Thursday, January 25, 2018

Popular: A Memoir

When Library Amy mentioned Popular, by Maya Van Wagenen, and told me that the YA book club had read it, I thought it sounded super interesting. A teenage girl finds an advice book from the '50s on how to be popular and decides to try to improve her middle school experience. Amy strongly suggested I read it, but with an expression that said it wasn't perfect.

I've taken a peek at old books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, and some of those old social guides that Dear Abby used to put out, and they can have decent ideas embedded in some very dated explanations. Make eye contact, ask people about themselves, laugh at least as often as you talk.

Maya starts out talking about her bottom-of-the-ladder, mostly-ignored, sometimes-bothered middle school existence, and it seems like one of those things where basic advice might, surprisingly, make a big difference. She decides to take on one chapter from this advice book each month for the school year, building on her experience as she goes.

So maybe you can imagine my discomfort when we get to the table of contents of Betty Cornell's Teenage Popularity Guide and find that every single topic is about getting pretty. We've got diet and figure, posture, skin and makeup, hair, and clothes.  Start off with the notion that these are the ingredients to popularity--not one of which involves what you think, say, or do in your interactions with literally anyone.

When you take these as starting points, the anachronistic nature of the text gets awkward really fast. On weight loss: "As for taunts from your friends--and they will taunt you--keep your chin up and your weight down." On hair: "When it comes to shampooing your hair, plan to save at least one night a week for the job."  On clothes: "For Heaven's sake, have a little pity on others and a lot of pride in yourself; put on a skirt when you're shopping."

The author picks some of these particularly rough quotes to include, so it's pretty clear that she gets what's wrong with this. But she doesn't comment on them, and she continues to follow the instructions. Dressing like a proper 1950s girl (in pearls!) is not what I was expecting her to learn from this.

Having said all that--this book is super enjoyable.  It's basically this girl's diary while she does this project for a year, and Maya is a really good writer. The fun part here is watching her step out of her comfort zone, and spending time with her family and in her community.  Her younger sister is autistic; her father is a college professor; they live in a small Texas town on the border of Mexico where there's a lot of drug-related violence and a great deal of poverty.  The family isn't very well-off, but they get along and seem incredibly sweet.  And if I wanted to smack her father when he teases her ab out a boy she likes--well, that's what it's like to be a teenager with a dad, right?

I'm only halfway through the book, so how I end up feeling will depend a lot on the conclusions Maya draws from these results, and especially on whether or not she calls out some of the really shallow advice the book has.  But whether she comes through for me or not, it will have been worth the read.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Something on Sunday, 1/21

A busy but uneventful week around these parts, except that I actually wrote two reviews for the blog this week! 

The guy from How Did This Get Made? did a solid to the world of romance novels this week.  After he got called out for mocking a cover on Twitter, he decided to read the book. It's a really great apology; check it out. (Also check out the blog this is from,, which is worth reading.) I guess when you're the guy who watches bad movies, you learn that there's something to appreciate that's worth looking for in surprising places.

My volunteerism is piling up these days, and my alma mater is having a donation drive they're calling the Teach It Forward Impact Challenge.  My understanding is that I donate money in the next couple of weeks and then a matching donor will multiply my donation by however many hours of charity work I do during a specific week.  Joke's on them--they picked the week when I have a Friends of the Library board meeting, a Friends event I'm working at, working in my son's third grade classroom, and just signed up to help do taxes for low-income people.  That is gonna be a heck of a donation!

Let's see how the rest of the week treats us. Tally-ho!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Murders of Molly Southbourne

It was the cover that sold me on this one, when I saw it on Netgalley.  I didn't even realize when I clicked request that it was from Tor (which is practically an automatic must-read), or even that it was a novella (which I figured out when I was 10% of the way in and shocked at how fast it was going).

Look at that cover.  The Murders of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson, has the title-cover one-two punch going for it.  The starkly pale face with the bright red streak of blood. How many people has she murdered? Is she even the killer?

From the beginning, where the character wakes up chained up in a basement, unsure who she is or where, we are left guessing.  A young woman comes in and says she needs to remember this story, cuts her own arm, and begins to narrate.

The novella is about Molly, who grew up on a small farm in England with her loving parents.  She is homeschooled and lives a solitary but happy life. Her parents guard her carefully, and no harm is allowed to come to her. When she is even slightly hurt--a small cut, a nosebleed--well, strange things happen. More mollies appear, which starts out fun but very quickly becomes dangerous.

My friend Katie once passed on a comment from her writing teacher: a novel talks about the turning point in a story, but a novella talks about the lead-up to that turning point.  In a novella, the end of the book is the Big Moment Where Something Happens. I'm not sure if this is meant to be a global truth (and I think I'm going to email Katie to ask), but I've thought about that a lot, and I think it's often true--good novellas frequently build tension all the way through at a steady pace and break the tension on the very last page.  It's not about the Big Moment happening or about the aftermath, but about the lead up to the Moment itself

I wouldn't have said that while I was reading this book, but in retrospect I think that's true. If it had been any longer, it would have had to be structured completely differently; I would not have been able to tolerate the steadily mounting tension, the difficult progression of Molly's life. 

But as it was, this was perfect; it's a perfect example of a story that takes a premise and spins out the life of the person who lives that premise.  Molly is curious and hard and strange and competent, and she has a life of many, many questions but very few answers. 

A very interesting story; I'm quite looking forward to whatever comes next for Tade Thompson.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Darkest Vision

M.T. Anderson wrote Feed, which is not to be confused with Mira Grant's Feed, but which is widely admired and which appears to have predicted the world of social media, though it was published in 2002.  I still haven't read it, but all those recommendations were what pointed me at his new novella, Landscape with Invisible Hand.

I got an ARC from Netgalley a while ago, but the format wasn't cooperating with my Kindle, so I ended up reading it when it came out, especially after I saw Librarian Sam reading it she told me how great it was.  I checked it out and started reading, and it is great--incredibly well written and perfectly portrayed. But my GOD, what a downer.

In Feed, Anderson anticipated the overwhelming role of social media in society; Landscape is about poverty, economics, and social stratification.  Basically, an alien race called the vuvv have introduced themselves to Earth, offered cultural and economic exchange, and some have come to live here. Their advanced technology changes everything.

In fact, it almost eliminates the need for a workforce.  Adam is a high school student and aspiring artist; his parents can't find work and everyone in his town is living hand to mouth.  Adam and his girlfriend sign up to be a vuvv reality show, where their dates are televised and translated. Of course, the vuvv's understanding of human culture is based mostly on old TV, so the only way to "authentically" date is to go bowling or for moonlit walks.  And if, at some point, they decide to break up, they might be in breach of contract.

This is a dark story, and it's very much about helplessness, and what you're left with when you not only have nothing, but see avenues closed off to you one by one.  When your health and your finances and your relationships are all collapsing, and there are no resources, and, and, and.  It reminds me of another recent read, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, by Linda Tirado, which is basically an account of being working-class poor in the US. There are specific points I would argue with that author, but her clear explanations of the logic of poverty just makes me outraged at everyone who fails to see that virtually every person is trying their hardest, and many of them are being screwed by the system.

Capitalism is rough, and a lousy social system. The vuvv treatment of humanity is exactly--precisely--how we treat the poor. The dystopia is that we're all living in the world that we've built for each other, but when we emerge from behind the veil of ignorance, we discover that we've all drawn the short straw that we expected someone else to get.

Well written and engrossing, I can't say it was a pleasure to read.  But it was worth it, and I actually liked the ending.  I couldn't have imagined an ending, happy or sad, that would satisfy me while I was reading it, but in the end it was what I needed. I definitely need to read more MT Anderson, though maybe not all at once.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Something on Sunday, 1/14

I keep thinking I'm going to pick back up with the blog posts and I keep not doing it.  I don't know why my word well is so dry these days. I'm reading good and mediocre and lovely books, ARCs that I want to share and fun kids books that my son is enjoying.

But I'm kind of mentally cocooning right now.  Maybe it's the job change, the change in my day-to-day patterns. I often stop chronicling my life just when I'm busiest living it, which means my journals are often REALLY boring.

Anyway, this week! I got my transcription project off the ground, and I'll link to it when it becomes a Real and True Thing, because I'm excited about that. Stay tuned for details!

I'm technically doing a friend-read of The Stone Sky, which I'm enjoying but SO SLOW about, so I'm the only one who's not done. I am determined to spend fully half of my time tomorrow reading it; I believe I can get close to the end by the end of the day. (And apologies to L and E for falling behind!)

Today is my mom's birthday, which is lovely, though I have not yet gotten her a gift.  I will think of something grand and glorious, make no mistake. She likes to travel; I'll find a way to put something toward her next trip.

I'm going to kick some serious butt in the upcoming week. I'm starting to feel like I have a handle on things, and I expect that I'm going to get some stuff done this week that convinces me I'm right.  Wish me luck!

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Something on Sunday, 1/7

Welcome, 2018! Nice to have you here.  I suspect there will be some nutso craziness in store for us, but I'm optimistic that the good people of our world will start to stomp out the garbage fire.

My happiness for the week:

1) I finished a proof-of-concept for a project I offered to do for someone six months ago and then ghosted on.  It's been a busy six months (quit two jobs, etc), but I am determined to put in time every week on it now.  So that's tomorrow's goal: finish the next transcript and send two and a reassurance that I'm still here.

2) A really nice snow day.  Often I feel trapped, but we had a great time.  Baked a pie, rearranged Adam's room, played a new game, read our books, etc. 

3) Sledding AND skating today!  A winter sportstraveganza!

My other goal tomorrow is to write a couple of book reviews and get back on that horse.  New year, new you, right?  Right!

Welcome to 2018, everyone!  I wish you the best.