Sunday, February 28, 2010

Month in Review: February

I know that technically this is the shortest month of the year, but it's really felt like it wouldn't end. I am SO READY for winter to be over - New York City has been essentially shut down twice this month thanks to the snowstorms.

I have to admit, that the way this city operates is still totally foreign to me in some ways. Back in Michigan we got hit with big snows all of the time, and while schools would be closed, the rest of life kept on going. Short of an actual, on-going blizzard, businesses still opened and people went shopping or out for lunch. Here in New York, if we get a couple of inches overnight, people seem to just give up on the entire day! My bosses were impressed with my tenacity on Friday - I went into the office despite living out in Queens, while both of them live in Manhattan and decided to work from home!

My blogging slowed down a little this month for a couple of reasons. I worked on a couple of major posts, such as my LGBT Lit recommendation page and the first two Twilight posts (still working on putting all of my thoughts together for my Twilight review, while still doing my regular blogging). Plus I had a major job interview (that was delayed by the first snowstorm - I'm still anxiously awaiting word on that one) and celebrated my first wedding anniversary! So making 19 posts in 28 days isn't quite so disappointing.

Like last month, less than half of my posts this month were actually reviews (9 out of 19 posts). I spent the rest of the posts rehashing book events, advertising blogging events or dissecting book-related news. Of the reviews I did get posted, I'd have to say Brooklyn Nine was by far my favorite, followed by Mare's War.

This was a fairly comment-intensive month - lots of posts garnered a comment or two, and some long-ish comment threads were sparked by my posts on Spotlight, as well as the post on updating books for contemporary audiences, sparked by the announcement of Disney's latest TV movie Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars. Please keep commenting! I read every single comment, and respond to as many as I can, even though sometimes it takes me a few days.

March is (hopefully) going to start off with a ton of reviews - I have at least half a dozen books I've read in the past week or two that I still need to write up. I know how I'm spending the rest of my day!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Book Thoughts: Updating Beloved Books

Over the past couple of years, word has been trickling out that several beloved children's series will be getting re-released and updated for the 21st century. First to get the treatment was Sweet Valley High, with references updated to include modern fashion, modern cars, and being a perfect size four. At the very end of 2009, word came out that The Baby-Sitter's Club would be the next up. I seem to remember reading somewhere that the fashion would be updated here, too, including Stacey now having "an expensive haircut" rather than her signature perm (please revisit all of the awesome BSC fashion at What Claudia Wore. True fact: in third grade we had a "dress like your favorite book character" day for spirit week, and I went as Claudia, rocking black & white stretch pants, a giant yellow and black button up shirt, and a magenta straw hat). There are even rumors that my beloved Animorphs will be reissued in April 2012 (no word on what sort of updates that could face).

The latest updating news isn't from publishing, but adapting a beloved work for TV: Disney is releasing a made-for-TV movie called Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars.

I'm not sure how I feel about any of these. My gut reaction to the Harriet update is to hate it, but I think it may be because the title reminds me of the atrocious-looking Bride Wars. Anyone else have any thoughts?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review: Border Crossing by Jessica Lee Anderson

Found via GalleyCat

Books about mental illness can be tricky things. It's easy to go over the top or get overtly sentimental and sad about such a debilitating condition. But I was still curious about Border Crossing, in no small part because it's also about a person of color. "Issue" books often seem to want to focus on only one issue at a time - thus characters default to white. Here, Anderson has created a compelling half-Mexican teen protagonist who is also struggling with the onset of schizophrenia.

Manz, the son of a Mexican immigrant father and a white mother, has never had an easy life. When his parents worked as apple pickers, they were moving constantly. After his father's death, he and his mom settled down, but life didn't get any easier. She's a hard drinker who's had a series of boyfriends. She seems to have settled down somewhat with Tom, but there are still lingering problems - like memories of the child she miscarried several years ago.

Now, Manz wants nothing more than to get out of his small Texas town, populated with lots of people who don't take kindly to having a Mexican, or even a half-Mexican, in their midst. Manz works as a day laborer, along with his friend Jed, in order to earn as much cash as he can towards getting the hell out of Rockhill.

But as the summer wears on, Manz finds himself becoming increasingly paranoid. People are listening to his thoughts and laughing at him behind his back. His friends and family are concerned about him, but the voices tell him they actually want him dead. He begins to wonder if maybe it really would be better if he were dead, and if maybe these were the same thoughts his dad was having before his fatal car crash.

Anderson does a great job weaving Manz's identity as a Mexican-American into his illness - Manz is paranoid immigration officers will think he's actually an illegal immigrant and deport him, or worse. It adds an element of personalization to the story - this could only be Manz's story, no one else's. One thing I would have liked to see, however, is a more immersive experience; even though it's a first person story, it's very clear to the reader when Manz is giving into the paranoia. I would have loved to see the lines between fantasy and reality much more blurred, so that the reader becomes part of Manz's delusions.

There's also a subplot involving Jed's family that just felt unnecessary in the context of the larger story. Jed has an abusive father, and Jed is the only one that stands up to him. But this has no larger influence on the plot; it's not like Jed's father's violent tendencies play into Manz's paranoia or anything. I felt it ultimately detracted from Manz's story.

Back on positive notes, I also like how this doesn't have a pat ending. Manz isn't cured by the end of the book, though he is in treatment. Anderson does a good job of showing that medicines and therapy aren't a magic cure, and that Manz still has a long way to go in the treatment of his illness.

Also positive: not a whitewashed cover!
Border Crossing by Jessica Lee Anderson cover

Good on Milkweed Editions - who sound like very cool publishers. They're a non-profit that "publishes with the intention of making a humane impact on society, in the belief that literature is a transformative art, uniquely able to convey the essential experiences of the human heart and spirit." Which is pretty darn awesome if you ask me.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Review: A Taste for Red by Lewis Harris

Found via: A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Svetlana (formerly known as Stephanie) Grimm is a vampire. Or, that's her self-diagnosis. After moving with her family and forced to start attending Sunny Hill Middle School (after a lifetime of homeschooling), she changes her name, starts wearing all black, will only eat red foods (blood is impractical, but red foods are the color of blood, so it makes sense a modern vampire would adapt) and sleeps under her bed (a coffin would attract too much attention and wouldn't allow her to roll over in her sleep). Oh, she can also sometimes read people's thoughts - extra sensory powers are a classic symptom of vampire-ness.

Svetlana's diagnosis seems to be confirmed on the first day of school, when her science teacher, Ms. Larch, talks to Svetlana inside her head. However, when Svetlana tentatively asks for confirmation that they're both vampires, all Ms. Larch can do is laugh.

In addition to Ms. Larch's strange behavior, there's also Ms. Bones, the ancient next door neighbor, who's been spying on Svetlana. It turns out, Ms. Bones is a vampire hunter - and Svetlana is one, too. Ms. Bones is a member of a vampire (and other supernatural creatures) hunting group - but everyone else is too sick, injured, or possibly dead, to help destroy Ms. Larch. When three of Svetlana's classmates disappear, it's up to Svetlana to destroy the local vampire and save the day.

More than anything else, I loved Svetlana's dry wit and unique perspective throughout the story. For example, when at the carnival she observes:
Another booth sported a lazy-looking chicken locked inside a glass case. The chicken did math. Honestly it was the cruelest thing I'd ever seen. Why would anybody force a chicken to do math? Why was this allowed?

I feel the same way, Svetlana.

I was hoping this would end up being a little more girl-power-y than it ended up. It's set up that Svetlana and Ms. Bones are going to team up to take down Ms. Larch - but then Ms. Bones breaks her leg, leaving Svetlana to recruit two boys from her class to assist her. Svetlana does do all of the heavy lifting in rescuing her missing classmates, however - the boys think she's nuts but tag along anyway.

This isn't a reinvention of the vampire story, but it's certainly a great addition to the genre for younger readers.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Links: NEW Magic Under Glass cover!

Remember the Magic Under Glass racefail? And Bloomsbury's correction, promising to re-jacket the book? Well the new cover has been announced!

Thanks to Reading Extensively!

And thanks also to Bloomsbury for taking this situation seriously, even if it was belatedly.

Review: Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Found via: Read Roger, Jan/Feb Horn Book Starred Reviews

Incarceron is the perfect fantasy story for me: it has a lot of the trappings of fantasy (pseudo-medieval clothing and social system and mystical characters), but it's also set firmly in the future, which means in my mind I can call it science fiction and be totally accurate.

This is how I justified reading The Dragonriders of Pern when I was in high school - so maybe this line of reasoning doesn't have the world's greatest track record (I kid, Pern fans).

Incarceron follows two stories that are eventually interconnected: Finn, a prisoner inside the horrid world of Incarceron, considered to be a starseer by his fellow inmates; and Claudia, the daughter of the warden of Incarceron, betrothed to marry the Queen's son, and chafing under the rules of Protocol. That Protocol is how we get a fantasy setting in a science fiction world: for reasons that are mostly unexplained, it was decided decades (centuries?) ago that humanity would revert to living in medieval style, with kings and queens and serfs and servants and castles and thatched roofs.

Though everyone in Incarceron knows no one has entered or left the prison since it was built, Finn has visions of life outside and believes he once lived outside of the prison. He collects a motley band of fellow inmates who believe him, and are willing to follow him and the mysterious key he has scavenged, a key that matches the mysterious mark on his arm.

Outside of Incarceron, Claudia is determined to learn its secrets, for even though her father is the warden he has never spoken of the prison to her. She doesn't even know where it's located. When she snoops in her father's office one day, she discovers a key to Incarceron - and is startled to discover it is also a way to communicate with inmates inside. Specifically, the inmate holding the matching key: Finn.

As Claudia's arranged marriage is quickly approaching, she spends much of her free time talking with Finn, trying to help him find a way out, and is startled to discover Incarceron isn't the Utopia she'd always been told it would be - that even though it was populated by criminals from before the introduction of Protocol, with proper food and education they would have created a paradise within the prison. As she speaks with Finn, Claudia becomes convinced that he's not just an ordinary prisoner - that in fact he may be a member of the royal family who died under mysterious circumstances several years back. If she can just get him out of the prison and prove who he is, she can avoid her marriage and overthrow the Queen.

Incarceron has all the marks of another great dystopian series (like so many books today, it's the start of a trilogy). There are lots of mysteries left to uncover in the second and third books. At the same time, there are a few hiccups here - a lot of the basic world building goes unexplained, most notably the Sapients. It's pretty clear that they aren't normal humans, and that they are somewhat respected as scholars (both in and out of Incarceron) - but we have absolutely no explanation of anything else about them. No physical description, nor explanation of how another sentient species is living with humans. While I'm fine with some things being left to be explored later in the series, since Sapients play large roles in Claudia's and Finn's lives, I would have liked to have more explanation of who they are.

The lack of background aside, however, this is a great addition to the explosion of dystopian YA we've seen over the last few years, and I'm definitely eagerly awaiting the next installment!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Book Links: Holy crap, there are a lot more dystopian books than I thought!

Came across a link in my blog reader this morning: Half a Century of English-Language YA Dystopias. They're organized by decade from the '60s to today. I love the explosion of books that happened in the first decade of the 21st century. She even has a bibliography of nonfiction works that address YA dystopias!

I consider myself to have read a lot of dystopian novels, but I have barely scratched the surface of that list. Which is simultaneously disappointing (really? Despite all of my efforts I've really only read a fraction?) and inspiring (a challenge to read more!)

If there wasn't so much awesome stuff coming out constantly, I would want to take a month and do nothing but catch up on this list. Maybe if I still had spring break or a summer vacation I would do that.

To complete this week of impromptu dystopian discussion, I'm going to have a review of Incarceron up later today!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Review: Serendipity Market by Penny Blubaugh

Found via: Kirkus Best YA of 2009

A month and a half into 2010 and I'm still catching up on 2009 titles. I blame my library for taking ages and ages to get new books in (and then arbitrarily deciding when I can and can't request paperbacks for interlibrary loans!). Keep your fingers crossed that I do well on that interview on Thursday so I can buy more books (and more bookshelves to hold them!)

Serendipity Market is more of a short story collection than a novel, though the stories are all told in order to support the novel's "plot." When Mama Inez notices that the spin of the Earth is off-kilter, she issues magical invitations to eleven guests who meet her at the Serendipity Market in order to tell their stories and set the world right again.

That's really the whole plot, and characters like Mama Inez don't get developed they way they would in a traditional novel. But the stories are just delightful enough to make up for this. Each story is a twist on an old fairy tale or nursery rhyme - "Cinderella" told by the lizard who is transformed into one of her coachmen, a Pecos Bill tall tale told by Sluefoot Sue, and "The Princess and the Pea" told by the prince (who isn't really looking for a princess) are just a few of the stories. I found myself skipping over the little bits of framing that surrounded the stories, because it just felt like it came out of nowhere - there's no explanation for why the Earth is off balance, why Mama Inez can detect it, or why the stories will set everything right again. I was much more interested in the stories themselves, and I think other fans of re-told fairy tales will like these short vignettes as well. They aren't quite re-imagined stories, as most of the major details are the same; rather the stories are just told from a different point of view, like the elves in "The Shoemaker and the Elves" telling the story of how they helped the shoemaker in exchange for a roof over their heads after they are separated from their family.

This is a quick read, and a nice light addition after reading some heavier-hitting books.

Once Upon a Time Challenge

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Book Links: Apocalypse Now

Dystopian fiction is an undeniably hot topic in YA literature, and lots of people seem preoccupied with figuring out why. Publisher's Weekly has a new article, Apocalypse Now that does the best job I've seen so far, talking to teens, publishing insiders, and retailers to find out why they think dystopian fiction is so popular.

The article also includes several upcoming titles that I hadn't heard of before, and now I absolutely can't wait for. Aside from last week's announcement of Mockingjay to complete the Hunger Games series (or as I now like to call them, "the books that creep out my mom"), I'm looking forward to This World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer (conclusion to the trilogy that began with Life as We Knew It and publishes in April), The Unidentified by Rae Mariz (teens go to school in a shopping mall where corporate sponsors watch them on video) and Nomansland by Lesley Hauge (comes out in June, teenage girls are defending their island from men, who are the enemies) are some of the ones that jumped out at me from the article. Looking for a comprehensive list of recent and upcoming dystopian YA? Publisher's Weekly also helpfully includes a list of titles with short annotations. My TBR spreadsheet just gained a whole bunch of titles. I did just knock off one dystopian title though; I finished Catherine Fisher's Incarceron last night - some excellent dystopian sf/fantasy there!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis

Winner: 2010 Coretta Scott King Author Honor

This one managed to stay under my radar for awhile. I have no excuses - if it's been under yours as well, consider this your wake up call to get a copy for yourself ASAP!

Octavia and her older sister Tali are under strict orders from their parents to look after their grandmother, Mare, as she takes them on a road trip from California to a family reunion in Alabama. Neither sister is very enthusiastic - Mare isn't your ordinary grandmother, from her name to her long painted finger nails, to driving like a maniac. She's an embarrassment more than anything else.

But the long drive leaves plenty of opportunities to talk (and talking is something Mare loves to do). She regales her granddaughters with stories from her long life, from working as a maid and helping raise her sister in joining the Women's Army Corp in World War II! Mare was a member of the 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-female, all-African-American battalion to serve in WWII. Mare tells of the extensive training she underwent, the harrowing journey across the Atlantic to England, and serving her tour of duty overseas, where attitudes towards blacks were far, far different from in the US.

I think if this had strictly been Mare's story, we'd be hearing this talked about in the same breath as Flygirl - two very different stories of African-American women in WWII, but similar in some respects. However, Mare's War feels a bit didactic at times; after any major revelation in Mare's story we need to cut back to Tali and Octavia reacting in horror that people were ever so uninformed. There are reaction chapters for everything from the implied abuse Mare and her sister suffered from their mother's boyfriends to racism in Europe to the revelation of a lesbian friend. While I appreciated the inclusion of these details in Mare's narrative, I felt like we were being hit over the head with the message that people in the past were Wrong (which they totally were, but did we need that message repeated with every injustice Mare faced?).

I absolutely loved Mare, both as a young woman and as a grandmother. I would have loved to have her as a grandmother when I was growing up. Well, I probably wouldn't have liked being dragged on a road trip, but other than that I thought she was just awesome. It's because of her characterization that I'm including this book in my list of books read for the Women Unbound reading challenge. Defining fiction books that fit into the challenge is a little trickier than non-fiction, but as this is a look at an important and interesting aspect of women's (and African-American) history, I feel it counts. Plus, an individual woman doesn't get more unbound than Mare!

Cover comments: Not one, not two, but three African American women on this cover!

At the book jacket literary cafe, the art director from Simon & Schuster mentioned that they'll often go with illustrated covers for books that are intended more for academic markets - books that fit in well with various bits of curriculum. The cover, combined with the occasional heavy-handedness on the Messages in the text, makes me think there was probably a big push to get this into classrooms and libraries.

Women Unbound Challenge

Friday, February 12, 2010

Review: Spotlight by John Granger (Part 2)

I spent Wednesday's snowpocalypse laying in bed trying to get rid of my cold and reading up on criticism of Spotlight. I really felt like I was back in college! I majored in Language, Literature and Writing, and spent as much of my time as possible critiquing popular works (I took a whole class in Harry Potter, took a film & literature course where my final paper was on the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and my senior thesis was on the Uglies series, just to name a few). I've considered getting my master's in comparative media studies so I can be like Henry Jenkins, or even John Granger, and make my living writing all academically about "silly" things.

All of that is simply meant to explain that I'm a huge dork and while I'm still not a Twilight fan (oops, spoiler alert for that eventual review!), I had a very geeky sort of fun going through this.

I'm going to first give my critique of the book and then, thanks to Jettboy's comment on my previous post, I'll include some of the online critiques of Granger's writing and my responses to those critiques.

Spotlight is divided into two halves: Part One is titled Taking Bella Seriously: Reading Twilight as Literature and Part Two is Twilight as an LDS Midsummer Night's Dream: Reading as Dream Interpretation. The first half uses a Jungian psychological theory to break down the text, focusing on why it appeals to so many readers, while the second half looks at the Mormon imagery in the text and how Meyer's religion may have influenced her.

Granger's chosen method of literary criticism is iconological criticism - I can't provide a link to further explanation of the subject because Granger seems to have coined that particular phrase. He links it back to Northrop Frye, but so far I haven't been able to find any non-Granger works that link the two. This is a habit of Granger's, apparently, because in order to delve into the fourth level of iconological criticism, the anagogical level that I said in my last post totally lost me originally, involves understanding literary alchemy. I eventually had to go to Facebook to ask my fellow lit major friends (some of whom have gone on to get their Masters in the subject) if they had ever heard of literary alchemy as an established theory. Again, Googling the term and related ones only brought me back to other pieces of Granger's work; he doesn't explain where this theory is grounded in Spotlight - he simply says he's discussed this more at length in his Harry Potter books. Eventually our collective research led us to the Wikipedia article on alchemy which explained the Jung connection. Granger simply asks us to "[p]retend as if you accept [literary alchemy] as gospel truth that English Literature from beginning to Twilight is frontloaded with alchemical devices and images" (113). Man, I wish I'd been able to get away with telling my college professors (or my speech judges!) that my model was correct and they just needed to go with it!

So while a lot of Granger's analysis seems to have merit on the surface, we are forced to simply accept his words as truth (unless we want to hunt down the original texts he cites - however I have a huge stack of non-academic books I want to read, so I'm going to take the easy way out and pass on that one).

As I said in the Spotlight event recap, iconological criticism has four levels: surface, moral, allegorical and anagogical. The first two levels are pretty self-explanatory: on the surface we have a love story with some action thrown in at the end of each book and the moral (from Granger's perspective) is the great post-modern moral of rejecting the dominant cultural narratives and embrace those who are discriminated against. We root for the underdog, in this case the misunderstood Cullens who just want to live in peace, against the Powers That Be, the Volturi and other human-eating vampires.

The next two levels, allegorical and anagogical, require a little more legwork. The primary allegory is the entire saga re-casting the story of the Garden of Eden. Edward represents God and Bella the human who wants to know him. There are additional allegories, such as the Cullen family as a positive allegory for Mormons, a zombie allegory in New Moon, and all of the vampires that appear at the end of Breaking Dawn are supposed to be allegories for religious and other groups that are seen as sympathetic towards Mormons (except for the Amazon feminists...even Granger acknowledges there's a gap there. I'll have more on that and other gaps later), but primarily we're looking at a Medieval-style morality play about the Fall of Man (and thus it's fitting that we use iconological criticism, which has its roots in how stories were interpreted in Medieval times. At least according to Granger). Why are these allegories so important? Because "the reason we and millions of other readers around the world respond to these stories is that their allegorical and anagogical meanings are about the central drama and relationship of human existence - our life with God - told in compelling, engaging fashion" (76).

And here's where I need to pause and give my first critique of Granger. I know he's a religious man and part of his interest in literary criticism is about representations of faith in texts, but I find it to be quite presumptuous that he believes all Twihards are searching for an engaging story about God. If that were true, the only Twilight-haters would be die hard atheists. Granger makes several similar comments throughout the book that clearly imply his own biases, which puts me off a lot. I find reading about religion fascinating, but that doesn't make me a believer of any particular one I'm reading about.

Okay, now that that first bit is out of the way, we can try to tackle this anagogical layer.

Granger never provides a cut-and-dried definition of what he means here. He says "the anagogical or sublime meaning of a text is that layer of artistry, almost always beneath our conscious experience on first and even after multiple readings, that corresponds with, stimulates, and fosters our spiritual orientation and transformation" (10). If we understand the surface level of a story as information or data, the anagogical layer is spiritual knowledge or wisdom (17). He also compares it to finally getting a proof in geometry, but since I don't think I ever did a proof correctly, that comparison is lost on me, too (100). Dictionary.Com tells me it means of or pertaining to anagoge, which is "a spiritual interpretation or application of words, as of Scriptures." And this is where he begins to pull in the literary alchemy, using ancient ideas of alchemy to break down a story into three stages: a black period of dissolution or darkness, a white period of purification, and finally the red period of "spiritual accomplishment or perfection" (115). In Harry Potter, the last three books are respectively the black, white and red periods of Harry's story. For Twilight, the black period begins with New Moon (which coincidentally stars Jacob Black), then Eclipse and Breaking Dawn are the white and red stages. Granger acknowledges that, at least while writing New Moon, Meyer probably didn't recognize she was writing an alchemical story, but she has said she based New Moon on Romeo and Juliet and Breaking Dawn was based on both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Merchant of Venice, "all Shakespeare alchemical dramas" and thus by the time she was starting Breaking Dawn surely she had to recognize what she was doing (120).

There's more alchemy stuff, but I need to stop right here for another critique. Granger claims the alchemical drama is a staple of English literature - and I'm not really going to argue with him there. However in his talk last week Granger mentioned that he was sure Meyer was aware of all of this alchemy stuff because she studied English at Brigham Young University. I'm not going to say Eastern Michigan University is as illustrious a school as BYU, but I can tell you right now that studying "English" is not necessarily comparable to studying "English literature." In comparisons with Harry Potter, JK Rowling has said in interviews that she studied alchemy to figure out how she wanted her magic to work (though nowhere that I've seen did she say she studied alchemical literary theory - it's a bit of a jump in my mind to go from "what did alchemists try to do" to "how can alchemy work as a metaphor for a story's structure"), plus her stories actually qualify as being English literature since she's British and all. So if alchemy is a great English literary tradition it probably rubbed off on her in some respect, research or no. Stephenie Meyer, however, could easily have gone through an American degree program in English without spending much time at all on great works of English literature (I certainly structured my degree that way!). So without more evidence, I'm calling shenanigans on any of this alchemy stuff actually being intentional on any level. That includes the black/white/red covers - Meyer apparently was unprecedentedly involved in designing the cover of Twilight, but didn't have as much influence on later ones (as per her New Moon FAQ) - which is when she would have figured out this alchemy stuff according to Granger. Most likely the covers are all black/white/red because the first one was and, as I learned on Saturday, in a series art directors like to go for some sense of visual continuity. Striking still lifes in a limited color palette would seem to do the trick if you ask me.

With the main part of his literary criticism out of the way, I have only one more note on the subject, which comes from the lists of 10 included at the end of the book (shamelessly riffing on the top ten lists at the end of the "Dummies" books). In the list of "Ten Things the Critics Got Wrong About Twilight," Granger includes:
Reading Mrs. Meyer's books as transparencies not of historical or supernatural referents but of sociological or economic meaning (via Marxist, feminist, and deconstructive exegesis) is to skip over why the books appeal to readers. Worse, it explains why they are popular because of readers' politically incorrect or immature understanding, even their sexist, racist and class driven beliefs. This neglects Eliade's thesis in favor of a bizarre, alternate understanding of why people read, say, that the herd reads in order to confirm their moral, political, and social misconceptions. Is that why you read? Me neither (242).

First of all, I found the continual use of "Mrs." and "Mr." throughout the book rather annoying - I get annoyed reading the New York Times, too - but that's just me. What really kind of irked me here is his dig at other types of literary criticism. While Granger is correct that those types of criticism aren't intended to delve into why a book is necessarily popular, I take exception to "Is that why you read? Me neither." Why isn't the point of these other criticisms - but how we engage with a text is. And quite frankly, Twilight does pander to some awful sexist stereotypes - there's no escaping that (more spoilers for my review!) I don't think the books are popular because of those tropes, but I find it extremely disconcerting that so many people can overlook them.

All of that is just the summary of the first half of the book. This is thick, academic-style stuff. Now for the religious half:

The second half has three major chapters, examining the series as the work of a Mormon artist, a Mormon apologist, and a Mormon apostate - or how her faith influenced the novels, what parts stand out as wish fulfillment style arguments against criticisms of her faith, and then where she actively criticizes her faith. This is where people tend to get up in arms about Granger's work.

From what I can tell, Granger did indeed do a great amount of research - there's an extensive bibliography at the end of the book. Some of what he read was written by Mormons, and some wasn't. What was written by Mormons he says had a pasteurized quality, following the principle of "progressive truth" where Mormon missionaries are to speak about the "more conventional elements of the faith" before more difficult tenets (155). This means that in a lot of online critiques, Granger is accused of harboring anti-Mormon sentiments because he is citing the works of non-Mormons (who may or may not have held an anti-Mormon grudge - I haven't done further research into these authors and while Granger certainly didn't sound anti-Mormon in his talk that doesn't mean his analysis is perfect or free from anti-Mormon bias given his research sources).

It is also in this section that some of those "gaps" I mentioned earlier come into more prominence. For example, the three Cullen couples are supposed to represent the Holy Trinity, or the mind, the body and the spirit in a slightly more secular sense. But then there's Edward who is God and/or Jesus (God when Bella is seeking religion, but Jesus in the sense that she can only seek salvation (being a vampire) through him). Of course, God and Jesus are usually part of the trinity, and Granger acknowledges this...but doesn't really resolve it. There's a similar gap when we come to Bella's transformation into a vampire and Renesmee's presence. Renesmee is the child of a god and a human and "saviour" who has "brought peace between the Quileutes and Cullens and revealed the Volturi for the evil they are" - yet it is Bella who has undergone a baptism by blood and a three day resurrection process and actively saves lives in that final confrontation (145). So who the hell is the Messianic figure - Edward, Bella or Renesmee? There's never a resolution.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post (it seems so long ago!), Jettboy linked me to criticism of Granger's work written by an actual Mormon. So far I haven't been able to find any criticism of Spotlight itself; Jettboy's link critiques one of Granger's blog posts, and another post critiques an article Granger published in the November/December 2009 edition of Touchstone, a Christian journal. So some of the specifics of both of those blog posts become a little outdated when it comes to reading the full book (for example: Tyler Chadwick in the first article wishes that Granger had read Saturday's Werewolf, which is in fact cited at length in Spotlight)

The biggest problem these self-identified Mormon's seem to have with Granger's work is it comes across as anti-Mormon to them. I have a whole bunch of notes where I try to rebut their criticisms in order to "prove" Granger isn't anti-Mormon, but about halfway through I realized that I am totally the wrong person to be making that argument - just like I as a white woman don't get to correct a black person about issues of racism and I don't appreciate men telling me something isn't actually sexist, as a non-Mormon myself I can't really say what is actually anti-Mormon. So there's little I can engage with on that level - except to say that I think calling Granger an anti-Mormon is needlessly combative, just like calling someone a racist or a sexist doesn't solve those arguments, either - it's much more productive to call out the specific offensive action or word.

However, some of what they call out as anti-Mormon I had problems with as well, though for a different reason. Granger has clearly done some extensive research into Mormon history - even if some of that history was written by people with less-than-positive views of the religion. However, some of these ideas (the Mountain Meadows Massacre inspiring a dream about a meadow, Mormonism actually having roots back in 17th century England where Carlisle just happens to live before becoming a vampire) are so esoteric that I question whether someone would know them without doing extensive research. Especially if these ideas are considered anti-Mormon by the faithful, would Stephenie Meyer, a devout Mormon but by no means a fanatic or a scholar, really have come across them? Would they have stuck with her enough to form such important parts of her story? That's where my skepticism really comes in.

So what's my final verdict on Spotlight? It definitely raises some interesting questions, and provides some objective history of the writing process of the books (for example, Meyer says that the inspiration for her vampires comes more from Marvel superheroes than from vampire mythology. In some ways that makes them much more palatable to me!). If you're a geek like I am an enjoy applying scholarly thinking to popular works, you'll definitely get some enjoyment out of this - provided you can look past the fact that you've probably never before heard of any of the tools Granger uses. I'm still not a Twilight fan, but I'm definitely thinking about the books in a new light now.

The next post in this series will finally address my review of Twilight!

Previous post in this series:

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blogging Event: Ada Lovelace Day 3/24/10

Thanks to the potential snowmaggedon/snowpocalypse/snOMG, yesterday my interview was postponed until this afternoon, leaving a few free moments for me to put up this quick hit:

Ada Lovelace Day is being celebrated on March 24th this year. It's a day to recognize the contributions women have made in the fields of science and technology. Bloggers pledge to make a post on March 24th about a woman in science; I'm pledging to review a book that day. Want to join in the pledge with me?

More about the celebration, and Ada Lovelace, can be found on their website. Fellow Scott Westerfeld fans already know Ada Lovelace was the first computer programer, loooooooong before we had computers, as she is featured in the Midnighters trilogy.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Book Events: Children's Literary Cafe - Book Jackets

Last time I wrote about one of these I attracted a little bit of controversy - let's see if I can make it through unscathed this time!

While half of the country was digging out from Snowmageddon this weekend, NYC had a few flurries and some vicious winds. Yet that was apparently enough bad weather to knock the subways out of whack for awhile, meaning that instead of arriving 10 minutes early for this month's Cafe, I was almost ten minutes late, but the first speaker, John Rocco, didn't seem too far into his remarks, so I don't think I missed much more than introductions.

John Rocco, probably most famous now for illustrating the covers for the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, went over a bit of his biography and how he ended up on track as the "re-do" guy. He was illustrating another Hyperion book when he was sent the original version of The Lightning Thief which had a rather un-inspiring cover. When asked if he could re-do the jacket, he said "of course!" despite never having done a jacket before! After sales of The Lightning Thief shot through the roof, he's re-done several more covers, either when the original jacket just wasn't working, or updating a cover for a new printing.

In the wider blogosphere discussion about race and representation on book covers, it's been said often that jacket illustrators don't often read the manuscript of the book they're given. I didn't have a chance in the question portion to ask if this really was standard, but John says he reads every book he's given to work on. He tries not to show faces, choosing to either obscure them shadow or have a character facing away from the reader, appearing to look into the book, which he finds to be more inviting than a character looking out at him. Like I said, I didn't have a chance to ask if his way of doing things was standard or not, but I imagine he might have more leeway than other jacket illustrators because he's currently enjoying quite a bit of prestige and since he's the re-do guy, the publisher's are acknowledging that something didn't work the first time around and they want someone else to take a stab at it.

The next speaker was Laurent Linn, the art director for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. He had some really great insights and an entertaining slide show!

He opened by talking a bit about how the dreaded economy has affected the publishing industry - kids books (including YA) are doing slightly better than adult books, but everyone's hurting right now. Because all of the publisher's are still vying for your dime, the sales and marketing departments have a lot more say over cover design now than they used to. Basically, the publishers are scared and don't want to take chances - if covers with girls on them have been selling well, the marketing department doesn't want to veer too far away from that into an arty cover. It's the same reason why all of the movies now are remakes of other movies or media franchises and the shows on Broadway are revivals - the sales and marketing people think we consumers will only spend our hard earned money on sure bets for entertainment.

Laurent works with both picture books and YA books and has a slightly different process for each. With children's picture books, he gives the manuscript to the artist and doesn't say anything else - after all, he's hired that artist because of their skills, and doesn't want to interfere there. The cover is usually the first thing an artist will create so it can go to sales & marketing and be seen by all sorts of other people while the artist finishes the rest of the book.

Of course, sometimes this process is smoother than others. Laurent walked us through the absolutely nightmarish process of completing the cover for the book The Lion Who Hugged - first the artist refined her style over the course of illustrating the book, which meant the cover didn't quite fit with the rest of the book. Then some people didn't like how one character on the cover looked. Then someone decided the cover illustration was too broad and needed to be narrowed, and so on and so forth. I think the illustrator had to totally redo the cover three or four times! What a nightmare.

For YA books, there are different "rules" for what covers "should" look like - children's books obviously are almost always illustrated covers. Middle Grade novels are also usually illustrated. Young Adult novels, however, must have a photographic cover - unless it's fantasy, then you can go back to illustration. Want to convey that your novel is truly a literary work rather than mere entertainment? Add "a novel" under the title.

For photographic YA covers, it seems like Laurent is often the designer for the whole process, especially since he rarely has the budget to order a photoshoot to create original art for a book. So he spends his time going through stock photography and playing with images and fonts in Photoshop until there's a final image everyone is happy with. When books move from hardback to paperback, every title is considered individually when it comes to redesigning the cover. Sometimes serious, literary covers in hardback will be changed to something lighter for the paperback release, since paperbacks are seen as more for pure entertainment than hardbacks.

Several questions were asked in the Q&A session that I didn't get to take down because I was trying to figure out how to phrase my own question (which I finally figured out just when we were told there was time for one more question! Since I was in the back of the room, thanks to being late, I wasn't seen in time). However I did make note of one - there was a question about ebooks and how that's affecting children's publishing. Laurent said that the numbers he'd heard were 20% of adult books being sold were ebooks, while just 2% of YA and MG books being sold were ebooks. However, those numbers represented additional readers - the people downloading ebooks are the ones who wouldn't consider buying a traditional book anyway, so these additional formats are just helping to get books into the hands of more people, which I found quite interesting.

Thanks to the NYPL for hosting another great event!

Regarding my next Twilight post: that's going to be another few days - I've finished the book but now I have to go over my notes and read up on a lot of critical responses to Granger's work; I feel like I'm in college again! I'm definitely enjoying it, but now I'm coming down with a cold (ugh) and tomorrow I have an interview for a new job! So keep your fingers crossed for me tomorrow morning, that I do well in the interview and don't sneeze all over everyone there, and regularly scheduled blogging will continue on Thursday (I hope!)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Review: IraqiGirl ed. by Elizabeth Wrigley-Field

Found via: Galleycat Blog

In elementary school, I loved reading diaries from girls in war-torn areas; I had a strange preoccupation with war, actually. I read Anne Frank's diary, of course, and I actually bought Zlata's Diary at a book fair (I didn't, and still don't, actually buy many books, thanks to finite shelf space). So even though it's been a long time since I read either of those books, I figured I'd devour IraqiGirl with the same enthusiasm.

Not quite true.

IraqiGirl is a compendium of the blog kept by a girl called Hadiya (a pseudonym) from mid-2004 through the end of 2007. She lives in Mosul, Iraq, which of course has been a hotbed of violence since the beginning of the war in Iraq. Hadiya writes often of the effect the war is having on her life - car bombs blowing out the windows of her house and curfews cancelling exams - as well as her attempts to pursue a normal life: babysitting her niece, studying for exams, worrying about her grades as she nears the end of high school and must choose where to study in college.

While an on-the-ground perspective is always interesting, there is so much that is foreign about life in Iraq that goes unexplained in the book that I quickly grew tired of trying to keep track. It seems like Hadiya is constantly taking exams, and then there are idiosyncrasies like every student in the country taking their Islam exam on the same day. In the US we all take the SAT exam around the same time, but that of course is a multi-subject exam. It's also difficult to follow how much time has passed, as Hadiya isn't a consistent blogger (for multiple reasons - after all, it's hard to blog if your neighborhood doesn't have any electricity).

Occasionally there are notes in the text about events Hadiya references, explaining about the rash of doctors being kidnapped or a prominent blogger who was punished. There are also a few excerpts from the comments in Haidya's blog and chat transcripts with the people who eventually arrange for her blog to be published. Haidya's whole family actually blogs, so there's even a blog post from her father. I actually think it would have been most interesting to compile the blogs of the whole family into one book (Hadiya's mother, father and one of her sisters all blog, as well as various extended family members) since Hadiya will sometimes say something like "you can read this on my sister's blog"...but since books don't have hyperlinks and the editors didn't choose to add the pertinent entry from her sister, we don't get any further information.

Current fans of the diary format might find more to enjoy in this one than I did. And anyone who's interested in more of Hadiya's story can continue to follow her blog here.

Nonfiction Monday Thanks to Great Kids Books for hosting Nonfiction Monday this week!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Book Events: Spotlight on Twilight (Part 1)

While looking for something to do "out on the town" last night, I came across a press release for a Twilight event happening at a branch of the New York Public Library. I had nothing better to do, so I figured why not go waste an hour there? I actually read the first Twilight book back at the end of December, and I've spent the last month trying to figure out how to put my thoughts into a relevant blog post; this seemed like a perfect hook! Some guy yammering on about how Twilight actually has a deeper meaning, and then me saying "Nope, wrong!" and pulling apart the book! Slam dunk blog post.

Except, if you noticed the title, this blog post is just part one. I sat down at the beginning of the night thinking I'd recap the event and the book in one post. Then as things got interesting I thought one post to recap followed by my own Twilight thoughts. Then I went and bought his freaking book so now you get this recap post, a review of Spotlight followed finally by my own Twilight thoughts. My first blog series! I'm so excited.

So let's dive in, shall we?

First of all: once again, I was one of the youngest people in the room. Right before the event started a few girls who looked like they were probably still in college slipped in, but the vast majority of the audience looked like they were grandparents of Twilight fans. I find it really weird that I go to these events on children's and YA literature and where I suspect I should be the oldest and instead find myself feeling like a whippersnapper intruding on the grown ups' space.

John Granger has previously made a name for himself as the Hogwarts Professor - he was one of the first writing academically to defend the Harry Potter novels, and his approach to both HP and Twilight were very similar. He started out sure that he was going to hate both series, but quickly found himself fascinated by them and wanting to examine them more deeply.

He's also intrigued by the backlash these super popular books receive. Sales figures for both the Harry Potter and Twilight series are astronomical (he said the estimate is that by the time the second Deathly Hallows movie is released roughly one billion Harry Potter books will have been sold), yet many people claim they're trash and hardly worth reading and anyone who does read them is childish (a defensible stance if you're actually a child but not if you're a professional adult). So when Granger comes across a book as phenomenally successful as these ones have been, he has three questions he asks: Why is it so popular? Why do some people hate it? What is the author's takeaway message?

The answer to the first one is fairly simple: these books do what we want a book to do, ie tell a good story. Both Harry Potter and Twilight tell some very fundamental stories - neither JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer reinvented the wheel here. If we use the traditional methods of literary criticism, Twilight falls apart in seconds flat - the kindest thing you can say about Meyer's prose is it is pedestrian, with a vocabulary no higher than high school (almost exactly my original thoughts). But with over 70 million books sold, there really has to be more going on here then all of us losing our minds and finding pedestrian writing to actually be amazing.

So Granger uses iconological criticism, which dates back to medieval reading techniques, using four "senses" to break down a book: 1. Surface (what's the plot?) 2. Moral (who are the good guys, who are the bad? Still the surface, but with a little more texture) 3. Allegorical (going beneath the surface, seeing what else the text represents) 4. Anagogical (mythic elements). When a story can hit all four of these elements, then you come away with a story that speaks to part of the human experience and will draw a wide audience.

I don't want to give point by point details explaining everything about these four points, so I'll simply bullet point some highlights:

  • Narrative voice is one of the first choices and author makes - and if you don't like that choice you won't like the book. This is clearly a problem for a lot of people regarding Bella - to a lot of us she comes across as a terrible character so we simply don't want to be inside her head for a whole book, let alone four huge books.
  • The core moral resonates with us because it is explicitly the greater moral narrative of 21st century post-modernity (Confession: when this part of the lecture started, I zoned out and tweeted a shoutout to my college post-modernism professor who I couldn't freaking stand). That moral? The 21st century meta-narrative (those in power are good and right) is absolutely wrong and it's those that are discriminated against that are the true heroes (in this case, the Cullen-clan of vampires are misunderstood and persecuted by the vampire Powers That Be for their non-human-eating ways)
  • The principal allegory of the series is God's love for man and man's longing for an eternal relationship with him. Also? It's a blatant retelling of the Adam and Eve story from Genesis.
  • The anagogical level totally lost me. I think you'll have to wait for me to actually finish reading the book before I can fully explain this part. Spent a lot of time talking about some of the tenets of the LDS religion at this point and we were running short on time so my notes are a muddled mess.

Essentially, Granger's argument boils down to we can't understand Twilight without understanding Mormonism. I haven't studied Mormonism or finished reading Spotlight, so I can't speak on this as an expert, but he provided some credible examples. For instance, large parts of the Cullen-family story and Bella's story can be read as a whitewashed version of Mormon history. Meadows are frequently represented because when Meyer had her famous dream of Edward and Bella in a meadow, several books had just been published about the Mountain Meadows massacre where Mormons slaughtered over a hundred people emigrating to California. In Twilight, the Cullens are representative of the Mormon faith, and they are far from violent. In reality, the Mormon faith is an extremely evangelical one - yet when human-eating vampires visit Forks, Carlisle makes no attempt to win them over to his peaceful ways.

And, here's the part that blew my mind last night and piqued everyone's interest on Twitter and Facebook: Granger makes what is, at least on the surface, a credible argument for at least a small feminist plot point in the Twilight series.

In one of the novels, we learn Rosalie Hale's backstory: she lived in 1915 in Rochester, NY. She was attacked (presumably raped) by a man named Royce King II and left for dead. When Carlisle Cullen comes across her, he turns her into a vampire, at which time she goes on a roaring rampage of revenge against King and his buddies who attacked her.

Which just sounds like a dark and depressing back story, right? Until you know some Mormon history, for an Emma Hale was the wife of Joseph Smith Jr, the founder of the Mormon church. Meyer has spoken often of how carefully she chooses her names; there's no way a devout Mormon would have chosen a name like "Hale" without thinking of the association with Emma Hale. Additionally, when we disect the name of Royce King, "Royce" means King, King of course means King, and II is akin to being a "Jr." Joseph Smith Jr was crowned king of the world twice. And if you have a feminist bone in your body, you might understand why Emma Hale may have disliked the twice-crowned king of the world - when Smith received the revelation regarding polygamy, it allegedly included God scolding Emma Hale for talking bad about polygamy behind her husband's back. So the story of Rosalie Cullens' rape, death and revenge is actually a feminist wish-fulfillment fantasy where the wife of Joseph Smith Jr. seeks revenge for him speaking ill of her when looking for a way to get more wives.

Yeah, it blew my mind, too. I'm not saying Twilight is a feminist novel by any stretch of the imagination, and I don't think Granger wanted to imply that either, but it's a hell of an interesting way to look at a novel that is often considered actively anti-feminist.

Ultimately? I'm so glad that I stumbled across that press release and decided to go last night. John Granger was a fun speaker who definitely has a way of reading Twilight that is totally opposite from how I read it. He has a number of speaking engagements lined up over the next couple of months, discussing both Harry Potter and Twilight; if he's going to be near you I highly recommend going out to listen. Perhaps your mind will be blown as well. Also exciting for me: he's reading The Hunger Games! He claims they're lacking a little on the anagogical layer, which is why they aren't the runaway bestseller that HP & Twilight are. Hmph.

I'm hoping to finish reading Spotlight over the weekend, so part 2 of this series can go up next week!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Book thoughts: As if we didn't have enough privileges to deal with...

Saw a link this morning through @PWKidsBookshelf to a Salon article: Why is Braille Dying?.

Apparently only 10% of blind kids today learn Braille. Apparently even the governor of New York doesn't read Braille. Instead, blind people are relying upon audio books, text-to-speech translators, or good old fashioned personal assistants to convey the printed word to the visually impaired. The Salon bloggers (the byline is for Stephen Towey and Helen Cota), however, seem to think this is a great travesty, because their minds wander while listening to audio books and there are studies that show we process audio information differently than printed information. There is no mention however that this difference in processing is inferior, or if these studies have been conducted using people who don't have the option of reading visually.

Ultimately, the entire blog post comes off as the biggest piece of ableist blogging I've seen in a long time.

What do I mean by ableist? This article totaly privileges the neurotypical and physically typical reading experience. Now, if it were a pair of blind bloggers bemoaning the lack of Braille literacy that would be one thing, as the NYT article that inspired the Salon bloggers includes, but judging from the Salon bloggers' home blog, they wear glasses but aren't legally blind. This is akin to people with normal hearing insisting cochlear implants are necessary for deaf children, or a white person explaining to everyone upset by Bloomsbury that the publishers didn't actually do something racist, or a man mansplaining feminism to us poor little women.

I'm sure the authors meant well - after all, all of us who care about books and reading are invested in improving literacy and wanting as many people as possible to share our passion for the written word. But to claim that our way of reading is superior to other forms of information attainment is able-ist and patronizing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Review: The Comet's Curse by Dom Testa

Found via: Jen Robinson's Book Page

I've read several reviews on this one...and of course the one review that I want to link to now is the one I never saved! Argh. How frustrating.

Also frustrating: How myself and that one unfindable reviewer seem to be the only ones not enamored with The Comet's Curse.

In the not-too-distant future, the comet Bhaktul passes near enough to Earth that its tail passes through our atmosphere. However, instead of being just another fascinating astronomical event, it turns out that Bhaktul was carrying microscopic particles in its tail that are fatal to humans over the age of 18.

As adults around the world start to die in droves, Dr. Zimmerman is one of the few who realizes that instead of wasting time trying to develop a cure before all the adults die, his energy should be focused on saving at least a sliver of the human race. And so the Galahad project is born - choosing 251 teenagers to be sent on a 5 year space flight to begin colonizing another planet.

The teenagers are the best and the brightest 15 and 16 year olds from around the world, and the best of the best make up the Council that will govern the ship and the crew. Guiding the Council and helping to maintain the ship is Roc, the ship's smart-alec computer system.

But on Earth, not everyone is happy with Dr. Zimmerman's plans. Whether they disagree with his methods of choosing a crew, or his focus on space, they write letters and protest and use everything within their means to foil the launch. Nothing seems to succeed - that is, until a few days after the Galahad has launched, and there are mysterious sightings and incidents of vandalism throughout the ship. Just when the Galahad crew thought they were safe, it seems a new problem has followed them on board.

I've mentioned before that I really like stories where all of the adults are gone. I'm sure a psychologist would have a field day with that, but there you have it. However, The Comet's Curse left way too many questions and leaps in logic for me to really remain interested. It seemed like all of the adults were just giving up on Earth as soon as the Bhaktul virus/plague/epidemic began - negating the fact that all of these children and teenagers still had several years to live before the virus would even start affecting them. This isn't like other stories where when you turn 18 you immediately sicken and die - Dr. Zimmerman lasts more than two years before even starts to fall ill. Plus I really doubt imminent death is the factor that's going to convince teenagers to stop having babies.

Also never explained: why 251 teenagers? That seems like a really small number for repopulating a civilization. In Battlestar Galactica they were concerned about repopulating and they had more than 100 times more people than the Galahad carried!

This is supposed to be the beginning of a six part series, but I really don't see how the drama is going to hold up for six books. This book is told half through flashbacks from the development of the Galahad project - but those flashbacks cover the entire development, so there's nothing else to add there. After the crew dispatches the danger presented in this particular book, it seems like there are only so many more options for drama and they would get old well before book 6.

On a positive note? This isn't a future where America saves the world. The crew is definitely multi-cultural, and the Chinese-born second in command is even featured on the cover. Unfortunately many of the characters felt thin, and the romances that Testa is setting up have all the heft of a soap opera (really: one guy observes the girl he likes hugging another guy in a moment of triumph and immediately decides that she really must like that guy. Never mind no one knew this guy was in close enough proximity to hug as well, or the fact that they were celebrating not being dead - if I'd just averted a disaster, I'd be hugging whoever was closest too, whether I liked them, or liked them, or not).

If you're a fan of the "all adults are gone/dying" genre, you might want to give this one a try, if just to satisfy your own curiosity. It's a short read so it wouldn't require too much of an investment. If you're not already a fan of the genre, however, there are plenty of other titles you should seek out first!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Recs: LGBT Lit

One of my favorite YA subjects to read is LGBT literature. As I wrote in my first GLBT Reading Challenge mini-challenge, it was a book about a bisexual girl that changed my life. So I continue to seek out these books to continue to affirm my own identity on the spectrum of sexuality, and I highlight them in my blog as part of my commitment to LGBT visibility.

My primary motivation here is to highlight the books that are about more than being gay. LGBT stories can easily fall into the "problem novel" equation - the entire book is about someone coming to terms with their sexuality and coming out to those around her or him. Many of these are gripping and moving stories - but I'm all about diversity. I want to see more stories where a character's non-heterosexual-orientation is just one more aspect of their character. Heterosexual characters have all sorts of adventures in literature - why do gay kids only get to mope about how no one will accept them?

Because I want this list to be as useful for as many people as possible, I am also going to include some classic and great coming out stories, as well as stories featuring great LGBT characters in the supporting cast. This list only includes titles I've already read - but I am always accepting suggestions! Leave a comment or e-mail me at angela.craft AT gmail DOT com with your recommendations. I might not be able to post full blog reviews for every title, but it will at least get added on here.

All links lead to my previous reviews here on the blog.

Classic LGBT Lit:
These are the stories that started it all for LGBT YA.
Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the SilenceAm I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence ed. by Marion Dane Bauer. The first LGBT book I read, this is a collection of short stories written by some of the top YA writers in the mid-90s, including Bruce Coville, M.E. Kerr, Nancy Garden, Francesca Lia Block and Gregory Maguire. Great variety of stories.

Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden. First published in 1982 and never out of print sense, the story of Liza and Annie who fall in love in New York City. Also features a pair of lesbian teachers who are stigmatized for their homosexuality. Considered to be the first YA LGBT book with a happy ending, it's still far more melodramatic than a lot of contemporary books, but a must-read for anyone interested in the subject.

Deliver Us from Evie by M.E. Kerr. Evie's orientation isn't the focus of this novel, told from the POV of her younger brother, but does provide some great insights into small town and family dynamics.

Coming Out Stories:
Contemporary stories of coming out and fitting in

Geography Club by Brent Hartinger. Russell is sure he's the only gay boy in his high school, but when he discovers his crush is actually gay as well, the two, along with Russell's best friend Min and her girlfriend, form the 'Geography Club' as a front for getting together to share their experiences.

Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez. Nelson is out to the world and in love with his best friend, Kyle. Kyle looks and acts straight, but since he hangs out with Nelson he's pegged for gay. Jason is an athlete trying to sort out his feelings, and the object of Kyle's affections. Their stories continue in Rainbow High and Rainbow Road.

More Than Their Orientation:
Most LGBT stories focus on the coming out process; here's what to read when you want to see gay kids doing something more than angsting

Another Kind of Cowboy by Susan Juby. Alex comes to terms with his sexuality while taking lessons in dressage horse riding, along with Cleo, a spoiled girl with no interest horses.

Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters. A chilling look at teen dating violence in a lesbian relationship.

Queer romances - everyone has a soft spot sometimes, right?

Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd. During Dade's last summer at home, he ends his relationship with the super-closeted Pablo, and starts seeing Alex, the local pot dealer.

Ash by Malinda Lo. Cinderella retold, this time with Cinderella falling for the King's Huntress rather than a prince.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan. Nic attends a summer camp for gifted students and falls in love with the beautiful and enigmatic Battle. Its Nic's first crush on a girl, but she angsts more about whether Battle will like her back than anything else.

Rules for Hearts by Sara Ryan. The sequel to Empress, this is Battle's story the summer before she goes to college when she spends time with an eccentric theatre troupe, sorting our her feelings for her fellow actors as well as her brother.

LGBT Supporting Cast:
Once upon a time, LGBT characters were relegated to being part of a quirky sidekick - these books have fully developed LGBT supporting characters

Going Bovine by Libba Bray. This Printz-award winning book includes Gonzo, a hypochondriac Mexican-American dwarf who hooks up with a guy during an epic quest. Blink and you'll miss it, but that also conveys the normalcy of Gonzo's relationship (well, as much as anything is normal in this novel!)

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going. Liam's uncle Pete gets most of the character development here, but Pete has two gay friends and a boyfriend, who teaches at Liam's school. All four men provide support for Liam when the going gets tough, and while there's some stereotyping, the characters own their stereotypes and fully intend to live their lives to the fullest.

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher. Logan falls in love with new girl Sage - only it turns out Sage was born a boy. Told from Logan's POV as he sorts out his feelings about Sage, trasgenderedness, and his own sexuality, both Logan and Sage are fully realized, complex characters.

LGBT Family:
When the LGBT person in your life is a family member

My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr. Ellen adores her older brother Link and has had a crush on his best friend, James, for years. When Ellen joins her brother in high school, another girl mentions that Link and James make a cute couple - rocking Ellen's world.

Say the Word by Jeannine Garsee. When Shawna was a little girl, her mother left the family to live with her lesbian lover in New York City. After her mother dies, Shawna is forced to interact with her mother's lover and their children. Features one of the worst fathers in YA lit, but watching Shawna grow up is wonderful.

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going. After ticking off his father one time too many, Liam is sent to live with "Aunt" Pete, his cross-dressing, glam-rocking, trailer-park-living uncle.

Last Exit to Normal by Michael Harmon. After Ben has flouted the rules and the law one too many times, his dad and his partner, Edward, pack up to move the three of them back to Edward's childhood home in rural Montana. Ben's dad and Edward are fully formed characters, and Ben's relationship with them is about a lot more than their sexuality.

LGBT People of Color:
LGBT lit is dominated by white voices - these are stories by and about people of color

Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Doyle. Laura is Cuban-American and lesbian, which gets her into endless trouble in her conservative community.

My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger. Augie, one of the three narrators, is Asian-American and fabulously gay.

Ash by Malinda Lo. Lo was born in China and has said in interviews that she intended the cast of Ash to be Asian-inspired, though I'm not the only blogger who missed those descriptions in the text.

LGBT Stories of Disability:
LGBT characters who also have a mental or physical disability

I haven't read any yet...nor do I even know of any. Any recommendations?

Bisexual and Transgender Stories:
The forgotten letters in the acronym

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher. The new girl, Sage, has a secret she has to keep from everyone: she was born a boy, and is in the process of transitioning to become a woman. Occasionally didactic on issues of Trans 101, still a wonderfully well done book.

Goth Girl Rising by Barry Lyga. Kyra isn't gay - she doesn't even think she's bisexual - but she has been known to kiss and fool around with one of her girl friends. Not a huge part of the story, but it's inclusion isn't tawdry or titillating.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan. Nic has had crushes on boys before, which makes her attraction to Battle somewhat puzzling, but she is relaxed enough to want to find out where these new feelings take her.

Gender Variance:
For when a character isn't LGBT, but expresses him- or herself in a way that relates to the LGBT spectrum

Debbie Harry Sings in French by Meagan Brothers. Johnny is fascinated by Debbie Harry - so much so that he occasionally dresses like her. He's pretty sure he's heterosexual, but thanks to his gender expression faces homophobic bullying.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Review: Brooklyn Nine by Alan Gratz

Found via: Bill at Literate Lives

I came across Literate Lives via the Comment Challenge while bloggers Bill and Karen were running a series of Newbery predictions. I know next to nothing about the Newbery award, since most of my reading is now focused on Printz-level books, but I really wish Brooklyn Nine had been at least an honor, 'cause this was an awesome book.

Brooklyn Nine is a series of nine short stories following a family through nine generations of baseball. While mostly set in Brooklyn, there are two stories that step outside of New York - one into Virginia during the Civil War, and another back to my home state of Michigan during WWII with a female baseball player. How could I not love a book that combines baseball, women's baseball in WWII, AND my two home states?

What I found most fascinating was the mix of baseball history and American history that was woven into many of the stories. For example, I had no idea that pre-Civil War, it was accepted that you could get someone out by catching the ball after it bounced. It takes a few generations for the game to evolve into the one we recognize today. Additionally, major and minor historical events are integrated - stories take place during the Civil War and WWII, and in 1981, boys playing little league are teasing each other for seeing Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones a dozen times each, and debating who Yoda meant when he said one other person also had the force (no one guesses its Leia!). In between, characters face racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and regular run of the mill bullies.

My favorite stories were Frankie Schneider in 1926, a numbers genius who has given up on the idea of going to college because she's a girl and is a fan of the dismal Brooklyn Robins, Kat Flint in 1945, the newest member of the Grand Rapids (Michigan!) Chicks, and Michael Flint in 1981, who's in the process of pitching a perfect game.

Michael's story is actually one of the most beautifully written stories I've read, possibly ever. Gratz does an amazing job amping up the tension as we follow Michael through his first ever perfect game. Gratz says in the notes that he based Michael's ninth inning on the ninth inning of Sandy Koufax's 1965 perfect game as called by Vin Scully. You can read the transcript of the inning here, or listen to it in your browser here. I definitely think Gratz nailed it.

In the first story, Gratz has also written one of my favorite descriptions of New York City - and coincidentally, Felix Schneider is hanging around the neighborhood I work in when he says:

Felix found it easy to lose himself in Broadway's foot traffic, to be swept up by the rush and hurry of Manhattan, to hear the clatter of iron horseshoes on cobblestones and the catcalls and insults of the city's famously rude cabbies like a lullaby. On Broadway Felix was not a poor German Jew from Bremen walking the streets of a strange metropolis. Here, he was a New Yorker.

This isn't just a book for baseball fans - while baseball is the theme of these stories, for most of the stories the sport is window dressing. This is a collection to be read by fans of historical fiction, short stories, and just all around beautiful writing as well. Another book that is going on my early "Best of 2010" list.
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