Kenilworth Castle

Kenilworth Castle
Kenilworth Castle, John of Gaunt's Hall

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jellicoe Road

  WHY DIDN'T ANYONE TELL ME ABOUT THIS BOOK???????
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.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mockingjay

It's Mockingjay release day, and very soon I will be zipping off to my bookstore to get my copy. I plan to spend the day comfortably curled up on my bed, reading my eyeballs out.

I've been waiting for this one for quite awhile; I was lucky enough to read Catching Fire in advanced reader copy, which has meant I've been cliffhanging for a very long time now.

I'm very excited and quite a bit nervous about this concluding book to a very great series. The series has gotten so much buzz, too, in the last year - I have that vaguely snerky, totally immature feeling one gets when suddenly something you love becomes hugely popular.  I was geeking out over these books over a year ago, and now suddenly, everyone I know is picking up The Hunger Games for the first time and going bonkers.

But!! No matter! I'm ready to discover Katniss's fate. And Cinna's - I adore Cinna.
I hope - gods I hope - this final book isn't all about the Love Triangle of Katniss, Peeta and Gale. I am not "Team Peeta" or "Team Gale," and I'm kind of irked that such things even exist. Those relationships are important, yes, but not central to the books' narrative.

And now! Off to get my Mockingjay.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

booking through thursday - auntie meme

I hate that "meme" has replaced the perfectly serviceable, though non-trendy, word "questionnaire." I ADORE filling out surveys and questionnaires and quizzes. I always have. I used to get very excited when we'd get comment cards from hotels or restaurants, and my mom would let me fill them out.
Booking Through Thursday has a reading/book questionnaire for today's Question, and I just cannot pass that up.

So, without further ado, here be my answers:
1. Favorite childhood book?
Race Against Death (the story of the dogsled relay that brought diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska, and was the origins of the Iditerod).
2. What are you reading right now?
just finished Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
currently, none (I picked them all up this week)
4. Bad book habit?
leaving them open face-down, rather than using a bookmark.
5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
ha. ha. ha. 75 dissertation related books. and about 15 titles from the public library, mainly YA fiction, Wodehouse and a couple of nonfiction titles that I probably won't read.
6. Do you have an e-reader?
no.
7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
it varies. i usually get caught up in whatever i'm reading and just crank through it, but sometimes i have a couple going at once.
8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
nope
9. Least favorite book you read this year (so far?)
hmmm. The A-List by Zoey Dean.

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?
Peter Cameron's SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU.
11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
semi-regularly
12. What is your reading comfort zone?
it's pretty broad. children and YA, especially fantasy; 19th century novels; nonfiction (usually, but not always, history or evolutionary biology); really good contemporary fiction (not so much bestsellers); Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers; literary criticism/theory/history; cultural studies kinds of stuff.

13. Can you read on the bus?
Yes
14. Favorite place to read?
my bed
15. What is your policy on book lending?
I loan freely but to trusted acquaintances.
16. Do you ever dog-ear books?
rarely
17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?
very, very grudgingly rarely, and only in books that i have as teaching editions (and thus multiple copies) or a very few purpose-bought critical texts.
18.  Not even with text books?
nope
19. What is your favorite language to read in?
english
20. What makes you love a book?
its style, its form, its content. do i learn anything, do i think about anything new, am i transported, do i recognize myself or the world, is it imaginative in interesting ways.....it's SO hard to pin this down!
21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
usually a combination of "I think the book is good" plus "your taste leads me to think that YOU would think this book is good"
22. Favorite genre?
fiction. probably classic children's fantasy fiction.
23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)
science
Favorite biography?
i'm totally cheating on this - Caroline Moorhead's DUNANT'S DREAM: history of the international red cross.
25. Have you ever read a self-help book?
not all the way through
26. Favorite cookbook?
don't really have one, though I use The Joy of Cooking fairly regularly.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
inspirational? i don't use that word lightly....SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU.

28. Favorite reading snack?
cheese & crackers
29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
nothing comes immediately to mind, though i KNOW this has happened.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?
I don't usually read critics. i usually disagree on some level.
31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
not a problem. it isn't personal.
32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?
RUSSIAN.
33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?
hmmmm. Moby Dick, because I only had a week to read it; Andrei Bely's Petersburg, because it's insane and wonderful and complicated.
34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?
Ulysses
35. Favorite Poet?
T.S. Eliot. ee cummings.
36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
anywhere from 8-20, not counting dissertation/teaching related ones.
37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?
it happens semi-frequently, but not all that often.
38. Favorite fictional character?
too many to name, but I am extremely fond of Will Parry from His Dark Materials.
39. Favorite fictional villain?
the Smog in China Mieville's UN LUN DUN.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?
something lengthy to last me.
41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.
maybe a couple of days? i really couldn't say.
42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.
i couldn't bring myself to read the final 25 pages or so of Twilight. I skimmed the final two or three pages then threw it across the room.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
people talking to me, or talking very near me.
44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?
oh gosh. I really like Fantastic Mister Fox and The Series of Unfortunate Events
45. Most disappointing film adaptation?
The Lightning Thief; Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland
46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
$80-$100.
47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
almost never
48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
It's terrible OR depressing OR I get distracted by another, more compelling book
49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
yep
50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
KEEP THEM FOREVER.
51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?
Ulysses. Dickens' Hard Times, because then I'll have read all the big novels. Tolkien. Inexplicably, Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series.
52. Name a book that made you angry.
Twilight
53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
Same Difference by Siobhan Vivian (more like was afraid I wouldn't like)
54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?
Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?
all of it. i don't read anything that induces guilt.


and that's my list. i'm sticking to it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Like the Red Panda - mixed feelings

On the recommendation of the wonderful Charlie, I read Andrea Seigel's Like the Red Panda

And frankly, I do not know what to make of it.

Reviews online keep referring to the narrator's - Stella - and the author's humor and wit. But I didn't see a lot of this. Some, sure, and enough to make me think of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, which still makes me laugh, even after a dozen or more readings.
But there's almost too much weirdness in Stella's life, and a lot of it feels contrived and unevenly handled. Even the deaths of her parents - from coke cut with heroin - felt somehow odd. And the characters, even the quirkiest ones, felt flat. I have no idea who or what the foster parents, Shana and Simon, are. The ex(?) boyfriend Daniel - confusing. Ashley and Ainsley - irritating and perplexing. The grandfather, Donald - almost unbearable.

Stella's apathy is creepy. Once she makes her decision to kill herself, it becomes apparent that she's never made any effort in any of her interpersonal relationships, with the possible (but only possible) exception of Daniel. Everyone is a stranger to her, and it feels like Stella's fault. And not in a way that makes me feel sympathetic; in other ways, she's a very sharp, astute and self-aware thinker and observer. But she doesn't even seem to realize that she may have been able to change the relationship between herself and her foster parents, or kids at school, or anything. She rigorously over-achieves academically, and wears a collection of (very short) plaid skirts, but otherwise, Stella feels like a cipher. I don't know why she wants to kill herself, not really, except the more-or-less stated reason that she feels like she's peaked; that she's done living. But what this means and how one might know it at age 17 is not clear.

Ultimately, I ended up feeling angry at Stella, primarily on Ainsley's behalf. Poor Ainsley, the invisible girl - finally, she has a friend who seems to value her for herself and not because of her proximity to Ashley, finally someone seems to understand Ainsley - and within weeks, that someone intends to be dead. Likewise Daniel, who - whatever it actually means or consists of - seems to genuinely care about Stella; he'll be waiting at Del Mar for her, while she never shows (and instead, Ainsley will be showing up, an almost-nasty twist that Stella designs).

At the end of this book, I felt most annoyed with Andrea Seigel, a fact that was not helped by a visit to her website. My sense of the book is that Seigel wanted to write a book that would shock! people, not that she had something she wanted to say. There's a quality of hipster self-satisfaction that comes from both the book and Stella, and makes it hard for me to connect with or like either.

Like Jay Asher's catastrophe 13 Reasons Why, this book never made me really feel or understand why Stella wanted to die. Neither she nor Hannah (the suicide of Asher's book) came across as particular suicidal, particularly unhappy or ready to die. Stella instead feels a little bit clueless, a little too into herself. The way she chooses to stage her suicide is particularly telling. She researches the "warning signs," and devises a program of exhibiting them; she writes the entire book as a document to leave behind. She's incredibly interested in being seen, in performing Suicidal Teen Girl Who is Smart And Quirky (witness: plaid catholic schoolgirl skirts).
It's this performance that bothers me, I guess, because it feels like it comes from the author and from Stella. I get the feeling that Seigel is saying "Hey! LOOK AT ME! I WROTE THIS INTENSE, MEANINGFUL BOOK ABOUT SUICIDE WHICH WILL SHOCK YOU! I AM SO DEEP!"
and I feel like Stella is saying the same thing (and the same thing as Holden Caulfield): Look at me, I am so much deeper and intense than all the phonies around me.
While this is very much a part of teenage life (which I know from firsthand experience), it's also a pose, a stage, a performance, a phase.

Seigel doesn't back it up with anything that makes me believe in Stella's pose; I don't think she's particularly deep or insightful (though smart, and certainly more aware than many of her classmates).

Ultimately, I don't buy Stella as a girl who actually wants to kill herself. I don't think she's as interesting as she thinks she is, or as Seigel thinks she (stella and Seigel) is.

All the same, there is something about the book that is appealing, that did draw me in to a degree. I find I feel perplexed, more than anything, by the end of the novel - perplexed, and extremely anxious and sad on behalf of Ainsley. I care what happens to Stella because I care about Ainsley - and I think this is a failing of the book, and not a success.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Booking through Thursday: evolution of a reader

This week's Booking Through Thursday is pretty awesome and children's lit appropriate!

Have your reading choices changed over the years? Or pretty much stayed the same? (And yes, from childhood to adulthood we usually read different things, but some people stick to basically the same kind of book their entire lives, so…)

Why yes, BTT, my reading choices HAVE changed. But maybe not drastically. I have very specific memories of reading - avidly, and on my own - the Childhood of Famous Americans "biographies" from our public library, when I was just a young pup in kindergarten.  The first one I remember reading as my first real chapter book was the one about Martin Luther King, Junior, when I was still so young I didn't know who he was. Actually a lot of the Famous Americans that I read about were mysteries to me: Lucretia Mott, Liliuokalani, Babe Didrickson, Miles Standish [frankly, I'm still a little puzzled by him], Francis Marion, Virginia Dare.
I don't know what my elementary-school reading consisted of, really; I read a lot of the realist series that were cranked out - Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley books, good old Encyclopedia Brown, the Gymnasts, Sleepover Club. I'm sure I managed to read some actual quality in there as well, but on the whole, I'm a little mystified as to what I actually read as a kid. I did NOT read much fantasy, not until fairly late in the game - I picked up the Prydain books around sixth grade (years after my sister geeked out over them), and by late junior high had moved on to Narnia. Narnia, and Stephen King.
High school was a lot of Stephen King and Jack Kerouac.
College was a lot of classics from across the ages - Russian lit, British, American, some French.
But it was almost all fiction until after college, when I delved into nonfiction (though oddly enough, I've never been a fan of biographies. Perhaps all those childhoods of Famous Americans turned me off to the genre).

Now I read a fair bit of historical nonfiction, usually about fairly specific eras, events or problems. I like history of medicine-style books - Gina Kolata's Influenza, and a book on yellow fever, and the like. I also like history - most recently, London during the Blitz.

But the bulk of my fiction reading is children's and young adult stuff, very, very often fantasy. In the last year I've picked up Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, and of course I read "grown-up" novels too (contemporary and older; I zipped through all of Sherlock Holmes in about a month once, and I've read nearly all of Dickens' novels, for example). But I'd say well over 50% of my reading, maybe more like 70%, is children's/YA.

Partly this is because it is my Profession, my Specialty, and so I read for teaching, and for my own work, and for keeping up with what's out there. But a lot of it is that I just really, really like good children's/YA fantasy (Diana Wynne Jones is my perennial exemplar and favorite).

I have no theories on why I somehow worked backwards, gravitating toward fantasy as I got older. It could be that the 1970s and 80s were not a phenomenal era in children's fantasy publishing (especially not in the US, though children's fantasy has always been a weak point in American fiction). Realism and Problem Novels were very much in vogue in the 70s and 80s, and so that was probably what was most prominently displayed in the library.  Perhaps I had enough of a fantasy life going with my barbies and other dolls and toys, and my crayons and paints and markers, that i didn't need to also read fantasy.

Or perhaps - and most likely, as evidenced by the Famous Americans and the Babysitters Club - I just had crummy taste in books as a kid.

adolescence will be represented thus

I've made my decisions, for the most part, for my Representing Adolescence Class.

Novels to be read:
Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson
The Boy Book - E. Lockhart
Someone Like You - Sarah Dessen (I finally picked a girl book!)
Will Grayson, Will Grayson - John Green & David Levithan
King Dork - Frank Portman
King of the Screw-Ups - K.L. Going

We will watch The Breakfast Club at the start of the term, as a way to just leap right in and also as a way to talk about stereotypes, adult/teenager power differentials, and the rise of teen-oriented media.

Television shows:
My So-Called Life: two of the first three episodes, and "Life of Brian" (which is focalized by that adorable Brian Krakow and is the one where they go to the school dance).
Glee: "Preggers" (the "single ladies" episode; Kurt joins the football team & comes out to his dad); "Wheels" (about life in a wheelchair; fundraising; Artie) and "The power of Madonna."
Daria: episodes TBA
Huge (if available): episodes TBA. I may only use one, maybe two episodes of Huge, but probably the very first episode.

We'll do some secondary reading as well - I may force them to read some of G. Stanley Hall's insanity-inducing Adolescence (he coined the term! and believes in Lamarckian evolution! and eugenics!). But we'll definitely read some other stuff: if I can find them, good essays on Fat Acceptance, Queer adolescence, Music & Adolescence. 

I discovered a truly astonishing pop culture blog recently (made more astonishing by the fact that its incredibly prolific and talented writer was in college when he began it) with a brilliant essay on Brian Krakow as the best teenage loser of all time; it deals nicely with Brian in the context of the show, and in the larger context of teenage losers in media.

I have a jolly article from a few years ago about "Kids Today get an A+ in Narcissism," which should provoke SOME decent discussion. Unless the Kids Today in my class are so narcissistic that they can't even discuss something so....not about them, personally.

In the books and such we've got:
teen pregnancy
death of teenager
death of parent
rape
coming out to parents, friends, self
Relationship Angst of the highest order
girls being accused of being sluts
girls being pressured to have sex
girls having all their friends (and the whole school, even!) turn on them
bullying of varying degrees of physicality, up to and including braining our protagonist and landing him in the hospital with possible (very minor) brain damage
Fat Camp
Body Image Issues
Queerness, queerness and more queerness
Disability
the perils of being Hot
the perils of being a Dork
Guns in School
Smoking pot


and more.

it's a fiesta of Issues. 

For quite awhile, at New college, there was a dumpster behind the cafeteria. someone had spray-painted on it: WE'VE GOT ISSUES.


I think of this often. And it essentially sums up the Young Adult genre as a whole.


I am delighted and excited and absolutely, 100% geeked-out over my class. I haven't finished ordering the readings/viewings or selecting secondary readings, but the bulk of the class is in place, and I'm ecstatic.


let's hope the Kids Today don't let me down.....

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Reading Girl Books

Since early July, I've been on a mission to find suitable girl-protagonist novels to teach in my Representing Adolescence class. I decided early on that I would use Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, because it is amazing and because it always gets good reception when I teach it. Then I read E. Lockhart's The Boy Book, and decided to teach that, because it seemed to be realistic and fairly well-written, and had several things worth talking about. I'm also interested in the way that both Melinda and Ruby end up as outsiders, exiled from their groups of friends for dubious (at best) reasons. And The Boy Book will make for good discussion about gender.

And then came the true Mission: finding a realist novel from the last 25 years or so, with a female protagonist, that wasn't a Trauma Novel, and/or wasn't about Boys.

I still have not settled on my third title. I skimmed bestseller lists and some blogs (teenreads, etc), always eliminating the Twilight related crap (it's fantasy, after all) and used that, plus my knowledge of what teenage girls buy at the bookstore to compile my collection of titles. Here, in no particular order, are the Girl YA books I have read since July:
Greengage Summer - Rumer Godden
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret - Judy Blume
Fly on the Wall - E. Lockhart
The Boy Book - E. Lockhart
Tam Lin - Pamela Dean
Fire and Hemlock - Diana Wynne Jones
Hexwood - Diana Wynne Jones
The Boyfriend List - E. Lockhart
The Treasure Map of Boys - E. Lockhart
Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist - David Levithan and Rachel Cohn
Pop Princess - Rachel Cohn
The A-List - Zoey Dean
The Clique - Lisi Harrison
Keeping the Moon - Sarah Dessen
Sweethearts - Sara Zarr
Cracked Up to Be - Courtney Summers
Story of a Girl - Sara Zarr
Chasing Boys - Karen Tayleur
Getting Lost with Boys - Hailey Abbott
I Was a Non-Blonde Cheerleader - Kieran Scott

None of these satisfy me. the Judy Blume is, admittedly, a classic, but I felt mortified reading it - all the talk of bras and periods! ook. NOT my cup of tea, and almost certainly guaranteed to make everyone in my class uncomfortable (I have a lot of freshmen). On top of that, I don't know, really, what to DO with it, and it feels outdated. I don't want to spend half my life explaining tiny details about being alive in the 70s and grappling with my students' protests of "it's not relatable!!!"

Cracked Up to Be was surprisingly good, but was a whanger of a Trauma Book. Keeping the Moon was all right, and not a trauma story (not really, though in part it was about getting over Being Fat). It's just not as meaty as I'd like it to be. I'm contemplating a Dessen novel, though, because they're very popular, and while they are often about Boys, they are also (in my limited experience) also about friendships and family and self-discovery.
Tam Lin was incredible, absolutely fantastic, and helped me to (finally) truly understand and appreciate Fire & Hemlock. Both are out of the running due to length and complexity, and the fact that the source text(s) will break brains.
The A-List, The Clique and Getting Lost with Boys were absolutely reprehensible. Appalling. Badly written, hideously plotted, full of nasty unpleasant characters. Grrrrross.

I wanted to like Nick & Norah, but I felt irritated by it instead. I thought Norah was kind of a bitch, and Nick oddly emptied of personality.

The rest were all mediocre to middling. Chasing Boys wasn't especially about chasing boys, and that ended up making it relatively decent. Sweethearts was very odd and more than a little creepy; Story of a Girl was depressing, but valuable in that it concerns lower-class protagonists (which, frankly, after the A-List and the Clique, I was happy to encounter).

But there are certain formulae, certain tropes, that show up over and over and over and over, even in the best of these books: a New, Attractive Boy shows up, the protagonist fights with friends, the protagonist relocates and is the New, Attractive Girl, the protagonist struggles over some mysterious past trauma that is revealed slowly in flashbacks, or not until the very end of the book.  The Journey Of Self-Discovery, in all of these books, happens through relationships - friends and Boys, occasionally formerly-estranged parents - with very little introspection. The characters live through events and dialogue, not through narration (think of Speak, then imagine the opposite).
By contrast, the Boy books I've read seem to focus much more on that interior monologue introspective narration. Events are important, and people are important, but it isn't through their relationships that the boys really change or learn anything. I hate to say this, and I hope I am making a gross generalization, but the Boy books seem more intellectual, while the Girl books are more emotional.

So I'm now reaching the end of my rope. I've read scads of mostly-terrible books, I've encountered way too many cute boys with hair falling into their eyes, eyes which are always blue or green (as are protagonist's eyes, when described), boys who somehow manage to be wise and caring and empathic and helpful to Protagonist girls with serious Issues. Often the boys are named Jake, or they have slightly more hip or nontraditional names: Tyler, Noel, Ethan, Cameron, Dylan, Liam. It's a fluke or a freak when a nice normal Paul or Daniel or Jason turns up.
I can rattle off Trauma scenarios in my sleep, I can identify love triangles before they've been formed, I can spot the Boy Who Turns Out to be A Jerk from a mile off, I can spot the Nice but Nerdy Boy who Turns Hot over a summer from several miles off. I know the Girl Heroine will learn to have Self-Confidence, will Patch Things Up with her siblings/parents/step-parents, will learn valuable lessons about living in the today because of her dead sibling/parent/friend, will stop drinking or cutting or skipping school, will, with the Love of the Nice, Cute Boy whose hair falls into his eyes, turn an eager, happy face to a shining future of awesomeness.

PUKE PUKE PUKE.

Obviously, these very cliches and stereotypes are worth thinking about, and it's making me root for Dessen, though frankly, Cracked Up to Be was probably the most interesting/best written of the list.
But this experience has made me think seriously about the bildungsroman, and its maleness; male protagonists come of age regardless of the relationships around them. Girls come of age because of those relationships. I also felt a tiny bit of shock when I tried to think historically, pre-1900, of representations of adolescents. Other than the occasional Little Women, or The Daisy Chain, the single strong protagonist bildungsroman seems to be a very exclusively male genre. Even Little Women and The Daisy Chain track the progress of a group of siblings, not a single strong character. But teenaged women go from child to debutante/wife in a turn of a page - they don't get their own bildungsroman, they just figure in someone else's.

I have a lot more to say on this subject - in fact, I could go on forever - but I'll draw my line now. Maybe I'll flip a coin to decide my third Girl Protagonist book - between Cracked Up to Be and a Dessen.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Course planning

I've been obsessed with my Representing Adolescence syllabus. What was supposed to be a week of intensive reading and planning turned into most of the month of July with my head stuck between the pink covers of girl books (and a handful of others, including Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, possibly the best YA book I've ever read).

The Ongoing Problem of the Teen Girl Novel has yet to be resolved, though I'm rapidly approaching my absolute deadline for submitting my book order, so resolution is also rapidly approaching. So - a book with a female protagonist WILL be chosen by week's end.

I have decided, definitely now, to teach at least one episode of Huge. I've been dabbling in reading some Fat Acceptance/Fat politics stuff, on and off for over a year (pointed in that direction, actually, by Rebecca Rabinowitz's blog), and my reading of the stunningly smart and insightful Fatshionista has led me to be much more Fat-aware. Because of the Fatshionista's blog, I started watching Huge online (new episodes go up Tuesday mornings, following TV airing on Monday nights).

And it's great. The show is fantastic. There are some aspects of it that I don't care for (mainly concerning Hayley Hasselhof's acting ability or lack thereof, and her relationship with the boys' counselor), but on the whole - this is a great show. As of episode six, we've had a character who identifies as asexual; we've had an anatomical-boy (who is clearly queer) select a female name for his spirit name; we have some LARPing; we have Fat Pride (body fascism!); we have more queerness in about six different ways; we have a girl shamed for sexual activity with no mention of the boy's responsibility; we have a character in a 12-step recovery program; we have a mixed-race family.

And that's not even getting to any of the plot.

Part of what pushed me to give Huge a try was the discovery that it is developed and produced by the mother-daughter team of Winnie Holzman and Savannah Dooley.  Holzman is the genius who brought us My So-Called Life, which should be all anyone has to say to convince people to give Huge a chance. Dooley clearly has talent of her own, in addition to being openly gay and engaged with queer issues.

It would have been really easy to make this show a catastrophe, but it's not. Part of what it does - as Fatshionista points out - is "normalize" fatness: we see a bunch of fat kids doing what every other set of kids in America does. There's lots of onscreen fat, no real fat-shame, unless it's part of the character's personality. Fat kids kissing, fat kids crushing on each other. Fat girls wearing tank tops unashamedly. Even more, fat kids standing around in bathing suits on the first day. And we're not meant to be grossed out by, or pitying of, these kids because of their fatness. Our empathies are engaged by who they are as characters, not by how they look, which is amazing.
Along with it's kickass politics (fat & queer especially), the show is very well written (with only a few slip-ups) and, aside from Hayley Hasselhof, very well acted. Nikki Blonsky is the lead as Will (who is misread as gay by the very boy on whom she has a crush), and she's phenomenal. I never did get around to seeing Hairspray, but this girl's got skills.
Gina Torres and Paul Dooley (Winnie's husband, Savannah's father, and the dad in Sixteen Candles) play the camp director and her long-estranged father.
But the kids are the real stars, of course - the teenagers, I should say [god, I'm old. Everyone under the age of 25 had become a "kid" to me].
Raven Goodwin plays Becca, who is a LARPing nerd (she's actually created an entire, complex role-playing fantasy world) and is constantly reading [in one episode, she's reading The Hunger Games, which is kind of a funny, ironic joke]. Raven Goodwin is also absolutely one of the most beautiful girls I've ever seen, far more attractive than Hayley Hasselhof's Amber.

My personal favorite, though, is Alistair, played by Harvey Guillen. Alistair is the queer boy, the one who knits and loves LARPing and selects a cat-hybrid as his character for the role play. Alistair's sexual identity is not clearly spelled out at this point, but he is breaking binaries every time he turns around. It's Alistair who selects a female name as his spirit name (he chooses Athena, goddess of wisdom), and insists on being who he wants to be, regardless of societal norms and expectations. This doesn't make life easy for Alistair, who is mostly an object of teasing and torment to the other (male) campers. But he's an adorable boy, a wonderful, wonderful character, and I really, really, really wish we'd get more of him. I want to know more about him as a character. Also, he sleeps with a stuffed animal, what appears to be a duck. Which is awesome.


There are so many things going on in Huge that my brain almost can't stand it. I think it'll give us, as a class, a lot to talk about, and I also think (and kind of hope) it will shake things up a bit. If nothing else, the first episode, with all those fantastic fat kids in their bathing suits, will make everyone a little uncomfortable, which is a good place to start.