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.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On Manga

Dramacon is by no means my first outing into comics, but I think I can officially call it my first successful outing into manga. It's a great book, about learning to stand up for yourself, and finding out that you are strong and talented, even if you didn't know it before. I love the fact that the main character is a high school girl who produces her own mildly successful comics. The focus, sense of purpose and identity that displays is exciting, and the confidence she finds in that over the course of the book is pretty rewarding.

It is (relatively) widely known that I kind of despise manga. I hate that all the characters look alike. I dislike the weird combination of realistic/idealized images with cartoonish pictures. I am turned off by those giant, shiny eyes. But honestly, what's really stopped me near the beginning of so many promising comics is that everyone is so shouty. Everyone's always sweating or screaming or crying or just OVERACTING. Even the serious drama (Eagle) and very American stuff (At Death's Door) just has so much shouting in it, it's emotionally reminiscent of watching the Three Stooges, something else I don't do voluntarily.

So I'm grateful for two things right now: the necessity of picking up and finishing Dramacon, which I now have to read the sequel to because he gets a girlfriend? But they're supposed to be together! And the necessity of picking up Manga and Anime, by Robin E. Brenner, which does a certain amount to demystify manga. At the very least, she's acknowledging my observations (criticisms!) and even explaining some of them.

The fact, for example, that manga writer/artists turn out at least 30 pages a week, instead of a team turning out 32 pages-minus-ads per month, allows me to forgive them a little bit for the characters that look the same. The fact that they're serialized in magazines that are considered somewhat disposable, more like the funnies in the newspaper than a novel, lets me cut some slack for shorthanding a lot of action through silly, simple conventions. That the Japanese consider themselves a "wet" or emotional people, as distinct from us dry, unemotional Westerners will never cause me to ignore the shouting, but at least it explains it.

Because of this long-standing hatred, I've thought a lot about why on earth people like this stuff. I love comics, but I'm pretty picky about the art. But of course I've noticed that a huge percentage of what's out there falls into the superhero category, which is not at all a broad range of appeal. Of course, the fantasy of being strong and competent, able to save the world and worthy to stand against all foes is a pleasing one, and escapist, and, I know, often dealt with in complex ways, but if you're not going to read a superhero comic, you're just not. And sure, there are other kinds of graphic novels (from Fables to Fun Home to Blankets to Persepolis), but not nearly enough.

This is where manga comes in. For sheer volume of stories, it can hardly be beat. And, unlike American comics, it's not nearly so weighted to the science fiction/action-adventure genres. There are comics marketed toward girls, tons of straight-out romance stories, personal drama, queer characters--just sheer breadth. There's something for everyone, and I think that the fast-paced, pop-culture appeal of comics draws in a lot of reluctant readers who are looking for a romance or a high school drama or any of the many characters and stories to see themselves in. You can find plenty of novels in any genre, but when it comes to comics, manga is where the variety is.

The very simplification of characters--good guys vs. bad guys vs. villains, loyalties and betrayals, characters who are mostly exactly who they appear to be--is probably very appealing for teenagers, hoping to fit everything they're seeing around them into familiar shapes and categories. If you can tell by the size of a character's eyes whether you're dealing with an ingenue, a rogue, or a villain, you can find the shape of the story, the lessons and patterns and familiarity, much faster.

----Amusing aside, from Manga and Anime, page 41

Apparently blood type is considered an indication of character in Japan, rather like astrological sign might be here. If your blood type is A, you're probably "a team player, industrious, trustworthy, needs leadership, can be inflexible." B is "independent, creative, honest, emotional, can be irresponsible." O is "ambitious, a planner, romantic, focused on status, can be superficial," and AB is "diplomatic, organized, sensible, moral, can be unforgiving." This I find to be kind of crazy-awesome, and I wanted to share. Thanks to Robin E. Brenner for the quotes.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Can't Trust That Guy

I've recently come to the conclusion that I have a very shaky relationship with unreliable narrators. Seems perfectly natural, I suppose; that's what they're all about. But it seems funny to me that someone who reads as much as I do has so much trouble shifting gears to mistrusting the narrator. I guess it has to do with the fact that I read for entertainment, escape, fantasy, as opposed to the appreciation of literary style.

An excess of cleverness is one of my least favorite literary qualities. But I can't point at that problem as the issue with the unreliable narrator. I'm not sure which of these two problems turned me off of The Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England; maybe it was just my dislike for the narrator. But I was talking with someone the other day about Kazuo Ishiguro, and this got me thinking. I read When We Were Orphans a few years ago, and I really loved it until the end. As the book progressed, though, I found myself getting mad at the author for these ridiculous assumptions that everyone in the book seemed to be making. He's going to find his missing mother after 20 years, when the authorities couldn't? And the people who moved into his house 20 years ago are going to happily vacate for him, now that he's back? What kind of fool's paradise is this? I asked myself.

Someone pointed out to me, last week (which is to say, about two years after I read the novel), that the narrator is completely unreliable, and all these things are probably not happening the way he recounts them exactly. And you know, while I realized he was unreliable during the scene near the end where everything gets all trippy, I have to say it never occurred to me that he's really very unreliable all the way through the book, and that you really can't assume any of those things happened the way he related them.

I don't think I'm giving much of anything away here--any reasonably bright person would have seen that. I, apparently, don't fit that description. I think this fits in with Ishiguro's (aside: how great is his name? I love saying it.) other books, at least the ones I've read: The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. But in those, it was the emotional judgment of the narrator that you couldn't trust, not his/her recounting of the facts. Somehow this is very different to me. I understand that he has other books more like Orphans in their use of the narrator, but I haven't read them.

And this is not just an Ishiguro thing. I guess what it comes down to is that I throw myself into books in a way that makes it hard for me to judge their narrators objectively. I can do it if I'm given guidance from the author (Lolita, say), if I'm given space to step out with the author and observe the narrator. But if the author flies under the radar and leaves me in the room with a raving lunatic telling me his story, I will be nodding vigorously and scanning the skies nervously for the flying saucers full of little green men. I'm not proud of it, but there it is.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Barry Lyga, Wow.

Boy Toy, by Barry Lyga, is not a book for everyone. This is the story of a high school boy who's still recovering from the aftermath of a sexual relationship that he had with his teacher when he was 12. It's harrowing, in a lot of ways--her manipulation is so well-chronicled--and though I wouldn't call it explicit, it's pretty frank about the sexual acts that are taking place.

What I find most impressive about the book, though, is the impressive voice of the viewpoint character. Most of the story takes place when he's 17, in high school, and starting to deal directly with some of the long-term effects of what happened. He's not happy, exactly, but he's got kind of an equilibrium that he's sustained, which has been thrown off completely. The author captures beautifully the balance between this really smart kid's understanding of the fact that it's not his fault, and the deep, unshakable feeling that he's messed up and will never be normal again. He's not an unreliable narrator; rather, the irrational but inevitable feelings he's struggling with are made unavoidable and real.

But there are also chunks of the book told in flashback, where he recounts the relationship and its aftermath. In these parts, he's 12, but he's also sort of 17 telling the story of when he's 12. And the author does a brilliant job with this, of conveying exactly how all of these events came across to him, his guilt, his compulsion. It was amazing, to watch this teacher seduce a child, and to be able to see the boy's anxiety and desire and confusion and his sense that this is really happening, this is how it is with adults, and at the exact same moment, to watch a predator moving in on her prey, and to see and feel how repulsive it is, even as he's feeling drawn in. It's such a balance, and you don't even really feel the author doing it till, say, you sit down to blog about it, and realize that it sort of bowled you over.

The thing that strikes me here, though, and really makes me think about how a teenager would see this book, is the almost perfect absence of adults who treat him like a person. Not even like an adult, but like any kind of person at all. His doctor. The female police officer. That's it. His parents go back and forth between seeing him as an object that has been damaged and a stupid, disobedient kid who maybe should have known better, or at least could have spared them all this trouble--besides being caught up in their disintegrating marriage. His teachers are either absent, condescending, or outright hostile. His best friend's parents are so awful as to not be worth discussing.

And yet, you don't feel like he expects anything else. He doesn't seem to feel alienated, or even really lonely, not the way depressed teens are so often portrayed. It's more like he sees solitude as natural, and his separation from so many people in his life as the natural running of the world. This sense of his strength in isolation is such a source of power to him, I feel like this is the part of the book teens would touch on. This kid is working his way through his stuff, not entirely alone (he has Zik, Rachel, Dr. Kennedy), but through his own power. Adults, other kids, it's all really just background to what's going on inside him, his struggle with himself, to figure out who he is and what he is capable of. And from the very beginning, even before he starts solving these problems, you can tell that this is a guy who is going to hold his act together, this is a guy who, even in the middle of a panic attack, has nothing to fear outside of himself. He finds his own support system, he creates it, he struggles with himself. He's not completely deprived of family support, his school has not written him off, he has a very few, very good friends. But this is a kid with strength in himself, and the sense of empowerment that spending time with Josh Mendel can give a reader is really pretty impressive.

So, after much rambling: hats off to Barry Lyga. Unlike a lot of brilliant authorship, you can't see him pulling the strings. You just get to the end and realize that every word of this amazing book came out of this guy. I'm impressed.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Dear Readers

To my four loyal readers, and those other two kids who wander past sometimes, I feel the need to warn you: I have been called upon to blog for class. This should not be onerous, as I don't see how I'm going to have time to read anything non-class-related for the next few weeks--not even most of the 11 non-class library books I have out now. But we're talking about three novels per week, and a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do.

Anyway, the reason I give you, my audience, this heads-up, is that I will be talking a lot about developmental assets, which are "positive experiences and personal qualities that young people need to grow up healthy, caring, and responsible," according to the Search Institute. They're like a blueprint to a well-adjusted teenager. I didn't want anyone to think that I'd joined some sort of cult when my blog suddenly got a lot more focused--just a YA lit class.

I should also warn you that I'll be reading a Jodi Picoult book next week; we all know where that's going to end up.

Before I start this seven week journey, though, I want to add my thoughts on Remember Me 2: The Return. UGH. Christopher Pike started out as a writer of good thrillers. He has since then discovered transcendental meditation. I liked Sati, though I found its spirituality too simplistic. But he's managed to dumb his philosophy down even from that, AND his dialog at the same time. It's mushy (Earth is just one part of our mystical journey, and we're all part of the great Oversoul that is God), and contradictory (you can advance through evil instead of good, but everything is good because it's all part of the Oversoul that is God), and just plain derivative (Nirvana is a big beautiful field). Also, you get to come back to Earth as a Wanderer, if you want, by taking over another person's life.

Oh, and one of his main characters is supposed to be this great writer, and she's kind of a lousy writer. It's like--OMIGOD--like Christopher Pike has been taken over by an anti-Wanderer, and lost his writing skills!

I'm a terrible, terrible person. But I really loved Remember Me. As far as I am concerned, it has no sequel.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

My Limits

I've always kind of had a problem with stories in which the plot is dependent on people acting in ways that don't seem reasonable to me. It's not about rational or irrational--making stupid decisions out of fear or desire or thoughtlessness is very natural and normal and doesn't turn me off. But the syndrome that turns me off is the one you see in thrillers, where the main characters don't go to the police for stupid reasons like "there's no time" or I don't even know what other dumb reasons. Or when the lovers don't admit they love each other (when it's so OBVIOUS that they both do) for--well, whatever reason. The whole point is that the choices are unreasonable. Or, at the very least, far from anything I would do, or could imagine doing.

For this reason, I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to read An Arsonist's Gudie to Writers' Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke. I picked it up randomly, and started it, and it's funny and strange and interesting. The premise (as far in as I got) is that this guy, as a teenager, accidentally burned down Emily Dickinson's house, and two people died. He served ten years in prison, got out, and is starting a new life--going to college, getting married. The writer is witty, the book is interesting, and there's a good amount of mystery to what's going on.

The problem is that the main character is not just an unreliable narrator; he's a compulsive liar. And when he lies to his wife, letting his wife believe that he's having an affair so he doesn't have to tell her what he did; when he tries to buy the goodwill of the guy whose parents died in the fire with a root beer; really, when he does or thinks or says anything, I just want to smack him. I don't want to follow his hilarious adventures anymore. I don't want to watch him grow as a person. I want to club him over the head and get him out of everyone's life so he won't bother them anymore.

Somehow, I didn't have this problem with Story of a Girl, by Sara Zarr. Thinking about this book is really what made me realize the difference between "unreasonable" and "irrational" in my constellation of annoyances. Because a lot of the stuff that happens in this book would normally irritate the heck out of me--people who are hurt but don't talk openly to each other, a girl whose life has been broken by a jerk but who is still hanging out with him anyway. Irrational ways of being. But somehow, I believed every minute; the emotional repression of the family in this book is painful, but not in an awful way. It made me cry, but I absolutely loved it.

It just goes to show again that it's all about the author. And I think it backs a personal corollary of mine, which is that an excess of cleverness is almost always a bad thing, but a nice, modest dose of sincerity will do a lot for the world.

Of course, I already mentioned Seventeenth Summer, which proves that sincerity is not a panacea, and can be dangerous in large doses.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

A Certain Kind of Girl

Of late I've been reading a book for school, called Seventeenth Summer, by Maureen Daly. It was written in 1942, and is the pre-class reading--what would be "summer reading," if it wasn't a summer class, in which, I suppose, all reading is technically summer reading. Given the nature of the rest of the syllabus, which is very recent in publication date and modern in style, I have to assume this book is just for contrast.

Rarely have I found a book this hard to read. Honestly, I would have put it down if it wasn't for a grade, and I would have skimmed it if I wasn't awful at skimming. As it is, I dodged through many a long paragraph about how her garden is coming up or what the wind of the lake is doing to the grass and tree branches. If it had chapter breaks, it might have been more skimmable, but it doesn't. It's just three long months of the main character, Angie, falling in love during the summer after high school and before college.

I was walking up the street yesterday and I passed a rose bush, with huge yellow roses just at the end of themselves--wide open to the point of drooping, where the petals begin to part from each other and no longer quite form a coherent blossom. The smell was rich and lush, and what I thought when I saw them is that Angie is the kind of girl who would find full-blown roses uncomfortably sexual. She wouldn't be able to define it that way, but she'd sense that something wanton and sensual was going on and probably blush and avert her eyes, for fear of spoiling her innocence. This is not a person you would ever meet today.

I'm also listening to Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier, which is long overdue, I have to say. The main character of that book is also this type of person--I think, in fact, that she actually, literally turns her eyes away from full-blown roses at some point in the book specifically because they're so embarrassing. It's hard to remember--English gardens take up so much of the text, it's hard to remember exactly which flowers have been gawked at already.

I've seen the movie of Rebecca, with Joan Fontaine and Lawrence Olivier, so I know the outline of the story. And I've had the differences between the book and the movie explained to me, so I have a clear idea of where we're going with this book. It's interesting, because it's clearly a story that is all about innocence vs. --what? Experience? Guilt? Ennui? All of those things. It's about being 19, and how you don't really know what's going on at all in the world then. Which is not how the world today seems to think--that the wisdom of 19 isn't worth anything, and that you're not really a person with your wits about you till you're 36.

Seventeenth Summer also thinks this. Angie is 17, has graduated from high school, and is not allowed to go steady. Her parents don't approve of how much time she spends with Jack, and even she doesn't believe she can really feel this way, because she's so young. Have you, in your life today, ever encountered someone who didn't believe that a person of 17 could feel passionately in love with someone? It's the most terrifying time for that sort of feeling--it's all that those kids are going through, all the time.

Between these two books, I'm being subsumed into a world of naivete, sweet romance, and confusion about the world. I know that Rebecca will put an end to my stay at this saccharine hotel very soon, but I think I'm going to have to read something base and violent very soon, just to get a hold of myself. The new James Bond book, maybe, or something I picked up at the library called The Arsonist's Guide to Literary Homes of New England. How can you go wrong with a title like that?