Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year

It's almost 2012. I made it through 2011. When I moved back to Portland, I consulted with a neurosurgeon who was asking me about the history of the brain tumor, the surgery and radiation--he said something along the lines of, "Well, you've already outlived your life expectancy," meaning that I wasn't expected to survive as long as I had after going through the removal of the tumor, back in 2003.

Jerk. Who says that to somebody? Wouldn't it have been enough to say, "You're doing great?" That would've been enough for me.

Anyway. That was back in 2008. I'm still going strong. So poopy on you, Mr.--Dr.--Hotshot Neurosurgeon.

Planning to keep on going strong. Doing what I can, living my life.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Princess Ben

I just read Princess Ben, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock--I love Dairy Queen so much, and the other books about D.J., so of course I wanted to read something else by her. I am happy about how entirely different it is, too. Dairy Queen and its sequels are realistic fiction, then suddenly I was reading Princess Ben, about princesses and kingdoms and magic and there's even a dragon! I see there's another novel set in the same kingdom that just came out a couple months ago--I want to read that one too. Putting it on hold at the library now! (Reading more about that book, Wisdom's Kiss, I discovered that Princess Ben is in it--as the grandma!)

I guess I read a fair amount of fantasy--I started to write, "I don't really read much fantasy" but realized that isn't really true--but I don't feel like I quite understand the conventions of it, and I don't know if this novel would meet all the expectations of someone more well-versed in the genre. I know it doesn't quite work that way--but yeah. I know it's fantasy, so you can set the rules of your world, and you just have to be consistent about it, which I think Murdock does. I don't know. I should look up reviews of Princess Ben.

Huh, Amazon lists it as "Historical Fiction." Wow. Interesting. Google Books has it under "Fairy Tales and Folklore," which seems more accurate. Many other sites list it as both of these, and as "Fantasy" as well.

A fun, quick read. Looking forward to reading the follow-up, spending more time in this world with another generation of princesses.

More YA

I finally read the last two books on Julianna Baggott's list for NPR, "Hooray for YA: Teen Novels for Readers of All Ages." I talk about the first three here, here and here. Of the five, I really liked three of them (Ten Miles Past Normal, Flipped, and Delirium), really didn't like one (Trapped), and had a lot of problems with one (Karma). I might have found Ten Miles Past Normal and Delirium on my own, but I probably wouldn't've read the other three. So. All in all, good.

Trapped is about seven kids who get stuck at their school when a blizzard starts. The blizzard lasts a week.

Delirium is a dystopian novel about a United States in which they've found the cure for love, and everyone undergoes a sort of vaccine when they come of age. They're then partnered up for marriage. Each chapter has a fabulous and terrifying epigraph from a book of the era, many from The Book of Shhh, which is what everyone calls The Safety, Health, and Happiness Handbook. Love is a condition known as amor deliria nervosa, and sometimes teenagers have to get their procedure moved up because of it--but "the procedure" is apparently dangerous if you're under 18, though they've mostly got it down now and it rarely causes permanent brain damage. If you don't count the general zoned-out-edness and lack of emotion shown by those who've had it as brain damage. Which Lena doesn't, until she starts to question things, in that way of teenagers in dystopian novels everywhere.

I liked this book a lot. Very well done. I don't seem to have much more to say about it right now.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Emily, Alone

I love Stewart O'Nan. I've read many of his novels, though strangely I've never been systematic about it like I usually am when I find a writer I really like, reading their collected works. I think it's partly because many of O'Nan's books have been really creepy. But it might be time to make sure I've read all his books, because even when they're creepy, they're so good.

Emily, Alone isn't creepy. And apparently it's a sequel--I don't think I've read Wish You Were Here, but this novel completely worked on its own.

I don't feel enough on top of O'Nan's oeuvre to generalize about his writing (beyond saying that I haven't read all his books because lots of them were creepy), but two things that impressed me so much about this novel were how believable the narrator's voice is--and she's an elderly woman, while O'Nan is a middle-aged guy--and how clearly set in Pittsburgh it is, how much Pittsburgh as a place is important to the story.

It's a novel about getting old, about Emily's shifting relationships with her children, about Emily's friends dying off and her dog growing decrepit.

It's a novel about Emily and what is important to her--and music is so important, classical music on the radio or on the stereo not often center stage, but often present and noted, a big part of her world.

She "married up," and she notes about her parents that
They had struggled to achieve and maintain their middle-class respectability in the face of a depression and a world war, a feat Emily thought was lost on her own children, accustomed to an affluence that must have seemed their birthright as much as it had been Henry's [her late husband] and Arlene's [her sister-in-law--and one of her few remaining friends], born to fortune.
The book is set during the 2008 presidential election, and Emily, a life-long Republican, votes for McCain almost in spite of herself. Her sister-in-law is excited to vote for Hillary Clinton:
Early on, Arlene had made it plain she was voting for Hillary, and, as a woman, was thrilled to have the opportunity. Emily, who saw the Clintons' marriage as the very worst kind of compromise, regarded Hillary as the opposite of a role model. She understood Arlene's excitement in finally having a viable woman candidate. Too bad she happened to be Lady Macbeth.
Ha, ha, ha.

She's dubious about Obama--"He'd been a senator for less than two years, and all Emily heard out of his mouth were platitudes. What maddened her was how the media compared him to Jack Kennedy, as if that were a good thing."

But she has her reservations about McCain, too:
She would have been happier voting for John McCain if he wasn't so gung ho about the war. And if he hadn't been one of the Keating Five. And if he hadn't run out on his first wife after her accident.

The novel ends with Emily and Arlene (and Rufus, the dog) going to Chautauqua for their week in the summer. It ends with Emily keeping on trucking, a nice ending for a book that is so much about mortality and Emily wondering why she's still around when her children are grown, her husband is dead, her friends have mostly died. But in the midst of these moments of wondering why she's around, she is still enjoying her life, and we see that here: her weekly trips with Arlene to the breakfast buffet with coupons, her phone calls from the children and their occasional visits, her reading, her love of her summer garden.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Hugo Movie Companion

I love the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret so much--I was very nervous about the movie, but knowing that the author, Brian Selznick, liked the movie, made me less nervous. Then it came out and I saw it and I did really like it. I blogged about it here.

I heard there was a book about the making of the movie, so I put it on hold at the library--now that I've read it, I want my own copy. Plus I want to put a copy in my classroom library. It's got a $19.99 sticker so we'll see when that happens, but not only is it a beautiful book, but Selznick wrote it so it's beautifully written, and it would be of more interest to someone who'd read The Invention of Hugo Cabret and seen the movie, but the subtitle is "A Behind the Scenes Look at How a Beloved Book Became a Major Motion Picture," and I think it would be of interest to many people who maybe even hadn't seen or read Hugo Cabret.

First of all, like I said, it's a beautiful book. Tons of full page photos of scenes from the movie and the filming of the movie, of the fabulous double page illustrations from the book, of sketches and floor plans and pages from the script and the score and from people's notes related to the movie--including lots of images related to the automatons: photos and blueprints and related images (there were fifteen different automatons used in the film! I had no idea. There is so much I'll look for when I see Hugo again), and of other images related to the images in the books--old automatons, and stills from related films, and the real George Méliès in his toy booth, and a diagram from the Cinémathèque Française showing exactly the angles and placement of the fish tank to film through the tank so that the mermaids appeared underwater in Méliès' Kingdom of Fairies. At first I thought maybe there were too many photos, but then I didn't think that anymore. Also, the book is so perfectly designed--I love the full bleed printing, sheer to the edge of the page--and it's great to get to see some of these images in such proximity to each other.

But it's a book about how a movie is made, including profiles of/interviews with the Production Designer, Set Decorator, Props Master, and many others. I also love the "Biographies" section at the end, especially seeing what other films some of the behind the scenes people worked on. For instance, many of them were involved with the film of Sweeney Todd, which made me smile. Anyway, I imagined lots of, "Oh, Helen! Haven't seen you since the last Harry Potter opening in London!" when shooting began on Hugo. It was also cool to see how many people have worked on so many projects with "Marty" Scorsese. He has a team, for sure. A hell of a team.

I'm even more eager to reread the book now. The last chapter of The Hugo Movie Companion focuses on the shooting of the final scene of the movie, which is a great idea for many reasons, not least of which it's the scene Selznick had a cameo in (and a line!)--but he talks about how the ending of the book is different from the end of the movie, which registered, but I want to look at them both more closely.

So yeah. Read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, see the movie, and read The Hugo Movie Companion. Ideally in that order, I think, but not necessarily.

Chuck Klosterman

Friday was the last day of our non-fiction unit, and we read Chuck Klosterman's great essay "Me, On Shuffle."

We read it out loud, then listened to excerpts of some of the songs he talks about: Humble Pie's "I Don't Need No Doctor," Motley Crue’s “Ten Seconds to Love,” AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To the Top (If You Want To Rock and Roll)" (OMG if I never hear those bagpipes again it will be too soon!), Guns N’ Roses "Rocket Queen," Kate Bush's "Heathcliff," the Pet Shop Boys' "Always On My Mind," REM's "Nightswimming," and The Carpenters, "Superstar." We talked about it a little, then listened to the clips again.

The first time I did this, I made the mistake of leaving enough of the YouTube screen visible on the InFocus (go here if you haven't been in school in a while, or are somewhere without the access to technology I'm so lucky to have this year--basically, instead of an overhead, I can project my computer screen up onto where the overhead would've projected!) and of course my students said, "Let us see the videos! We wanna watch the videos!" I said, "The essay's about music, not about videos, we're not watching the videos" but yeah, damage done, huge distraction created. So the next classes got fewer glimpses, and they were especially curious about the "Heathcliff" video. So I ended my classes on the day before break with a showing of a really old Kate Bush video!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Toy Dance Party

My insomniac self just finished reading Toy Dance Party, by Emily Jenkins (illustrated by the fabulous Paul O. Zelinsky). Toy Dance Party is the sequel to Toys Go Out, which I read back in October. I loved this one too. Toy Dance Party is about a lot of things--the washing machine is a major character!--and among them, it's about the little girl of the house growing up, showing more interest in her Barbies, which don't even talk to the other toys, than in the stuffed animals and plastic ball who used to mean so much to her.

Fun, strange, excellent books.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ready Player One

I crashed my motor scooter Monday, requiring some emergency dental surgery (I broke a tooth) and lots of rest. I did need the rest, but I was also in no rush to go back to school and have my students make fun of my split lip. So I slept for a couple days, got the tooth fixed, and now it's Thursday and here I go.

I also read a ton while I was lying around. That was the only good thing about this experience, frankly. No--I'm sure my sunny self could find other good things, like the awesome guy at United Fire, Health and Safety, the business I crashed in front of, who took me and my scooter in and took care of us. Etcetera. But anyway--the reading part was great too. I finished A Better Angel on Monday, Flip on Tuesday, and read all of Ready Player One yesterday. Maybe I started it Tuesday night--it's long--but yeah.

This is not the kind of book I'm usually into--I guess it might be called "hard sci-fi." Last year I read all of Pat Murphy's books--this was akin to those, I suppose. Except different. Written in 2011, feeling very written in 2011, and about a multibillionaire who was a teenager in the 1980's. It feels as though it's by someone of my generation but a couple years older--and yes, it was. I googled him--Cline was born in 1972. I was born in 1976. So this explains how his view of the 1980's is more firmly set in the earlier part of the decade, before I discovered pop radio in middle school in 1987. My 1980's were more about George Michael and Madonna than Oingo Boingo and The Alan Parsons Project (I forgot about this awesome blog, that features The Book Notes series, where writers create and discuss music playlists that relate in some way to their books). Also, video games were barely on my radar. I remember occasionally playing with someone's Nintendo at a slumber party, but I never had a Nintendo or anything of that sort, and I didn't care so much. I might have played a video game once or twice at a bowling alley or something, but eh. And this book is maybe 55% about video games? Maybe 65%? Anyway, Cline is reading on December 17 at Ground Kontrol, which I have grown to love thanks to my obsession with pinball, but I don't play many video games there, except with Sierra and Miles--watching them playing the driving games is almost more fun than pinball, and the PacMan cocktail table game (lingo I have added to my vocabulary thanks to Ready Player One) with them is a blast.

Many of the same movies were important to me as figure largely in Ready Player One: the John Hughes oeuvre specifically. And Ghostbusters. Though Ghostbusters was more important to one of the characters in this novel than it ever was to me. And many of the same writers: Vonnegut specifically, Douglas Adams, Bradbury, Tolkien. Plus lots of more sci-fi and fantasy writers I was never into: Neal Stephenson, Terry Brooks, Heinlein...

Anyway, the book was so much fun. It's basically about a future (2044) that is even grimmer and poorer than today. James Halliday, a very rich guy--one of the designers of OASIS, basically the next generation of the internet--dies and leaves his entire fortune to the person who can solve the series of puzzles he's left behind. Our hero, Wade, who lives in a stack of trailers twenty-two trailers high (gas got too unreasonable, so people "desperate for work, food, electricity, and reliable OASIS access--had fled their dying small towns and had used the last of their gasoline ... to haul their families, RVs, and trailer homes to the nearest metropolis"), is one of the "gunters" obsessed with solving James Halliday's puzzles.

It's a good story. Even if you're not into sci-fi and/or video games, it's compelling and fast-moving and well-told. The one thing that annoys me is when Wade finds out that another gunter, also one of the leaders in the contest, and someone who's been a close friend of his for a long time in OASIS, although they've never met in real life, is different from how he's presented himself online. When Wade learns this, the reader is told that he "loved her as a dear friend. None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation." I just don't buy that. I'd like to, but I'm not sure I can.

But this huge revelation is never any kind of issue ever. Not sure how much it would fit into the narrative if it was, but still.

Otherwise an awesome, fun book. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Better Angel

As I discussed in an earlier post, I read a great collection of fairy tales retold, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, and I went on to look for more work by several of the writers who had stories included. One of these was Chris Adrian, who got his MFA from Iowa, went on to med school, then got a master's at Harvard Divinity School. So he writes, but he is also (primarily) a pediatrician. I liked his story a lot in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, but I was also just curious about him. I liked this interview, in which he says, among other things, "I think I sound fancier than I actually am. I’ve just tried a lot of different stuff, but I’m not necessarily very good at any of it," when the interviewer says, "Well, I thought we should get out of the way that you’re probably self-conscious about how accomplished you are in general. I read a quote somewhere that you were cautioning people not to think that you were smarter than you are."

I read a collection of his stories that came out in 2008. It was nice to read a collection of stories. I should do that more often. I liked these stories a lot--many of them concerned hospitals and illness, many of them were somehow about children, and many of them had things in them like angels and visions and the anti-
Christ. They are strange and wonderful. I'm looking forward to reading more of his stuff.


Just finished another book on Julianna Baggott's list for NPR, "Hooray for YA: Teen Novels for Readers of All Ages." So now I've read three of the five: Flip, Ten Miles Past Normal, and Karma. I'd put the other two on hold from the library, but I picked them up then had to bring them back before I had a chance to read them because they both had holds on them and I was busy with other books. I'll try again with both of those--the others have been great. I loved Flip. It's a boys-switching-bodies story that I found to be completely convincing and moving. It rings true, and I feel like it does a nice job of addressing the sorts of questions that aren't always addressed in such situations. Questions I'd have about what happens when friends or family reference common memories that the body switcher wasn't around to share... the relationship between the people who switched... I don't know. Just questions.

A fun book that wasn't nearly what I'd expected, in many excellent ways.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Laurel and I saw Hugo this week--and it was frankly pretty great. I love the book it's based on--The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick--so much, and I was very nervous about one of my favorite books being made into a movie, but I heard that Selznick was really happy with it, plus it's such a book that's asking to be a movie--it's so visual, and it's so about film. The movie does a lovely job of using footage talked about (and pictured in drawings) in the book, and it makes me happy to have that footage in a movie that people who might not have seen it will see (and those who have seen it will be happy to see it again)--Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of the clock in Safety Last!--which fits into Hugo in many ways--several clips and references to The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, and plenty of others including lots of Melies. The actors are great, the script is great, of course it's not the same as the book and I'll always love the book, but the movie does a fabulous job of telling the story of the book, but telling it as a movie. If that makes sense. I guess the movie isn't really quite telling the story of the book--it's telling its own story, closely related but well suited to its medium.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

I read a great collection of "new fairy tales," edited by Kate Bernheimer, of fairy tales retold, reconceived, and new. Many of these stories--all by different writers, and such a wide range, including of course many I haven't heard of (I've put several books on hold since I started this book, wanting to read more by some of these writers!)--is a retelling of a classic story, or some kind of reworking of the story--but some of them are new fairy tales, maybe playing with some elements of the classics.

I know most of the stories that are being played with, but I've discovered some new ones:

Donkey Skin:
The White Cat:

Highly recommended collection. Lots of fun. Always so interesting to see which elements writers pull out of familiar stories, and so much fun to read fairy tales based on stories I don't know or don't know as well.

There's a "Snow White" with no Snow White, only dwarves--this might be one of my favorites. Francine Prose wrote a strange beautiful unexpected "Hansel and Gretel." There are a couple awesome and very different "Rumpelstiltskin"s, a fabulous "Swan Brothers" (I did always love "The Swan Brothers," and it is such an odd story, really), and on and on and on.

The mothers and fathers in fairy tales are so weird. It's great. Nice to see certain elements highlighted or addressed at a literal level.

I'm going to reread and read lots of fairy tales now. Some more. Again. After I read Emily, Alone, by Stewart O'Nan, which I got off the "Lucky Picks" shelf so I won't be able to renew it, and In Cold Blood, which is this month's bookclub book. Then (and honestly, probably in between), fairytales.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wonder Struck, by Brian Selznick

I loved Selznick's previous novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Loved it so much that it shot up into my canon almost instantly. It is even on my 50 Favorite Books List.

So I had unfairly high expectations for Wonder Struck. I was almost certain to be disappointed. And I was. I was disappointed that I didn't want to read it again immediately. That's an unreasonable expectation, but that's how I felt about Hugo.

I am excited to reread Wonder Struck, though. Maybe in a month or two. It's the same fabulous confluence of text and image telling the story--though for much of Wonder Struck, there is one story told in text and the other in image, which frankly I didn't like. We'll see if it grows on me. They are related stories, and they come together beautifully in the end. I don't know.

So Wonder Struck is a wonderful book. I'm not sure yet if it's a great book. It's no Hugo Cabret, that's for sure. But who would really want it to be? That would've been disappointing too. I'm happy with how different a story it is, and I have to give Selznick props for telling what is in many ways a more ambitious story. So yeah. Read it. It's awesome. It's not on my top 50, but only 50 books are.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Matt de la Peña

Last Monday, Matt de la Peña gave the 2011 Multnomah County Library Teen Author Lecture. I didn't know there was such a thing, and was glad to see a link to the press release on the library website the day before. I would've been so sad to miss it.

But they publicized it somehow, because there were a lot of people there. There were a lot of students and a lot of teachers--it was an evening thing, though, so I was trying to figure that one out. They were older students--late teens--maybe part of a program like Portland Youth Builders...?

Anyway. It wasn't really a lecture. He talked about his books, and read a little bit from Mexican White Boy, and was clearly excited about the crowd and the demographics of the crowd (lots of Latino kids--holding his books!). He asked whose grandmas made tortillas, and lots of hands shot up. He said something along the lines of, "Well you know how grandma gives the first tortilla to the most important person, and then it goes down the ranks?" and he talked about how after he'd gone to college, he got the first tortilla, and he felt bad and like it should've gone to one of his uncles, but it was because he got an education. He also talked about being the first in his family to go to college--he said, "Who here will be the first in their family to go to college?" and lots of hands went up. He said, "Well I want to tell you guys something--" and he proceeded to talk about how much going to college alienated him from his family for a long time, how they treated him differently and related to him differently, but he said, "Eventually you'll figure out how to be a part of the family, and it'll be okay again. It'll be hard for a while, but then it will be okay again."

I'd never heard anyone say that to a group of students before, and it's so important. How many first-generation college students drop out for exactly the reasons he was talking about? It must be so scary to be in a community different from anything you've known, and then to also be alienated from everything you've ever known. But he was matter-of-fact about it, and I thought he was pretty cool before seeing him speak, but now--yeah.

He told a lot of stories. He talked about how reading The Color Purple his sophomore year of college was what turned him into a reader, but he wrote a letter to Alice Walker and she sent it back unopened because she doesn't read fan mail, so he doesn't really like her. I think he must've poured his heart into that letter.

Anyway. It was an evening well-spent. He and the audience were both excellent--though I wanted to yank headphones out of some ears. Oh, high school kids.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Karma, by Cathy Ostlere

I read my second novel off Julianna Baggott's list for NPR, "Hooray for YA: Teen Novels for Readers of All Ages." I just finished Cathy Ostlere's Karma, which I almost didn't finish. I almost didn't finish it because I felt weird about this story being written by a white woman. It's a fascinating story, with a great setting that I'd never seen in fiction, but it didn't feel like Cathy Ostlere's story to tell.

It's the story of an Indian-Canadian girl who goes "back" to India with her dad, bearing her mother's ashes. It's 1984, and they are in New Delhi when Indira Gandhi is murdered. She is killed by Sikhs, and Maya is half-Sikh, half-Hindi--her father is a Sikh, and suddenly there are riots and Sikhs are being killed all over New Delhi.

Her father leaves her in their hotel room when he goes to try and get help from an old friend--but he doesn't come back.

So this is the story of what happens to her.

Is it weird that I don't have a lot of enthusiasm for what is an engaging story, because of who wrote it? Would I like it more if it had been written by an Indian-Canadian author? Except I don't think it would be the same book if it had been written by an Indian-Canadian author. Though Ostlere clearly did her research, somehow this doesn't totally ring true to me. Obviously others disagree--she got great reviews. Is this weird that this felt like such an issue for me?

I was trying to think of an example of something that didn't ring true, and here's one. Maya's mother killed herself. No mention is ever made of the Hindu standpoint on suicide, and that doesn't seem to be a factor in bringing the mother's ashes back to India, where Maya and her father will have to deal with the mom's family, who already don't like Maya's dad because he's Sikh. At least, it's never mentioned--and granted, the book is written as a journal, so maybe Maya wouldn't have had anything to say about it--but--I don't know. She is clearly grieving, but--yeah.

Anyway. I liked this book, but am not sure how much I liked it, and am also not sure how much my not loving it has to do with the fact that I feel like the author was really writing a story both outside her experience, but also perhaps writing a story that wasn't hers to write. This is something I've thought about a lot--who gets to tell which stories, whose stories--and I clearly haven't figured it out yet.

I keep thinking about who I think would have the right to tell this story. It's fiction. Do I think the writer would have to be Indian? Maybe an Indian couldn't tell this story either. Maybe s/he would have to be Indian-Canadian. But would s/he have had to be in New Delhi for the riots when Indira Gandhi was killed? Maybe Ostler was--according to her website, she was traveling in 1984, and that's when she went to India.

I don't know.

First Day on Earth

Before Mockingjay came out, I emailed Scholastic to ask them to send me a copy of it to review for my blog. They did, and I'm now on their list, which is fabulous! They just sent me First Day on Earth, by Cecil Castellucci, whose name is so familiar to me though I don't think I've read any of her other books. She co-edited the anthology Geektastic, which I loved, but I don't think that's why her name is dinging in my brain. My guess is that I read a story she wrote in a magazine ages ago, and her name is memorable. Somehow I feel like I read one of her stories in Sassy or Seventeen back in the day.

Anyway. I liked this book a lot, and I already told a student about it and am going to loan it to him on Monday now that I've finished it. This student went off in class last week about having been homeless and how hard it is and how people don't understand. All of which is true, I'm sure, but the class looked at him, confused, because what he was saying was very tangentially related to our discussion, about "The Kicking Queen," an article from the New York Times about the only girl on her school's football team elected homecoming queen. Somehow what he said started off being related to the conversation (which was awesome, by the way, with some football player boys chiming in about how cool it was, and some other school athletes noting that usually really athletic girls don't get elected homecoming queen... it was a good conversation) but then it wasn't related, and I know I wasn't the only one who realized he just had to say what he had to say.

So I think he might like this book. Others will like it too, but I thought of him first.

The main character, Malcolm, narrates the story, and in the first brief chapter, we learn that he has "been to outer space and back again." The first chapter ends, " day, I'm going with them. And I'm going to be free."

We meet his drunk mom, hear about his father who left, go to an Al-Anon meeting with Malcolm--and then he walks into the wrong room, goes to the wrong meeting: it's a group for people who have been abducted by aliens.

This is a short book that covers a lot of territory. No pun intended, really. Anyway, I liked it. I'll be glad to add it to my classroom library, and I'll read more by her, for sure.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Anna to the Infinite Power

I loved this book when I was a kid. I read it over and over--checked it out from the library, again and again--and I thought it was so creepy and great. Then there was a thread on the child_lit listserv about books in which children participate in a scientific/social experiment. Her given examples were "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, The Giver or, of course, The Hunger Games." Someone mentioned Anna, and I thought "How could I have forgotten about it?!" So I put it on hold at the library.

It was published in 1981. It's by Mildred Ames.

It was amazing upon reread, but it wasn't at all the book I remembered. Or I should say--I didn't really remember it, but even after rereading it, I didn't remember it like that! I remembered something about clones, and that it was creepy.

This, also (like my last post), is a book about the Holocaust, sort of. If you're going to put The Book Thief on the same shelf with The Diary of Anne Frank, this one might belong there too. Oddly.

It's aged very well, I think. It's sci fi, so their ideas about the future--i.e. now--are very 1984, in how it's so clearly a future seen through the perspective of that moment. (How else could you see the future?) But I liked it. I think I'll read it again. I want to keep thinking about it. It's easy to dismiss sci fi set in a future that's now the past--the 1990's, say--but it's interesting to think about how, sure, she was wrong about a lot of the technology stuff--but she was thinking about reproductive technology, and making guesses about that. It went a different way than in the novel, but... yeah.

I never know how to talk about a book without telling the story of it. And I could tell the story of it. But I'm not. I want you to find this and read it. It's out of print, but my library had it, and Amazon has fifteen used copies for sale. I might be buying one. Probably not from them, but--yeah.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Book Thief

I just finished The Book Thief, ten years (well, five years) after everybody else. I loved the last third of it, but I'd set it down once before soon after starting it, and I forced myself through this time, interested in it if not fully engaged, and figuring that if everyone else loved it so much, it had to be worth reading. I'm extremely annoyed by the blurb on the back from the USA Today review: "Deserves a place on the same shelf with The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank..." looking at that full review now, though, I see that the reviewer also notes that "the first forty or so pages are dismal and tough to slog through."

Anyway the blurb annoys me because this book has so little in common with Anne Frank, really. The protagonists are about the same age, and both are set during WWII and have a lot to do with Nazis persecuting Jews. But one is fiction, one non-fiction; one is the story of a German girl in Germany, the other is the story of a Jewish girl in Amsterdam. I love Anne Frank, but this is such a different book in so many ways. One is narrated by death, the other by Anne Frank.

Though I guess, yeah, in your own personal library, you might put them on the same shelf.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Ten Miles Past Normal, Toys Go Out

Author Julianna Baggott posted a link on the child_lit listserv I'm on, to a recent article she did for NPR: "Hooray for YA: Teen Novels for Readers of All Ages." I, of course, immediately put all of them (there's only five) on hold at the library. So far I've only read Ten Miles Past Normal, by Frances O'Roark Dowell. This was partly because of Baggott's review, partly because of the inside cover text, largely because of the cover.

This is one of those nicely balanced books that good YA and every kind of good book has to be: about much more than just living in the country, about much more than just being fourteen, about much more than learning to play bass, about much more than realizing that your best friend since elementary school is actually kind of annoying and maybe you don't have so much in common anymore. All of these elements--and much more--make up this funny sweet completely accurate little book about one experience of being a fourteen-year-old girl--very specific to Janie's life, but also universal, of course.

And I love that in fourth-grade, she went on a field trip to an organic farm, came home and told her parents they should "move to an organic farm and raise goats." She has presented other ideas to her parents in the past: "Let's keep a horse in the backyard! Let's adopt a homeless person!" and her parents always reject them, so she doesn't expect her mother to get "...very quiet. She looked at my father, her eyes sort of glimmering, a dreamy expression on her face."

"Eight months later, we were farmers." And when she starts high school four years later, living on a farm is cramping her social life: "And suddenly I realized that living on a farm was weird. Milking goats and pushing a chickenmobile around the yard every morning, dumping eggshells and coffee grounds into the composter every night after the dishes were done. Knowing way too much about manure and fertilizers and the organic way to grow bok choy. What kind of normal teenage girl lived this way?"


Then this morning I read Toys Go Out; Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, A Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic, by Emily Jenkins--illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky! It's a short chapter book; six stories presenting the adventures of three of the beloved friends of the Little Girl, two stuffed animals and Plastic, who discovers what he is over the course of the story. I loved it. Yay anthropomorphism and becoming friends with the scary washing machine in the basement and going to the beach.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

50 Favorite Books

My friend Emma Straub posted a link on Facebook to the blog of a St. Paul bookstore, Micawber's Books, that has undertaken a great project: publishing the top 50 books of a book seller at every independent bookstore that cares to participate. Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's Books, explains the project here. His list is here, and he explains the project a little more, explaining that "My question was to list either a Top 50 or 50 favorite books to handsell. Out of print, new, all manner of genres, etc. Everything was fair game. Some booksellers/stores placed their own restrictions and I will list them as appropriate. Also noted is the fact that most people chose to list the books alphabetically by author and not do a ranking. I've done my best to compile them as nearest as possible to the way in which they were sent to me either by e-mail or handwritten letter(bless you, Mr. Joseph DeSalvo)."

There was a nice little article on his project in Publisher's Weekly, too!

I've been interested to see where children's books show up, and which titles.

So of course I've been trying to make a list of my own. Not being a bookseller, it's just my fifty top books. Fifty favorite books is so much harder than one hundred influential writers. This is the draft as it now stands, in the order in which I thought of them:

My 50 Favorite Books Ever

1. The Little Prince, by Antoine de Sainte-Exupery
2. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor
3. The Letters of Flannery O’Connor
4. A Light in the Attic, by Shel Silverstein
5. Walt Whitman’s Complete Poems
6. Kindred, by Octavia Butler
7. The Collected Essays of James Baldwin
8. The Adventures of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
9. The BFG, by Roald Dahl
10. The Search for Delicious, by Natalie Babbitt
11. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
12. Ramona Quimby, Age 8, by Beverly Cleary
13. Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary
14. Ramona and Her Mother, by Beverly Cleary
15. Ramona and Her Father, by Beverly Cleary
16. Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst, by Lois Lowry
17. Anastasia Has the Answers, by Lois Lowry
18. Grimms’ Fairy Tales
19. Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen
20. Drown, by Junot Diaz
21. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
22. Pastoralia, by George Saunders
23. The Coast of Chicago, by Stuart Dybek
24. The Selected Stories of Alice Munro
25. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
26. Coraline, by Neil Gaiman
27. The Best of Marlys, by Lynda Barry
28. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman
29. The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White
30. Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Carson
31. Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
32. A Bargain for Frances, by Russell and Lillian Hoben
33. Bread and Jam for Frances, by Russell and Lillian Hoben
34. D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths
35. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll
36. Angels in America, by Tony Kushner
37. Morris’s Disappearing Bag, by Rosemary Wells
38. The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats
39. The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston
40. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
41. Goodnight, Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown
42. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
43. Ship Fever, by Andrea Barnett
44. The Stories of Ray Bradbury
45. Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, by Walter Mosley
46. Walkin’ the Dog, by Walter Mosley
47. Alabanza, by Martin Espada (Collected Poems)
48. Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides (translated by Anne Carson)
49. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie
50. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Yeah, I stuck The Things They Carried on at the end, influenced by all of the lists on the Mr. Micawber site--but I have loved teaching it, and students love it too. It's not one of those books you like, but it's amazing.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mare's War, by Tanita S. Davis

I just read an awesome book, one I pulled off the shelf at the library: "Featured." I get so many recommendations from friends that it's rare I'll just pick up a random book I've never heard of--but this one has a great cover, too, which always helps.

Two teenage sisters have to go on a roadtrip with their grandma, from California to Alabama for a family reunion.

The book is mostly the story of their trip--chapters alternated between "now" and "then": their grandma, Mare, telling stories of her days in the 6888th Battalion, the one colored battalion to serve overseas in the Women's Army Corps, or WAC, during World War II.

So it's historical fiction, but it's also the story of two teenage sisters trying to get along on a long car trip, and it's the story of granddaughters learning more about the life of their grandmother who Octavia (the sister narrating the "now" part of the story) describes as "scary... because I never know what she's going to do next."

Really, it's mostly learning about Mare. Mare's war, but also her life, and making some sense out of who she is and why.

I'm going to buy a copy for my classroom library. I want lots of people to read this book.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Winter's Tale

I finally finished Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin. It's 748 pages long, and I was really into it for the first half, then I had to read some other stuff and try to figure out what I wanted to teach next year (Flight, by Sherman Alexie!), and when I came back to it, I wasn't as into it. The last two hundred pages were rough going--but it's hard to give up on a book when you've put that much time into it. Plus there continued to be a lot I loved. But the book spans a hundred years, and I liked a lot of the characters in the beginning, but wasn't as interested in or engaged in some of the later characters.

Also, the book is mostly set in NYC, and when the book opens, it is the NYC of the early 20th century--but the end of the book is set in what was the future when it was published in 1983, but I lived through the turn of the millennium, and there was so much hype (remember that, folks?), that while it was interesting to read Helprin's take on what it would be like (in this weird sort-of-NYC fantasy world he creates), I'm also really over it.

I was telling a friend about this book, and she said, "So it's fantasy?" Another friend, who'd also read it, said immediately, "Yeah. Not like unicorns and stuff, but it's fantasy." I said, "No it's not!" and the friend who'd also read it just looked at me. I said, "Okay, I guess it kind of is. I guess it mostly is. Yeah, okay, I guess it is."

Helprin's world, in its weirdness, just feels so real--maybe I'd suspended disbelief that thoroughly. But there's a small upstate town that most people haven't heard of and can't find. There are ice-boats used as a regular mode of transportation. There's a magic horse. There's a man who lives a hundred years and doesn't age.

This is a book that will stay with me. And I loved how NY it was--and how much it was about the city evolving. I loved this description of the hundred-year-old man wandering the Manhattan of the 90's: the end of May and in early June he began to walk the city, to see what he might remember, and to note the changes. It was almost all glass and steel. The buildings seemed to him more like coffins than buildings. The windows didn't open. Some of the buildings had no windows. And their graceless and exaggerated height made the streets into wispy little threads strung together in a dark labyrinth. Only at night did they redeem themselves, and only at a distance--when their secretiveness, their inaccessibility, and their arrogance disappeared, and they bathed the city in light and shone like stained-glass cathedrals turned inside out. Oppressed by the size and the power of the city's architecture, he found for himself a string of holy places (only one of which was a church) to which he could and did return time after time. He sensed there what seemed to him to be the remnants of the truth, and he returned to certain rooftops and alleys the way that lightning repeatedly strikes high steel towers in an argument between tenacity and speed.

I never thought about the city as a place of light, particularly. The New York City I know is that city of tall buildings. But of course it would have had so much more light before the skyscrapers.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What You See in the Dark, by Manuel Muñoz

I don't understand why this novel just sunk and got no attention. I loved it. And I only found it because I went searching for something I could teach next year, ideally by a Chicano author. On someone's list, I ran across this title, and while I'm not going to teach it (not right now, anyway--though I think it would be so fun to teach! with the film tie-in... but yeah), I'm going to buy a copy for my classroom library, and I'm just so glad I read it. And glad it got written--glad someone wrote and published it. It's a strange little outside-the-box novel, several narrative threads tied together, set in Bakersfield, California in the late 1950s. One story is that of Janet Leigh, out with Alfred Hitchcock shooting scenes for Psycho. Another story is that of Arlene Watson, waitress at a local café, mother of Dan Watson, local heartthrob. Dan is dating Teresa, a local Chicana girl. Everything ties together and it's creepy enough that I'm reluctant to say more. But read it--a quick, fun, interesting read.

In his awesome bio on his website, Muñoz says he grew up in California's Central Valley, in a family that worked in the fields, and he was a bookworm who treasured library books; "I now see why I was so fascinated by two books in particular when I was young: L. Frank Baum's terrifically illustrated The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in grade school and, in high school, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie. Both opened with departures."

I'm going to figure out a way to teach Muñoz's books somewhere down the line. In the meantime, I'm going to read the three he's written so far, and wait eagerly for the next novel.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Folded Leaf, by William Maxwell

I am slowly making my way through The Good Men Project's list(s) of "The best LGBT books of all time." Well, those lists and a million others. It sounds like I'm doggedly reading my way through all the gay books. There are so many books. Rather, I'm reading the books on this list that interest me... like this one.

I was most curious, first curious, about The Folded Leaf, by William Maxwell. I've read and loved many of his short stories, and I love his short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow--but a gay novel?

William Maxwell was married, and had two children. I don't know anything beyond that about his sexual preferences. The obit from the Times is fabulous, although (because?) it does not address the issue--highly recommended if you want to know more about this guy. The Paris Review interview from 1983 is also awesome.

There is much on the internet about how this is or is not a gay novel, and about its "gay subtext." I'm not sure there is a gay subtext. It is certainly a novel about a young man who feels very strongly about his friend. Perhaps who is "passionately in love with" his friend but maybe there is something else going on there. There is something that isn't romantic love--and lust is often, but not necessarily a component--but is more than friendship in the sense that we usually think of friendship. Many of us have had these kinds of friendships: essential, perhaps more essential than many of the romantic relationships we've had. That kind of soul-fusing, heart-melding stuff they talk about in Victorian novels and R&B songs of the 50's and 60's. The novel was published in 1948, and the physicality between these boys is so different from physicality between boys today: for example, in their rooming house when they go away to college, they share a bed. Mores were different, accepted behavior was different, things are questioned now that wouldn't've been questioned then.

It is a novel about the nerdy guy who's close friends with the jock, and this friendship survives the pair going to college, the jock joining a fraternity, the jock dating a girl who is of course good friends with the nerdy guy. The three of them spend some good times hanging out, even on the girl's family porch swing. Eventually, the jock is threatened by the nerdy guy's friendship with the girl, and the good times come to an end. One of the most perfect moments is when Lymie (the nerd) is at Spud's house (Spud is the jock, of course) and Spud assumes that Lymie will sleep over as he has so many times before: "The bed's big enough," Spud says, when his mom says it's time for Lymie to go home. "We've slept together in it lots of times." But Lymie gets his stuff together to go, and
On the way down the stairs he remembered the feeling he had had the first afternoon that he came home with Spud. It was a kind of premonition, he realized. Everything he had thought would happen then was happening now. He had been wrong only about the time.
The feeling he'd had was that Spud's family wouldn't want him there, and he'd be infringing. Instead, they take him in and he spends a lot of his time there through high school and into college. Lymie's mom died when he was ten, and he and his father live in a series of furnished apartments, and take their meals in restaurants. Lymie is some kind of in love with Spud, but he's also some kind of in love with Spud's mom, Mrs. Latham, and his whole family, and Spud's home:
He had thought he remembered what it used to be like but he hadn't at all. . . . He had totally forgotten how different furniture was that people owned themselves from the kind that came with a furnished apartment; and that tables and chairs could tell you, when you walked into a place, what kind of people lived there.
Maxwell does such a beautiful job laying out the details as Lymie would notice them. So much of what I love about So Long, See You Tomorrow is the way it describes and evokes boyhood, childhood, growing up. That's so much of what I love about this one, too.

But the beginning of the end--or maybe the end of the end--is when Lymie buys Sally--his friend, Spud's steady--violets, and Spud gets so jealous.
Lymie, who from long habit should have been sensitive to the changes in Spud's mood, had no idea that anything was wrong. The person who is both intelligent and observing cannot at the same time be innocent. He can only pretend to be; to others sometimes, sometimes to himself. Since Lymie didn't notice that anything was wrong with Spud, one is forced to conclude that he didn't wish to notice it.
Of course, Spud doesn't have to be jealous of Lymie and Sally. In some sense, whether romantic or not, they are both madly in love with him. And whether Lymie is gay or not, whether he goes on to marry a woman and live a "normal" life, in some way, Spud is and will always be his first love.

I liked this book so much. It took me a while to get into it, and then I couldn't stop.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rufus and Rose

Yesterday I reread an Alger. I have a long history with Horatio Alger, which I'd hoped I'd documented on this blog so I could just link to it, but the very short summary is that my father collected the novels of Horatio Alger, Junior, so they were some of my first reading material and I spent many formative years going with my dad to used book stores and book sales looking for Alger titles. I've read all of Alger's novels multiple times, and when my father killed himself fifteen years ago (fifteen years in July!), I took over the collection.

So yesterday I reread Rufus and Rose, the further adventures of Rough and Ready after Rufus, the newsboy (previously known as Rough and Ready), prevents a Wall Street banker from being robbed after overhearing the plot in an oyster saloon, and is rewarded with a position in the banker's office.

It is about as thrilling as it sounds.

Rose is Rufus's little sister. "His mother had been dead for some time. His step-father, James Martin, was a drunkard, and he had been compelled to take away his little sister Rose from the miserable home in which he had kept her, and had undertaken to support her, as well as himself. He had been fortunate enough to obtain a home for her with Miss Manning, a poor seamstress, whom he paid for her services in taking care of Rose. His step-father, in order to thwart and torment him, had stolen the little girl away, and kept her in Brooklyn for a while, until Rufus got a clue to her whereabouts, and succeeded in getting her back."

Miss Manning gets a position as governess to two little girls who are the daughters of an invalid, and Rose spends much of Rufus and Rose playing happily with these girls in Washington Park--they live on Waverly Place: "Before the up-town movement commenced, it was a fashionable quarter, and even now, as may be inferred from the character of the houses, is a very nice and respectable street, particularly that part which fronts the square." Rufus and Rose was published in 1870, and rereading it, I think the most startling thing about this book is that when otherwise engaged (in finding out why Rufus didn't come home the previous night--it was because he'd been kidnapped by Mr. Martin, of course, but Miss Manning doesn't know that), Miss Manning sends the three little girls, all under ten years old, to play in the park BY THEMSELVES. Washington Square Park.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Chaos Walking

I just finished the Chaos Walking series, at the suggestion of Rebecca Ryan, who said she'd liked them maybe more than Hunger Games. I started, and sent her a message saying that "I almost quit reading it but then I started again, but I am so bothered by the Junie B. Jones spelling." She told me it made sense later, but now I'm done with all three in the trilogy and I'm still bothered by it. I understand that Todd is barely literate, and I think that's a powerful thread through the story, but I don't understand why that means that "recognize" is spelled "reckernize," when Todd says it, in the sections narrated by him, whether in his speech or in the narration. But there was one part where something was spelled funny when Todd said it, then spelled correctly when said by another character--WHY? Plus why reckernize and formayshun and creacher but not slaughter or immediately or lighted?

This clearly irritated me to distraction. I think my experience of reading the series would have been different if this hadn't been a constant irritation slapping me out of the narrative.

Last week at adult young adult book club (you can come too! the third Thursday of every month at In Other Words--join the Facebook group for more info) we talked about The Hunger Games and Graceling, and while it's been a while since I read the Hunger Games trilogy, it was nice to have a refresher before reading Chaos Walking.

It's always strange to compare fantasy worlds/dystopias, and of course it's somewhat beside the point. But one thing I did appreciate about Chaos Walking was how much the series struggled with how settlers should be dealing with the native population. In that sense, you can't compare the series to Hunger Games, which are set in a post-apocalyptic North America. Chaos Walking takes place on a recently colonized planet known as New World. Chaos Walking approaches New World from an entirely different POV than the Hunger Games approach the insanity of Panem (the country in which the books are set), and the characters in each book have such different roles to play in the futures of their worlds.

Another thing I loved about Chaos Walking was how full of hope the books kept being, in spite of themselves. How determined to make a world work for the natives and the settlers.

I could say more, but instead I'm going to go write more random freewrites, using this prompt from Writer's Digest: "Use the words from your favorite song (or the song that is stuck in your head), mix them up and write a short short story using every word." So far, I've used "Moment 4 Life" by Nicki Minaj, "I'm a Lady" by Santogold, "Coat of Many Colors," by Dolly, and "The District Sleeps Tonight," by the Postal Service, with various results. But it's a fun exercise. Today: "Pokerface," by Lady Gaga, and/or "Jackson" by Johnny Cash and June Carter.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Tillerman Novels, and Writing Race

I recently started rereading Cynthia Voigt's fabulous Tillerman novels. I had read the first few when I was a young adult myself (I'm still a young adult, at 34--perhaps I read them when I was a Young Adult): Homecoming, Dicey's Song, A Solitary Blue, and The Runner. I loved them, and I think I read them more than once, though not in order, perhaps. However, there were apparently other novels in this sequence, and I don't think I read any of those: Come a Stranger, Sons from Afar, and Seventeen Against the Dealer, published in 1986, 1987, and 1989, respectively. The earlier books were published 1981-1985.

It was interesting to me, reading these, how dated they feel. Very early 80's. But I just read Come a Stranger, and I think Come a Stranger feels dated in a different way--it's a book a white woman wrote in 1986 with a black girl as the heroine, and it is very much about race--not only about race by any means, but the fact that Mina is black and the implications of that in her life is something she becomes aware of over the course of the novel--in that way that we become aware of such things as we grow up and venture outside our small and most familiar circles. Over the course of the book, Mina goes from the end of fifth grade (eleven?) to the end of her sophomore year of high school (fifteen?), and she figures out a lot of stuff, as one tends to during those years.

Rereading it, I was thinking about how it really stopped being okay to "write outside one's race," a term a writer friend brought up, saying, "as it was spoken of, in accusing or defensive tones, in the 1980s." She mentioned that she's been listening to the audiobook of Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains, which may suggest a change. I was thinking about that and I'm not sure if it does--Chains is a historical novel, while Come a Stranger is (was) contemporary.

I asked about this on the fabulous children's list listserv I'm on, and Nisi Shawl's Writing the Other was recommended to me. The library doesn't have it, but I put an anthology she edited on hold, and I've read a couple of her essays on the subject online: Transracial Writing for the Sincere, and Appropriate Cultural Appropriation. She's talking specifically about this in the context of science fiction, but it certainly has broader applications.

And then I remembered Justine Larbalestier's Liar, and the whole thing about the cover. Micah, in Liar, is biracial--but I was like, isn't Justine Larbalestier white? I found this, in which she discusses that. (Apparently this blog post/essay first appeared on Larbalestier's site, but I found it at racialicious, and I love racialicious, so there you have it. Here's her post about the Liar cover, also reprinted at racialicious.)

I'm thinking that Larbalestier addresses race from a different POV, being Australian, and that multiracial characters pose new questions for anyone concerned with people representing only their own race.

But I know it has historically been an issue in terms of white writers depicting characters of other races, and those portrayals constituting a representation of those populations within fiction (or movies, or television...), at the expense of books (or movies, or TV scripts) by authors of color. So that as an issue makes sense. But I loved so much about Come a Stranger, and it's sad to me that it will fade into oblivion partly just because most books eventually do, but also because it is a white woman's story about a black girl, written at a moment in our cultural history when that was more appropriate, but then passing through other moments in our cultural history when that was less appropriate.

I have so many more thoughts about this, but I'm not arranging them very well or very coherently, so I'll stop for now. I'll just say this:

Shawl closes her essay "Appropriate Cultural Appropriation" with a quote from Geoff Ryman: "I think that it's a good thing for the imagination to do to try to imagine someone else's life. I see no other way to be moral, apart from anything else. Otherwise you end up sympathising only with yourself...."


Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Lonely Londoners

I just read The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon, because I'm slowly making the way through the books on EC Osondu's list that was in the Guardian, his "top 10 immigrants' tales." I was briefly at Syracuse with Osondu, and his recent collection, Voice of America, was awesome. I blogged about it here back in December.

So thank you, EC, for letting me know about this book. I don't know how I would've run across it otherwise, and I'm so glad I read it.

The Lonely Londoners is written all in what I guess you'd call patois--a vernacular English spoken by the West Indians in the book and used for the narration as well. In Kenneth Ramchand's introduction to the version I read, the Wegman Carribbean Writers edition published by Pearson Education Limited, Ramchand describes Selvon's language this way: "The language of The Lonely Londoners is not the language of one stratum in the society, not the language of the people meaning 'the folk' or the peasantry, but a careful fabrication, a modified dialect which contains and expresses the sensibility of a whole society." The book has a fabulous rhythm to it and I read maybe more for the language than for the plot. There is a loose plot, but the story revolves around the experiences and routines of a group of friends in London, somewhat centered on Moses Aloetta, but mostly using him as the common thread. You get a sense of how far from home these guys are, mostly probably permanently; how they feel about those homes they've left; how they feel about what their lives in London are, and what their lives might have the potential to become; and what their daily lives and their interactions with each other are like.

I'm not doing a very good job of summarizing this. It's the stories of a bunch of immigrants, woven together and overlapping hugely.

A couple passages I really liked:
Things does have a way of fixing themselves, whether you worry or not. If you hustle, it will happen, if you don't hustle, it will still happen. Everybody living to dead, no matter what they doing while they living, in the end everybody dead.
What it is that a city have, that any place in the world have, that you get so much to like it you wouldn't leave it for anywhere else? What it is that would keep men although by and large, in truth and in face, they catching their royal to make a living, staying in a cramp-up room where you have to do everything--sleep, eat, dress, wash, cook, live. Why it is, that although they grumble about it all the time, curse the people, curse the government, say all kind of thing about this and that, why it is, that in the end, everyone cagey about saying outright that if the chance come they will go back to them green islands in the sun?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Books to Read

There are too many. Not too many. Lots. An endless supply. This is a good thing.

Esquire put out a list of seventy-five books every man should read. Shockingly, they included one book by a woman. She's Flannery O'Connor, but still!

There was much buzz, and Joyland magazine retaliated (that isn't quite the right word, but it'll work) with this list of 250 books by women all men should read.

Now I have even more books on my list. Not a bad thing. An overwhelming thing, but not a bad thing.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Strength in What Remains

I will read anything Tracy Kidder writes. I don't care what it's about. It helps that I trust him--the only one of his books I couldn't get through was his very first one, The Soul of a New Machine, but what I love about his other work is the people in it. The people in it, and how he gets into the story by knowing them and appreciating them also by recognizing how much he can't understand about them. He puts himself into the narrative and one thing I love is how he never claims or even implies neutrality, he gets so close but he always recognizes that he is Tracy Kidder with a perspective on the story, and he always remains aware of that perspective and keeps his readers aware. It's part of what makes me trust and respect him. And admire him.

I taught his book Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003), my first and only time teaching a college-level intro research/writing class. I didn't do a very good job, and one of the consequences was that my students didn't love this book anywhere near as much as I do. There was a lot of "Why are we reading this? I don't even care about Haiti! This isn't a class about Haiti and doctors!"

I've gotten better--and stricter, and more confident--about helping students understand that reading about any subject can make you a better and more critical reader, and researching any subject can make you a better researcher, and writing about any subject can make you a better writer. But yeah.

If I ever taught Mountains Beyond Mountains again, I would approach it so differently. I have learned so much about teaching since I tried that.

I didn't read Kidder's next book until now. A teacher friend at school loaned it to me months ago, and I told myself I had to get it back to her before the end of the school year, so this weekend I moved it to the top of my list and read all weekend. It was chemo weekend, so that was part of it, but it's also just such a good story. I don't read much non-fiction, but Kidder's books flow so beautifully that I don't care, and that's often one of my main problems with non-fiction. I like an arc.

Strength in What Remains
is the story of Deogratias, a refugee from Bujumbura who ends up in New York City. I didn't know jack about Bujumbura before I read this book--now I know a lot about it, and it made me think (again, some more) about how big this world is, and how little I know of it. But all around the world they hear too much about the United States--how can I not even know Bujumbura exists?

Bujumbura is next to Rwanda. Both were colonized by Germany in the late nineteenth century, then became Belgium's after WWI. Apparently the European colonizers inflicted a racial system on Bujumbura, persuading them that their two major groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, were essentially racial groups, not castes. Kidder says in a historical note at the end,

European colonists brought a myth with its own long history, a myth tailored to account for what looked to them like an anomaly: civilization in darkest Africa, kings and aristocracies and peasants, an advanced social order a little like Europe's. Tutsis, many colonists seem to have believed, descended from the biblical Ham, the banished son of Noah. Tutsis had degenerated through long contact with the inferior race of native blacks, the Hutus. But Tutsis were still Caucasian under their black skins.

I'm sure Kidder came to this story because Mountains Beyond Mountains is about Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, and Deo was training as a doctor in Bujumbra, and eventually discovers Farmer's books when getting his undergraduate degree at Columbia. (Deogracias has a terrifying, horrible life in so many respects, but he is also one of those hugely blessed people--first of all, he has a friend wealthy enough that his family is able to buy him a plane ticket to NYC and get him out of Bujumbra. Then, flying into NYC from Bujumbra, he meets an immigrant from Senegal who works at the airport and brings Deo home with him and finds him a job. A lousy job, but a job. The luck and coincidences continue--he ends up living with a couple in their SoHo loft, attending Columbia, then he goes to Harvard's School of Public Health, then Duke for med school! Certainly, he deserves every bit of this, but who ever gets the luck they deserve?!)

This is a captivating, beautifully written book, about so many things I am able to live my life without examining. I am so glad I spent a weekend with it. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Chronology of Water, a memoir by Lidia Yuknavitch

I initially was interested in this because my friend Cheryl Strayed was talking it up on Facebook. Though I just checked and it turns out Lidia and I have six mutual friends.

Anyway. So I put it on hold at the library, and I just picked it up last week, and I had another book I had to read first because someone else had a hold on it, and it made me crazy to have to wait. So I read the other book quickly and then read this one in two days.

This is definitely a more pomo book than what I'd usually turn to, but it's beautiful. I started reading it, and cried a lot, and thought oh shit I'm going to have to read this all at home and have another book I'm reading at school when my students are doing silent reading. But then I finished it, so not an issue. But I did cry a lot.

It's one of those books that's hard to summarize, because it manages to be about a lot. Lidia's early life, and her love of swimming, which helps her make it through a lousy childhood and get the hell out. All the sex and drugs, starting in high school. (In the intro, Chelsea Cain says that "some really famous edgy writer--I didn't recognize her name, but I pretended that I did--had given a talk at a conference about the State of Sex Scenes in Literature and she'd said that all sex scenes were shit, except for the sex written by Lidia Luknavitch." It's odd to have that be one of the few things you know about a book before reading it, but there is a lot of sex in this book, and it is well-written.) It's also hugely about writing, being a writer, and how writing can help save you. In what is right now my favorite segment, "Dreaming in Women," Yuknavitch talks about a bunch of the writers who've been important to her, and ends with, "I am not alone. Whatever else there was or it, writing is with me."

She opens the book with the story of the daughter she gives birth to in her 20's--stillborn.
After the stillbirth, the words "born dead" lived in me for months and months. To the people around me I just looked... more sad than anyone could bear. People don't know how to be when grief enters a house. She came with me everywhere, like a daughter. No one was any good at being near us. They'd accidentally say stupid things to me, like "I'm sure you'll have another soon," or they would talk to me looking slightly over my head. Anything to avoid the sadness of my skin.
So true. I haven't known that kind of grief, but people's response to grief--she nails it.

She talks about how she thought about opening the book with her childhood, but "Your life doesn't happen in any kind of order. Events don't have cause and effect relationships in the way you wish they did. It's all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common." This is an idea she returns to again and again, and it was especially interesting encountering it as I'm reading The Things They Carried with my students, and realizing this time around that the non-linearity of it is so hard for them. They're used to beginning, middle, end. But it's a book about memory and living with memories, and that doesn't happen beginning, middle, end. I'm doing a much better job teaching it this year. It's still a hard book--it will always be a hard book, one of those amazing hard books that I love watching them experience and take something away from--but hopefully it's slightly less frustrating for them this go-round, or at least they understand why they're frustrated, which makes a big difference.

In an interview at the end of The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch is asked about forgiveness, specifically forgiving her abusive father and her alcoholic mother who didn't get her and her sister away from the dad. She says,
When my daughter died I broke. Open. Into stories. For the first time in my life, I wanted to know what my mother's story was. Badly. So I asked her. When I explored what my mother's story had been all I felt was compassion for the girl of her. Someone should have done something to save her. No one did. It's a wonder she was alive at all.

Maybe forgiveness is just that. The ability to admit someone else's story. To give it to them. To let it be enunciated in your presence. It's your job not to flinch.
She has a lot to say about forgiving her father, including this:
...forgiveness isn't the best I have to give him. Even as a dead man, the best I have to give him is an acknowledgement that I came from him. And I did not kill myself. I am living beyond his life, his end and pulse. I am trying to put things into the world that alchemize the dark and turn it to something beautiful and smooth you can carry in your hand. A small mighty blue stone.
I'm glad I read this book. It's not the kind of book I'd usually pick up--I'm not such a memoir person, and I like me a more conventional narrative, usually--but I'm glad to have this inside me. I could say so much more but I think that's enough. Read it, and I think that what will jump out at you will be other lines, other pieces. There's so much here.

Also from "Dreaming in Women":

"Make quiet for Emily Dickinson. Sing gently a hymn in between the heaves of storm. Let the top of your head lift. See? There are spaces between things. What you thought was nothingness carries the life of it."

"I am not Virginia Woolf. But there is a line of hers that keeps me well: Arrange whatever pieces come your way."

That chapter might ultimately be why I'll need to buy myself a copy of the book.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

My Own Two Feet

I finished Beverly Cleary's second memoir, My Own Two Feet, and I loved it. I'm going to buy it for myself and other people too. I love YA, I read tons of YA, but I don't entirely understand why this book was published as YA. It's the story of Cleary's life after her high school graduation (from Grant High School in Portland!), through her two years at junior college (free!) in California; then two years at "Cal" (now Berkeley); library school at UW in Seattle; a year working as a children's librarian in Yakima, Washington; and her jobs during WWII running first the library at Camp Knight, and then the library at the Oakland Area Station Hospital (previously a hotel she'd gone dancing at when at Cal). The memoir ends shortly after the war does, with Beverly settled as a housewife, first in Oakland then in Berkeley ("I told Clarence I wanted to move to Berkeley. Now."), and finally making herself write. She's always wanted to be a writer, but realizes she never knew what she'd write about. So settled after the war, she remembers "the procession of nonreading boys who had come to the library once a week when I was a children's librarian, boys who wanted books about 'kids like us.'" Henry Huggins comes out of this, and the book ends with Cleary depositing her first advance royalty check.

Over the course of the book, she also marries Clarence Cleary, works as Christmas help at the Sather Gate Book Shop in Berkeley, and when she's working in Yakima, she lives in a boarding house with a bunch of old men, who take turns picking her up at work on the evenings when she has to work at the library until 9.

Clarence's boardinghouse room at Cal is later Dustin Hoffman's college room in The Graduate.

Cleary has a moment in library school when she finally gets the glasses she's known she needed for years, but her mother told her to drop out of college instead (apparently glasses are so horrible? Her mom is weird), so she went without. "When I put on glasses and walked out onto the street, I walked into a new world. I could see individual bricks on buildings, street signs were suddenly legible, lines on the sidewalk were sharper."

In Yakima, she is confused when children call her "Stir," but another library employee explains that the Catholic school kids are "in the habit of addressing their teachers as 'Ster, short for 'Sister.'"

During the war, when working at Camp Knight, she notes that
Men from big cities spoke contemptuously of "those farmers" and looked down on fresh-faced small-town boys from the Midwest who saw war as an adventure. This did not sit well with me, once a farmer's daughter, and I finally snapped at one man, "You eat, don't you?" After a moment of startled silence, he said apologetically, "I never thought of it that way."

There are so many anecdotes and details in this book that I loved. When running the army hospital library, Cleary orders The Impatient Virgin, Tawny, and other books by Donald Henderson Clark, "an author I had never heard of," often requested by enlisted men who "pounce" on these titles, "usually saying, 'I didn't think you would have these.'" The Multnomah County Library doesn't have anything by him, but I'll track something down--I'm curious now.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Beverly Cleary

I am sure I tried to read Beverly Cleary's memoirs back in the day. Ramona Quimby is one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. I love the books about Ramona, and while I only owned Ramona Quimby, Age 8, I checked the others out from the library over and over. I also read Cleary's other books multiple times--Ralph S. Mouse was so important for a while, and Leigh Botts, the hero of Dear Mr. Henshaw, still is very important.

But I must have started the first memoir, A Girl From Yamhill, and just found it boring. I don't think I ever made it as far as My Own Two Feet, which is a lot better. A Girl From Yamhill is Cleary's early memories of living in Yamhill on a farm--until she's like six--and then her life in Portland until she goes away to college.

So I think I never made it out of Yamhill. The part of the first memoir that takes place in Portland is more interesting. Cleary had to memorize one hundred lines of poetry of her own choice, every year of high school! Awesome.

Cleary talks about how they read Carl Sandburg's "Chicago" and were inspired to write their own:
Shipper of wheat,
Grower of roses.

Feller of trees,
Catcher of salmon.
She was obviously totally my kind of nerd in high school too; she and her best friend Claudine studied their The Century Handbook of Writing and worked the examples of "faulty diction" into their conversations.
Our conversation became sprinkled with gleeful vulgarisms we had never used before. When I announced my presence by noisily tap-dancing on the Klums' wooden porch and probably annoying all the neighbors on the block, Claudine said she was nowhere near ready for school.

"I suspicioned you weren't."

Claudine's reply was something like, "This here shoe-lace broke."
Later, Beverly is dating a boy she isn't that into, and when he kisses her, "Being kissed by Gerhart was disappointing. I had expected a kiss to feel more like the time in Yamhill when I stuck my finger in the electric socket, only nice."

She chooses to recite "Patterns" by Amy Lowell for a dramatics class, which cracks me up. When Beverly rehearses it, Claudine says, "Wow! You're sure brave!"

I'm still reading My Own Two Feet, and loving it. "How terribly--I pulled a word from my reading vocabulary that I had never spoken--risqué. Black lace underwear! Gosh!"

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Chemo sucks.

I have a brain tumor. I've probably had it my whole life, but I found out about it when I got hit by a car in 2003, had a CAT scan, and the doctors were like, "You might want to have that checked out."

I wrote a lot more summary of previous events, but I've written about this so much, so moving right along: I had the tumor mostly removed (my neurosurgeon couldn't get it all because he was afraid he'd mess up my vision), got an MRI every year and it stayed away, moved back to Portland, and after my second annual MRI, the neurologist was supposed to say, "Looks great, see you next year," but instead she said, "It looks like there's new growth," and she referred me to an oncologist.

He put me on a miraculous little chemo pill, and I was on that for almost two years, no side effects, and the tumor wasn't shrinking, which would've been the best case scenario, but it wasn't growing either. I kept living my life. It was terrific.

But then I had another appointment post-MRI; again, the doctor was supposed to say "Looks great, see you next time," and again, he said, "Actually..." So now I'm on the old-school chemo, the hardcore IV stuff. Went in for the first time on Friday, and I'll be going every two weeks... a round of chemo is six weeks, three sessions, but as long as it seems to be effective, I'll keep doing it.

I'm generally a pretty positive person. But I made a list of my least favorite things about chemo:

1) nausea
2) fear
3) the bad taste in your mouth
3) the woman in the chair across from me who says, "What are you here for?" I'm wondering, "Is this standard etiquette? The appropriate topic of discussion?" But I answer her: "A brain tumor." She says, "Oh my god!" which thank you, is not helpful. I ask, "What are you here for?" She says, "Breast cancer" and gestures. Then, thank god, she leaves.

I started making a list of the best things about chemo, and I got as far as
1) Megan going with me

but then I realized that fuck it, I don't have to make a list of the good things about chemo. Chemo sucks.

I See the Promised Land

I just finished Arthur Flowers' new book, I See the Promised Land; A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. Arthur was my teacher at Syracuse University, and one of the many things I loved about this book was how loud and clear his voice was, telling me this story.

Also, there was all this stuff I didn't know, or didn't remember knowing! Like the children of Birmingham and the Children's Crusade in 1963, the kids marching because so many of the adult protesters were in jail.

And the way Arthur tells this story, the details he chooses... there have been a million books written about MLK, but these details were new to me:

During the Birmingham bus boycott, King
ask one old woman walking by if she wasn't too old for this, ask her if her feet not tired.

My feet is tired she say, but my soul is rested.

He like that.

He like that a lot.

Made his heart full to bursting.

He quotes J. Edgar Hoover calling King
"The most dangerous and effective negro leader in the country." Even better, "That goddamned nigger preacher."

He also talks about how King was "dismayed" when the SNCC called him an Uncle Tom, and points out that
(Actually Uncle Tom has gotten a bad rap. Check the text, he wasn't that bad. Did what he could with what he had. Wasn't no Gunga Din.)

The rhythm, the details, the humor. I love that Arthur Flowers.

This is a graphic novel of sorts, illustrated by Manu Chitrakar, a "Patua scroll artist" living and working in Bengal, and designed by Guglielmo Rossi, an Italian designer. There were a lot of beautiful things about the illustrations, and the design was so cool. But it seemed strange to me to have such an American story be illustrated by such a not American artist. I completely appreciate the idea behind it--"Turning King's journey into a truly universal legacy," as it says on the cover--and I would have been able to get behind this idea much more if the people looked more like actual African-Americans and white Americans. Instead, they often look Indian. There are a lot of moustaches. Also, there are many images of political protests--and the protests are holding either signs without text on them, just empty white (which I liked) or signs that appear to have Arabic characters on them. I did a search online and on the publishers' website and was unable to find any information about the language or translations for the text on these signs.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Found and Blackbird

I just read Found, by Jennifer Lauck. Lauck was adopted, and according to her, it fucked up her life. Granted, her adoptive family saw some serious tragedy, and her adoptive brother was nasty about Lauck being adopted, but Lauck talks a lot about the essential maternal bond between mother and child, and how much she lost by never bonding with her birth mother as an infant... so she searches for her--this is largely that story. Lauck ends up really coming down hard on adoption practices in general--much of which is valid, I think, but some of it is over the top. I don't know. She's a mom now herself, and her descriptions of her relationships with her kids are pretty great. And I appreciated this:
It is distressing to learn that the U.S. leads the world as the single largest adoption nation. It seems startling to me that Americans are so fast on the scene of international disasters, and we scoop up orphan children and have them adopted into U.S. homes before body counts are added up.

Imagine if a collective of Chinese emissaries rushed to our shores after a disaster like Hurricane Katrina and took off with Louisiana babies. Or say a collective of Australian humanitarians came to Manhattan after 9/11 and hauled away orphans. These scenarios are ludicrous, and yet this is what American representatives are doing under the guise of being helpful.
She goes on to talk about what we could do for kids in crisis situations that would actually BE helpful.


After reading Found I put Lauck's first memoir, Blackbird; A Childhood Lost and Found, on hold at the library, and I've just finished it. Blackbird felt like a more successful book to me--Lauck is still clearly really close to some of the stuff in Found, and I know that for me, it's really hard to write about anything so close.

The best part about it was that yesterday I had it on my desk at school, and one of the freshman girls in my struggling readers' class said, "I read that book! Omigod I loved that book!" She's someone I haven't gotten to know, because she's absent more than she's in school. But it made me so happy. It also made me think again how true this passage is--I'd marked it before she said anything:
Just like that, I'm back in a school again. The thing is, when you aren't like everyone else, when you aren't normal, school isn't real, and that's how I feel here, like it's not real at all. There are other kids and there is a teacher, but I don't see them, don't become part of what they are part of. They belong here and I don't, and that's just the way it is.
I never felt that way about school, but Lauck put words to something that I've seen so many of my students dealing with.