know I spent a lot of time - and still do - trying to justify my ivory-tower life: what does reading and writing have to do with anything in the Real World? How is this not a relentlessly selfish pursuit?

First: because I teach. The activist angle of teaching was first made clear to me at Georgetown, by my brilliant and wonderful advisor. She said: "yes, these kids are privileged [and at Georgetown, almost quadruply so] but they are also the people who will be in charge of corporations and companies. They'll be in politics and positions of power. And if you can introduce to them now some of these ideas [any activist/progressive/radical ideas], it may affect the way they do their business in future."

Teaching is, or can be, activism, and my teaching often is. This is good, and it's the main thing I do, day in and day out, to make sure my work actually does something.

The second thing I do - and what I'm writing about now - is scholarly work on things that matter. Things that can actually make a difference in the way people understand themselves, or others, or the world around them. I made a decision in my first year in Pittsburgh that I was going to consciously write in clear, legible prose; I jettisoned the obfuscating and tortured jargon and construction of so many literary theorists. If a roomful of PhD students can't make sense of a phrase from Frederic Jameson, how in gods name can the "workers," the disenfranchised, the disaffected, make sense of it? And if it's all just babble to the elite, how can it be anything but condescending, self-congratulatory largesse?

So structurally, linguistically, theoretically, I choose the pragmatic and readable.
The topics are even more important.
My dissertation is, ostensibly, about imaginary/imaginative play spaces in children's media, and the way these spaces enable and encourage radical play, difference and experimentation (specifically with gender and sexuality, but with other aspects of life as well).
Really, though, what I'm writing about are places where it's okay - even great, even better - to be different. To be yourself. Places where you, in whatever form you feel like expressing yourself, are safe and loved and admired and respected.
The ultimate of these is Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, a show which seems to have made worlds of difference in the lives of scores of children (and their families). I've spent considerable time in the archives, reading viewer mail, and the love and affirmation these kids (and adults) feel for and from Mr Rogers is staggering. Almost every letter is a tearjerker. Almost every letter mentions, at least once, Mister Rogers' mantra of "I like you just exactly the way you are."

How rarely are we told this?

Lesley Kinzel, the astute and incisive writer of Fatshionista, writes back in response to the appalling burst of suicides from young gay kids in recent weeks - the most dramatic and spectacular of these, of course, being the death of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi. Lesley writes, in an effort to support those kids who are bullied and hurt and abused and sad and lonely:
So instead, I’ve written what I would have liked to hear, back then, in my darkest adolescent moments. I am touched by people every day who tell me that the things I write here — even the things I am convinced no one will relate to, that I believe are too specific or too raw or too me — that these things help them. That hearing it helps people to know that they’re not alone. Thus, I’m hoping that this will likewise speak to some of you.
You are okay.

She's doing the work of Fred Rogers here, whether she means to or not. We should all be doing the work of Fred Rogers: reminding each other that yes, YOU are likable and lovable; that you make each day a special day but just your being you; that there is no one else in this world exactly like you, and that that adds to the glorious variety of the world. That I like you just the way you are.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is off the air in most districts now, except perhaps on weekends; in Pittsburgh, home of the program and Fred Rogers, it's still on daily. It's dated, sure; there are no cellphones, no iPods, no laptops. No networking, except through Mr McFeely's speedy deliveries. No Facebook, except all the real friends who visit each other, both in Mr Rogers' neighborhood, and in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

There's nothing like this on tv now, where educational children's television is all about skills acquisition, and not about emotion.  There's no Mister Rogers, showing up every day at the same time - as he promises at the end of every episode - to say "Hi neighbor. I like you!"

The letters in the archive come from parents, from children of all ages, from adults, from the very elderly. Everyone you can imagine writes to Mister Rogers, and they all say, in varying ways, the same thing: we love you, Mister Rogers, because you love us. We need someone to tell us, every day, that we're okay, and mean it. We feel better about our abilities and disabilities, as children, as mothers, as friends, as siblings, as fathers, as retirees, as very elderly single women with no families, because of you. We are able, because of you, to go out into our worlds as happier, more confident people, willing and able and actively doing things to make the world a better more interesting place.
So writing about Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, for me, is activism. It's me saying: LOOK! Look how much we needed Fred Rogers. Look how much he - just one guy, on a low-budget public tv show - was able to do, for so, so many people. Look how little he had to do, to do so very much.
It's saying, Fred Rogers wasn't a saint. He was a very, very good man with powerful motivation and a message that we all need, that we all know we need. If he could do it, so can we all. There's nothing so extraordinary, after all, in that show: bringing in something new to look at and think about. Going on a visit to an everyday place: a music shop, a restaurant, a dance studio, a potter's workshop, a shoe factory. Saying: sometimes it's really hard, isn't it? and you get angry, or sad, or confused, or scared. And that's okay, because I like you when you're angry, or sad, or confused, or scared. Because I like you, just exactly as you are.
Because you make every day a special day, by just your being you.

Because every one of us is important and meaningful and real and human. Always, every day, even when you're scared, or angry, or confused, or hurt, or sad. And you contribute to the infinite variety on this planet, the infinite variety that makes the world so very interesting and fun and curious and amazing. Losing even one person from that huge mosaic of difference makes the whole thing a tiny bit less bright and shiny.

It's so incredibly easy, to do what Fred Rogers did. To listen, to be there, to say: I like you, just as exactly as you are. To say, with words and actions: I care about you, because you're you, you're a person who is unlike anyone else in this world world.

To say, and mean it, that You make every day a special day, by just your being you.

and that's why i'm writing my dissertation.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What just happened - LIAR

I finished Justine Larbalestier's LIAR today. It's a book I feel like I've heard about a lot, but - weirdly - knew nothing about going into it.

*************THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD, MATEY**********************

and seriously, you don't want this one spoilered. to spare your eyes I will provide a cute image to fill some space. see, here is a kitten diligently reading a book, maybe even LIAR. But probably actually reading Rotten Ralph or If you give a cat a cupcake.

Coming out of it, I'm not sure I know much more.

It was a terrific book. Micah's voice is utterly compelling and real and intriguing. The structure of the novel - in sections of varying degrees of truthfulness - worked wonderfully, and presents some very interesting and provocative (and unanswerable) questions about truth-telling. The whole premise of lying, actually, as both theme and narrational device, is inspired.

I was perplexed, at the library, hunting for this book. Larbalestier's other books are in the fantasy genre, and I'd always thought Liar was strict old everyday realism.

And then, werewolves.
And then, lying.

And oh - there are more puzzle pieces at hand than there are in the finished picture, but how do I know which to discard? Larbalestier says the book is intentionally vague - clearly haunted by the ghost (or IS it a ghost?) of Henry James's Turn of the Screw. Or intentionally multiple, would be a better way to rephrase it. I can imagine this book driving my students insane.

So we don't know, and we can't know - not for sure - what the truth is here. Micah's our narrator, and she is totally, completely and always unreliable. Except maybe when she's not. Does she ever tell us the truth? What about? Does it matter?

Whatever the "truth" or Truth or truth is - how Zach died, whether Micah's brother exists, existed, where or what or if upstate and the farm are, if Micah has the family illness, and if that illness is in fact lycanthropy - there are some thematic truths here that struck me repeatedly.

This book is about Betwixt and Between, to borrow Barrie's phrase. It's about being some of more than one thing. It's about being a third in a binary world. It's a totally queer book, in a lot of ways.

Micah is biracial - and this assertion never changes. She lies about being a boy, at the beginning of high school. She is a werewolf, by definition a being that is neither fully human nor fully wolf. She is liar, except when she's not, which is when? She is attracted to Tayshawn and Sarah, almost equally. She is not anyone's girlfriend, except when she is.
She lives in a world that demands everything be resolved into binaries, and Micah is neither one nor the other. You could say the book operates this way as well: is it a fantasy about werewolves, or a very chilling story about an extremely mentally unbalanced girl? are the pills birth control, or are they antipsychotics, or are they some kind of sedative?
There are no answers to these questions. All possibilities remain open; Micah, in both her lying and her truth-telling (which we cannot distinguish from each other) refuses utterly to foreclose on any of them.

LIAR, and Micah, break binaries at every turn. Fantasy or psychological realism? wolf or girl, straight or lesbian, sane or insane, only child or sibling'd - there are no clear answers and - more importantly - no way to resolve any of these. The answers simply cannot be had, because part of the point of the book (as I read it) is to refuse to provide them. We are meant to be on shaky ground. Because it forces us to look at possibilities, at multiplicities - to think beyond binaries. To stick with binaries is to be endlessly frustrated with this book, and with Micah. To stick with binaries is to, in some ways, obliterate Micah. She cannot be resolved into one thing OR the other.

And so everything we think we know about narrative, about truth-telling, about werewolves and detective stories and YA romances and desire and family and Micah is blurred and opened up on itself. This is a book that generates multiplicity and possibility, and in that, it is absolutely brilliant, and revolutionary.

Our inability to know is put on huge display in this book. No one within the text knows anything for sure; none of us reading know anything for sure. This resonates with me particularly along gender-identity lines: the queered body, unknowable as male/female, straight/gay, resolutely and perpetually resisting and refusing to be known and categorized. There's a huge amount of power there, but there's also a huge amount of power being challenged

This was a staggering book to read. I had to put off my planned errands for the day until I'd finished the last 70 pages or so; I couldn't not know. But of course, there is no knowing here. This isn't a smug or smarmy poststructuralist endless delay of meaning - there's almost a flat-out assertion that there is no meaning to get to. This is a kind of gauntlet-throwing in the face of all systems of classification and knowing.

I HAVE to teach this book. It will break everyone's minds, and that's exactly what needs to be happening.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

day & night/ booking through thursday

this week's question!
Today’s question is suggested by Mae.
Do you divide your books into day and night reads? How do you decide?


nope. I do not. I just read. If I'm particularly gripped by a book, I just read it every chance I get to read anything. I'm not good at putting books down if they're more than usually gripping; I end up staying up late, and finishing, all kinds of books (especially children's and YA, but then, isn't that the bulk of my reading?).  I think Jellicoe Road may have been my most recent stayed-up-to-finish read [and, I'm excited to add, I ordered it in to the bookstore so I can get it with my discount and own my very own Jellicoe Road. I feel a little wistful that I have to make do with the American edition; it'd be nice to have the Australian On the Jellicoe Road instead].

There are a few things that I have discovered I cannot, or should not, read right before bed. The main one is Edgar Allen Poe. Foolishly, several years ago, I picked up a collection of Poe stories, since it had been a VERY long time since I last read Poe. And like a fool, I elected to read a few stories before sleep at night.
so I leave Poe, and Stephen King (not that I read him often anymore) and that ilk for daytime/early evening. But otherwise, anything goes.

Monday, September 13, 2010

adolescence, stereotypes and cliques

My Adolescence class is picking up steam, I think (I hope). We started in on actual primary texts this week (the introductory classes were reading various contemporary news/opinion articles on teenagers, "emerging adults" etc, and some fun with G. Stanley Hall); today's topic was the John Hughes' film THE BREAKFAST CLUB.

Somehow I managed to never see the entire film all the way through until about seven or eight weeks ago. My sister was a fan of the movie when we were younger, and I frankly cannot grasp how I managed to never see the movie in its entirety before now, but there you have it. I've seen it twice now, in a span of about seven weeks, and it's pretty fantastic for a lot of reasons.

But today - and the reason I put it on the syllabus - we talked in class about stereotypes. The students had a lot to say (which was joyous, and a number of them raised points that I hadn't thought of, which always delights me), and I'm looking forward to talking more on Wednesday. In the interim, I got to thinking (as I drove home from school) about the kind of stereotypes in the movie: the jock, the basket case, the brain, the delinquent, the jock ("Sporto"!).

And I wonder if these kinds of stereotypes really only manifest during adolescence. The kinds of cliques Melinda identifies at the start of Speak, for instance; it's a more comprehensive and updated list than Hughes's collection of types, but it's essentially the same kind of stratification.
Now, stereotypes run rampant across the adult world, of course, but it seems to me, on intial thought, that those tend to be organized around some relatively fixed aspect of a person's identity. That is: racial, ethnic, gender, sex/sexuality, religious (which can cross over with ethnic, for example: Jews and Muslims, where it's not just religion that's being singled out but a kind of ethnic or at the very least cultural identity). There are other "character types," - the Boss, the Soccer Mom, types within professions - the Lawyer, the Account Exec, the Secretary - but those are only visible when the person is inhabiting that role. For instance, once The Secretary gets in her car and drives home or goes to the supermarket, that Secretaryish type is almost or entirely invisible to everyone else. Ditto Soccer Mom, who, alone at the library or at Hot Yoga or the supermarket sans children, could just appear to be a woman.

Put another way: in my first year of grad school in Pittsburgh, a co-student of mine said (as we discussed clothing): "you're not really subculturally aligned."
At the time (and admittedly still) that comment rankled, for some reason; possibly because I was then 25 and it seemed to me that the time for subcultural alignment had come and gone long ago, and my acquaintance's remark (and her own persistence in subcultural alignment) struck me as silly and childish.

In retrospect, I was never subculturally aligned, primarily because I was never aligned. I was odd-girl-out through most of my high school years, and then in college, surrounded by a seething mass of mostly-hippies, I was again un-aligned except by virtue of my non-hippie-ness.

BUT. Subcultural identities and/or stereotypes seem to hold strongest and truest in adolescent and/or young adult life. I'm sure there are exceptions - bikers are one, I think, where there is a distinct "look" that accompanies biker life that makes bikers far more visible away from their bikes than for other kinds of subcultures.

The question is: WHY?
why do you get cliques? Why do you get jocks and princesses and brains and criminals and goths and hippies and hipsters and headbangers and stoners in high school, maybe in college, and then - somehow - they seem to seep away into the larger, less obviously differentiated mass of adulthood.
And when you do see vestigial subculturally aligned adults, they seem....well....sort of sad. The adult man who presents as Jock seems kind of like a joke, reliving (possibly imaginary) glory days of his youth. Adult (and old) hippies just seem out of it, kind of very worn and faded and disconnected from reality (though they probably seemed like that as young hippies too). Adult Goths seem sort of pathetic. In each case, encountering the older version of these younger identities always feels like the older version is either 1) immature/not really grown up  2) sad  3) trying to remain young and cool and/or 4) desperate for attention.

These visible marks of difference and identity that we put on as teenagers, and which are then used (by us and against us) to sort us into stereotyped categories, somehow shouldn't be necessary as an adult. You shouldn't need to wear lots of black eye makeup and petticoats to make your personality, your individuality, known. Ditto with the jock attitudes, or the hipster glasses, or whatever group you like. There is a point, it seems, by which one ought to have grown out of these stereotypes. How often do you walk into a gathering of adults and group them off into "jocks" and "cool kids" and "nerds" and "delinquents" and "goths" and "brains"???
you may get tech geeks drifting together, you may have a group of Beautiful People, but you can't tell by looking who those people are (even, sometimes especially, the Beautiful People).

So how does this work, this stereotyping, this subcultural aligning? WHY does it work? Is it part of that "trying on identities" thing the developmental psychologists talk about? How come most people only try on one other identity? I don't know anyone, personally, who went through multiple of these disguises. You went from Generic Girl to Goth, or from Brain to Cool Kid, but there wasn't much movement after that. Angela Chase's season-starting transformation in My So-Called Life makes this very visible; she switches it up, dyes her hair red, starts wearing plaid and funky skirts and shoes. But she doesn't try on yet another new persona.

I'm intrigued by this, and by how it works, and how it lingers, and if that's even a bad thing. Maybe it's a good thing. Maybe carrying the external, visible marks of your subcultural alignment is a useful, important, disruptive thing. I'm not sure.

It's unexamined territory, for my brain anyway, which is pretty content to be un-aligned and (consequently) always observing.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jellicoe Road

or - where have I been for the last couple of years, that word of its greatness somehow passed me by?

I read it - the entire book - today. I should not have devoted the whole day to it, but that's what books will do to me, especially good books.

And Jellicoe Road is an amazing book. I cried. Repeatedly. What an absolutely gorgeous and unexpected story....the intersecting and bisecting and intertwining stories and characters are so wonderfully, vividly crafted. I really did not know, for the first 50 or 75 pages, where this book was going; the shifts in tone and plot happened so naturally and subtly that I don't even know when it crossed over into emotionally gripping and mysterious - all I know is, at some point I couldn't put the book down. When I tried to, the characters swarmed my brain; I could see them even when I closed my eyes.

I don't think I have anything profound to say about this book, not yet anyway, just that it took my breath away (almost literally). Having read Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca within the last ten days, and then coming to Jellicoe Road, I was simply not prepared for the depth and complexity of the story and emotions of it. Which is not to say that Marchetta's other books are shallow - they aren't. But their themes and concerns are, in some ways, very different from those in Jellicoe.

I will give Jellicoe Road the absolute highest recommendation I possibly can give. And I will have to acquire it for my very own, read it again, and think think think about it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Mockingjay: an observation

It occurs to me, in mulling over Mockingjay (and my reaction to it), that the book makes a little more sense, and makes me feel better, if I think of it as a revenge tragedy in the best Jacobean tradition.

Because I think Mockingjay IS a revenge story, since I think Katniss is motivated largely by personal and/or selfish reasons - and most of what is selfish or personal to Katniss has to do with the people closest to her. She wants revenge: for Rue, for all the tributes, for Wiress and the morphling addicts and Mags, for herself and the Victors who have to live with what they've done, and what's been done to them. Her mission against President Snow is almost totally one of revenge.

And the classic revenge tragedy can really only have one set of outcomes: deaths. Lots and lots of deaths.
Which is precisely what Collins gives us.

So: Mockingjay = Jacobean Revenge Tragedy.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mockingjay: all done [spoilers]

Putting the book cover here to blot out any unwanted spoilery things....I give most of it away, so if you don't want to know, STOP READING NOW. blindfold your tender eyes.

So I read Mockingjay in its entirety today, and I'm still a little shell-shocked. There was an awful lot I didn't expect - there's an awful lot that needed wrapping up, so Collins had her work cut out for her.
I had - and still have, five hours later - a sort of sickish, empty feeling as I reached the end of the novel. Not because I was unhappy with what Collins does with her characters and her plot, but because it's that kind of a book - that kind of a series.
One of the things that came up in class discussions about The Hunger Games - which the students always initiated - is the sheer violence of it. And how that violence is never gratuitous, and is necessary and profoundly affecting.
Collins seriously ups the ante on the violence in Mockingjay. This is a novel about war, about living in the heart of war; by the novel's final section, it's all ground-level guerrilla warfare, which makes me think that Collins is (intentionally or otherwise) referencing our everlasting and grim street battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the main points that I especially moved/disturbed/interested me:
Finnick, and Finnick and Katniss's relationship.
The decimation, by novel's end, of the corps of Hunger Games Victors.
The death that tips Katniss past the point of endurance. It's ghastly. Some of those final scenes reminded me, in a terrible, terrible way, of Schindler's List, of the scene when Schindler sees the little girl in the red coat in the liquidation of the ghetto.
The terrible and relentless way that virtually everyone is revealed as untrustworthy, or as having ulterior (or at least more complex) motivations.
The hijacking of Peeta.
The epilogue.
The many, many children and young people (like early 20s and under) who die or are grievously injured.

This last item is of particular interest to me. Back in my youthfully ignorant early days of studying children's literature, Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire came out. I read it voraciously, having been sucked into the HP machine. And at the end I was shocked. I remember saying, repeatedly; "Kids DON'T die in children's book. they just don't."
Well, actually - they do. And they seem to be doing it more and more frequently. I know Death is a common one for YA fiction, but the deaths seem to be growing more frequent, and more intense. It's not just an elderly great-aunt dying, or a sister with leukemia in hospice (hi, Lurleen McDaniel!) - it's protagonists. Or it's protagonist's closest friends/family/allies, dying brutally in front of the protagonist's eyes.
I wonder about this, a lot.

I am very unhappy about the turn that Gale takes, and unhappier at Katniss's reaction to it.

Katniss is selfish; this book made that abundantly clear, although it's not exactly a secret throughout the other two books. But it made me uncomfortable this time, especially in regards to Gale. Every decision Katniss makes, every action she takes, is done because it will protect or help her family and loved ones. She protects Gale and Peeta, her mother and Prim, the other victors, herself (sometimes, but only sometimes; she is willing to sacrifice herself for them). Katniss is resolutely not political. She doesn't care about the revolution, the uprising; she wants revenge for herself and those she cares about, and that drives her against President Snow.  The compassion and loss and grief and anger she feels when the people she cares about suffer, or are killed, are real and deep and meaningful, but the fact remains: Katniss is simply not engaged in the larger political struggles. She is fortunate (?) in that her decisions and actions usually result in something positive for the many and not just for the few, but that's a secondary benefit, not her primary motivation.
Contrast this with Gale, who seems to grow more resolute, grimmer, harder, as each chapter passed. Gale is willing to do whatever it takes to defeat the Capitol. Even if it means killing everyone inside a mountain. Even if innocent people are hurt. He is not acting out of personal revenge (though he does also experience personal rage about the way he and his have suffered because of the Capitol) - Gale IS political, unlike Katniss. And while it's hard to feel good about some of Gale's choices, it's also hard to feel good about many of Katniss's. Gale is, essentially, utilitarian about the war, brilliantly so. You may kill 100 people, many of whom may be innocent, to save a country. It's the logic of the Bomb, of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. It's a cold, calculating, horrific logic, but if you can step outside your personal emotions, it's a logic that makes sense. And can even be a good thing.

The epilogue was, in the way of many epilogues, unsatisfying to me. I suppose it's better than ending on a "we looked into the clear bright future, my Love at my side." but.
the nightmares never go away. ever.
and the trick of evaporating time to age the protagonists, and give them children (you might as well just print HOPE in giant glittery letters, or perhaps REPRODUCTIVE FUTURITY!), is one that irks me. I am never sure why, except that suddenly, our protagonist/narrator is someone 10 or 20 or more years older. And that jump is unforgivable. What we lose in that jump is unforgivable.

This is a book about war - it's Hunger Games played large-scale, across a country. Katniss and Finnick realize this, when they see the obstacles and traps laid around the Capitol; they see it as just a huge games arena, though with higher stakes and more people. It's about survival, and death, and horror, and power - it is so much about power. The ways of hurting people that appear throughout this trilogy are mind-boggling. Collins doesn't back away from the fact that war - in any level, whether it is the annual Hunger Games or the Quarter Quell or full-on rebellion - was is a terrible thing that rips everyone and everything apart. No one is safe. No on comes out unscathed. The bright and shiny future never materializes. It is brutal and it is easy, this kind of battling and war.

This is not a happy book, and for this I applaud Suzanne Collins (loudly, and long). No one clasps hands and faces into the cold, clear light of a new day. No one faces the future bravely, with Love by their side, certain that the new world they've created will be a shiny happy gleaming tomorrowland. Collins make it plain that even "winning" is brutal - Haymitch is an alcoholic from start to finish. Annie is broken and disoriented and mad. The dead stay dead, the broken remain broken. There is no recovery, there is no "getting over" the Hunger Games and their aftermath. This is not a book about glorious happiness arising from the ashes of difficult struggle. We're not left on a happy note, at all - we're left with the Hunger Games, with the reminder of the terrible possibilities in the world. We're left with the fact that terrible things happen, and scar us for life. That sometimes, the nightmares never, ever end.