Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Pro v Con

I'm completely stymied by this book, The Explosionist, by Jenny Davidson.

Pro: An alternate history YA novel about Scotland in the 30s, where terrorists are blowing up buildings.

Con: It appears to be about spiritualists and mediums more than political upheaval.

Pro: Thrilling cover.

Con: Confusing inside cover flap copy. Possibly supplemented by confusing plot.

Pro: So far I like the main character.

Con: Ghosts are real. Or maybe they're not. It's unclear. And what does this have to do with things exploding, anyway?

Pro: Girls' boarding school!

Con: Main character is a day student.

Pro: It's a fairly quick read.

Con: It's 450 pages long.

I've gotten to page 50, which is about my 10% rule, and I really can't decide if I want to read it yet. Grr! And to complicate the question, a lot of the other books I have to read are nonfiction, which is a big psychological jump to make. Humph.

PS: Thanks, JLMC, for the confirmation that I really don't want to read that book!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Failed Renaissance

Sigh. I really meant, on returning all those library books today, to seize the moment and read some of my own books. Alas, it is not to be. And not because I was distracted and surprised by things on the shelves (or, not entirely so), but because I was so excited to go to the library that I immediately went through my list of books to read and found all the ones that were in stock at Malden.

So, after I finish Hogfather by Terry Pratchett (at least that one is PLR--it's Mike's copy) and The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson, I have five new books to read. One is a religious memoir, for which I'm a sucker, and one is a collection of short retellings of stories from English history (because God help me, I don't have it in me to read a whole nonfiction book about Oliver Cromwell). Then Ever, by Gail Carson Levine, whose Fairest I just finished and really liked. And something by Ursula Leguin that was, unsurprisingly, near it on the shelf. And The Buffalo Soldier, by Chris Bohjalian, which is, sadly, the last of his books that I think I want to read.

I blame this on The Double Bind, which I couldn't get into, so I read spoilers for it, and I'm glad I didn't read it and a bit nervous of his new stuff. Then he did a Holocaust book, which might or might not be good.

At home, I have something called World Without End waiting for me--high fantasy that Brenda highly recommends. Also Neil Gaiman's American Gods, and Children of God (do you see a theme in these titles? It's an accident, I swear), the sequel to The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. Plus I have a new Gaiman book that I got for Christmas.

In December, so far, I've read five books, and I think that's all it'll be. Not bad; below my average, but you know, new baby. I cut me some slack.

So, onward! I'll report back soon.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Very Vampire Christmas

13 Bullets, by David Wellington. I spent Christmas reading a pretty good vampire book, and doing some thinking about my relationship with vampire stories in general. The conclusion I've come to is that I have little use for stories that are about the tortured inner lives and sensual, lustful natures of these misunderstood sex-godlings. This is why I will not read or see Twilight. What I like in a vampire story is a monster story--they can be like animals or like zombies or whatever, but they're not sexy, and they don't wear frilly collars.

In 13 Bullets, they're mostly naked. They have intelligence, but it's definitely a monster story, not a romance. It wasn't a perfect story, but it had a lot of great action and a pretty cool twist near the end. The last page was kind of a let down--it seemed like it was leaving us open for a sequel, when the rest of the story tied up pretty neatly. But that's one page, and kind of a subplot that was treated oddly. In general, this was a pretty cool story, action-packed, detective-style.

Only don't read the back cover copy. It's misleading, or at least confusing. I'd love to write back cover copy for a living. What kind of job do you think that is? How do I get it? Anyone?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Trick Question

Audiobook addendum: I've started seriously listening to Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, and I have to say, as much as I like the reading and the story and the language, Chabon's sentences are a little too complex to work perfectly on audiobook.

So I finished The 19th Wife, which I enjoyed, but didn't pack quite the punch, in the end, that I was anticipating. But I've moved on now, and I'm reading Fairest, by Gail Carson Levine. This is one of those books somewhere between YA and Juvenile, so I'm almost done by now, but it's quite good--she does this thing where she retells fairy tales, and even gives you a title that tells what she's doing, but they're so different and unique and hers that I don't even realize it's the fairy tale until the major plot point near the end. In Ella Enchanted, it was the ball at the end--here it was the poisoned apple. There are elements that would clue you in, but I get so caught up in the story that I don't even notice. That's impressive to me.

I have a couple more books out, but I think after those (including a very scary (so far) vampire book called 13 Bullets) I'm going to turn to a Personal Library Renaissance. This might not be the best idea, since library runs are some of the only times I get out of the house, but I have so many books to read, and being mostly at home (in the snow, with the baby) makes a good excuse to plough into them.

Including (starting with!) the many books I borrowed from Brenda. Even some of the ones she lent me against my will. But not The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Sorry. I'll never get past how boring that movie was.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Audio Update

I passed up the opportunity to listen to The 19th Wife instead of reading it. At the time, listening seemed like a good idea, because of the baby--and I was right, it's definitely easier to find time for audio than actual books. I'm pretty proud of having predicted that--though I do manage to read over his sleeping head often enough.

The reason I didn't buy The 19th Wife, though, is because of the sample. The readers (a man and a woman, for the two different first person narrators) seemed pretty good, but within the first two minutes, there was an online chat transcribed in the text. Try reading a chat transcript out loud. Remember that you have to read the attributions, too. And note that both chat participants have long names.

PrettyGirl2005: What u up 2?
HotGuyLivesInUtah: Not much u?
PrettyGirl2005: Nuthin.

Just that. Read that out loud. You're already irritated, aren't you? You can read that to yourself in a second and a half, but it takes half a minute to read out loud. And it gets embarrassing and confusing to read "PrettyGirl2005" over and over again. You see why I couldn't do it.

Amusingly, this was the only chat transcript in the book.

I have been doing some listening, especially during late night feedings, when I can barely see the baby anyway. He's mostly asleep, I'm actively trying NOT to talk to him to keep from waking him up any further, and it helps to have something to distract me. Mostly I've been listening to old This American Life podcasts, though I do have Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road on my mp3 player. It's read by Andre Brauer, which is pretty exciting, but the sound quality of the beginning is kind of mediocre, so I haven't started it yet. Also, TAL is easier to dip in and out of during short feeding sessions.

I need to pick another audiobook soon--I'm pretty sure I'm only allowed to roll over a certain number of credits, and I'm nearing my max. The search for a good audiobook can be frustrating--the books I want to read are often not available or have lousy narrators--but the triumph is worth it in the end.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Library Run!

The other day, Mike sent me out into the world on my own to go to the library. It felt kind of weird, in that way that things feel when they used to be part of your life and now are very far away--remember your old commute to work? Or even imagine climbing on a school bus. Like that, kind of.

Anyway, a few days later, I had to stop at the other library to return something. This was on my way home from the doctor, so I only stopped in, but I had a list. So I've had two library trips in the past week, and let me tell you, I'm way more stocked up than I need to be! It's absolutely fabulous.

So, what did I get? Well, when I picked up my reserve book (The 19th Wife, which I already mentioned and am still loving), I grabbed a few other YA titles. One is Fairest, which is by the author of Ella Enchanted, which was pretty good. That's almost more of a kids' book, which means it'll be a quick read, but I like retold fairy tales, so I'm excited. I also got something new by the classing YA author Norma Fox Mazer. I can't even call to mind any of the books she wrote, because she wrote about 1/3 of the YA books people read. (Okay, I looked it up--Silver is the one that I loved by her, but she's written about 30 books, including the A My Name Is Amy series.) This new one is called When She Was Good, and if nothing else it should be nostalgic.

At the other library, I got The Explosionist, which is an alternate history about terrorism in England in the early 20th century, and 13 Bullets, which is a vampire book that has been on my list since Unshelved did a book talk strip on it a few months ago. It was right there in the vampire books display--how could I resist?

So I'm all stocked up, even though The 19th Wife is 500 pages long and a fairly small type and I only get about an hour or two per day to read. I feel so full of books, it's delicious. Like carbs for the soul.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Still Progressing

Not surprisingly, I read very slowly now. Occasionally I'll read out loud to the baby--today I was reading from The Paradox of Choice, which was very easy to make cheerful and kiddie sounding, but I realized you read more slowly that way. Still, it's nice for us to share Barry Schwartz's ideas about how having to decide things is stressful. I sort of want to tell him that if he wants stressful, he should try sleeping in two hour chunks, but for all I know he has kids, so he might already know that.

Anyway, I'm also reading The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff, because I love Mormon fiction. So far I'm really enjoying it. It's two stories; one is excerpts from the fictional memoir of Brigham Young's 19th wife, written after she left the church. The other is the modern story of a young man who was excommunicated at the age of 14 from a fundamentalist sect (called the First Church of Jesus Christ etc., clearly based on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ, etc., who have been in the news lately). Apparently, when all the powerful older men take all the teenage girls as wives, you need to excommunicate a handful of boys to tweak the ratios. His story revolves around his mother going on trial for killing his father.

It's really a good book, and I think the segue back and forth between stories makes it easier to read in the little dollops of time I have available.

Also, I know it's not about books, but we watched the movie Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day yesterday, and I really loved it. It did the best job of capturing the feeling of a movie from the 30s that I've ever seen in a modern movie--no matter how hard George Clooney tries. I usually don't care for Amy Adams, but she was great. So I wanted to plug that for all you guys.

Okay, I'll keep plugging--for the fans!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Baby Books

I'd love to do a review of some kids/baby books, but I've discovered that a two week old can't even look at my face, let alone a board book. So it'll have to wait. But, amusingly, a poster at the doctor's office tells me that chewing on books is a developmentally appropriate way of appreciating them, on the path to becoming a reader.

So, needless to say, busy. But I wanted to point out that The Other Side of the Island, by Allegra Goodman (of Intuition fame) is a really great YA book. It's about a rigorously controlled, totalitarian society in the future, after environmental devastation has limited the habitable world to a large handful of islands. A girl, Honor, moves with her parents to a new home. She tries to be good, to be everything she's supposed to be, but her parents are strange and rebellious, and she finds herself caught between them and what society teaches her is right.

A lot of what drives the book is world-building, but it's great world-building, with plenty of payoff in the plot. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and I'm afraid I may have to go out and read more of Allegra Goodman's work, though some of her earlier novels appear to be family dramas, of which I'm not generally a fan. Worth a try, I'm thinking.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Careful What You Wish For

Well, I finished. This is not a problem with the book--it was marvelous, even the sad parts. It's more that I was supposed to have a baby two days ago and I'm GETTING IMPATIENT.

But that's a separate blog. I'm here now to say that I loved loved loved In the Company of the Courtesan and I'm so glad to have gotten such a good, interesting read in under the wire. The historical detail was so interesting, the story was simple but intriguing, the characters were complex and likable. I'm especially impressed with how well the author used the first person narrator--his closeness to the different characters and how well he knew them, and how they could all still surprise him. The idea of intimacy and loneliness comes through in very subtle ways.

I'm also reading The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz. It's very interesting, though a lot of the content in middle overlaps with things I read recently in Stumbling on Happiness. The sneaky tricks our minds play in the decision-making process are all outlined here again, and the studies listed are even the same. Also, while I agree that freedom of choice can be a psychological burden, he really ignores the fact that life in a world without choices can suck. When he's talking about products, it makes more sense--advertisers, trick pricing structures, is one product really better than another--these are all great points. But when he talks about the burden of making decisions like whether you want to live together before getting married or whether you want to have kids, he really doesn't acknowledge how trapped people were when they didn't have choices there.

He talks about how employers used to make important screening decisions regarding things like health insurance and retirement investments, and how the employees were better off when the experts were doing it--um, what makes you think the employer was interested in getting you the best health care, rather than the best deal for themselves? He places a lot of trust in institutional oversight, and I don't necessarily buy that.

I'm hoping that his section on what we can do about it ends up being more useful. I'm also hoping that he gets further into the issue, so far touched on only briefly, that if you want the default, or are dealing with a subject that you don't know a lot about, choice is a burden, but if you need something unusual, or have enough information or investment to make the decision easier, it can be really necessary. Yeah, I wish I could just choose from three or four computers when I need to buy something to do my email and play solitaire. But my husband wants to play video games, write programs, and organize his music, and he knows how to get that. Should he not be able to? Again, hopefully I'll find out more as the book goes on.

But hopefully, it'll take me weeks to finish, because I will be interrupted tomorrow by the arrival of the tardy, tardy baby.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I Hope I Finish

In the Company of the Courtesan, by Sarah Dunant. I've been less than inspired by anything I've read lately, even when the books are pretty good. I've been picking things that are simple, often YA, plot-driven--usually what I need when I'm having trouble concentrating. But a couple of weeks ago I was at the library, and this book that had been on my list for a while happened to be sitting out, so I picked it up.

I was really hopeful about this book, but I really don't know anything about the author or much about the story. Mostly I liked the cover design, which included the Venus of Urbino. And, as it turns out, it's richly written, descriptive, and takes place in 16th century Venice. The latter is not a problem, but the former sound like qualities I would not be looking for in a book right now.

But this book is amazing. It's full of wonderful detail about what is involved in being a fabulous courtesan, how the rich and the poor live in Venice, how to escape a marauding army, and so on. The story is simple, but engaging, and the narrator is a wonderful character. I'm so glad I'm reading it--I really needed something that I could dig into and love right now. So pleased!

It's not a fast read, exactly, though, and the baby was due today, so we'll have to see if I finish it. Oh, everyone wish me luck.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Advice to Young Writers

If you're going to write a book about betrayal, don't put the betrayal at the end.

That could be the hormones talking, though.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

An Unconventional Reaction

Okay, let's get the smaller one out of the way: Tamar, by Mal Peet, is a young adult book (nominally) about operatives in the Dutch resistance in World War II, but it's not coming together for me. I think the reason is that the driving mystery or plotline of the story is in an envelope story about the granddaughter of one of the operatives, living in London in the 90s, but that plotline does not get a lot of pages or a lot of time to drive. It's not tied in with the historical part yet (I'm halfway done).

Also, I think that the "big reveal" that we're building up to is something that I called in the first 20 pages, and if so, there's really no driving force at all. The story of the resistance is interesting, but it doesn't have the force needed to drive the book--that's really been invested in the personal story, which I've already figured out. I won't spoil it, but I will say that the exclusive use of code names in the Netherlands led me straight to my prediction, and it's unfolding, gradually, exactly as I expected. I can even see, now how it's going to come together. But I'm going to read another 200 pages to find it out. If I can finish it in the 4 days I still have it from the library.

But I'm really here to talk about Sandra Lipsitz Bem's An Unconventional Family, which bugged me a lot from the beginning, bugged me a little throughout, and then irritated me at the end. And it's hard for me to articulate why and how, partly because of the feminist message, and partly because I agree with so much of what she does, but I really don't like the way she says it.

Part of the problem is that the woman is an academic, not a writer. She writes what comes out as a very readable academic book, not even a popular academic book. She announces what she's going to talk about and then uses a colon before she starts talking about it, resulting in phrases like, "The reason for this is as follows:..." She talks about her family life, her relationship with her husband, her feelings for her children, in the incredibly clinical language you find in social psychology articles (and I know from social psychology, let me tell you) and feminist texts. This is a turnoff--if I wanted to read about her academic, feminist-psychlogical theories about family, I'm sure there's a tome I could read somewhere.

What bugged me at first was her description of how special and wonderful she and her husband were for deciding to trade off making dinner every other night, do chores like roommates instead of "husband and wife" with the attendant gendered expectations. This sounds like the basis of all my friends' marriages, so it's not that exciting an innovation to me. When they developed this revolutionary plan, though, it was 1965, and I'm sure it seemed crazy and idealistic. But the problem is, the author (writing in 1998), does not acknowledge this, doesn't try to build an image of the context for this being an exciting plan, doesn't try to compare it to a typical marriage of the time, or to compare that with a more typical marriage of today. Basically, she ignores any context that her younger reader might bring to her story, and any emotional analysis someone might do based on that.

So that was really annoying me at first--a combination of, "He cooks dinner? How special for you," and, "Yeah, I bet that was CRAZY at the time, right? Right? Anyone?" Then, I got into the book, and tried to bring my own historical context, and it got a little better. She talked about the struggles of matching two academic careers, which is still difficult and which isn't something that I can bring personal experience to, and I found that more interesting.

And then she started talking about parenting, which was nutty. Their goal was to raise children who were not gendered; who understood sex as solely a physical definition--a penis makes a boy, a vagina makes a girl, and besides that, you can't tell which is which, really. This made me think about where the idea of the transgendered comes in, especially since another of their goals was for the children to have no idea that heterosexuality was more "normal" than homosexuality.

Two problems with this stuff--one is that her strategy involved keeping the very fact that these ideas exist from the children. It was never explained to them that other people think differently, or that their friends' parents would disagree with theirs, or that they might get picked on for doing certain things at school (which they then did). The second problem is that, in the interviews toward the end of the book with her now-college-aged children, they come of as irritating, self-satisfied prigs who are amused by the rest of the world, including their friends either struggling with or having opinions about gender. They're really smug and talk like little professors. Ick.

I think the parenting part is the most interesting section of the book, because it's the most unusual and actually revolutionary strategy they use. The egalitarian partnership just looks modern--the parenting is entertainingly bizarre. And I'm glad I read this book, because I did a huge amount of thinking, and I had a very emotional response to it. But I can't say that Sandra Bem has talked me into anything, at all. Sometimes, though, these are the most satisfying ones to read.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Miles Away

You would think I'd be doing nothing but reading, as I sit around and wait for the baby to arrive. But for a long time, I was off the books. I've had a pretty good stretch for the past few days, though, so I'm going to come here and plug them.

First: Jo Walton has come out with Half a Crown, which is the final book in the trilogy that started with the awesome Farthing and continued with the more complex and, I think, less successful Ha'penny. I had reserved the book through the library even before it came out, so when it magically showed up in my email that I had to pick it up, I was excited and surprised. Short review: excellent book.

Longer review: Half a Crown actually made me rethink the whole series. Ha'penny works much better as a second act than it does by itself--like so many middle stories, it's really a setup for the third one. But since the stories don't actually continue each other, it works as a setup almost entirely in theme and emotional impact. Farthing still stands alone, of course, but it also sets up the whole trilogy with a very small, local story, with bigger implications and shadows. Then, Ha'penny expands on those implications, turning a small story with political implications to a story that takes place on the political stage. It's the part of the story where everything goes wrong, and really, nothing goes right in it. But Half a Crown tops it all off--though the characters are wonderful and the personal side of it is dead on, the point of the story is a political thriller. And it's great, a lot of fun, very satisfying. So go out and read Farthing. Really, like, now.

I also read Whatever It Takes, which is a nonfiction book about Geoffrey Canada, an education activist in Harlem whose life work is to improve schooling for low-income black children by building a community that turns them into learners. The book is really the story of Promise Academy, the charter school he founded as a part of his Harlem Children's Zone program. It's still fairly new, so the story isn't over, but the ideas behind it are interesting--the issues of improving test scores vs. creating learners, the fact that middle school might be too late to turn out great students, and the challenges of having huge amounts of funding from generous benefactors who are accustomed to running successful business--and who look for business-like, results-oriented feedback on their investments.

Before I go, I'll just drop in a little plug for Lyra's Oxford, by Philip Pullman. It's really a short story with some other things tacked on, and the story is very slight. But it's promising me more, bigger stories in the future. I think it might be lying, but the promise is enough for now.

I'll let you know if I come up with anything else--I'm falling behind on The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell, which is great, but I'm not set up for ease of audiobook listening right now. And I'm starting another interesting nonfiction book that's kind of irritating, but I haven't decided yet. I'll let you know.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A Book for Brenda

My Swordhand is Singing is the name of this book that I just finished, and what the heck kind of a title is that? was my initial reaction. To be honest, I'm still sort of thinking that, even now that I know what it means and loved the book.

But it's a great choice for Halloween season; I tried to start the book at bedtime the other night, and I realized within four pages that bedtime was not the right choice for this book. First off, it takes place in Russia, in winter, in the 17th century. Secondly (and I'm not giving anything away that isn't on the cover), it's about vampires. Not suave, aristocratic ones, but zombie-like, slathering ones. In Russia. In winter. Really, I don't need to add any flourish to this description--zombies in the long Russian winter tells the story.

It's by Marcus Sedgwick, and I think Brenda might want to read this book. Forgive the title; it's weird, but it does kind of make sense.

I also read The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner, which I was going to write about, but didn't get around to. I finished it a few days ago now, and am no longer as full of words about it, but I have to give it a plug, because it was a good story--straightforward, well-written, with nice twists and clever problems.

Both of these are young adult books. I'm working on some other stuff now--Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True (he goes by Wally. I think that's interesting.). A book about Mary, Queen of Scots. The new Ursula LeGuin. I think I might be back at the point where I can get into things again, which is good, because the clock is ticking--I have a ton of reading to do in the next month or so!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

No, no, it's the other thing

Forget magical realism, or surrealism, or whatever it is. I keep forgetting about the existence of unreliable narrators. It confuses the whole thing. I'm fed up with my inability to see that stuff coming like a normal person would.

Also, Ursula LeGuin's Western Shore books, Gifts, Voices, and Powers, are really, really good.

I'm sorry, I don't have a lot else in me right now; sick, tired, pregnant.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The New Magical Realism

I've been thinking about cultural/style terms and how I really often don't know what they mean. This came to mind because I realized, watching Project Runway last night, that I'm not 100% sure what avant-garde means in the context of fashion. And now that I'm thinking about it, while I usually know magical realism when I see it, I'm not sure I can describe it to you.

The first thing I think of is Like Water for Chocolate, which I'm pretty sure is a great example of the concept: it's not fantasy at all, the setting is clearly, solidly historical, but there are touches of mysticism and magic. They're not explicit, though--this is not an alternate reality, but rather a reality infused with mystery and the general impression that the possibility behind the ordinary has taken one step closer to the foreground.

So here's the question: is Matt Ruff's Bad Monkeys magical realism? I don't think so, but it's something and I don't have another word for it. In the modern world, this woman is part of a covert organization that works to fight evil. There are strange, sci fi aspects--the NC gun (people shot with it die of natural causes)--and merely unlikely aspects--when Jane needs to contact the organization, she picks up any phone and there's a good chance someone's listening. The organization doesn't seem to make a lot of sense (at her first meeting with her boss, he's wearing a cheerleader's uniform, to make any story she might decide to tell unbelievable), or be very likely.

Is this magical realism? There's the sense of the mystery beyond what you see, the possibility of things you might call impossible. But the fact that it's a bureaucracy, not something beyond nature--does that violate the "rules"? Does it matter that the framework of the story involves Jane being questioned by a psychiatrist who doesn't believe her story--does the potential for an unreliable narrator make the story something besides magical realism?

And, on a different subject, were any of those clothes on Project Runway last night actually avant-garde?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Sweet, Far-off End

Libba Bray has, to my knowledge, written three books, but she's written so many, many pages that I think it counts for something. I just finished The Sweet Far Thing (which, I have to say, is a beautiful title), numbering 817 pages. And I have to say, the first 600 could have been cut in half and I would not have missed anything, and probably would have been very grateful.

The book doesn't have Harry Potter's excuse of having to cover a whole school year, whether it drives the plot along or not. It does have a Harry-like duality to the storyline, in that there's school and there's Evil trying to destroy the world and both are major issues that need dealing with. In fact, Bray does more with that than Rowling does, particularly because she's writing about young women in the 19th century, so the debut is incredibly important (Felicity will be disinherited and dependent on her abusive father unless she appears in society). I often felt that the social politics of 1890s London was better crafted than that of the realms.

The problem is that the vast majority of the book is painfully repetitive. They keep going to the realms and having the same conversations with the same characters over and over again. Each time they have a little more information, gleaned in other, more interesting scenes, but this does not grow into a gradual understanding of what's going on--rather, understanding sort of explodes near the end. Which is fine, but it doesn't take 600 pages to build up absolutely nothing but my anticipation.

The last 200 pages are definitely far more compelling, and the plot begins to sweep through the book. I think there are plenty of flaws near the end, too, but I'll grant that it isn't boring, and I don't want to spoil anything for anybody. The only one I'll point out is that I'm still not sure exactly what happened at the tree during the climax of the book. I understand what resulted, what all the consequences were, etc, but the actual progression of the scene confused me.

Seriously, this is a pretty darned good 500 page book, with 300 pages of notes and draft scenes edited in. Like the Star Wars Special Edition movies.

I'm sorry, Libba Bray. I still admire you a lot and would like to grow up to be you, please.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Art of the Short Story

I used to think I liked short stories--reading them requires less commitment than reading a whole novel, and they are focused, without subplots or extraneous characters. They're going wherever they're going, and they don't have that long to get there, so they tend to do it efficiently. These are things I like.

At the point in my life where I thought this, I was reading mainly fantasy and science fiction, and the stories I read were also (in the vernacular) F&SF. I had very little experience of anything (short or long) that might fall into the category of "literary fiction." As you might imagine, both long and short fantasy novels tend to be action packed and plotty.

I have expanded my taste in literature, and I've found that the short story is not standing up to my move out of genre. I find that, in general, the modern "literary" short story can be described thoroughly in very, very few sentences, and that most of the substance of the story is found in minutely observed details of the environment. I don't mean that it can be summarized, but fully explained in brief. And, in the hands of a good writer, the lavish details are serving a purpose--capturing a moment, elucidating a theme--it's just that themed description is not how I think of storytelling.

Take Amy Bloom's collection Come to Me, which I just finished, and enjoyed far more than I thought I would. There's a story called Come to Me, which describes a woman's return home for her mother's funeral, and her memories of her childhood vacations with her family. She knows her mother had a lover, a friend of the family who joined them on vacation with his daughter, and realizes over the course of the story that the relationship was more complicated, and involved both of her parents.

This is, of course, a summary. With another two pages, I could make it into a nice short-short story. But the real meat of the story is what the cabin smelled like, what the children played at, what the leisure of adults looks like to children. It is, in large part, about capturing summer at a lakehouse. The theme is there, and the point, but it's told through incredibly detailed observation of really standard day-to-day occurances.

Now, see, I liked this book. Most of the stories are good, and the real point of what they're telling me are very clear to me, which is a big one for me. And a lot of the stories are interconnected, with common characters and observations of character that build on each other, almost like a storyline. But the qualities I see here do not always work for me--I can't be an Alice Munroe fan, I can't subscribe to literary journals or read the New Yorker. It's just not me.

Interestingly, old stories are something of an exception. Richard Yates writes great short stories, and, grim as she is, I often enjoy Dorothy Parker. I don't know what it is about the literary world of today that gives me pause, but there you have it.

Thumbs up, though, to Amy Bloom's Come to Me.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ah, Pessimism

Waste waste waste! I have all this time on my hands and I can't, somehow, find a good book to read. Well, if I'm honest, I'm looking for a PILE of good books so I can read them all at the same time. But still, how hard can it be?

I finished Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett, this morning; now that was good. They're always funnier and more engaging than I can think to expect, though I love the idea of a pregnant pause giving birth to dozens of tiny little pauses, each more uncomfortable than the last. I think I'll have to get the next one, Making Money--it always seems like a safer investment to read about characters you already know and love. Also there are golems.

But I just can't seem to get into The Sweet Far Thing, the third Libba Bray about the realms. It's just SO long, and it doesn't really build, just meanders. Similar things happen again and again. And it's a shame, because you'd think that the potent combination of girls' boarding school/Victorian society drama with epic fantasy empire management would be rich and delightful. I rather like the society stuff (with its tinge of misused magic) better than the fantasy parts. It really should be tightened up, in spite of the fantasy world's new fondness for "lots more" of anything they like.

Brides of Eden by Linda Crew is my other current letdown. It's the novelization of a true story about a small town in Oregon in 1913 or so, in which a charismatic preacher seduces many, many otherwise upstanding young women. This sounds like a pretty good premise, especially the idea of how a bunch of normal, religious young women can be caught up in the fervor. But, 20 pages in, they're all under the spell of the new preacher, and there's no explanation of that fervor. Everyone's just suddenly a swooning fanatic, because "he's so goodlooking." Yawn.

Sold, by Patricia McCormick, is another one that I was looking forward to, but am not getting into. This is the story of a girl in a village in Nepal whose stepfather sells her as a prostitute to the city. I was expecting an emotional drama, but it's much more poetry than prose, and (I suppose not unexpectedly), very depressing. I made it pretty far in, and so far the girl still doesn't know what's happening. There are very, very long descriptions of village life, and of the many sights there are to see whenever she goes somewhere. The descriptions are lovely, but there isn't much going on in the story, and the impending awfulness is just getting to me.

I don't know why I even thought I'd take on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Extras will of course take work to get into--Scott Westerfeld builds up his lingo to fast, you really need to get in a good headspace for it.

So I'll finish The Sweet Far Thing, and try something called Bad Monkeys, and Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, which has the dual advantages of being nonfiction and a known quantity. Muddle through, I guess. I wish me luck.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Mucking About

I can't seem to settle anywhere comfortable, bookwise. I'm not really into anything special, and so of course I've checked out a bazillion library books. What am I actually in the middle of reading? Let's see...The Sweet Far Thing, which is the third Libba Bray book, and is long, very long, very, very long. I started American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, though it's unlikely that I'll finish it before I work my way through some of my library books. I never read the ones I own.

I'm having a lot of fun with Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett. I like each of his books better than the one before. He's funny, but the books are still pretty plotty. So that's nice. I think this is the closest I am feeling to actual enthrallment with anything I'm reading right now.

But today I was feeling kind of blah today, so I picked up Against the Odds, a book of short stories by L.M. Montgomery, of Anne of Green Gables fame. I usually have a problem with short stories, but so much of the Anne books are made up of vignettes that you get into a sweet, nostalgic, moralistic groove when you read her work, and the stories don't make a difference. I also started the story collection Come to Me, by Amy Bloom. Brenda likes it, and I wanted to try Amy Bloom. I maybe should have picked a novel, but who knows? It's literary. The first story was pretty good, but me and short stories...I don't know. If I think about, maybe I'll be able to come up with an explanation.

Anyway, not a bad list. I have at least eight other library books out right now, though, so we'll see if anything sweeps me away. I have River Secrets, by my beloved Shannon Hale, waiting for me, as well as Powers, which is the next Western Shore book by Ursula K. LeGuin, and a book called Brides of Eden, which is about a religious sex scandal in 1913 Corvallis, Oregon. I know someone who lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and I like religion books and sex scandals. What can go wrong?

So I can't go too wrong, right? Am I spreading myself too thin? Ah, well--it's all good. I'm sure of it.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


I have this thing I do with unpleasantness, which is to shut my eyes and cover my ears and shout "lalalala!" until it either goes away or, more often, hits me over the head. It makes me a procrastinator at work and school (ugh, voicemail, it'll probably be someone who wants something from me, what do you say we just don't listen to it, huh?), and when I watch movies by myself at home, I often have to stop them for a while to get away from the tension. When I watch them with other people, I just fidget and squirm and sometimes leave the room when there's unpleasantness--like, say, romantic misunderstanding or bad guys lurking behind closed doors.

So right now I'm reading a book called Annie on My Mind, by Nancy Garden, which is one of a long list of young adult novels, past and present, that I've brought away with me from my summer class. This is a book from the early 80s, and is one of the first books to feature young gay protagonists whose "experimentation" is not ended abruptly when one of them dies in a pointed car accident or drug overdose. Anyway, of course that doesn't mean that the course of true love would run smooth, and our heroines are not only caught in a naughty position by the conservative and fussy school secretary (I will point out for the record that they are NOT in a naughty position at school--no one would respect that), but their exposure is about to ruin the lives of two very nice adult characters.

And for the life of me I can't read any farther. It's a fairly short book, and I breezed through 50 pages this morning, then I got to The Scene that had been foreshadowed, and I put it down, but no, I can't do that, so I picked it back up, and put it down a paragraph later, and picked it up and read another paragraph and DARN IT I can't read anymore. It's the equivalent of reading through a crack in your fingers, like how you watch the monster coming in a horror movie.

Incidentally, if the monster really scares you, I've found that watching on mute, without the scary music, can really make those scenes more manageable.

Because I have control of all my neuroses, oh yes.

I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Opposite of "On A Roll"

In a rut, maybe? It seems like whenever I come off a spate of regular posting, I stop posting entirely.

I like to think I'm entering a period of serious reading--I have a window of about three months here, between summer classes letting out and the baby arriving in November, to get all my reading done for the next year or so. I'm saving some good audiobooks and podcasts for after the baby comes, but I doubt I'll have a lot of time to read then. Luckily, most of the books I'm waiting for--The Wordy Shipmates, Half a Crown--are coming out in early fall, so I should be able to gobble them all up in a mad dash.

So, I finished Fire Study, the third in Maria V. Snyder's series. It was, I'm sorry to say, not great. It was, I suppose, not awful, but it's missing the fast-paced rush of plot that swept you right past any smaller flaws in the first two books (an example I can think of is how not-complex Yelena's reunion with her parents in Magic Study is, or how she suddenly becomes The One who will solve all this country's problems, as though no one else is competent to have an adventure around here). The plot of the new one jumps all over the place--characters move around, each scene and part is cohesive to itself, but it's not clear what direction it's moving in. Still, the last half starts you rolling along in a more satisfying way. I maintain that Poison Study was an amazing, wonderful book, and I kind of want to reread it now.

I'm running up to the library in Arlington today to get Letters to Judy, which is a collection of letters written to Judy Blume by her teenaged readers. I read an excerpt from it in one of our nonfiction readings for class, and I have this love for Judy Blume (Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is such a great book) that I suspect is going to get bigger and better when I read something written by her, in her own voice. Usually, I try to avoid things that get me into the real-life personalities of authors, actors, musicians, etc.--they're human, and I'm so often disappointed. But I think Judy Blume might be an exception here.

Okay, I should run if I'm going to make the library promptly. Here's hoping I can get caught up again!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Oddball Nightmare

I can thank this class for ending my fear of manga, though I don't know how much I'll be seeking it out in the future. I think the biggest effect might be a change in my attitude toward anime--before it shared an "it all looks the same--shouty" category in my brain, but now I'm growing into the stories and looking beyond the shouting. So that's nice.

After School Nightmare is an interesting digression from the previous books. I'm glad we're getting a glimpse of some of the weirdness--sexual and otherwise--that you don't get as much in American literature/comics and that are such a big part of manga. The main character is a high school student who is a boy from the waist up and a girl from the waist down. He lives as a boy and is happy to be one, but he just started his first period, and he's upset and fraught. On the same day, a mysterious teacher at his school takes him into the previously unnoticed "basement infirmary" and begins his new lessons, in which he and his classmates wander through each others' nightmares. In these dreams, each person is revealed and transformed into their most frightening self--except our main character, who already considers himself such a freak.

Two admissions, up front. One: it seems weird to me that, before puberty, you could call someone "a boy from the waist up and a girl from the waist down." I mean, if you're a girl from the waist down, up until you're 10, that pretty much makes you a girl, right? I thought that was a little inconsistent. Two: I'm not a big fan of dreams in literature. Dreams are boring and dreamy and all symbolic and junk. They don't generally drive me.

That said, I think that the complexities of our hero's situation (sorry, I can't remember his name) are fascinating to me, and I can see how they would be incredibly appealing to teens. This is about everyone thinking you're someone you're not, and being ashamed of who you "really" are, and hiding it. It's about coming clean or coming out or being exposed to a few people, and how that plays. It's about being the boy all the girls have a crush on, and one of the best athletes who quits the team because his period means he can't "really" be a boy. It's about being a boy who's sort of a girl who is lusted after not just by all the girls but by some of the boys, too. It's about how none of this stuff makes any sense, and you can't sort it out, and all you really know for sure is that if anyone finds out, you're a goner, so you'd better keep that secret like hell.

And then, it's about discovering power, being chosen for the special class of those who can or must do something dangerous and mysterious. It's about the sense that there's a layer going on underneath things that you don't really know about, but that's really important in the world--you can't graduate without it. (I know this feeling well; my whole adolescence, I was sure that everyone knew something I didn't. Really, up until a few years ago.)

As a metaphor, as a simplified story, this is the story of someone feeling exactly all those feelings of the teen years--only symbolized, simplified, and made easy to explain in three paragraphs. I can absolutely see why this book would be so popular.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Fascinating Experiment

So I'm accumulating a list of books about religion for teens for a class project, and the process is fascinating. For the books I choose, I'll be able to annotate them with the fascinating Amazon reader review quotes and tidbits of oddness that I've run across, but for the ones I'm discarding, some of this stuff is falling by the wayside, so I want to wrap some of it up in here.

First of all, I think I picked a pretty difficult subject, if only because I don't think your average teen reader is going to pick up a lot of religion books for fun. (I myself didn't discover nun books until a bad flu in college had me watching The Nun's Story with Audrey Hepburn on A&E. When I learned it was a book, I was thrilled, and after reading it, when I learned that there were all kinds of books about nuns out there. I never looked back.) I'm trying to balance the assumption that some of this info is going to be needed for school projects with the idea that there are teens of faith who want information, and teens with no faith who want to understand it. I'm trying to balance eye-appeal with real issues, and interesting topics (religion through various pop-culture lenses) with meaty information (basic outlines of belief for things like Buddhism and paganism).

The topic of religion appears to bring out the worst in a certain strain of Amazon reviewer. You'll find a book with good editorial reviews and a bunch of five-star customer reviews, followed by two little one star reviews. You scroll down to those, wondering which you're going to find: someone who doesn't understand how someone could get God so wrong, or someone who's chosen this book to vent his spleen that anyone is still bothering to write about God nowadays.

The other interesting thing is these booklists I'm working from. Voya (Voice of Youth Advocates) publishes lists of good books for young adults on different topics, including a bunch on different religions, and they're proving to be a great starting point. Some of them are great, some of them still look kind of dry to me when I look at them more closely, but I'm picking and choosing, and it's been incredibly helpful (looking for books on religion is easy--looking for ones that will specifically appeal to young adults is kind of hard). The lists are written by individuals, though, not compiled by the organization in general, and you can sometimes see that in the entries. For example, the Evangelical Christianity list contained a book that it listed as a "must-read" for teens, giving overviews of world religions. I have been really torn about this one, though, because Publisher's Weekly and some of Amazon's readers point out that the book's author, an Episcopalian minister, is actually not much of an expert of world faiths--he refers to Jehovah's Witnesses as a cult, gets a lot of his facts wrong about the Mormons (confusing the tabernacle with the Salt Lake City temple, for example), and flat out says that most Muslim countries treat women "like slaves." So he appears to be doing some gross oversimplifying. But on the other hand, he gets better reviews than most other "all world religions summarized under one cover" books that I've found.

I'm also having a hard time not passing on my biases when I'm making decision. I'm trying to think of teens, but it's hard not to think about a teenaged me. So a teenager who wants to learn more about these faiths in a theoretical way is easy to imagine, but I'm finding that I'm nervous about buying anything that appears to support any specific religion. I'm looking through the Mormon list, and I'm really hesitant to get any of the books published by the Church itself. It seems like that would be supporting it, which is silly--I've got the Bible in there, right? So why not the Book of Mormon? I mean, statistically, there are fewer Mormons than Christians in my town, but that's not what bothers me. It's that stocking Mormon literature feels like advocating for it--unlike, say, stocking books about Hinduism. It's funny, not having worked in a library, I'm one of the people in my class who isn't worried about community or administrative blowback--I err in the other direction, I guess. Gotta get past that.

This is a really tough decision-making process. I'm trying not to err on the side of too "fun" and "teen friendly," but how can I not include The Dharma of Star Wars. Honey, I don't think that's an option.

PS. I had to add this footnote. VOYA's listing for The Book of Mormon lists Joseph Smith as the translator. That is not how I would have put it. I'll have to look and see if the Koran is listed under Muhammad's name, and whether he's author or translator. Or maybe co-author.

I'm sorry. I can't help the irreverence. I'm trying, really.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pain Hurts

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron. I read this book in one long sitting yesterday. It's very good--smart, often funny, well-written, tragic, moving. I'm not 100% sure how I feel about it as a young adult novel, though.

The story is told in first person, from the point of view of 18-year-old James Sveck, who is both introverted and depressed. I don't know a whole lot about depression, but I have learned something of introverts in my time here on Earth, and I will tell you that he doesn't deal with it well. As the narrator, he goes on at length about what he's thinking and how he views the world, but, in spite of being intelligent and very articulate, he can't seem to either say what he thinks to the people in his life, or to find anything at all to say much of the time. I know there will be plenty of teenagers who can sympathize with that--what's going on inside me is complicated, but I can't say anything.

The developmental assets this book most made me think of, interestingly, are the "constructive use of time" assets--that one should pursue creative activities, religious practice, and time at home (presumably with family). Though I think these guidelines are somewhat off base (missing the point--not all passions are creative, and some people might want to be tinkering with car engines or practicing their backhand and they might still be getting a lot of the same pleasures and improvement that come with art and music), I do like the idea that a person should pursue something with some diligence and commitment, and that it will bring focus and accomplishment to their lives. I think this is a big part of what is missing in James--and truly, often a major sign of depression in general.

I also think it's interesting that most books' relation with the developmental assets is to illustrate a situation in which they're missing. As Amy mentioned, there are a lot more books about young people who are on their own, lacking support or opportunity or whatever asset you'd like to look at, than there are stories about people who are happy. This relates to the missing parents syndrome, but I think it also relates to the need for conflict in narrative, and to the idea that people who are striving to overcome a lack often make themselves stronger in other ways to compensate.

Interestingly, the parents in this story are not negligent, though they are preoccupied. It would be more accurate to say that they're not equipped to deal with their son--mostly because he's not equipped to deal with them, or anyone else. James just doesn't fit comfortably in the world. Everything makes him a little sad, especially happy things. Very occasionally, he'll find something beautiful, usually something very, very tragic. It's not surprising that people don't understand him, or even, given everything else about James, that he doesn't understand them.

I think this book would appeal to advanced readers, to people who are already selecting most of their reading from the adult section of the library. And I think this book would be very appealing to adults; in spite of the fact that it's narrated by a teenager (not by an adult looking back on being a teenager), I think that more adults will relate to James' dislike of people his own age, his tendency to see happiness as a reminder of pervasive despair, what is almost his ennui.

The teenager this is meant for definitely exists, though, and perhaps this book is uniquely suited for him or her. I think that someone who, like James, hates young people who are full of hope and promise (at least partly because he knows that in some fundamental way he "should" or is expected to be that person) must feel very lonely, and would cherish the sense of connection that might arise from reading a book like this.

So I love this book, and I recommend it (Katie, if you're out there, I think you might like this). I imagine it's not going to fly off the shelves the way the vampire books do, but the teenager who is roaming the stacks ravenously and is lucky enough to find it might just be blown away.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

That Takes Me Back

Observation first made in my psychology-major undergraduate days: the more titillating the subject of an academic paper, the drier and more intensely academic-sounding the paper will be. The homework reading was entitled, "The Secret Source: Sexually Explicit Young Adult Literature as an Information Source."

Beyond the academic-speak, however, the article was interesting, though it didn't say much beyond what seemed intuitive to me. Teenagers get information about sex from novels they read--not necessarily (or maybe even primarily) biological or anatomical information, but info on the nature of people as sexual beings, what's okay, what's "normal" to feel and to want, and how to deal with it.

I can hardly remember not knowing about sex, possibly because my mother was always very eager to keep me informed of things, even when I REALLY didn't want to talk about them (thanks, mom, and I don't mean that sarcastically), and partly because I was reading "grown-up" novels from a pretty young age. I remember my father suspecting that The Mammoth Hunters was maybe too mature for me, and my reassuring him by showing him the page I was on, all about cave paintings--including, in the next paragraph, a pretty straightforward description of a stylized depiction of female genitalia. My parents are really pretty cool.

I have a lot of thoughts about this--about how awkward it is to talk about these things as teenagers, and how we avoid that awkwardness as adults by letting school handle it, or assuming that they understand the jokes in the TV shows we're watching together, or the subtleties of the love scenes in the movies we're watching. I was fascinated by the questions quoted from the book Letters to Judy, which I'm going to have to run out and read. I would have asked Judy Blume, when I was that age, too.

This topic also brings up what I think is a flaw in the Developmental Assets list, which is that restraint from and resistance to the temptation of sexuality is a necessary part of being a healthy teenager. Not that I think teenagers should be having sex, but Just Don't is not a healthy description of teenage sexuality, and it's such a one-dimensional one. Teenagers aren't adults, but they're practicing to be. So the issue isn't NOT to have sex, sexual thoughts, or sexual feelings. The question for all of us to ask is: what does "practicing" a healthy attitude toward sex look like?

No crude jokes, please. I'm working on this one.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Geraldine Brooks

So I finished The People of the Book the other day. I was excited when I heard it was out, which is sort of surprising given how I felt about her previous two novels.

I read The Year of Wonders a few years ago, and I really loved the first 90% of it. Then the end went all Big Tuna on me (for those of you who haven't seen Wild at Heart, that is to say "freaky all out of proportion to even what you have been led to expect). You're reading this tragedy where you think you know all the characters, and then there's this U-turn and you're all, "okay, this is surprising and I'm not sure how it changes the theme or meaning of the novel, but it's an interesting surprise and I'm impressed." And then there's another, far more troubling U-turn, and you're all, "What? What point could you possibly be making by sneaking this in at the end? This completely changes the theme of the book!" The book was, at the last minute, rendered a setup for the tragic punchline at the end.

I read March when it came out, too. This was more of a mixed bag--I think that, if it hadn't been playing off of the beloved Little Women and changed the tone of the characters whose purity I have long admired, I might have liked the book. It's emotionally and morally complicated, and a lot of it is about misunderstanding and how people sometimes aren't communicating and don't even know it. There's a lot of painful violence, and a serious loss of moral innocence in a grown man. Like I said, if it hadn't been Jo and Beth and Meg and Amy's father--Marmee's husband, for crying out loud!--I think I would have found it a good book, if harrowing. But as it is, it left a slightly bad taste in my mouth.

So why was I excited about The People of the Book? I know Geraldine Brooks is a great writer, and I can't say enough how I loved The Nine Parts of Desire, her nonfiction book describing her experiences as a reporter in the Middle East. The book was written in the late 90s, so it lacks the context of the past 10 years of change, but she creates an amazing picture of what it's like to be a woman in an Arab country. The best part, I think, is that she traveled to many different countries, and met a wide variety of people, and she really takes the time to differentiate among them. There's a big difference between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and she tells about all of them. I think this is what makes the book still useful, I think--even though the details have changed in most countries, it's so easy to ignore the differences and call them all "the Middle East," and this book helps to illustrate the range of differences between how Islam is practiced and women are treated in all these places.

So--The People of the Book. I'm not a huge fan of short stories, but this book does something amazing with what are essentially a series of short stories, cinched tightly together by the narrative of the woman who's investigating the history of an amazing, unlikely volume--a centuries-old Jewish book illuminated in the Christian style. We follow Hanna on her detailed investigation--analyzing an insect wing tucked in the pages, a wine stain, a stray hair. We meet her cold, disapproving mother, her mentor, her lover. She's not perfect, but she's smart and competent and sympathetic.

And then, as she learns the scraps that science can tell her about each clue, we get the full story of where each clue comes from. And this is a remarkably well-balanced saga of the history of Jews in Europe. We meet a girl in the '40s who flees from Sarajevo at the beginning of the Holocaust; a Jewish doctor who treats the Christians who hate him in the 1890s, a rabbi in Venice as the Inquisition approaches, and a number of characters in the painful position that is Spain.

Because the modern part of the story is told in Sarajevo, and because more than one story takes place in Spain, the religious theme of the uneasy interaction between faiths in Europe is actually a three-way balance, and the Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish balance is really at the heart of this book. It's so exciting when I learn something (about history, about conservation of old texts), AND am stimulated to think about deeper themes, AND find myself anxiously following the fates of irresistible characters. You should read this book.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Not as YA-y as I Seem

I wonder if I grew up while I wasn't looking. I don't have any huge problem with You Know Where to Find Me, by Rachel Cohn. I don't have any problem with it at all, really. It's just kind of bleak, which makes it not so much my book. It's definitely not a reluctant reader book, in that it is not at all action-packed, and is in fact very moody. It actually strikes me as pretty "literary," which of course is not a term I often use in a flattering sense.

I think it's just not my type of book. The main character is depressed and angry at the world, and as we all know (probably YA writers best of all), writing about someone who's suffering from chronic boredom, ennui, or aimlessness is very hard to do well. I don't think she does the job poorly, I just think that the protagonist, Miles, is too grouchy for me. She wants to do nothing, to shut the world off, and while I understand the impulse, I just want to shake her. Her existence seems so pointless--I suppose that would appeal to teens who feel that way, but it doesn't really appeal to me.

I feel like such a crank, complaining about all these books. I'm supposed to love this stuff, right? Of course, none of these are things I wouldn't stock in a library--this person exists and needs books about herself. It's interesting, I guess there are two ways for books to use the Developmental Assets--one is to demonstrate them in use, through the plot, and the other is to have a plot about them coming into a person's life. Miles is lonely, adrift, with no purpose, self-esteem, close ties to others, supportive environment, or anything really. I assume that by the time I finish this book, things will have changed. We'll see; an upbeat ending cures many ills, for me.

In other news, I want to GUSH about The People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, but I'll save it for another, non-class post. Suffice to say, though, that this was a wonderful, engaging, thrilling, heartbreaking book. I think the structure of the story really allowed her to do some of the surprising things she does in her other novels without my feeling that my involvement in the story has been upset the way I felt with her other novels. Really excellent.

Talking to Teens, Supplemental

I realized that I forgot to include a list of the books that I had used when I talked to the teens. The list can be found on my school webspace. I used this list to show the books to the folks whom I interviewed via email.

I also wanted to add a comment about how all the kids indicated that they absolutely hate reading "classics." Some of them referred to this as "any reading for school," while others seemed to like some school stuff, but really don't like "classics." This makes sense--I've always been an avid reader, but absolutely hated anything by Charles Dickens, and The Scarlet Letter caused me an almost physical suffering. Which is funny, because in retrospect, it's a very good story. Anyway, the first book I loved for school was Jane Eyre, which was summer reading my senior year. I started it two weeks before school started, and ended up staying up all night and reading almost in one long sitting. But that was after 11 years of faking it--reading 2/3 of the book and writing a paper about a character who dies early, or the author's use of language.

Sorry, Mrs. Meyers.

But this element, which seemed perfectly natural and not really worth mentioning when I was talking to the teens, took on a new level of significance when I read Connecting with Reluctant Teen Readers the other day. It made an excellent point that a lot of teenagers who might be avid readers of things they enjoy are turned off because everything they "know" about reading comes from school, from an English teacher. Most of their reading has been "classics."

This brings me to the question of WHY the books we teach in school are these choices. I mean, I can understand why we're not giving pop quizzes on Gossip Girl, and even why Boy Toy might be too much for the classroom, but what are we hoping high schoolers will get out of The Grapes of Wrath? There's a good answer to this question: cultural literacy. These books are modern history, it's English as Art class.

But that doesn't seem like enough of an answer. Is the point of English class to expose teenagers to the content of high culture, or is it to teach them the tools of reading, analyzing what they read, finding themes and morals and discussing the use of language to affect the reader? Because those are far more universal, practical skills, and those can be done with books that might have a much broader appeal. Moby Dick can be saved for, say, your senior year of high school, or maybe even college.

More later today on my newer reads!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Talking to Teens, or Can This Possibly Count as a Paper?

When you interview the teenagers who just happen to be hanging out reading in the Young Adult room at the library, you’re probably going to get some kids on the high end of the reading-for-fun spectrum. It’s a fun way to meet people! (Especially when the librarian does the tapping people on the shoulder asking them to take a survey part of the job for you.)

First let me say that Molly Collins, the Young Adult librarian at Malden Public Library, is exceedingly awesome. She’s fairly new in town, but not to YA librarianship, and she knows her stuff and her group. I can’t thank her enough for her cheerful help, her time, and her encouragement.

The Malden Public Library is located right across the street from the high school, so during the school year, the after-school crowd floods in for the afternoon. But even during the summer, they have their regulars, and a thriving summer reading program—the end of June is a hugely busy time in this library.

What are kids reading? MANGA is the number one answer—unsurprisingly. She says that circulation has gone up about 50% since the manga collection really took off. Other things? Urban fiction, vampires, and fantasy. Stephanie Meyer (author of the infamous Twilight), the Bluford High series, Gossip Girl, Kimani Tru, Clique. Series books are kept in a separate section, because they don’t always have the same author, but people like to go straight to them. Most of these are books for girls—guys, she says, lean more toward manga and fantasy. Post Secret is also very popular, and almost never in the library.

What she says pretty much reflects what I hear from the three teens I talk to in the reading room. The two girls I talk to are both African American, and both are interested in urban fiction. V (17) tells me about Street Pharm, one of her favorite books, about a drug dealer who meets a girl who helps him get his life back together. She says she’s very interested in African American books, although she gets a lot of her reading material from the adult section of the library. In my stack of offerings, she said she had planned to read Homeboyz and Grace After Midnight anyway. Her attention is also caught by Another Fine Prom Mess and Last Days. As a library page, I get the feeling V, like me, can’t resist the books she sees as she’s shelving them over and over.

B is 15, and her response to my stack of books is similar—Homeboyz (she was so jealous I had a copy; the reserve list at the library is long, since it’s a summer reading book in Malden), Grace After Midnight, Last Days. She also expresses interest in Hitler Youth and Re-Gifters—she’s interested in history and likes comics—though she prefers the Japanese kind that you read back-to-front. But what she really loves is romance—she’ll read anything fun that has romance in it, or is scary. The book she’s reading, I notice from the cover, is an African American love story. What does she hate? “Lollipop books,” the kind with bright, spare candy colored covers, about being in high school. “I’d never read Gingerbread or anything like that.”

H is 17, an Asian guy into fantasy, adventure, and history. My stack of books doesn’t appeal to him much at all—the only one he’d find interesting is Hitler Youth—an oversized, photo-heavy nonfiction book. He’s dying to get at the third Eragon book. He’s also the first one I’ve talked to who says he spends a LOT of time online (an observation backed up by the librarian; he’s a regular).

This is Malden—a diverse community with a gorgeous, busy library. I’m glad I got a chance to meet some of the kids who use my favorite library.

I also talked to a brother and sister from rural Maine. Their taste was somewhat different from my local acquaintances—both were big fantasy/science fiction fans, and fairly heavy readers. L, the boy, is 15, and observed that he’s interested almost exclusively in the action of a story, and it has to move fast. He says girls are more interested in issues and themes in the books they read. (This doesn’t explain why he’s currently reading St. Matthew, the New Testament (apparently with the intent of arguing theology with his classmates), alongside the Han Solo Trilogy. This guy impresses me.) This is born out by his sister, M, who is 17 and says she’s interested in books she can relate to somehow, either through character, plot, or some other element. Although she lists a bunch of fantasy titles as her favorite and recent reads, she says she’ll read anything—fiction, nonfiction, whatever catches her eye.

I think it’s interesting to see the similarities and differences between these groups. As a big fantasy fan, I’m pleased to see its universal appeal reflected in the people I talked to. And I guess it’s not too surprising that the white teens from rural Maine were not as interested in Homeboyz as the African American girls living near the city. I think I see here that readers are looking for something that touches their lives, whether that’s a character who’s like themselves (or an idealized version of themselves), an adventure they’d like to be on, or a problem they can see themselves facing. It doesn’t surprise me to find that guys are interested in plot, while girls can be drawn by romance or personal drama, in addition to plot.

I'd also like to point out that Molly knows her customers.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


One thing that I've found myself noticing about all these books as we read them is the presence or absence of parents in these kids' lives. Gossip Girl is a good example; only one of the 4 characters I've met so far has parents who are not explicitly absent, as in off touring the world and not in any way about to show up. The parents in Boy Toy and Nineteen Minutes were present, but seemed to be entirely missing the point of their kids' lives. Snoop had foster parents who loved her, but who weren't aware of what she was doing, or even what the fabric of her life looked like.

I find this interesting in a couple of ways. First, I don't think all of these books are making a point about parents. It seems more like parents are in general a fairly minor part of the lives that teenagers lead--family life is a known quantity, while the rest of life is what needs to be navigated and explored and figured out. Books for teenagers are about defining yourself apart from family, and so family takes a back seat, or maybe is missing altogether. They also want to be about empowerment--parents are, by their nature, either somewhat controlling or somewhat neglectful. To explore a teenager's power, the story needs to keep the parents in the background or make them agent against which the protagonist is acting.

(Aside: why am I talking like this? I keep lapsing into academic-speak. Not sure why; apologies.)

Also, the nature of a good story usually indicates that a person have a certain level of being on their own, in the same way that most Disney protagonists are either orphans or, at least, missing a mom. Concerned, involved parents make life a little easier in some ways, and relieve the solitude that seems to be such a theme in the lives of the characters in all these books.

I just think it's interesting that this theme comes out in all these books--and so many others. There are different developmental assets at work in all these books, but the presence or absence of parents could be seen as related to all these things.

Huh. Just a thought.

Mea Culpa

Well, after reading Linda's comment, I feel bad saying this, but my judgment based on page 1 of Gossip Girl has changed after reading pages 3-24. The first two pages are a blog entry by the mysterious Gossip Girl herself, which is funny and smart and coy and which I loved. The actual text of the book, though, is so far not so much those things. My main complaint is that all of the adjectives used to describe the characters are long, hyphenated phrases: Dan is described as "stained-brown-corduroys-wearing" and Serena's feet are "Urban Decay Piggy Bank Pink-toenailed." The branding is troubling, too, though I understand that the point of this is to impress upon me deeply the true level of wealth and materialism at work here among the youngsters.

I'm not saying it's awful, but it's not going to bring me running back for more. But again, we'll see. Page 24 is not yet at the point of my 10% rule. I'm not putting the book down either way, but I don't get to lay claim to full judgment till I've passed page 40.

I finished Grace After Midnight this morning--it was compelling and quick, and I think it would be an excellent choice for reluctant readers. It reads like speech, and it keeps you guessing. I think it's interesting that Snoop has moved fully away from her dangerous and illegal life after many false starts, but she seems to have few regrets about her whole journey. I find that interesting--she makes statements about feeling bad about people whose lives she's messed with and being sorry about things she did wrong, but they're fairly bald, and she doesn't dwell on those feelings. Her whole story, even the saddest parts, seem to be about looking forward toward the next thing, accepting everything about yourself, and trying to be better without beating yourself up for NOT being better yet. I feel like I should feel a little differently--like she should have more regrets--but as it is, I really like the message, that having regrettable things in your past doesn't mean you have to be full of regret.

I'm also reading The People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. It's very good so far, but I've just reached a point where the Holocaust is encroaching on the life of the main character in the section I'm reading, and I need to gather up my emotional wherewithal before I dive into that bit too far. I'm really hoping that the segmented nature of this story makes it a little easier to follow to the end--her other novels, March and The Year of Wonders both had me going until the end went all Big Tuna (slang from my college days for absolutely wacko insane). I will, however, always recommend her nonfiction book, The Nine Parts of Desire, about her time in the Middle East as a news correspondent, and everything she learned about the different countries, about Islam, and about the lives of women there.

So, I'm keeping busy. Happy Independence Day Weekend!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Deep Fears

I've just started Gossip Girl--actually, It Had to Be You: A Gossip Girl Prequel. I'm only one page in and already I have a terrible fear that I'm going to enjoy it a lot and not be able to stop reading the whole series. This just seems like a terrible fate--I mean, do I need more trashy stuff on my list? Forgive my use of the pejorative, but come on. Uber-high-society teenagers, already jaded about sex and partying and consumption, turn to intrigue to fill their empty lives. This is not where I want my reading life to go, but I can see it shooting off in that direction, because so far, the book is just juicy. Sigh.

I've also started Grace After Midnight, by Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, which is interesting. The actress/memoirist has a coauthor/ghostwriter, and the book does a great job of capturing her voice--it's very street, with short sentences using the grammar of speech ("I still got my braids." "Those jams were poppin' everywhere I went.") My initial reaction to this was complicated--I really like it as a style, especially since it's clearly the voice of the person writing the story. This is not a woman who came from the streets and is now teaching at Harvard; she's an actress now, but the characters she plays are based on the life she's led. And, although it takes time to get used to the rhythm, once you are into it, it's musical and communicates a lot.

But I had a much more prim reaction, too, which is that young, reluctant readers shouldn't be reading this and learning this terrible grammar! Luckily, that part of me shut up in about three seconds, because reading to better your grammar is not, I'm happy to say, a major swaying factor for most people. My role is not to push people toward complex sentences that use pronouns and adverbs properly. These aren't typos--it's the language of speech, and if I love it, then it's for sharing.

Anyway, so far so good. In other reading news, Maria V. Snyder has joined Shannon Hale on my list of writers I'm dying to read more of and kind of want to be when I grow up. Her style is not as polished as Hale's, but she makes up for it with note-perfect plots that are well-paced and full of absolutely enthralling characters. Poison Study and Magic Study are great, and now I'm itching to get at Fire Study. I'm trying to ignore the fact that they're published by the fantasy division at Harlequin--it's not a romance, and you can sort of tell that the romantic part of the plot (while integral) has been beefed up a bit in lavishness to fulfill the publisher's needs, maybe. Still, absolutely fabulous fantasy.

And I finished The Dead and the Gone in two days. It was everything I hoped--quite different in many ways from Life as We Knew It, with characters coming from very different places in life, a whole different set of troubles, and a much more raw, gritty grimness. But there's also more of a sense of hope, I think--community means more, and faith is much more of an issue. I think if I had to pick I'd choose Life as We Knew It for my favorite, but I still really hope she produces one more about this before she finishes.

So it's been a busy week. I'll have more to say about these two that I've just started, before too long. Till then!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Death Note

This is a popular little bit of manga, and I can see why, now that I'm reading it. I like the way it keeps throwing up practical and ethical dilemmas for our protagonist (I won't say "hero") to sort out (though I won't say he does a lot of ethical "sorting"). I like the way it's carried by story--one thing happens after another, promptly--but character and suspense are built within the action.

Unlike all the fans, I'm not someone who deals well with continually ongoing stories, that roll out forever with no hope of resolution in sight. I think I'd love to follow the same characters, but knowing that they're going to be wrestling with the same dilemma for the rest of the foreseeable future is annoying. This is true especially because it rather stunts characters' ability to change; the whole idea of storytelling is that your protagonist changes or grows or learns something over the course of his/her adventures--and I'm not talking about a new rule about their Notebook of Doom. I suspect that Light's never going to realize, over the course of this series, where his morality is off, because that would be the end of the story. So this is a mark against this kind of book for me.

Interestingly, though, I'm told it's not a mark against it for teenagers. Rather, the consistency, the ability to rely on the story to keep on coming, is a part of the draw. I can see that--first, the insatiable appetite, and second, the reassurance that this thing you love will be there for you tomorrow--these are heady things. I've read my share of series of books. Now, though, I'm more of a fan of excellent writers who write different books. Maybe I'm just afraid of commitment.

But the moral struggle of Death Note is really the most interesting part. This week's topic is boundaries and positive values, and the story couldn't be more on point. I'm curious if a teenager is going to react the same way I am--to see Light quickly turning from misguided hero (kill all bad guys!) to uh-oh antihero (kill all cops who try to stop me!), and to hope that he gets stopped somehow. I'm hoping it'll be a blow-out, and that something more impressive happens than the police catching him, but I don't want him to win, because he's wrong. I wonder if a teenager would come to that conclusion as quickly as I did.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Cheating on My Homework

That subject line is a tease--I'm not copying from anyone's paper, I'm committing infidelity to the syllabus reading list. I couldn't help it; a couple of very thrilling reserves came in and I just couldn't resist. I just can't be trusted--I'm promiscuous when it comes to books.

I finally read Rebel Angels, by Libba Bray. It's the third time I've checked it out of the library, but I could never see squeezing in the 550 pages, and never got off the ground. It doesn't help that I can't really remember much of what happened in the first book (A Great and Terrible Beauty), though I remember liking it a lot. This one was very good, too--I'm a sucker for a British girls' boarding school book, and when you add the fantasy part, well, I'm in. It's one of those books that's about the sort of meandering journey that you're on--there are a lot of dead ends and switchbacks, but the end was very satisfying. I'm not going to run out and get the next one, but I'm definitely going to read it.

Poison Study, by Maria Snyder, is the other one I'm cheating with. As soon as I heard of this book--and I don't even remember where--I really wanted to read it, and I wasn't wrong. It's fantasy, as well, and much plottier than Rebel Angels. Everything moves along quickly, and there's a lot of fun worldbuilding--though the political situation is a little heavy-handed. It's almost amusing how clear the parallels are to, say, the communist bureaucracy that took over after the abusive indulgence of a corrupt monarchy. For example. But the character is cool, and I can't quite figure out who she should trust, which is fun--it's nice to be reading a YA fantasy novel and not to be even one step ahead of the main character.

And finally, finally, I'm waiting eagerly for the Minuteman system to bring me The Dead and the Gone, by Susan Beth Pfeffer, sequel to Life as We Knew It. The latter was a truly excellent YA end of the world book, and I'm really excited that the sequel came out--early! before its anticipated pub date! kudos to the editorial and production staff over there!--and that it's winging its way to me!

I'll have things to say about Homeboyz (bleck) and Death Note (thumbs up), but for now, I'm taking a mini-vacation into sweet summer reading indulgence.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Worst. Parenting. Ever.

I'd rather be reading Nineteen Minutes right now, but I had to come post here before I got any further and my having figured out the ending became less impressive. I won't spoil it by telling you my guess, but rest assured, I have a strong suspicion of what the big Jodi Picoult twist at the end will be.

One of the "always the same" things about her books that drives me insane is the fact that one of the main characters is always keeping a secret, for no discernible reason. Often it's someone who's on trial, and not only do they choose not to explain that they're not guilty or had a good reason for doing things, no one ever even asks them. I'll spoil Vanishing Acts (only a tiny little bit) by saying that the father who ran off with his young daughter was in jail for WEEKS before he mentioned to anyone that the mother he took her from was dangerously drunk a lot of the time. No one asked him, "why'd you do that," even the people who are sitting down, talking to him, wondering that. He doesn't tell his lawyer, in spite of the fact that he's sitting in jail and on trial. It's infuriating to me.

But when I think about this book in the context of teenage readers, it makes a certain amount of sense. It's part of the barrier that Peter has put up, part of his isolation--which is total. He's been so thoroughly unsuccessful at connecting with anyone in his life, it's not nearly as surprising that he's stopped trying, even though it could make all the difference in his life. The idea of being alone and different in this book is carried through perfectly, to a painful degree. It hurt me to read this. Every incident from Peter's life just made my heart sink into my stomach. His brother calling him nasty names behind his back. His mom embarrassing him in front of the soccer team without even realizing it. It's such a perfectly realized portrait of what it's like to be that kid, whom nobody likes--my tastes of it in life have been small, but they were there, and it's hard to read.

Then there's Josie's solitude. She's got the popular crowd of friends, but she doesn't really connect with anyone, including her mom. She has almost no tools for dealing with what she's really thinking, because all her efforts have gone into making sure things don't look bad from the outside--welcome to the life of a judge, of a popular girl. Her loneliness and confusion are also perfectly captured (though I'm pretty sure she's also keeping The Secret That I Suspect But Won't Spoil).

But the most painful part of this book, in my opinion, is the parenting. I can't claim to be an awesome parent (or any kind of parent yet), or that I wouldn't make mistakes, but when Lacy tells her son near the beginning that if he lets the other kids tease him again, she won't let him play with his only friend, this seems to be, well, HORRIBLE to me. There is a difference between helping your kid be strong and making him responsible for his being weak. When she shows up on the soccer field and admonishes the coach in front of the other kids--come on! My mom went in to complain to my math teacher that she wasn't challenging me, but she did it after school, and I wasn't embarrassed in front of my peers. And I don't care how important it is to be a judge, it amazes me that Alex never once figured out that you can't just ask a teenager if they want more of your attention, or time--you just have to give it to them--maybe even force them to take it.

And the hardest part about the parenting is that they're all trying. They all love their children and are trying hard. They just don't seem to see what their kids need, either as teenagers, or just as people who are different than they are. While it's heartbreaking, there's also something deeply true about it, and something that I think a lot of teenagers, feeling like their parents don't understand them, would recognize.

This book blows right through all of the developmental assets. We've got all kinds of support missing from Peter's life--family, school, neighborhood. Safety is missing, too. Boundaries and expectations are messed up--none of the adults at school, at home, or in the world sets boundaries on any of the teens--Josie's mom giving her and Matt run of the house, teachers ignoring the abuse Peter takes. Alex models almost no positive values for Josie, except responsibility. And let's not discuss Peter's identity and lack of social competencies. The novel is like a manual on what can happen to someone who doesn't get the emotional nourishment they need in life. It's hard to read, but I can't deny that it's compelling, and emotional, and that I'm really enjoying it.