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)

Saturday, December 31, 2011

boys who want to dance

Over the winter break, I went home where there is cable television. Somehow, my mother and I ended up watching - late at night - part of a marathon of the execrable "Toddlers & Tiaras."
The show is one I have seen once or twice before; when it first appeared, I made a point of seeing an episode or two, since it falls right within my purview as a person interested in representations of children (and sexuality, and exploitation of children, and on and on).

A kind of slack-jawed, horrified inertia kept us watching through glitz-girl tantrum after tantrum, but the remote was poised to switch it off when a new episode came on. But hold that thought! Because this upcoming show includes a previously-unseen entity in the show: a Pageant Prince.

The boy in question is 7-year-old Brock, from podunk-nowhere, and he is fabulous (in every sense of that word).  Brock just loves to dance - he says he's a diva, he loves the sparkle, he has two American Girl dolls who are his friends when no real friends are around (he brings the dolls to at least this one glitz pageant). He shows off some fierce jazz hands, and informs the camera that he wants to go on Broadway.
His mom - despite the fact that she dresses up Brock's very small sister in those heinous pageant dresses and makeup - seems to be great. She says that she and his father support Brock 100% (I wish we could see the father, to be honest). This - the dancer, the pageant boy, the drama queen who loves the spotlight - is Brock, his mother tells us; it's who he is and they love him, and anyone who has a problem - well, they don't need to be around us.

Of course most of the clips of the mom's interview are defensive-seeming, especially all strung together; the show makes it pretty clear that Brock is "unusual," that we are seeing something different that needs to be explained and justified in great detail. Yet we also see Brock onstage, being introduced (he's the only boy in the entire pageant) in a suit with sparkly lapels, and then dancing - his real passion is dance, and his mom tells us his routines are partly planned, partly improvised. Watching him, in black dance pants and a red sparkly tanktop, dancing surprisingly expertly (most of the "toddlers" are rather dreadfully awkward and stilted in their own dancing), my mom said: "he's the most natural of all of them. He's probably the happiest of all those kids, too."

And I think she's right. The pageants are kind of horrifying in eight thousand ways - and the way they sexualize very little girls is just one of those ways - but for Brock, they seem to function very differently. Instead of transforming, as the girls seem to, from fairly normal, un-forced, natural little kid to tarted-up performing monkey, for Brock, the pageant seems to be the place where he gets to be not just himself, but rewarded and applauded for being himself. He wins as pageant King, of course, because he's the only boy competing for the title, but he ALSO wins in the overall pageant categories: he gets Best Personality.

I don't know how long little boys can compete in pageants. I don't know at what point Brock's love of dancing will be overpowered by social and cultural disapproval; the episode mentions that he is teased for doing dance.  In another ten years, or six years, or four years, I hope Brock is still dancing and being himself, however that manifests, and that his folks are still 100% behind him. But I also know that Brock and his family appear to live in a midwestern, rural-ish town - places not known for being especially welcoming of any kind of deviation from gender norms or sexuality.

Watching Brock was a delight, and it was also a reminder of why I want to do the dissertation I'm struggling to write and complete. The world I live in is pretty well-packed with boy dancers and queer-friendly folks and lesbians and effeminate men; it can be easy for the urgency to fade from my project. And it isn't that I think my dissertation will make the world safe for little boys who want to dance (although if it did! if it could!), but my dissertation will allow me to teach ranks and ranks of undergrads that little boys who want to dance are pretty great. And that difference doesn't, and shouldn't, imply hierarchy.

I'm trying to write a conference paper proposal about my Mister Rogers' Neighborhood work, and I'm playing around with some of my ideas about representations of masculinities. And, I think because of seeing Brock, I am thinking more centrally about that episode (#1484) in which Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann meets Mr Rogers at Swann's dance studio. Because Lynn Swann, football hero extraordinaire, also danced ballet. And had danced ballet for years and years. He arrives at the studio in his football gear, then removes it and explains the padding and protective gear; then, in black dance pants and a tshirt, begins working on a routine with the other dancers in the studio, under the watchful eye of a rather flamboyant ballet master. Meanwhile, Mister Rogers is telling us at home how wonderful it all is. And Lynn Swann is talking about how much he enjoys dancing, and how it has also helped him with his football.

This episode aired in 1981.
Thirty years later, poor Brock's mom is still having to explain her little boy's love of dance and glitz and sparkle, and his love of dress-up (he was Dorothy for halloween three years in a row, and tells us "I think I was a pretty cute Dorothy" [note: he was. there are photos]).

Mister Rogers worked very, very hard to make the world safe for little boys who want to dance. And I need to work very, very hard to make sure the world remembers that now; I need to work very, very hard to make sure that this aspect of Mister Rogers' legacy is remembered AND continued.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

syllabus decision-making

I finally got my spring teaching assignment confirmed, a couple of weeks ago (right before thanksgiving, I think). Two sections of Introduction to Literature, each a long night class that meets once a week. This is a gift of a schedule, and I need to work it hard and rip through my dissertation. Truly.

I've learned lessons from my efforts at teaching Intro to Lit this fall. I think I approached it from a far too meta-level for the kind of students I had (mostly hard science majors, non-readers, skeptics of literary criticism). This spring, we're just going to read a whole slew of books.
Because the class only meets once a week, I have to make my choices even more carefully than usual. The once-a-week class can go fantastically well (cf fall 2009, fall 2008) or a bit draggy (cf fall 2007).

I'd been kicking around the "travel/geography" idea for awhile, and finally mentioned it to friends on facebook, who roundly approved the idea. I'm hoping this theme will help me articulate and develop some of my geography/place ideas for the dissertation, but more than that, it's a theme that allows me to include a very broad swath of texts, including some I adore.

Books I am determined to teach:

Gulliver's Travels - at least parts 1 & 4 (Lilliput and the land of the Yahoos)
Around the World in 80 Days, which I am currently reading for the first time (and giggling periodically, because I keep being reminded that my initial introduction to the text was as a very small child watching Muppet Babies, when Phileas Frogg - aka Kermit - was making a similar trip)

Neverwhere (Gaiman)
Un Lun Dun - because I want to teach China Mieville whenever I can

Mopsa the Fairy (Ingelow)
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland...

On the Road (Kerouac! My old beloved Kerouac! I never thought I'd be teaching a Kerouac novel. Ever)

Then we reach the tentatives:
The Tempest (I really should include a play)
A Moveable Feast (not sure I can do it justice, to be frank)

some kind of science fiction - maybe a handful of short stories? - I'd like to include space travel. Bradbury's "Mars is Heaven!" could be interesting (and terrifying). I just got, from the library, Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, which may end up useful. I haven't started it yet; I'm working on Around the World, which is such an odd little book. It also satisfies by desire to have something that at least briefly mentions colonialist enterprises, and since there are some significant passages in both British India and non-British-controlled India, it'll work.

some kind of excerpt from Bachelard's Poetics of Space

I ought to include some poetry, but I feel so off my game when it comes to poetry. I can't think of much poetry that works with my theme, either - Eliot's Wasteland, but I KNOW I can't teach that. 

I have to remind myself not to add too much children's/YA lit, though of course that's where I'm most at home. One of the unfortunate aspects of teaching is that I'm always fighting the last war; I adapt my upcoming class based on the class I had most recently. This occasionally produces very good results, or at least interesting ones, but sometimes it backfires completely. Still, I am going forward with the assumption that my students will be skeptical of the literary merits of any book(s) written for younger readers, so I'm trying to keep a good balance.
I also need to not include Diana Wynne Jones on my syllabus, though I always want to. I've had far too many failures teaching her books (Howl's Moving Castle excepted - that almost always gets good reception), and I just can't take it anymore.  A particularly nasty student comment (on course evaluations) about Jones very nearly made me cry, and I am not going to be the one to cast pearls before swine. At least not until I recover from the experience of trying to teach The Merlin Conspiracy.
[note: I am reasonably thick-skinned about my evals. I can't please everyone, and so naturally I will have some less-than-stellar comments. I don't take it especially personally. I have never been really upset by anything in my evaluations until I read the student remark about Jones. THAT was the single most upsetting thing that has ever been written in my evaluations.]

I can't quite get excited about the new semester until I've finished the old one, and that won't happen for another week or so. Grades are due on 20 December, so until then I'll be reading drafts, answering questions from students, calculating percentages, and reading finals.

Then I can start being excited about travel/geography books.

Monday, November 14, 2011

breaking through, or: the challenges of teaching literature

I'm not teaching children's/YA lit classes this year, for the first time in more than two years. Of course I write my syllabi to play to my strengths, and so I include Alice and Peter Pan, which is always a delight to teach because it's just so weird.

Today was the last day of Peter Pan discussion, and, as often happens, students expressed some of the usual claims against critical interpretation. One student referred to the text as a "fairy tale," which is technically inaccurate but theoretically quite interesting; "myth" might be a better term, since Peter is a mythic character, to himself and everyone else. I tend to think somewhat strictly about the definition of a fairy tale; there's a category of story, with character types and plot structures of its own, that comprises fairy tales, and anything else must fit into some other category. But what if I expand my definition? What might we get if we play around with the idea of "fairy tale," not just as a formal designation but as a kind of reception practice? I think there's something there, though I'm not sure what.

One of the biggest challenges in teaching literature to non-lit students, to non-majors, to non-readers, is convincing them of the value of critical interpretation. Most of my students throughout my teaching have been non-majors; they've been psych majors, and biology and engineering, and political science, and business, and nursing, and a few rare history majors. I get a scattering of writing majors as well, but their approach to reading literature also tends to have its own bias; they read, in part anyway, to learn and study their craft. This can make for staggeringly good class discussion, as when one writing major pointed out a strange flaw in Sarah Dessen's Someone Like You. This book, he said, has no adjectives. He pointed to a passage that recounts the protagonist's birthday; she tells us she received "a keychain" from her best friend. The writing student said: "just a keychain? why not a keychain shaped like a pig? or a joke keychain? it's a detail - the mention of the keychain - that totally fails to tell us anything about any of the characters."
This launched us on a discussion of the Missing Adjectives in the book, and how that had a kind of flattening effect - it was great.
Other writers get wrapped up in defending the intention and prerogatives of the author no matter what; those often stem from a writer's own anxiety about her work being mis-read, misunderstood. This I can appreciate, but is also a critical and interpretive dead end.
But the overwhelming criticism - the biggest block I have to chip away at - is the idea that the texts are "just stories. just entertainment. just a kid's book."
In discussing Peter Pan in class, I asked the class something to the effect of "how do we feel about Peter's fate, his never-growing-up-ness, by the end of the novel? Is it good, bad, neutral?"
Several people responded with varying answers (and how I love when they have diverse reactions), and one said "it's not like he's a real person." She seemed to be suggesting that this unrealness made answering my initial question almost moot: how can you form an opinion, or an emotional reaction, about a person who doesn't exist?
In some ways, it's not a bad question, though for me as a reader it's both frustrating and baffling. But I think my bafflement is a mirror image of that (and other) student's frustration. My sense of why read, why books, why stories, has so many facets and many of them have to do precisely with my opinions and emotional reactions to nonexistent people. I read for plot and pleasure, of course, but my brain also runs a kind of critical background scan all the while, thinking about representations of women and children and play and reading and toys and so on. For me it makes almost NO sense - in an almost-literal way - to not do this kind of critical reading. But for today's student (and many like her who have expressed identical positions), I think her worldview, her brain, is calibrated in such a way that it makes NO sense to do that kind of critical reading.
It's a really fundamental difference in how one sees reading and story. Obviously, I'm terribly biased and think that my way is the right/best way, but this isn't a question with right or best answers. In the way that I think and see in stories and texts, other people think and see in numbers or logic patterns or mechanized forms. I'm essentially incapable of thinking in numbers, and I shook off my mathematical training as quickly as I could (after junior year of high school, I let it all slide out of my mind). For other people, including students like these, they did that with their english classes.

The difference, I think, comes in how we handle being confronted with the opposite of our way of thinking. I sulked through math classes, and repeatedly asked my parents why such a hideous thing was being inflicted upon me, since it clearly had no practical application (don't know why I was a math-only utilitarian, but there it is). My parents' answer: it's training different parts of your brain.
This is actually an excellent answer, possibly the only answer, to why am I being forced to learn/do this?
It was not satisfying to me as a 15-year-old, but even fairly early on in college, once the book-nerd part of my brain was being trained effectively for the first time ever, I began to understand and appreciate the idea of math training.
If I got plunked into a math class of some kind, I don't think I'd put up a wall of resistance. I wouldn't, though I'd be tempted, to pull a Calvin & Hobbes "math atheist" move. Being a hippie-dippy liberal-artist literature nerd has the effect of making me open to multiple interpretations, lots of possibilities, to the idea that there are no hierarchies or essential right/wrong, good/bad binaries.
But science-oriented people often function in the opposite way. They do see hierarchies and right and wrong binaries. These are the students who ask, at the end of a class, "so what DOES this book mean?" as if there was one simple answer. I always turn that question back to them, and sometimes I can see their frustration: "you're the teacher, why won't you just tell me the answer?!"
And maybe, as a corollary, their minds work in such a way that if there is no answer (no right answer), then that thing loses a lot of its meaning and value. So a text becomes "just a story," just a thing with no intrinsic value, a thing that is good or useful only for the length of time it takes to read. Once you set the book down, it's a done thing; it's used, used up, and you'd no more spend time pondering it than you would spend examining a grubby paper towel.

So the challenge then becomes how can you break through that, even for a bit, even just for a semester? How can you bring those students to a position where they are at least willing to start from the belief that there IS more than a story?

I wonder, sometimes, at the students who come in on day one, and leave on the final day, firmly believing that it's just a story. They must feel they've wasted their time terribly. But it also makes me wonder what is at stake for them; what is the fear/anxiety/resistance an expression of? What would it mean for them to accept the multiplicity of meanings, the idea that books can move people, that they can have an affect and an effect, that they can reflect and shape cultures?
Many of these "resistant" students are quite bright; they're not apathetic slackers. Very often, they're extremely smart and good at their fields - the engineers, the pre-med kids, the math majors, etc. So I can't chalk up their resistance to a lack of intellectual ability, or even a lack of curiosity.

Is it that for them to accept that their are many truths, and no fixed Truth, is as horrifying as it would be for me to accept that there is just a fixed Truth?

If this is the case, then, how do I negotiate some kind of middle way, some path that isn't horrifying to either of us?

It's a complicated question, and though my kneejerk reaction is to simply say: Well, this is a disciplinary issue; in literature, it's truths not Truth, and you'll just have to suck it up.
But then I think: how would I feel, dropped into a class where my instructor was insisting that it's Truth, not truths?

I do wonder how other instructors deal with this; how do you go about convincing those devout unbelievers that literature has value at many levels?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I Can't Stop Thinking About September

This summer I read Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making.  (link to my very brief Goodreads review & Goodreads page for the novel)
I can't remember how or where I first heard of it, though I suspect it was from one of the always-on-top-of-things members of my listserv. I did hear a little bit of buzz about the book, though, so I put in a hold request at my public library and waited for the book to show up.
When I got it, I had more than a little trepidation. Whimsical fairyland stories are becoming a dime a dozen, and it's so easy to get it wrong. And a bad fairyland story is - really bad.  Lots of authors think they're either playing with, or paying homage to, old-school fairyland stories when really they're just copying them over, badly. It's not a form of flattery; it's a form of cheap failure.

Valente's book started off promisingly, and got better all along. The downright weirdness of her Fairyland appeals strongly to my own sense of weirdness, as well as my familiarity with the equally weird nineteenth-century fairy stories of writers like Jean Ingelow and Juliana Ewing. Valente knows her Fairyland(s) - she's got wyverns and witches and guardians and magical folk of all kinds populating the place. She also throws in twists and wrenches that both defamiliarize Fairyland and create it anew (the polygamous witches are just the start, really).
And it is in the defamiliarizing of Fairyland that I think this book makes its magic. We all already know fairylands of many kinds: we know Wonderland, Neverland, we know Oz, we know Faerie, we know the Back of the North Wind, the back of beyond, the Almost Anywheres, the nearly-generic Fairylands that crop up all over the place. We know Narnia, and Middle Earth, and the Magic City, and Nowhere and the North Pole. Even the most carefully crafted, intricately detailed fairylands have a family resemblance to each other, and many more contemporary fantasy lands seem to be simple variations on the same family face.
But Fairyland, circumnavigated by Valente (and September), manages to take what we know and feel comfortable with, and turn it that quarter- or half-rotation to make it startlingly, or just delightfully, new. The herds of migrating velocipedes. The town made entirely of fabrics. The magical university town. The sentient lamp and shoes. The hybrid Wyverary. The weird temporal twists and turns - because time, in Fairyland (as everywhere else, really) is a strange thing. The gorgeously-named Leopard of Little Breezes.
I admit to feeling confounded by questions of audience and address - Valente has written a quasi-19th-century children's book for grownups (her narrator at least once clearly indicates an adult audience). But in great 19th century fantasy form, Valente has also managed to make these kinds of questions practically irrelevant, interesting to the scholar of children's literature or narratology, but for the casual reader, essentially immaterial.
I need to read the book again; I was tempted to keep it longer from the library, for a second reading, but the waiting list was long, and I had another pile of new titles to work through, so I took this one back. In all likelihood, I will end up teaching it, or just buying it, within the next few months. I'm desperately eager for the second installment of the Fairyland books; September's adventures are not at a close, and my interest in Fairyland is only whetted by this first book.
The more time has passed since I read it, the more I realize what an intriguing and fantastic (in every sense of the word) read it was. I find myself thinking about the book, daydreaming sections of it, at odd moments, unexpectedly - this kind of unlooked-for afterthought usually signals, to me, that a text was more interesting or awesome than I initially realized. And then, a few days after having surgery on my shoulder, I lay in bed with nothing much to do except think of Fairyland, and a thought floated through my mind that has hugely changed my thinking about this novel, and makes me feel even better about giving it five stars on Goodreads. What crossed my mind was this: Catherynne Valente's book is the fantasy novel The Wizard of Oz was trying to be. L. Frank Baum's book, for all its popularity and sequels, for all that its film adaptation is fabulous, is still a remarkably unfanciful fantasy. Valente does Baum one better, and then laps him again, with this wonderful Fairyland of her own making.       

Tuesday, August 09, 2011


NPR reports today that the national teen unemployment rate is 25%. In Washington, DC, teen employment is at a staggering 50%. NPR also tells us that the last time teen unemployment topped 20% was 1981 - but that this is the third summer in a row that it's been above 20%.

The piece doesn't do a very good job of dealing with the potential fallout or implication of teen unemployment, though of course one of the two teens they interview gets it right away: ""I'm going to my senior year, so it's like, how am I supposed to help gather the extra money to go to college?" he [Jacquan Clark] says."

Instead, NPR subtly turns the focus to outcomes for the longer-term future of those kids, and, more importantly, the outcomes for present-day bosses and hiring, heavily citing Michael Saltsman, a research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute, offering this nugget: "But working a summer job as a teen is not just about earning extra spending money. Saltsman says it's also about learning skills so you can become a good worker later in your adult life."

Yes. This is true. It's great to have work on your resume straight away - it helps in hiring, in applying for all manner of things, it helps you mature and learn things and blah blah blah. All of those things are important, don't get me wrong. But the real immediate stakes are potentially even bigger, and Jacquan Clark hits it on the head: what about college?
There are a lot - a lot of teenagers who depend on their summer or year-round part-time jobs for more than just "extra spending money." I know I needed my jobs for any spending money, but also for things like buying clothes, traveling home from college, eventually buying a car and helping to pay for my semester abroad. And I was pretty well off; I had friends whose jobs paid for their college, period. With the cost of tuition rising everywhere, and student loans getting harder to get, teenagers, especially those from less privileged backgrounds (and I'm not even talking about truly poor backgrounds, though of course they are included), need every red cent they can accrue. For some, working really is the difference between going to college and not going.
It's very hard to "take a year off" between high school and college to earn money; it's hard to get back into the mode of academia. Taking standardized tests and applying along with your own class cohort streamlines the entire process, and keeps you moving along the college-bound track. The minute you step off that track, it takes you double or triple the number of steps to get back on.
Jacquan Clark, the teenager in NPR's piece, mentions the cost of college applications, which he will evidently be on the hook for. This adds up rapidly; where are those hundreds of dollars supposed to come from, if a parent can't or won't supply them?
This also ignores the fact that there are, in fact, teenagers in this country whose families depend at least partially on that teenager's income. Poor is poor is poor, and every dollar is needed. In other situations, a teenager's income goes to pay for everything he or she might need beyond the absolute basics of home and food: clothing, new shoes, adequate winter gear, school lunch, transportation, test or other school-related fees. None of that covers the other "necessaries" of teenage life, like the right kind of clothes, or an iPod, or a cellphone, or bits of cash for going for coffee or to diners or the movies or whatever it is teenagers do these days.

It's good that NPR is reporting on this - definitely good, and I applaud and appreciate that. But it is disgraceful that their focus is not so much on how this impacts teenagers qua teenagers, but on how it impacts them as future cogs in the capitalist machine.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Stravaganza: post-it note

I'm reading (re-reading and continuing on) Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza books. I know I read City of Masks some years back, and at least started City of Flowers, but I have no real memory of reading them, or what I thought. So I'm working through the series now; I'm halfway into the third book, City of Flowers. It's not a bad series at all, though (more than) a little formulaic.

But what I really want - and should look for - is a good piece of critical writing about the books done by a disabilities studies scholar. Something about the way Hoffman uses illness or injury, and wellness or healing, in her books feels interesting/important/possibly very problematic.

I don't have any training or expertise in disabilities studies at all, or I'd do the thinking-work myself.

In the absence of my expertise, I'd love to read the thoughts of someone at least moderately well-versed in dis/ability studies about Hoffman's books. At least as far as this third volume, illness, health, ability features as a fairly integral sideplot, and I think one would need to read them all to speak to the way dis/ability functions here.
Anyone? Disability studies scholars, read some Stravaganza and write about it!!

Friday, August 05, 2011

You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby, or Trailing Clouds of Glory

Wandering around the internet, I come across a newish hubbub over "sexualization of children!!!!!!" in the form of 10-year-old model Thylane Lena-Rose Blondeau, who has been cropping up in fashion editorials for awhile, but for some reason (which I haven't got time to figure out - quick google searches didn't reveal the why now) is drawing attention now.

The usual suspects are trotted out: Let a Child Be a Child! (whatever that even means, and frankly, why not turn that attention to the children who have to work to help feed their families).
Too Young To Be Sexy (or Sexualized)! (Because evidently there IS a right age to be sexualized and objectified)
You're A Bunch Of Stuffy, Pedestrian Squares Who Don't Get Edgy Hip Fashion! (self-explanatory).

I followed up on Thylane Blondeau at all because the very smart Debbie Reese tweeted briefly about the response from the photographer (Dani Brubaker) who shot most of the images of Blondeau. Brubaker, who clearly has never visited My Culture Is Not a Trend, states that she "grew up by the code of the Native American Indian" which "venerates children yet allows them freedom of expression."

Wow, unpacking that statement could take all night!
I'm working on being more concise, though, and I'm expecting a friend from college to arrive soon for the weekend, so - in short:
There is no single "Native American Indian" with one single "code" about anything. There are, and were, many indigenous tribes with a variety of cultures, languages, and ways of life, including attitudes toward children. Presumably also including attitudes toward freedom of expression, as well.
Staging white Thylane Blondeau (I mean, Blondeau? irony?) in hipsterish "Indian" garb is just not okay. It's just not. It doesn't matter if Blondeau is 10 or 20 or 50 - the appropriation and misuse of articles of Native cultures is not okay. Especially not when these are, essentially, fashion/modelling photos, as opposed to some kind of art photography that is attempting to make some kind of commentary or statement on, or with, the appropriation of aforementioned culture. Fashion and modelling photos exist to sell things: in this case, to sell us, I guess, a 10-year-old girl, and an aesthetic.
Which brings me to "freedom of expression" - Brubaker may honestly believe that she is living some kind of code of freedom of expression, but being staged and photographed by someone else is not freedom of expression for the model. It's Brubaker's expression, or the stylist's, or the fashion designer's. The object of the gaze is very rarely the one with all the power, or even most of it, and this is compromised doubly, trebly, by the status of the object: a kid, in the benighted "costume" of a minority/oppressed culture(s).

I don't object to the sexualization of children, per se, though to be very explicit I don't especially condone it, either. What I object to is the sexualization and objectification of people, specifically women and girls (because how often does this question even come up around little boys? How often do we see boys posed the same way adult models are?)

Laura Mulvey wrote her game-changing article ("Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema") on "the gaze" in the early 1970s (published around 1975). 36 years later, the gaze is still going strong: still held by men, still object-ifying women. The women keep getting younger (though even in the 1970s and earlier, young women and girls were made public objects - that's nothing new) and the media keep getting more and more diffuse and omnipresent, but the essentials haven't changed.

Gods know I don't believe in things like "childhood innocence" or some kind of inherent wordsworthian idyll of childhood - those trails of glory are all in the eye of the besotted beholder, usually the new parent(s) and/or grandparent(s). But I do believe that people, most often women, should be able to live their lives as subjects, not objects.  They should have every choice available to them; they should be able to choose when, how, under what conditions, and why they might position themselves as objects in a public way. These are complicated choices to make, and the stakes can be quite substantial, and because children lack the experience that helps inform these choices, it's essential parents and other caretakers aid them in making those choices.
I have a possibly-unreasonable bias against "trick children." I hate child models, child actors, child performers - not the children, exactly, but the system, the process, of converting childhood humanity into a product. I especially mistrust and dislike the parent(s) who guide their children into that system. There are too many bad stories about children exploited for their money, being used, used up, cast aside (Michael Jackson is only the most spectacular example of this - the way he raised his own children should speak loud volumes about his own experience as a famous child). To be sure, there are positive examples - Jodie Foster seems to be doing all right.
When I see photos like those of Thylane Blondeau, I immediately think: there's all the evidence you need to take that child away from her parents. Not necessarily in a literal sense, because I am sure she loves her mom and dad, and they love her. But her parents have also foreclosed on her options, by turning her into a spectacle. They've made their daughter into a very successful, highly paid object.
She might love it. Who knows? She's 10. She doesn't have a whole lot to compare it to. And her life is forever altered by this fame as a model, as a "sexy child."
What good parent looks at their child and thinks: "I hope my kid grows up to be someone people masturbate to" or "I hope someday my kid will pose naked for a popular magazine"?
It has nothing to do with the child as The Child, nothing to do with Romantic ideals about childhood. It has everything to do with the continued, continual objectification and reduction of girls and women to nothing more than, literally, their component physical parts.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

John & Hank Green [should?] Take Over the World, Part Two

Part One of this unexpectedly multi-part series concludes with a set of statements and queries:
So a couple of nerds with a big teenage following have had commercial success. Those same teenagers sent one of those nerds a few hundred bucks for his birthday.

So what? Why's it matter?
To find out why, stay tuned for part two.
One perceptive reader left a comment suggesting a "why," and s/he is absolutely correct, of course. There are a number of reasons why it matters, of course, but my question was one of those sneaky teachery questions, where there's a specific answer I have in mind.

One way to begin answering this, coincidentally enough, is by watching John's latest vlogbrothers video, posted on 27 July, 2011.  John runs down a quick (and abbreviated) list of nerdfighter accomplishments: raised $150,000 in 48 hours in the Project for Awesome; gave money (along with the Harry Potter Alliance) to charter airplanes of relief supplies to post-earthquake Haiti; got Helen Hunt to hear the Helen Hunt Song, etc.

Nerdfighters are pretty intensely invested in fighting world suck, the official term for - well, erm, world suck, which really shouldn't need any further defining. They make videos, they write songs, they do art, they knit monsters, they do whatever needs doing, or whatever they are moved to do. Sometimes the decreasing of world suck is a low-level kind of thing: being kind to one other person can do it. The everpresent acronym DFTBA reminds them and us and anyone listening to be awesome, the direct antithesis of sucking.
Not precisely highly nuanced, academic discourse, but not very many people except academics are very interested in - or, honestly, moved by - highly nuanced, academic discourse. The Brothers Green and their nerdy band of awesome followers managed to figure out what the national Democratic Party has failed to enact: quick n easy soundbites WORK.

Along with the art and the internet activity and the chat and nerdfighter love stories (of which there are plenty, it seems, up to and including at least one marriage proposal via John Green in a vlog, a marriage which has resulted in at least one new baby nerdfighter) and reading books and singing goofy songs and listening to wizard rock (because the crossover between nerdfighters and HP geeks is enormous), one of the other things nerdfighters - who, again, are largely teenagers or college kids! - seem to do very well is donate money. They're fundraisers of a prodigious nature, on either the collecting or giving end, and the funds they raise go to ferociously good causes - clean water in Haiti. Via the Project for Awesome (actually a vlogbrothers invention, if I understand correctly; alas, thus far Nerdfighteria lacks a dedicated historian with enormous quantities of time and resources for research and compilation), Shawn Ahmed's uncultured project which has done things like rebuild a school and provide clean water supplies in Bangladesh.

 More recently, and sadly, nerdfighters have been donating to the This Star Won't Go Out Foundation via the purchase of this star won't go out bracelets. The "Star" is Esther Earle, a Harry Potter devotee, HPA member and dedicated nerdfighter with a tremendous internet presence, who died a little less than a year ago from cancer. Esther is celebrated and memorialized and honored all over nerdfighteria (google "nerdfighter" + "Esther" to see how many folks who never met the girl in person are making Esther part of the awesome they don't forget); in fact, John Green's upcoming novel The Fault in our Stars is dedicated to Esther.
Esther was a huge part of Potter fandom, and her family attended LeakyCon2011 this summer as guests of the conference. Esther's father, Wayne Earle, wrote about it on his blog, and in fact it was reading what Mr. Earle wrote that prompted me to finally sit down and begin writing this blog post, which I have been contemplating and working on and mulling over for months. To wit:
Everyone at the conference was given a This Star Won't Go Out bracelet and I usually found a way to mention to the wearer that I was Esther's dad! We were witnesses to love in action.

The "fandom" as it's called, is huge and has made a gigantic imprint for good on the lives of this generation. It was Esther's world so we tried to give her space to make friends and be herself. Now that she is gone, her friends have become our friends. No surprise there. And they are awesome. They know how to give hope and accept one another. They are eager to show compassion and love without restraint. They know how to tell a story and they know how to celebrate life! They proved that by rocking out last Saturday night during the "Esther Earl Rocking Charity Ball." The ball ended with chants of "Esther! Esther! Esther!" She was also remembered at three other events there, one of which was when I read from the first chapter of my Esther book.
Remember again: a lot of LeakyCon attendees are younger people (not all, and probably not even most, though). And I mean young: college-age and younger. And here is the middle-aged dad turning up and being literally and metaphorically embraced by these folks, simply because he's Esther's dad, and they loved Esther, and because, as Mr. Earle says, "they are awesome. They know how to give hope and accept one another. They are eager to show compassion and love without restraint."

After I read Mr. Earle's blog post, which is also a testament to the power of reading and communities of readers, and is also intensely moving (ie, tear-inducing), I thought: "YES. THIS is what nerdfighters do. This is why they matter. This is power."

Because it is power.

But this isn't just a feelgood story about how Today's Youth aren't as bad as we think they are, or a counter to all those "We have no empathy" stories floating around out there. It functions that way, of course, but it would also be easy to write off nerdfighteria as a bunch of "good kids," nerdy readers of books who were always already going to Do Good Deeds. Nothing remarkable or praiseworthy because expected, and because expected, as if it had already been done.
And I expect that to an extent this is true. Probably a lot of nerdfighters are Good Kids (I was one myself, to be honest, though in a sarcastic, possibly sullen sort of way). They're a self-selected, self-selecting group, in a sense; readers of certain kinds of books, drawn to likeminded others who have also read those books.
But there are well over half a million youtube subscribers, and over a million people who follow John Green on twitter, and probably any number of people who have read one or more of his books or participate on the ning and don't subscribe or follow.  And I somehow doubt that every single one of those people is a Good Kid. Probably a lot of them are just regular old people, neither Good nor Bad. Probably a lot of them forget to be awesome on a regular basis. Probably a lot of them don't devote their out of school hours to charity work, to visiting nursing homes and hospitals, to working at soup kitchens or animal shelters or wherever. Probably most of them pocket their allowances or their babysitting money or their paychecks from crappy minimum-wage type jobs, and then blow that money on iTunes or ringtones or movies or technogadgets or taco bell or cute shoes or nice jeans or whatever else it is that teenagers spend money on.
But sometimes, they kick in some of that money to causes. Good causes, causes with tangible, real-world effects. They give money when they don't get anything at all back from it - no gimmicky bracelet (except the lovely this star won't go out, which I find far less obnoxious than many of the gimmicky bracelets, something I attribute to the use of lower-case letters). no reusable shopping bag, no "entered to win an autographed whatever," no t-shirt, no sticker or postcard or anything. Just because they can, and they want to, and they've remembered to be awesome.

And so nerdfighters can say, cheerfully and honestly, that they have rebuilt a school in Bangladesh and provided wells and clean water in Haiti and Bangladesh, that they chartered a plane full of medicine and essential supplies for Haiti during the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, that they help support families affected by children with cancer. And probably any number of other projects that I don't know about.
Meanwhile, they make videos and write songs and read books and chat on the internet about the weather and school and teachers and families and friends, and make art and knit animals and make music and get excited and get sad and don't forget to be awesome. Because mostly, they're young: teenagers, college kids, maybe kids in their early 20s.
But they are young.

Which is where I will end Part Two of this series. Part Three, hopefully the final part, will bring it all together and explain why all of this is worth thinking about seriously.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

John and Hank Green [could] Take Over the World, Part 1

Part the First: A brief history of my discovery of John Green and Nerdfighteria; a brief recent history of the accomplishments of the Brothers Green

The first thing I read by John Green was Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which I picked up because I liked David Levithan and because I knew it had gay characters. Up to that point, Green's name was just a name to me, a name I knew was semi-important in my chosen field of study; a name on my very long to-read-someday list.
After reading WG, WG, which I loved, I intentionally sought out Green's other books: An Abundance of Katherines, Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, this last which I only read this summer. I poked the internet with a long stick to see what would surface when Googling Green's name - I got about as far as "nerdfighters," and moved on. I had courses to plan, life to live, a dissertation to procrastinate on (and be confused by), back pain to contend with. I taught WG, WG  in the fall, making the rare choice to require my students to purchase a book still only available in hardcover. They liked the book quite a lot; I was gratified by this, and by many of them reporting that they had previously read Green's books. I was also gratified when they told me, some of them rather excitedly, that John Green would be speaking at the public library in January. I shelled out the $20-some for a ticket, after hemming and hawing - I am on an absurdly tight budget, and even a $20 ticket is a big expenditure. But I decided that John Green is an Important YA Author - and Award Winner!! - and how often do those kinds of writers appear at my local public library? So I went, and mentioned it in passing here. And the talk was terrific, though I was baffled: what was with the audience hollering "Good morning, Hank?" while the Guest of Honor filmed it all with a little video camera? All the references to "nerdfighteria?" And so on - baffling. I felt conspicuously old and out of place, but I didn't mind, really; I was delighted to see an auditorium full of teenagers, on a Friday night, come to listen to a writer. Teenagers who were chattering giddily and being excited and and being dropped off by their parents, for an evening at the public library. I grinned for a moment, thinking of those parents, who must have been delighted when their teenagers asked to attend an author's talk at the public library. On a Friday night. After the talk, Green signed books for the throng for hours. Again: teenagers, many of them easily in the mid-to-upper reaches of teenagerness, hanging out happily at the library, talking to friends and new acquaintances and buying books (John Green's, and Siobhan Vivian's, who teaches writing at Pitt and with whom I am very happily acquainted; her books sold out before the night was half-over, the news of which she received with a dropped jaw and delight). I think there was music in the Teen Room; there may have been some kind of drinks and/or snacks of a low level. All of this activity centering on an author. A good author, even - Green's books are very smart, and very well-written. On a Friday night.

Post-talk, I realized I needed to do some deeper research into this whole "nerdfighter" business. The internet, as always, was my friend, because this is where Nerdfighteria lives (sort of?) and where John and his brother Hank have cultivated a veritable army of nerdfighters.
They vlog. They post, three times a week, short videos on some subject. Each brother does a post in turn. They have done this since 2007, when, evidently, they began this as a project to stay in touch in different ways. Vlogbrothers has its own youtube channel, and has accrued millions of views (152+million upload views). The channel has well over half a million subscribers (including me). Videos that I personally have watched have covered everything from the uselessness of pennies to religion to finance to history to science to NASA. Nerdiness of all kinds, with the catchy and useful slogan "Don't Forget To Be Awesome" (DFTBA, which also has a hand/"gang" sign which, due to my inability to separate my middle and ring fingers from each other, I cannot throw down).

So, no big news here, right? Some geeky dudes making videos which a bunch of teenagers watch. That's basically the definition of the entire internet.

the effect the brothers Green have had are staggering. I realized I was in the presence of something genuinely awesome when Hank opened his birthday gifts on youtube, livestreaming it. Yes. Nerdfighters galore sent cards - mostly handmade - and gifts (likewise handmade, including a remarkably awesome anglerfish hat which someone promptly dubbed Hanklerfish) to Hank for his birthday. After much debate around the internets prior to the birthday, John & Nerdfighteria agreed that, for Hank's birthday, the appropriate gift was to send a dollar (or more - no limit specified) to Hank so he could donate it to the charity of his choosing. So on his actual birthday, Hank Green spent hours livestreaming himself opening cards and gifts sent to him by strangers (except in nerdfighteria, we're all neighbors, I guess). Strangers who were, for the most part, half his age. Strangers who sent dollars - singly, in pairs, in handfuls. Foreign currency came in as well, in considerable quantities. I sat, mesmerized, and watched for well over an hour (and I came in after at least an hour had gone by) as Hank opened, and read out, cards. He commented on them, he checked in on the chat window, occasionally responding to remarks there. He enthused over every. single. item. None of it felt forced, or fake. None of it condescended, in any way. I only stopped watching because I had to go to something - a meeting, maybe? an appointment? But I could have watched for hours, happily.

It was after Hank's birthday that I started thinking seriously about Nerdfighteria, and nerdfighters, and the brothers Green. After collecting up his birthday dollars, and then kicking in matching funds, Hank donated over $1200 to the water.org project he's "adopted" in Haiti at Savann Tabak.

This may not be massive fundraising, but it's the output of essentially one-day fundraising: dollars for Hank's birthday (aka Hanko de Mayo). even allowing for Hank's doubling, it's not a bad chunk of change from what's essentially a gaggle of teenagers.

I follow both John and Hank Green on twitter; only this summer, John's upcoming book The Fault in Our Stars became the number-one book on amazon and barnes & noble.com: nearly one year before it is scheduled to be released. When the book went up for pre-ordering, it had just a black & white placeholder instead of an image of the cover art, because cover art had yet to be created. The Wall Street Journal ran a story about this feat of best-selling, with the (offensive to my mind) title "Tweeting from a La-Z-Boy, An Unfinished Book Hits #1." Just this week, I discover that the release date for The Fault In Our Stars has now been pushed forward (that is, earlier) by a good four+ months, evidently due to the high demand. John Green, in what I can only conceive of as a fit of masochism, has committed to sign every. single. book. in the first run, which will be 150,000 books. (Questions about what books will be signed? Go here).

Hank Green, among other projects (he's an entreprenerd, he's a scientist, he's an eco-geek, he's a musician), just released his latest record, Ellen Hardcastle (evidently named for a nerdfighter; I do not know the story on this one, alas). Turns out that Ellen Hardcastle charted on Billboard.

Hank invented glasses for watching 3D glasses in 2D, which somehow sounds like the punchline to a bad joke (though, to be fair, the 2D glasses got mentioned on cnn.com AND by Roger Ebert, who evidently ordered himself a pair).

So a couple of nerds with a big teenage following have had commercial success. Those same teenagers sent one of those nerds a few hundred bucks for his birthday.

So what? Why's it matter?
To find out why, stay tuned for part two.

[I intended to write just one insightful post on this topic, but one post won't be enough. Thus, a multipart series is born]

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Hermione Granger series and Fat Kid Rules the World at the movies

Two newsy items that have made me happy in the last couple of days.

First! On Global Comment (where the world thinks out loud, apparently), Sady Doyle has this terrific, insightful, genius, witty satire/scathe of the HP series: "In Praise of Joanne Rowling's Hermione Granger series." Doyle hits solidly on the head all the aspects of the series that have troubled me at one point or another (note: I AM a Harry Potter fan! I wrote about Prisoner of Azkaban in my undergraduate senior thesis!).
A choice block quote:
Being special, Rowling tells us, isn’t about where you come from; it’s about what you can do, if you put your mind to it. And what Hermione can do, when she puts her mind to it, is magic.
Ditto for the whole “Chosen One” thing. Look: I’ve enjoyed stories that relied on a “Chosen One” mythology to convince us that the hero is worth our time. ... But it’s hard to deny that “Chosen Ones” are lazy writing. Why is this person the hero? Because everyone says he’s the hero. Why does everyone say he’s the hero? Because everyone says so, shut up, there’s magic.
 This loops back nicely to a post Jonathan Auxier (whose Peter Nimble & his Fantastic Eyes will be coming out very soon) recently had on his blog about prophecy stories; there are a number of very smart comments on the post as well, the very least of which is mine.

Doyle also hammers on the politics of the series in such a sharp paragraph that it draws blood:
As the series developed, its politics did, too. Dumbledore, memorably, falls in love with a younger man in the third installment. Other female characters were introduced, and developed beyond stereotype; we learned to value McGonagall as much as Dumbledore, to stop slagging Lavender Brown off as clingy and gross because she actually wanted her boyfriend to like her, to see the Patil sisters and Luna as something other than flaky, intuitive, girly idiots.

Yes, yes, yes. Most especially to the Dumbledore love plot, which would make Rowling's actual ex post facto "Dumbledore's gay" have some meaning, instead of being the vapid, empty, offensive remark that it is.
Doyle's entire article is so vastly worth the read that I'm linking again! Go read it!

Second! Movie adaptation news that I find actually pretty cool and potentially awesome: K.L. Going's Fat Kid Rules the World is being filmed NOW, evidently in Seattle. Matthew Lillard directs; most excitingly, Jacob Wysocki (aka Dante Piznarski on ABCFamily's maddeningly short-lived, brilliant "Huge") is starring as Troy Billings, the eponymous Fat Kid.

I've read Fat Kid Rules the World several times, though not since last summer, and I like it quite a bit.  Since my last reading of it, I've read a fair bit of Fat Studies work, which makes me wonder how the novel will hold up when I read it again. But I like Going's work in general; I've taught King of the Screwups twice, and it was very well received by both classes of mostly uninterested undergrads. More recently (this summer) I read Going's very curious early novel Saint Iggy. I confess I'm not quite sure what to do with the book yet - I think it'll need at least one more read to really sink in - but my reaction is not negative.

Fat Kid is a great book because it gives us weird protagonists who remain weird, and unlikely, even as they progress and develop in the book. Marcus is always an unknown quantity, and Troy doesn't suddenly become skinny (and I LOVE whoever made the casting decisions, because Jacob Wysocki is probably the exact perfect size for Troy; too often, "fat" gets translated as either cartoonish or as very slightly pudgy. Early photos from the set show that Troy just looks like your average normal fat kid, neither terrifyingly Other nor terrifyingly prettified). There are valuable lessons about Life and Love, but they aren't painfully didactic, and just because those lessons occur, doesn't mean that everyone's life gets better. It's entirely possible that the lessons occur, but not every character was taking notes that day. Going's very good at writing smallish transitions that end up being hugely important (or the opposite: huge transitions that end up having little to no effect).

I'm also a fan of Jacob Wysocki; I loved his character on "Huge," and in some of the sketches he's done with Bath Boys Comedy (of which he is a member). In particular, I'm very fond of  "Puppet Suicide" , a PSA advocating awareness of, and an end to, puppet suicide [which I thought of not long ago when I heard about the Vent Haven Museum of Ventriloquism, which evidently functions as a kind of final resting place for ventriloquist dummies]  My favorite, though, is "Seeing Eye Big Guy," an ad for, well, a seeing-eye big guy (if you're allergic to a seeing-eye dog, try the Big Guy! he wears a loud shirt!). Bath Boys' stuff is pretty amusing, especially the more pop-culturey stuff, but it can also be quite...well...the Bath Boys are all around ages 20-22 or so, and there's a decided 20-ish-year-old dude mentality to some of the sketches. Others are just brilliant.
Wysocki is also starring in Terri with John C Reilly, which is currently playing in selected cities NONE OF WHICH ARE PITTSBURGH CAN WE PLEASE DO SOMETHING ABOUT THAT?  Terri looks like a pretty good, possibly insightful, movie about adolescence and outsiders and oddness, and has gotten very good reviews. And I would like to see it very much. 

Lots of very cool things going on these days. Definitely read Doyle's piece on the Hermione Granger series, and definitely prepare for the Fat Kid  movie.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Schrodinger's cat is trendy

There seems to be quite the trend in fiction - especially? YA - to reference old Schrodinger's cat and the thought experiment it denotes. It comes up in Will Grayson, Will Grayson (because, atheistically bless his little heart, John Green is one doozie of a nerd). It comes up elsewhere, and I really thought I'd been keeping some kind of count or record, but searching this site gives me nothing. I'll try to scrape the barrel of my memory to recall.
It just popped up again, sans Schrodinger, in something I recently read (which of course I no longer recall, since I've crammed books into my brain lately like a fiend). Possibly it was Libba Bray's Beauty Queens; equally possibly, but less likely, is Holly Black's very awesome White Cat. Regardless, there was the experiment, laid out in tidy, non-jargony prose.
For awhile, Maxwell's Demon, entropy, and the second law of thermodynamics kept cropping up as well. Maxwell's Demon first wandered into my life when I read The Crying of Lot 49 for the first time. That demon has since popped up from time to time in other fictional locales.

It makes me wonder about these odd, pop-science "metaphors." Neither was necessarily a popular science idea until they started cropping up in fiction of one kind or another (or internet memes). But how and when did that transition happen? And why the desire to use the scientifick metaphor?
It just reminds me, as humanities-wrought scientific metaphors always do, of Eliot's essay on "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and his weak (very weak, as some chemistry/physics majors told me) effort at scientific metaphor - and how, when we read Eliot's essay for my first-ever critical theory class way back in 1999, the professor mentioned the insecurity of theory, of literature - and the way literature and critical theory try to appropriate the language of science to disguise or legitimate themselves.
I'll need to keep better track of these references, unless some enterprising and extremely bored soul has already made a list or database online.

EDIT: Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency makes use of old Schrodinger and his imaginary cat.

EDIT: Catherynne M. Valente's amazing The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making makes reference to the principles behind Schrodinger's cat [no cat, no Schrodinger, but the issue of all possibilities as actualities until one observes/knows the outcome].

Friday, July 08, 2011

from an Almost Anywhere

found this odd candelabra in a thrift store in Pittsburgh. I grabbed it up immediately, because it reminded me of one of the gifts Christopher Chant brings back through the Place Between.
"he went to an Anywhere where a man under a yellow umbrella gave him a sort of candlestick of little bells" (The Lives of Christopher Chant, Diana Wynne Jones).

It doesn't chime - it's just a candlestick, really, no bells at all - but it looks very like I picture Christopher's much more lovely and otherworldly chiming bells. And so I had to have it for myself.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Verisimilitude & Anachronism

Is it too much to ask that books maintain some kind of internal order that also adheres to external historicity?
In other words, if you're going to set your Paranormal Fantasy in Victorian London, then you need to know your 19th century  very well, or fussy readers like me are going to throw your book aside in disgust.

This is what happened when I tried to read Clockwork Angel. I hadn't read any of the Mortal Instruments books by Cassandra Clare, but the Clockwork Angel seemed potentially appealing, so I brought it home from the library.
I gave it a try, I really did, going at least 60 or 75 pages in before giving up. I just couldn't care about these two handsome young men and our feisty heroine. Or whatever magical world Clare has cooked up. I'm a bit tired of the Girl Who Has To Choose Between Two Handsome Men Who Love Her as a plot device, because lordy - hasn't that been done to pieces?

What got me most was a passage when Tessa and one of the Handsome Men have to flee from some monster, and Tessa says "oh god, o god" in fear.
Because in the Victorian era, no respectable middle-class Christian girl (which is what Tessa is supposed to be) would use the Lord's Name like that. It would be either truly prayerful, asking God to aid or deliver her (which is not how the text reads), or it would be some other expression of fear, worry, horror.

The spunky young heroine who refuses to be confined by the gender expectations of her culture is another anachronism I'm losing patience with. Yes, I know women and girls were bitterly oppressed and narrowly restricted for virtually all of history. And Yes, I know this makes for dull reading, especially for the allegedly-girl-centric YA readership. And there certainly are plenty of examples of women who managed to break or push on the bounds of societal expectations, and probably many more who wished they had. But the large majority didn't. And so again, and again, and again, to see the vaguely medieval narrative, or the vaguely Victorian narrative, of the smart, VERY well-educated (also unusual) girl who refuses to be married, who doesn't want to be married to a wealthy, goodlooking young man but instead is a Free Spirit who Finds Love while Pursuing Her Dreams in another location - this narrative is bunk-o. And I am running out of patience with it. I'd actually kind of love to read a medieval or early modern narrative about a girl who DOESN'T have all these secret (and then not-so-secret) hopes and dreams but who still manages to live a not-so-awful life. Because I expect there were scores and scores of women throughout history who actually lived pretty happy lives. Or maybe didn't even know what they were missing out on, so had no reason to lament their lot in life.

Finally, I just finished Franny Billingsley's Chime, which I frankly don't know what to do with just yet. As I read, I felt deeply thankful to Diana Wynne Jones for introducing me to the "True Thomas" tale, and to the woman who preys on young men - Fire and Hemlock stymied me for a long time, but eventually I figured it out. My reading of Chime probably would have been both better and worse without having read Jones's amazing novel first: I would have lacked the knowledge of the stories at work, but I also wouldn't have had Jones's brilliance to compare with Billingsley's novel (note: in virtually every contest, Diana Wynne Jones will win. She's just that wonderful).
Some aspects of Chime I liked very much indeed: Billingsley does some wonderful things with words, and I kind of liked Briony, although I also thought she was a bit thick (I saw where the book was heading quite early on, and again - is this because of Fire & Hemlock, and thus not a weakness in the text?). The dreamy odd landscape/chronoscape of the Swampsea was both appealing and infuriating - it's clearly fixed in a world like, if not the same as, ours - there's London and motorcars and electric lights and trains and such - but then there's also the Magical element. Which again, fine, but it seemed to be at odds with itself: real magic seeming like backwoods legend of provincial people except then it is real magic but no one's really fazed by this? How does London fit into the world of the Swampsea?
If you're going to build a secondary world, build it - don't draw half a sketch and knock in one nail to a scrap of lumber. There was just enough fixed detail about the "real world" to make the Swampsea confusing rather than dreamlike, although Billingsley's language counters that.
But Eldric (eldric? what is he, some kind of Elf?) struck me as a simpleton rather than a sarcastic, smart charmer; either I or Billingsley couldn't get his voice quite right. There were an awful lot of gaps that I would have preferred to be erased or left as tantalizing lacunae; instead, it felt a bit like a very carefully, beautifully dug hole that some random careless person had chucked a few handfuls of gravel into and considered it filled.

At one moment, late in the book, one character describes the twin faces of Briony and Rose (BrionyRose, ho-hum) as the result of "genetics."
We're also made to understand that we're a decade or so into the 20th century. Briony makes this clear several times.
The word "genetics" wasn't coined until 1905 or '06. Though the character using the word is known to be eccentrically very smart, it's still highly unlikely that a lifelong resident of the Swampsea would be conversant with the language of biological science to the extent that s/he would casually include "genetics" into daily discourse. Briony, we know, is extremely smart and well-educated, but she seems to have received a classical education in the good old tradition - and it's not terribly likely she'd have been coached in genetics. It was simply too new, and - quite possibly - not considered decent for girls to learn, especially in the Swampsea, especially not the daughters of the parson. And stripping down to trousers and a sleeveless top, alone with a young man - I'm just not sure how well that would fly in the loosely-fixed era Billingsley's creating.

There were other moments that felt chronologically discordant - I felt like I was reading a mashup of The Crucible and I Capture the Castle. This could have been really fascinating, really interesting, as a setting, but Billingsley somehow manages to give both too much and too little detail to seal her scenes.

Still, the plot wasn't a bad one, just not the most original ever, and the historical problems were a fairly minor annoyance (well, "genetics" really jarred me). Briony, and especially her sister Rose, were rather intriguing characters, and the Swampsea is also an intriguing setting [but again, I think of Jones, and The Spellcoats].

But is it too much to ask that writers and editors really cling to verisimilitude? It might be. Though if a large part of the interest of your story comes from its historical setting, then you ought to take care with that setting.

Patrick Ness Wins!

Via his Twitter feed, I learn that Patrick Ness has won the Carnegie Medal!!!

This is fantastic news; his Chaos Walking Trilogy is one of the best literary discoveries I've made in the last few years.

Congratulations to Patrick Ness!!! I cannot think of any YA writer who deserves this more.

And if you haven't read this series, RUN RUN RUN to your library or bookstore and get The Knife of Never Letting Go. While you're at it, pick up the other two: The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men.  You won't be sorry - and you'll want to do nothing but read them back to back to back until your mind is thoroughly blown.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

booking through thursday: e-reading

This week's Booking Through Thursday question!
With the advent (and growing popularity) of eBooks, I’m seeing more and more articles about how much “better” they can be, because they have the option to be interactive … videos, music, glossaries … all sorts of little extra goodies to help “enhance” your reading experience, rather like listening to the Director’s commentary on a DVD of your favorite movie.
How do you feel about that possibility? Does it excite you in a cutting-edge kind of way? Or does it chill you to the bone because that’s not what reading is ABOUT?

Well, I'd hate to try to say categorically what reading is ABOUT. I expect it's about something different for almost everyone who reads, and sometimes - often, even - it's about different things at different times for the same reader!

I have no desire to own a nook or kindle or e-reader. I don't like reading like texts on screens. Even three or four page articles from, say, the New York Times online is too much screen-text. I like the materiality of my books; I like the way they look on my shelves; I like the heft of them (even when my backpack is overloaded with dissertation-related books from the library).

I do have an occasional wish for an e-reader so I could download all those lovely old children's books on Project Gutenberg - there are a ton of Angela Brazil titles in the public domain that I can't easily get my hands on in book form but sit digitally in Project Gutenberg's servers. But I can download and read them on my laptop if I really want to, or I can put in interlibrary loan requests and wait for copies to show up from across the country.

Whenever I hear about the bells-and-whistles features on e-readers, all I can think of (and literally, it's almost all I can think of) is UltraWord (tm) in Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots. My brain yells out: "Thrice-read! It'll smell like cantaloupes!"
I'm not much of a tech geek or a bells-and-whistles kind of girl, though, and I realize there are people who love that kind of stuff.  I like that DVDs give me the option - watch the film straight, or turn on the director's commentary. As long as I still have that choice with books, I'll be okay.
It's also important for me to note that I really just flat-out cannot afford an e-reader. I rarely buy books - I hit my library, then scour used book sales and yard sales to add to my collection. A very few specific authors or titles I will allow myself to buy new. But my book-acquisition budget is tiny, and a $200 device to allow me to buy more books is not in the offing.

I am also very interested in the results of this study, especially this: "The digital text also disrupted a technique called cognitive mapping, in which readers used physical cues, such as the location on the page and the position in the book to find a section of text or even to help retain and recall the information they had read."

Cognitive mapping is, evidently, the jargon for my longheld sense of confusion or disorientation over reading on a screen; it also, I think, explains why what I read on a screen doesn't stick very well in my memory, yet my book-reading recall is very, very good indeed.

I'm a little chilled by the thought of an UltraWord(tm) takeover, but on the whole, I am okay as long as I still have the choice of reading regular old paper books. And I look forward to the day when people start unloading their paper book collections on the cheap at yard sales - I'll be there, snapping those discards up for my own collection.

Though, to be fair: When moving day rolls around, all those cartons of books DO make me groan. Having to pack just a nook, instead of ten bookcases' worth of books, would make a big difference to my aching muscles.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Books about books - notes for potential syllabus

It occurs to me that a general lit class about books about books (and/or reading, with a little writing thrown in) would be a pretty cool one to teach. Titles keep popping into my head, and I've decided to write them here, rather than on tiny scraps of paper which I will inevitably lose, or which some cat will puke on.

  • The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (because manuscripts don't burn)
  • People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl (because Dahl's description of Matilda's reading is probably the best description of what reading does that I have ever encountered)
  • The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
  • Misery by Stephen King
  • The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (or one of its sequels, Lost in a Good Book or The Well of Lost Plots, which last is my favorite Fforde book)
  • "The Composition" short story by Antonio Skármeta
  • "Umney's Last Case" short story by Stephen King
What others am I forgetting? There are tons of books about books, or writing or reading - these are just the ones that come immediately to my mind. What other children's or YA books need to go on the list? And can I count Un Lun Dun as a book about a book?

Monday, May 16, 2011

keeping pace

I've been on a YA-reading jag since the semester ended (with a detour to re-read the unbelievably great Kraken by the equally great China Miéville). I've been adding them to my Goodreads library, giving them stars as they deserve them, but other than that, I've just read too much to break it all down in any more detail. A few deserve mention, though.

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride.  Mainly because my loathing of Twilight is so strong, I've steered clear of Paranormal YA. But McBride's novel was suggested by a child_lit member, and since I was trying to read broadly and deeply in the YA world, I added it to my pile of books. I'm glad I did - it was quite terrific. I know it's even better than I thought while I read, because it's burrowed into my brain - I find myself thinking about it semi-frequently since I finished it, and I usually take that as a very good sign.  McBride gives narration to our necromancer protagonist, Sam, but alternates with third-person narration focalized around various other characters. There are werewolves, necromancers (good and evil), witches, various forms of post-dead spirits and undead, a couple of very good mortal human friends and some clever dialogue. Each chapter is titled with a song title (and the novel itself is a play on, of all things, a line from Elton John's song "Tiny Dancer" - "hold me closer tiny dancer"). It feels very contemporary without feeling forced; it was funny without being absurd. The intrusion of the paranormal/supernatural into Sam's "normal" world was handled very, very well - there was a good mix of "wtf?" reactions along with very nonchalantly blase reactions (sometimes from the same character). The novel's conclusion felt rushed, and a few chapters from the end, I felt VERY much like I was being set up for a sequel, but by that point, I was charmed enough with the book and its characters that having the prospect of a sequel dangled in front of me was very welcome. 

I don't like the romantic-comedy genre (except, of course, for My Most Excellent Year), but Gabrielle Williams' Beatle Meets Destiny was just enough of the quirky and angsty to break the veneer of ick that usually accompanies the rom-com. I liked Williams' writing style especially - it's self-referential but only occasionally; it's cinematic, in a way that felt intentionally amateurish - like a very skillful but totally amateur making his first documentary, maybe. The characters were all flawed as people, which made them better characters. One of the claims inside the jacket copy is that everyone in the book does the wrong thing, and that's about right: in some ways, it's a romantic-comedy of errors. Again, enough quirks in the characters, the plot and the style to keep it from shlock.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher has been on my radar for awhile - we got an ARC of Sapphique at the bookstore when I still worked there, and I flipped through it a bit. A friend of mine mentioned it recently as one she's considering teaching in the fall, and so I decided to bite the bullet and read it. And frankly, I don't know what I think of it. I have Sapphique from the library as well, and I'll be reading that soon - perhaps it will help me organize my thoughts? I felt vaguely irritated as I read Incarceron - it had all the "right" elements of your basic dystopian fantasy, but it somehow didn't quite work. The beautiful, privileged girl who rebels against her fate! The guy with mysterious powers/knowledge/wisdom and an unknown background, who is able to see the chinks in the power structure! The roguish, unpredictable friend! People with names like Keiro and Attia!  One of the things about the current spate of YA dystopia that's irking me are the names: lots of Ks, lots of Ys, lots of unusual vowel arrangements for names that end up sounding mostly like names in current usage, but like they're spoken through a mouth of mush, or written phonetically by a child. I think Peeta is my worst and best example - though I love Collins' books - and the character - what kind of dumb name is Peeta? It's a snooty-British pronunciation of Peter (Peetah, as Wendy says in Disney's Peter Pan), or it's an alternate spelling of flatbread (Pita), and either way, it's goofy. 
But I read Incarceron through to its finish, and I'm curious enough to read the next book, so it can't have been all bad. 

Hidden Talents and True Talents by David Lubar, also recommended via child_lit. My editions were in a typeface, and with cover designs, that reminded me strongly of the YA books I pilfered from my sister when I was a kid - so mid-to-late 80s aesthetic. It made me feel like I was reading much older books than I was, which was weird.  I quite liked Hidden Talents, actually - I liked it a lot. True Talents disappointed - I think taking the characters out of the school was a mistake. It scattered their identities too broadly, or something - it made them less of a team. Because of the 80s look of the books, it threw me everytime computers and the internet were referenced, or iPods; this was a good lesson in the importance of typography and design - and why physical books convey a different experience than e-books.

And finally, Natalie Standiford's Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters. I LOVED How to Say Goodbye in Robot - really, one of the best YAs I've read in the last year or two - so I was keen to read more from Standiford. Sullivan Sisters was good, but very different from Robot - if I'd never read the latter, I probably would have like Sullivan Sisters even more. The novel is three letters from the three sisters, "confessing" to their behavior/actions of the last couple of months, which - they believe - is why their family has been suddenly disinherited by their (still-living) grandmother, the incredibly wealthy, snobby and imperious Almighty. The three sisters are interesting, and different from each other in lots of ways. Most interesting, maybe, is that their stories overlap, narrating essentially the same span of time but from their three different perspectives. Things Norrie never mentions are central to Sassy's confession; Jane goes into detail about things Norrie brushes off as insignificant; Sassy offers new perspective on both girls' representations of Almighty. It was very well-crafted, and the characters - and family - Standiford created were very appealing to me - so much so that I wish there were more Sullivan books (there are six children in the family, in age from 21-year-old philosopher-poet St. John to six-year-old Takey). My one big quarrel with the book is Norrie's relationship with Robbie: Norrie is a 17-year-old high school senior. She meets Robbie in an extension education class on Speed Reading at Johns Jopkins. He turns out to be a 25-year-old grad student.
Now, the college boy who dates the high school girl is a fairly regular trope in YA, and baffles me then - my own experiences as a college undergrad was that high schoolers lost all interest as anything but objects for the boys to ogle (if even that); the few guys I knew in college who were still dating their old high-school-aged girlfriends got massively teased for it. Querying my undergrad students this spring, they mostly seemed disdainful, uneasy or outright contemptuous at the idea of college students actively pursuing high schoolers. 
Now ramp that up another notch: a grad student? pursuing a 17-year-old? REALLY? No. I just can't buy it, even if the inability to buy it is a plot point. Norrie's interactions with Robbie's grad-school friends is awkward - they clearly are contemptuous and disdainful and laugh at Robbie, calling him cradle-robber in front of Norrie - but it's eased when Norrie reveals herself to be much more cool and intelligent than expected. But still. There was never a moment when I really believed in Robbie's interest in Norrie. Any 25-year-old grad student guy who wants to pursue a high schooler, even a very smart and pretty high schooler, is a HUGE red flag to RUN THE OTHER WAY. 
This may make me an appalling snob, but there it is. At the very least, a 25-year-old guy should have more sense than to go after a girl who is still just 17. Most of the 25-year-old guys I have known would be lustfully regretful if presented with their own version of Norrie - but they wouldn't ask her out, or pursue a relationship with her, if only because of fear of 1) jailbait and 2) social recriminations from their friends.

But other than this, Standiford does a great job with all of her characters - as I say, she makes them so interesting and vivid that I am left wanting more.

I'm working on another stack from the library - currently about to give up on Andrew Smith's The Marbury Lens, because it's actually just too creepy for me to read. I rarely - almost never - have this happen, but I've tried several times today to read it, and each time I feel excessively disturbed by the book. Maybe another time, because I can see that it's good and smart and doing very interesting things. 

But I have a number of books left that shouldn't give me profound heebie-jeebies, so that should hold me for the rest of the week. Besides, I requested a ton of books via the public library's interlibrary loan system, and I just got notified that Moon Over Manifest has come in for me.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Okay for Now

Somewhere online, I recently read something about Gary Schmidt's new book, Okay for Now. Whatever I read sufficiently interested me to put in a library request for it (the book was still in processing). It showed up at the public library late last week, and I finally read it on Monday.

I really, really wish I could remember where I got the idea to check out this novel, because it was wonderful. Schmidt goes a little hog-wild with the traumas/crises by the end, but on the whole, it's a really great book. He hits the most appalling lows and the most soaring highs with such deft skill that you're almost not aware of being led to and through them, if that makes any sense. Doug, the narrator, has a fantastic voice, one that in some ways reminds me of Christopher Paul Curtis's narrators in Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963, but is also entirely its own.
Schmidt has created some excellent caring and engaged teachers in this book, representations I'm always happy to see, because they resonate with my own personal experiences and my own priorities. He also has some grim teachers, including a principal who insists on referring to himself in the third person, which ought to be hilarious but somehow manages to be menacing.
At the heart of the book is another book: John James Audobon's Birds of  America, with a handful of key plates reproduced (in black ink, of course, alas) throughout the novel.
Like My Most Excellent Year, believability isn't the most important thing here, though Schmidt does a fantastic job of creating a plausible, if unlikely, "lived reality" for his characters. I am reminded of the wisdom of Coco Chanel echoed by fashion/pop culture bloggers Tom and Lorenzo: before you go out the door, take one piece (of jewelry, etc) off, to keep from overdoing it.
This is excellent wisdom for writers as well - before sending your book out the door, take one piece off. Because I don't want to spoil Okay for Now, I'll use MMEY - instead of having the orphan who is deaf who needs to see Mary Poppins, who communicates with Julie Andrews - just leave it at the deaf orphan.
Schmidt could have culled one or two of the extra bits out of his novel and still had a glorious work; as it is, those pieces feel like the extra square of cake that makes your stomach ache but looked sooooo good on the platter.

Still, Okay for Now communicates emotion, it communicates experience, so wonderfully that the implausibles and excesses can be easily looked over. It's got the sweetness and light, and the darkness and shadows, of real life in it. As I read, I thought "This book is Newbery material for sure." And if it isn't nominated, and at least given an Honor Award, then I'll give it the KerBery award (boy, there's a mangled mess of punning parentheses lurking behind my name - kerry - and the Newbery name - but I can't quite extract it). Maybe just the KBery Award.
Regardless, Okay for Now was a tremendously good, affecting book that I plan to acquire as soon as it goes into paperback (in another year or so).
Most highly recommended.

A snippet to think about

Grading finals for Myth & Folktale, I've come to the last paper for that class, in which the student is discussing, quite intelligently, the problems of eliding myth and history, and the alteration of historical truths for contemporary mass culture entertainment (that would be Disney's Pocahontas if you're wondering).
Anyway, student writes this, and lacking any actual commonplace book to put it, I'm sticking it here for later contemplation:

humanity relies on word of mouth and literature to identify areas of culture which produced positive outcomes and weed them out from decisions that negated prosperity

This is kind of an interesting version of the function of literature, yes? And also ties in very well with my muddy thoughts about evolution and adaptation - scientific principles applied, loosely and with accommodations, to problems of fictional or historical adaptation.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

wet blanket

When news of this "royal engagement" came down the line last year, I was mildly interested; actually, I was trapped, driving to my parents' and unable to tune in any radio stations except jesus radio and, oddly, a BBC station which was wetting itself over the Engagement.

I have no strong feelings about british royalty. It's quaint and outmoded, I suppose. I have a stronger connection to long-dead British monarchs, mainly - only, really - because of the role they played in the history and culture that interests me. [For instance: when James of Scotland became King James I of the United Kingdom, that unicorn got added to the coat of arms of the UK. Previously, that unicorn had been cavorting with its friends only on the Scottish coat of arms].

Everyone's been abuzz about this wedding for weeks now, and still I didn't care until I found, after re-reading for perhaps the twelfth time, Un Lun Dun, the wonderfully museumlike website of China Miéville. Cabinet of curiosities, really; I've been slightly obsessed with it since then, because each new post seems to unfold hidden doors and unseen windows and odd ripples in reality. And I have always enjoyed peering around hidden doors and prying open unseen windows and drifting through ripples in reality.

Well of course Miéville posts about the engagement, and brought me up sharp. Like a quick, businesslike crack to the head, I suddenly feel my nose crinkle in distaste at the wedding coverage.
Especially on this day, on this thursday in april when the President of the United States has to answer to the yatterings of a racist schmuck and his imbecilic cronies and compatriots. For more on Klansman Trump (an appellation I only wish I could claim as my own), please see Baratunde Thurston.

meanwhile, back at buckingham palace: hoop-la-di-da sucking the wells of international attention dry (not to mention the pocketbooks of...who? all over Britain - England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland - presumably, people are being treated to the spectacle of the best wedding their taxes can throw).

Miéville quotes James Connolly, who, to my shame, I had to look up [and who, evidently, was executed not quite 95 years ago, an anniversary we can look for in just over two weeks]. The quote is worth repeating, because it's what lodged in my head and my heart and has made me feel dismal about the wedding of these two fortunate-in-birth-and-genetics people.
we confess to having more respect and honour for the raggedest child of the poorest labourer in Ireland today than for any, even the most virtuous, descendant of the long array of murderers, adulterers and madmen who have sat upon the throne of England.’
The poorest, raggedest child - and my reductionist association of poverty+Ireland=potatoes reminds me of Juliana Ewing's creepy short story "Land of Lost Toys," in which we learn of one of the humblest of toys in the world, who is recognized as nobility amongst the lost toys: a potato, with a face scraped in it, clutched and loved by a small child with no other plaything, a child who dies early of - what? disease? dirt? hunger? neglect? poverty?

I will not be goggling and ooohing at the spectacle of wealth and privilege on display this weekend. And I cannot approve of the media, the - to quote Miéville, quoting Keir Hardie [oh, look him up yourself; I had to] - "toady who crawls through the mire of self-abasement to enable him to bask in the smile of royalty." 

I'll be thinking about that child and its potato-doll instead.