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)

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.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Seal of Disapproval

One of the books on my list of suggested YA novels is Dishes by Rich Wallace. New book, new to me author. It's just a skinny little thing, 145 pages hardcover (and evidently costing $16.99. Viking, not cool).

About halfway through the book, I had to put it down. It was getting on my nerves, and I had other things I needed to do. I updated my facebook status before going off to do my errands: "i think the YA novel i'm reading might be both homo- and fat-phobic."

After the soothing cupcake-and-sparkle of My Most Excellent Year, I picked Dishes  back up in the futile hope it would improve.

It didn't.

It's rare for me to say "what was the point of this book?" I am aware of subjectivity, of art for its own sake, of that elusive and nasty word "relatable" - there are many reasons for reading and writing, and I'm open to most of them. This one? 
Search me.
There's no obvious plot: Danny, our first-person narrator who has no real personality, is working as a dishwasher for the summer in Ogunquit, Maine. He's gotten the job via his mostly-absentee dad, Jack, who bartends at Dishes, the gay bar  in town. 
What we know about Danny: he likes running and keeping fit. He likes pretty girls. He has a vague, fleeting romantic streak that is poorly expressed and doesn't stick with him. "Sex I've had," he tells us, but never a girlfriend. Jack, his father, was seventeen when Danny was born; Jack mostly stays out of Danny's life. In Ogunquit, Jack is known as quite the man about town - always a different girl.

Danny meets a pretty waitress named Mercy. They flirt. They have sex. Hector, a gay waiter at Dishes, befriends Danny. They have meaningful conversations on the beach at night. Danny flirts a little, but asserts his hetero-ness over and over. 
Blah blah blah.

we are always being reminded that Dishes is a gay bar! full of gay men! Hector and Chase, both young, attractive waiters, are gay! and, of course, they both lust after, and hit on, Danny. Who feels uncomfortable. Not because they're gay! Oh no. Danny's all open and tolerant. He just feels bad that he can't give them what they want.
What's really gross is Mercy. 
At a league softball game, after Mercy and Danny have had an awkward "date," she comes up and says "You're playing?...For the gay team?"
Danny: "we won this morning."
Mercy: "I'm impressed." Doesn't sound like it.

Mercy points out her brother, playing on the opposing team (firemen, of course). 
We're treated to another episode of Danny's flirting. Hector says "I was sure you were a switch-hitter," when Danny steps up to bat righty. Danny: "You wish." I flex a bicep and give him a very manly look.
Oookay, Danny.
Now we're treated to Mercy's brother, and his teammates, making antigay remarks. They make comments under their breath, "like the occasional faggot or pussy." 
Mercy asks: "Is everyone on the team gay except two of you?"
She's really interested in knowing who's gay and who isn't. 

Later, after the game, Mercy and Danny go for another late-night date/walk. She interrogates him about Hector, wanting to know - surprise - if he's gay. Then she brings her brother into it - he wants to know why Danny's interested in her, a girl. Danny, who by this point should be wondering why this girl is such an idiot, OR kicking her to the curb for being a homophobic schmuck, reminds her that he isn't gay. Mercy: "He[her brother] said he'd kill you if I got AIDS."

"I start to say something about Buddy being an asshole, but I remember in a hurry that he's her brother, so I don't. But I certainly say it loud and clear to myself."
To Mercy, he says nothing of significance, until he asks her if she has a problem with gay people (it's taken him over 70 pages to realize this question needs asking; neither Danny nor Mercy is the sharpest knife in the drawer. Maybe they deserve each other).
Mercy: "No. I have a problem with people who can't figure themselves out."
Danny, understandably, is confused, because Mercy makes no goddam sense.
She says " You're always hanging around with these...."
"These gay people."

Sigh. Still, Danny isn't bright enough to call it off, so he continues this inane, and offensive, conversation.
Mercy: "I don't call them queers or faggots like my brother does. This isn't homophobia. It's about whether I can trust you."

This is the point where any reasonably sane hetero guy with any life experience at all gives up the ghost, and runs as fast and as far as possible because clearly, Mercy's nuts. Psycho, as the kids say.
Her sob story: she dated this guy in college, who cheated on her. With a guy. Her ex-bf went back and forth between her and the guy. She tells Danny: "I went and got tested and sweated that out until the results came. I was clean, okay, but that was criminal, if you ask me."

Danny lets it go, because, hey, he's found a really pretty girl, and she seems to like him (he actually says this at some point in the text). And she lets him have sex with her in a disused storage room, so - great. It's unclear if he actually likes Mercy; it's hard to see why he would.
For the remainder of the book, Mercy keeps popping up at Dishes, checking up to make sure Danny isn't, you know, talking to any of those....those....gay guys. Who, of course, are just throwing themselves at Danny. And are really promiscuous to boot. Except the "marshmallow bouncer" Sal, upstairs, who can never seem to find a hook up. Every comment about Sal is actually about Sal's fatness - when he runs downstairs to break up a fight, everyone jokes about how the whole building shook, ha ha.
We're told various characters could "stand to lose some weight." That Danny's mom isn't cute anymore, she's "really overweight." And more fat jokes at Sal's expense. 

Wallace makes some vague efforts at cloaking the homophobia, but they're weak. Mercy saying she's not homophobic doesn't mean she isn't, which seems, temporarily, obvious to Danny. But he's pathetic too, and is sure all the gay boys want him, and mostly he just wants to get laid, so he lets it all go.  Hector, the only one in the book with the potential to have a soul, makes a few comments to the effect that you straight dudes are all the same - you all think all gay men are dying for you. Danny's retort: "well, weren't you?" Hector: sheepishly, "kinda."
Mercy's creepy jealousy seems to be her main character trait, and that's one I can't see many guys putting up with from the get-go. There are never any female "rivals" (her word for all those...those...gay guys at the restaurant), so we only ever see Mercy's paranoia deployed at gay men. And she is always very careful to identify them as gay - the bar as gay, people as gay, whatever. 
Suddenly, at the end, she's all lovey-dovey, when Hector and Sal get together. Danny, fat-phobic as he is, is puzzled - Sal's like three times the size of skinny Hector! Mercy suddenly becomes the font of wisdom and lovingkindness: "they're exactly the same inside. Why shouldn't two kind souls be together?"
It's funny how two pages earlier, you were shooting laser-eyes at one of those kind souls for daring to speak to this blank flop of a Danny.

Then everyone goes home happy, feeling like they've carved out their niches in the world.

No really. That's pretty much how it ends.

If this book is actually a peep inside the mind of an 18/19 -year old straight male, then I thank god I never could read minds. Danny's only criterion for girls, evidently, is prettiness; he seems totally comfortable with Mercy's creepy jealousy and her homophobia; he has no interests, no ambitions, no emotions. In fact, the most emotional scene in the book is one between Danny and Hector, when they briefly discuss their mutual longing for a real emotional, romantic connection with someone. Danny clearly means "possessive and sex-based" when he says "emotional, romantic connection," because that's what he gets with the ill-named Mercy. 

This is an icky, fat-phobic, insidiously homophobic, book that should never have been published by a major publishing house (Viking, I'm ashamed of you). The homophobia is all the worse because it's under the veneer of "acceptance." Danny and Mercy both mouth correctnesses, but undermine their words with their suspicions and persistent classifying every gay person they encounter. We don't see much conflict between straight and gay characters, because the heteros mostly hide their disdain for the gay fellows at the bar. The strife and tension is almost never made manifest. Instead, it's hazed over with a weak-ass happy ending that pairs of the fat guy and the sappy gay boy, leaving all the other promiscuous gay boys to each other, while Mercy and Danny face their emotionless, sterile - but sexual - future together. 

A grim read, indeed. 
Highly UNrecommended.

most excellent

The semester is almost over; classes ended last week. I'm in the lull before the grading storm - my students will turn in their finals at the end of this week, and I'll be grading like mad until 4 May, at which point grades are due and I will be free from this semester, which has been one of the most difficult, frustrating and work-overloaded of my life.
As a reward for finishing classes, I checked out two large bags full of YA books from the public library. I pestered the wonderfully brilliant and helpful child_lit listserv for recommendations, particularly asking for LGBTQ books, and books that adolescent boys actually read.
One of the suggested titles was Steve Kluger's My Most Excellent Year, a book and author I had never heard of before.
I read it yesterday.
Picked it up in the late afternoon; kept reading until I was finished, late at night.

Normally, I am not very sentimental, and my preferences tend to veer away from romance-driven plots, or any book featuring adorable small children. But somehow, Kluger's book (which is about both romance and an adorable small child) just worked for me. It is delightful. It was a joy to read. At one point, fairly late in the book, I had to go get some food; as I set the book down, I said [out loud, to an empty room] "I love these people!"
When I begin referring to characters as people, I have been won over.

Kluger's book is cleverly - if not originally - constructed as a series of interpolated texts: diary/essay excerpts from the three protagonists - Augie, TC and Alé, written, in their junior year of high school on the theme "My most excellent year"; chat messages; emails; newspaper articles, etc.
The plot is fairly simple, really: TC and Augie have been friends since first grade, since right after TC's mom died. The two boys adopt each other as brothers, and incorporate each other's families into the larger blend - to the point that the boys refer to each other's parents as "Mom" "Dad" or "Pop."  TC's family, going back generations, are devoted Red Sox fans; TC and his Pop share their obsessive love of baseball, specifically the Red Sox. Augie is an American-born Chinese, the only child of a delightfully progressive set of parents: mother writes entertainment reviews for the Boston paper - reviews which are the thin mask of her political activism  - and Dad owns a bookstore/cafe. Augie is also gay, though he "doesn't know it" at the book's beginning (though everyone else does, as we see from TC's writings, and from some particularly affecting emails between Pop and Augie's Dad). Enter Alé, fiercely smart and politically active daughter of the now-retired Mexican ambassador. Alé is beautiful and fierce and well-connected due to her parents' devotion to the diplomatic corps; she fails to ingratiate herself with her new classmates by mentioning attending functions with celebrities and "Bill and Hillary," who actually come to dinner at Alé's family's home. TC - cute, charming, likeable - falls for her right away. She takes one look at his cute, charming, likeable self and settles into disdain, dislike and contempt. She sits with Augie at lunch on her first day at the new school; he wants to pick her brain about encounters with such divas as Judi Dench and Liza Minelli.

Most of the book circles around the problem of TC trying to win over Alé, and Alé trying to resist his charms (which are, evidently, many; every character who gets to narrate in this book, with the exception of TC, swoons for him. I swooned for him before too long). But Augie also has his own set of problems, in the form of Andy - the growth of their relationship is fascinating and adorable and a little painful to watch. Augie's out, eventually, to his totally unsurprised family and friends, but Andy's definitely in, and the push-and-pull of Augie's truly flamboyant outness and Andy's considerably less flamboyant personality is great to watch. 
One of the things Kluger does really nicely in this book is something approaching subtlety, though this is hardly what I would call a subtle book. But the three protagonist-narrators reveal, repeatedly and throughout the novel, how their views of themselves are at odds with others' views of them. For instance, Augie tells us early on how all the boys copy TC's attitude and "look," turning their shirts backward when TC shows up one day with his worn backward. Many pages later, TC refers to this moment of unintentional, and unconscious, trend-setting; he recalls the day all the boys turned their shirts backward, worrying that they were making fun of him. 
Using multiple narrators to reveal different things about characters is not a new trick, but what Kluger does that I really admire is leave those things alone. They don't become plot points, they don't become Heartfelt Discussions Between Friends. We get Augie's version; we get TC's version. There's no further discussion, no further commentary. No talk from anyone about "gosh, I never looked at it from that perspective before."
Kluger uses this same trick to do a narrativized version of he said/she said, too, with TC's and Alé's narratives: each will comment on the same moment, with wildly varying interpretations. We get TC, bemoaning something he said, sure it's set him back months with Alé; pages later, we learn, from Alé, that those very words were the thing that finally broke her resistance to him. 

Because a student recently wrote about this, I was probably more aware of this than I normally would have been, but the relationship between Augie and Andy opens so smoothly, with so little comment, that it's almost shocking. My student wrote about the obnoxious plotline of "we're the only two gay guys here, let's fall in love" that often crops up (cf, Kurt and Blaine in Glee). Augie and Andy's relationship isn't at all staged that way; neither boy is openly gay at first (though Augie's a confessed diva who ends up directing and staging the freshman-year talent show). And there are no awkward discussions about "are you?" or "when did you know?" there's just two boys who totally have crushes on each other, hanging out, being awkward and shy because neither yet knows the other reciprocates, and because neither has had any experience with relationships yet. 

The most sentimental twist is the introduction of adorable Hucky Harper, a six-year-old deaf orphan (I know, right?!) who somehow conceives a passionate hero-worship of TC. This happens around a baseball diamond, because nothing in this novel gets far from either musicals or baseball (a delightful pairing, really) - Hucky watches from the sidelines and shakes his head yes/no at TC, telling him when he should swing the bat. TC ends up with an unreal batting average for games at which Hucky is present. Eventually, the two form a friendship - TC frantically begins learning American Sign Language, seeking extra help from a teacher whose mother was deaf, and who is thus fluent in ASL. There's not a lot of goopiness around Hucky in the text, either - he's adorable and knows how to use his adorableness to his advantage, getting extra hot chocolate and toys by pulling the sad face. The older kids are at once charmed and exasperated - they can see through his ploys, but fall to them anyway.
Hucky is another  moment when Kluger allows us to see TC and Augie differently, without making a fuss over it. TC tells us that Hucky reminds him of Augie, when TC first met Augie - off on the sidelines, alone, lonely. Much later, Augie mentions how strongly Hucky resembles TC right after TC's mother died. Each older boy is motivated partially by his sense of affection for his friend, a friend they see replicated in little Hucky. But they never discuss this with each other, or anyone else; it's simply a dribble of insight that Kluger releases into the novel for the reader to hold in her head.
TC never once does anything but take Hucky absolutely seriously. He doesn't spend much time "poor little tyke"ing; instead, he hangs out with Hucky, and works his ass off to learn ASL. Eventually, a plot unfolds around Hucky's love of Mary Poppins, and his devout wish that Mary Poppins will come and live with him. 

By the novel's end, a number of highly implausible things have happened, through the auspices of some rather deus-like characters: Clint, a secret service agent and one of Alé's closest friends from her childhood, and TC's Aunt Ruth, a member of the House of Representatives. Both Clint and Aunt Ruth are introduced and given personalities from the get-go; neither is dropped in miraculously when needed, so I give Kluger some credit here. 
But when the implausibles start piling up, rather than spoiling the novel, it somehow nudges it right to the line of magical realism, rather than unbelievability. And I think this, more than anything, is what I loved about this book: it has a definite aura of the same kind of almost-magic that good works of magical realism have. It's realist fiction, but there's just a faint flavor, an undertone, of the kind of fantasy that I'd call "fairy tale" in the most benign or positive sense of the word. But this magic is never made cloying or obnoxious; instead it feels like you're watching an improbable set of coincidences and circumstances naturally mesh together to produce a fantastic outcome. And sometimes, though rarely, these kinds of things do happen. 
My Most Excellent Year most reminded me, and strongly, of the equally wonder-full Will Grayson, Will Grayson, though for slightly younger readers, maybe. When the audience full of Will Graysons stands up to appreciate Tiny Cooper, you know, you just know, there's no way that could ever happen. Except for the tiny part of you that says: But why not? and knows that, really, there's nothing to prevent it from happening. And the larger part of you that says: this is wonderful, and I don't care if it could happen in real life or not. 

My Most Excellent Year is not the most literary, cerebral book I've read this year. It's not the best-written, or the most original, or the most shocking. It's not tackling huge social issues (although in a way, it is, quietly, without making a noise about doing so). But it is a fantastic read. The characters - all of them, TC, Augie, Alé, Lee, Andy, Pop, Hucky, Mom & Dad, Lori - are all complex and likeable and funny and kind and thoughtful without ever being so perfect as to be unbelievable or unlikeable. Even TC, who is so highly regarded by everyone (even, eventually, Alé), is saved from being planted on a pedestal by his own narration, which reveals him to be far more complex - insecure at times, wildly overconfident at others, occasionally arrogant, often baffled, a steadfast friend, a devoted baseball enthusiast, a very smart kid with a political bent, a 14-year-old boy with a massive, mostly unrequited, crush on a great girl.

The adjectives I keep coming back to are charmed and delightful - and those are no bad things to feel after reading a book. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

breaking newsflash that will shock you shockingly

The New York Times has this incredible newsflash: many adults are buying The Hunger Games books - for themselves to read!!!!!!!

I know. Give yourself a moment. Maybe a sip of brandy, or cold water to revive your shocked senses. It IS kind of hard to believe, isn't it, that adults might buy books for young adults or children, for their own reading pleasure? Who would think that adults - and we all know how sophisticated American adults are, with their fondness for football and FoxNews and "Real Housewives" programs - would lower themselves to voluntarily read a trilogy of very smart, well-written books about politics and war and morality?
Actually, maybe it IS surprising that adults are reading these books, since most of America seems unable to confront these issues in real life.
But a good book is a good book is a good book, and after all, we routinely make young adults read "grown-up" books (please see any high school reading list) - why not flip it around? I do wish that media would stop behaving as if it's noteworthy that adults are reading books for younger readers, or at least stop presenting this as if it's something shocking! and surprising! and wow!  Because it's not. It really, really isn't. And - since the article invokes them, I might as well do it too - I think Harry Potter and those heinous Twilight "books" have proven, in eleven different books, eleven different releases, that adults read YA books.

Have you recovered yet?

The article accompanying this bombshell brings us tired tropes and the inevitable Harry Potter comparisons (the inevitability of these comparisons is really getting me down; I loved the HP books, but I am feeling sick to the teeth with them). Intrepid and evidently ill-read NYTimes writer Susan Dominus refers to Katniss as having angst like an S.E. Hinton character, which is a travesty in itself; Katniss's "angst" revolves primarily around providing food and money for her mother and younger sister; then, later, about keeping herself and/or Peeta alive. Worry about the availability of the necessities of life does not qualify, in my book, as angst. Further, Hinton's characters are all - well - dreamy caricatures, the kind of sensitive yet tough, emotional yet rough boys who populate hetero girls' daydreams and don't exist in too very many other places in reality.

We also get a description of Collins (her fine features and long, flowing hair), along with this chestnut: "Her life story may be less dramatic than the rags-to-riches tales of Rowling and Meyer — neither had published anything before their best-selling successes..."

Sigh. Neither Rowling nor Meyer (as in Stephenie, as in perpetrator of Twilight) were at anything like "rags" before their riches came along. Meyer seems to have grown up fairly middle-class; she attended Brigham Young University, got her BA, and married her husband. She was a full-time mom when she wrote Twilight. Rowling, of course, worked at a variety of jobs, including teaching in Portugal, before returning to Edinburgh to write her first manuscript and work towards a teaching certificate. The "rags" in Rowling's story comes, I suppose, from the fact that in the year she was writing and taking courses toward the teaching certificate, she was on the dole. I view this as being not terribly different than my own situation: working toward my degree, taking out student loans to pay for housing, etc. The difference is that Scotland, like most of the Western world, has a reasonable attitude toward public assistance. You don't have to be eating trash from a gutter to receive it, and you don't have to slink around in shame if you accept it.
Either way, neither Meyer nor Rowling was ever in rags, and neither was Collins (who, among other things, received an MFA in writing and worked as a writer on several children's television programs).

I hate the rags-to-riches myth, for a number of reasons. First, it's not true. None of these women were lounging in the diamond-encrusted lap of luxury, but none of them were living on the street or in true distress over where their next meal would come from. Second, I think it somehow obscures and glamorizes the work and craft of writing (okay, except where Meyer is concerned; you cannot convince me there's any real craft going on in Twilight, no artistry - and I have read the novel twice).
And finally, I simply oppose the rags-to-riches myth on general principles. I think it's unrealistic and counterproductive; it lionizes the wealthy as deserving of their wealth, and it similarly denigrates the poor for not having the gumption to become wealthy.

Dominus also refers to a New Yorker piece from Laura Miller, which I have not read, but which evidently suggests that The Hunger Games is "a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience," a description or analysis that makes me want to throw up.
I do think The Hunger Games trilogy is doing something both interesting and important with regard to adolescence, but "fever-dream allegory" is not that something. For me, every single time I've read any of the three books, what strikes me most are the political and economic critiques. The way that war is figured, the way that power is figured, the way that corruption and decadence are figured; the way the book thinks of reality television and consolidation of power and complicity and superficiality and ignorance about the broken backs on which one's luxury rests - this is what the trilogy is about.
It is NOT an allegory (which, in its strictest definition, requires consistent one-to-one correlations of symbols and meanings). The brutality of the arenas is not a good analog for the brutality of the school locker room, or the school cafeteria, and I am committed to believing in the brutality of both of those. That is: I believe, deeply and sincerely, that high school is a miserable hell full of pitfalls and dangers and humiliations that are unparalleled in the "adult" world. But even I can't make the allegoric leap from gladiatorial arena to high school hallway.
This quote from Miller - or Dominus's use of it, anyway - sells short the very important work of the trilogy, which is not a happy set of books. The last pages of Mockingjay are chilling rather than consoling or uplifting. I wrote my opinion of Mockingjay right after it was published (I read it in a day) - that opinion is here.
Here's how I wrapped up my reading of Mockingjay, and the trilogy as a whole:
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.

The way both Dominus and Miller seem to handle the texts tries to cover this over, with suggested allegories and backpedaling references to history and to the author's biography. Suzanne Collins, who I am beginning to admire more and more, despite her gushing over the decision to cast Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, resists this; Dominus quotes her saying "I don’t write about adolescence ... I write about war. For adolescents." This is entirely to Collins's credit, and should be unsurprising to anyone who has read her trilogy (at least anyone who wasn't primarily concerned with whether Team Peeta or Team Gale would win out - and as always, I recall with very deep fondness, the class of undergrads who were revolted when I mentioned the "team" language circulating around the book; those kids said "I'm Team Katniss").

I do wish the Times or someone would hire - even as freelancing contractors - people who really and truly know the field of children's and YA literature, to write about that literature. It deserves better contextualization that it's given by writers like Dominus and Miller, for all the good they may be at their jobs (an assessment I am not capable of making). Besides, there's a glut of smart PhDs or PhDs-to-be out there, lusting for a chance to earn a wage based on their years of hard work and study and reading and writing.

Good writers about books are almost as important as good writers of books. This is true for adult fiction, for nonfiction, for poetry - and it is most certainly also true of children's and young adult literature.

Monday, April 04, 2011

a brilliant metaphor

I've been struggling with this Myth & Folktale class; I tend to create unrealistically high expectations for myself as a teacher, especially with classes where I don't feel completely at home, and Myth & Folktale has turned out to be the most uncomfortable class I have ever had. It's not that I don't know the material; I don't really know how to teach it effectively. I think. And I don't have the level of expertise and depth of knowledge that I should have to do justice to the class. I have spent more time on this class - reading, preparing, researching, planning, agonizing, worrying - than I have on any other class. I'm probably putting in a good 30 hours a week on that class alone.

But one great thing has come out of it: one of my students suggested a metaphor for adaptation and transmission of myths/legends/stories over time that I think is brilliant in its simplicity and its aptness.
We were talking about the way an historical event or personage becomes the basis of a folktale, and the ways that tale changes over time, until it bears very little resemblance to the truth. The context for this was, I think, the Paul Revere myth; we read Ray Raphael's chapter from Founding Myths about Revere, and Longfellow's dreadful poem. And someone had asked: how did we get from the true story of what happened the night that Revere (and others) tried to alert the colonists about the approach of the British troops, to the wildly heroic, and historically inaccurate, myth we now have.
I tried to say something about adaptation and transmission and distortion and distance, and it probably made no sense at all. And then one of the seniors in my class raise his hand and said: "So it's just kind of like that game "Telephone"?"

And the more I've thought about it, the more this is just the best metaphor, or analogy, for how stories are passed along through time. It's also a great metaphor for evolution, which another student noted: as the story is passed along the "Telephone," the best bits get preserved, and the parts that don't excite or interest the teller/listener, get stripped away. Adaptation. Evolution. Storytelling. Mythmaking. Gossip. Telephone.

It's brilliant.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Related Worlds: Diana Wynne Jones

I can't be as eloquent on this topic as Neil Gaiman; I don't have the same personal connection to DWJ as some people had. I haven't even had a lifelong relationship with her. But I have loved her books - and because I love her books, I love her. The news of her death has made me feel sad, and it has provoked me to re-visit a number of her titles; her books are always great comfort reading. And reading the tributes paid to her by her friends and colleagues and fans make me appreciate anew just what a marvellous writer she was.

I found DWJ via the child_lit listserv, when I was a sad young pup just out of college, working miserable office-assistant jobs in Washington, DC. I was not terribly happy back then; I didn't quite know what I wanted to be doing with my life, but it turned out that - despite my BA in British and American literature - I wasn't qualified to do much of anything at all. Money was tight, I had been temping for almost a year and living partially off my credit card; I had just started an actual administrative assistant job, and didn't really know what I was doing. I didn't have any friends yet in DC area.

But I had found - actually through that admin assistant job, which turned out to be pretty terrible - the child_lit listserv, and all the smart readerly, writerly people on it. And lots of list-serv posters mentioned Howl's Moving Castle, repeatedly; I got intrigued enough to write down the title and author and go to the public library in Arlington, Virginia.
This is the cover of the edition I borrowed. A hardcover, with that protective film, stiffened and crackling and worn with age and use.

I loved this book, from the first time I read it. I ate it up. I ran back to the library for more, and somehow got Dogsbody, which was a slight disappointment. But I persisted; I think I moved on to the Chrestomanci books next, though I can't really recall the specifics. I was lucky enough to have libraries that had shelves full of Diana Wynne Jones's books; I had no extra money for buying books (still don't have much of it). Over time, I've accumulated my own shelf-full of her books - and she has her own shelf, which is packed nearly full when all the books are in their places.

The full shelf is a rare sight, though, because I re-read her books on a very regular basis. There are always a couple that are lying out, near my bed (right now, Time of the Ghost and Black Maria), or perhaps in my living room.

I have kept her books out of my critical, academic life. It isn't that they aren't great material for critical analysis; they are. It's not that they're outside my field; they aren't. It's more that, for me, her books epitomize what great writing does for the reader who isn't a professional reader. It's not just entertainment, or escapism, or amusement; it's far more than that. It's transformative. It's magical, but not in a hokey, pixie-dust kind of way. A great book should both take you right outside yourself and also, simultaneously, make you feel more at home in your own skin, and Diana Wynne Jones's books do that.

I named this blog, where I do write about children's books and YA books and child culture and media, in honor of Howl's Moving Castle. I love the image and the idea of a moving castle; I love Howl's moving castle. But that is as close to "professionalizing" her work as I am going to get, other than teaching it. Analysis doesn't "ruin" a book, but it's important for me to keep her books, which are so gloriously wonderfully readerly and writerly, separate as examples of the magic that happens when a reader and a writer and a book all meet in one place.

When I started teaching, as part of grad school, I was determined to spread the word. I feel, more strongly than about most books, that I must bring the gospel of Diana Wynne Jones. I have recommended Howl's Moving Castle more times than I can count. I once interrupted a dad and his maybe-10-year-old son in a bookstore to recommend it; they were searching for more fantasy titles for the boy to read; he'd gone through all the more recent series. Idiot bookstores here seem to stock very few of her titles, but they can generally be relied upon to carry Howl's Moving Castle. When I worked at one of those bookstores, I made Howl a "bookseller recommendation," and pushed her titles hard.
Naturally, Howl was the DWJ title I first included in one of my syllabi. It wasn't a perfect fit with the theme I had developed - which was journeys; I expanded it to include other-worlds, which gave me the in I needed for Howl - but I was determined to teach it. Then - and ever since then - when I include a DWJ title, it is with a bit of recklessness, a feeling that the book may not actually fit the theme, or do much to advance our thinking on a particular topic; but it's a great book, and it's important for these undergrads to be exposed to great books.

That first class loved Howl, as have a number of classes since then. I've tried teaching a few other of her books - most recently, just two weeks before her death, The Merlin Conspiracy, to an ungrateful batch of serpent's teeth who were confused more than enchanted by the book. But Howl has always been received enthusiastically; many of the students, when they see the publication date (1986) are perplexed and slightly outraged that they didn't know about it sooner.

I love that their joy in discovering the book is so strong that they feel indignant about not knowing it earlier; they feel they have missed out on something.

They tell me, almost wonderingly, that it's better than Harry Potter!

And of course: it is. All of Diana Wynne Jones's books are better than Harry Potter, though I am a Potter fan. But DWJ's books soar, while also keeping at least one foot planted solidly on the ground. Her books bring magic and fantasy and wonder and delight and awe, all while casting a sidelong glance and a bit of a wink at the reader. Even when she takes on Epic Battles Between Good and Evil, she is never working in cliche, or simple tropes. Good and Evil become vastly complex, confusing and confused, complicated people, or ideas, or things. Her characters - and her readers - have to work through the confusion and the complexity, searching for solutions, answers, explanations. Her more intricate books - Hexwood, Time of the Ghost and the one that has stymied me the most, Fire and Hemlock - demand re-reads. You haven't really read the book until you've read it more than once - or for me, half a dozen times, often with mental contortions and an internal monologue of my own that makes me picture Sophie stamping her foot and shouting "Confound it!" while throwing about weed-killer.

On the child_lit listserv, we've talked often about our "comfort" reading: the books we go to again and again and again. Howl's Moving Castle is probably my number-one comfort read; for more than a year of grad school, I was reading it at least once a month. But all of her other titles are in frequent comfort-reading rotation. None of them bore me; none of them get tired, or stale, or old. Even knowing half the text of Howl by heart doesn't keep me from getting caught up in it.

There are many great books in this world, and I've read a respectable number of the ones in English. Really good fantasy - well, any really good book - makes you think but also pulls you into the world of the book. You get lost in the world (or worlds) of the book.

Diana Wynne Jones's books do this, and more, because her books - her characters - are somehow truly alive. I mean this in an almost-literal sense. I don't have to fall into the world of the story; when I open Howl's Moving Castle, at random, the story is there, alive, waiting for me: Calcifer is crackling and refusing to bend down his head; Sophie is snorting at Howl's lies; the streets of Porthaven are visible through the window. Christopher Chant is scrambling through the Place Between, the man with the yellow umbrella has that wonderful chiming stick of bells, the hushed and formal Castle under Gabriel de Witt is industriously and decorously going about its business. Even now, the large families in Caprona are laughing, scolding, joking, singing, spellcasting, squabbling, eating; the wonders of Time City are being enjoyed, used, cared for by the Lees and other inhabitants, and by the many visitors from all the Stable Eras. The white Dragon is asleep in the chalk hills; Jamie is walking the lonely Bounds. Maewen is making her way to Dropwater, where she will (she must!) find Mitt.  All the many animals - all those wonderful cats, and the dogs, Helga the demonic goat, Molly, the unicorn-in-disguise Molly, the quacks, the baby dragon, Mini the lady elephant - they're all going about their business, eating and licking legs unconcernedly and nosing for treats. They are real enough and live enough that even without a reader, they are there. Diana Wynne Jones was a magic-user, and her magic was strong, stronger than most - strong like Venturus, the seventh son; strong like Roddy, whose own gift is enhanced by the hurt lady's knowledge - and Diana Wynne Jones's magic was with words, words that could create and maintain many worlds.

And, as Mrs Fairfax notes at the end of Howl's Moving Castle, "That is the neatest use of words of power I have ever seen."