Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Reading by flashlight: fact or fiction

Shameful admission: I didn't read The Giver until I was 23. How I escaped being assigned it in school, I'm not sure, but it wasn't until I was assigned it in grad school that I finally picked it up. I fell in love with it, of course, but it's frustrating to know that I could've read it as a kid, because I know it's just the book child-me would've loved, too.

If you don't read Lois Lowry's blog, you should. I found it after seeing her give the May Hill Arbuthnot honor lecture in St. Louis (& what a wonderful job she did - you can watch it here). Her blog has made me laugh, cry, & admire her even more as an author. She is wonderfully perceptive with just the right amount of cynicism; I'd wager most great authors strike that balance.

Her latest entry supposes that reading under the covers with a flashlight is just an old wives' tale used by bookworms to prove their bookworminess. I wholeheartedly agree! Partly because, like Lowry, my parents never made me turn off the light, put down the book, & go to bed. If I stayed up too late reading, then my sleepy self dealt with the consequences the next day. Did I ever regret it? Of course not.

The flashlight myth just doesn't hold up. Have you ever tried to read while wielding a flashlight? One-handed reading isn't particularly easy. Not to mention, most flashlights are heavy & children's hands are small. & you'd need a pretty heavy comforter to muffle flashlight light.

How about you? Did you read under the covers with a flashlight? Do you tell people you did, but really didn't? Or did you read shamelessly, out in the open, with the lamp on?

Next review up: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Norton Juster interview

I just have to share this - an AV Club interview with Norton Juster. I've worshipped Norton Juster since I was a child, specifically since my parents recorded The Phantom Tollbooth off the Sci-Fi Channel & my brother & I practically wore out the tape. I didn't read the book until late elementary school, maybe middle school, but I've since read it eight or ten times. The Hello Goodbye Window is wonderful, too.

So anyway, just wanted to share the link. Who would've thought an author would fault a movie for being too faithful to his work?,57562/

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman, 2009.

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago & I still am not sure how I felt about it. But "I'm not sure" doesn't make for a very good book review, does it? Though honestly, it's not even easy to give a concise plot summary. Quentin Coldwater is a jaded teen suffering from unrequited love & best-friend envy. He's grown up immersed in the Narnia-like fictional world of Fillory, written about by Christopher Plover in the "Fillory & Further" book series. As a boy on the cusp of adulthood, Quentin still escapes into his imaginary Fillory whenever he can. He stumbles through an overgrown garden into the schoolyard of a magical college a la Hogwarts, & the story really begins. He spends four years there, becomes a magician, languishes as an aimless, drunken post-grad in New York, & that's all before he discovers that Fillory is a real place. Looking back, I am amazed how much story Grossman crammed into those pages.

Reading the book conjures thoughts of Harry Potter (the characters reference quidditch & Hogwarts), Narnia, dark fairy tales from the 1600s, Tolkien, & much more. Publishers Weekly referred to it as "derivative." It is, to be sure; The Magicians' existance relies on every piece of fantasy that came before it. About halfway through reading it, I remember thinking, "It's like if you took Harry Potter & added sex, alcohol, & a dose of realism." But still, it feels so original, more original than the recent traditional fantasies I've read. Somehow it feels like Grossman did something new in subverting the genre the way that he has. He has twisted the fantastic conventions & turned them into something bleak, sometimes funny, sometimes raunchy, almost always sad, & strangely realistic.

So, the good things: The writing, storytelling, world-building, characterization - all stellar. Some scenes will stick with me for a very long time, from a simple description of Quentin & his friends lying - drunk, careless, & happy - on the welters field at the close of a summer day, to the deftly described Beast's terrifying entrance into the Brakebills classroom. Also, it was believable. I thought so many times "This is exactly how a real person would react to discovering magic was real!" I became so engrossed in the story at times that I forgot everything going on around me. I could read the book again right now.

So why didn't I love it wholly? For one, the main characters in the book, Quentin's little posse, are a group of despicable, spoiled, self-absorbed, vindictive jerks. I could go on; I straight-up hated some of them, including Quentin some of the time. They're almost entirely unlikeable, & it's hard to root for a character when you don't like him, & when all the characters have pitted themselves against each other because they're all unhappy. Further, the book is nauseatingly pretentious. Most of the references & the way the characters act ooze wealth & condescension, & it got old, fast. The divisions of the book were bothersome as well. The book was divided into four sections, the first of which seemed far more weighted than the rest & one of which didn't warrant its own section at all. This could've been an editorial decision rather than Grossman's, but I thought it was pretty poorly done.

I can forgive the annoyances, though, because of the book's accomplishments. Grossman proved what fantasy novels rarely (never?) do, which is to show that if you're miserable, if you hurt the people you love, if you are a spoiled brat, if you can't find meaning in the world - you will not find happiness by stepping through a wardrobe, or grasping a magic button, or walking through an enchanted garden into another world. Quentin spent his childhood dreaming of Fillory, but when he got there, he was as listless as he was at home, and continued to search for contentment. He never found it.

Maybe he will in The Magician King, coming in fall '11 (& sitting at home on my shelf right now!)?

I look forward to finding out.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Question for my fellow book lovers

I know I said "The Magicians" is up next - & it is! - but I just had a book-thought I wanted to share. Three of my favorite old authors stand out in that I own many of their books: Thomas Hardy, Walker Percy, & J. M. Barrie, but you know, I haven't read many of their books.

I have a whole shelf devoted to Thomas Hardy, including two particularly old, beautiful editions of "The Woodlanders" & "The Return of the Native," but I have only read "Jude the Obscure," "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," about half of "A Pair of Blue Eyes," & bits of "The Mayor of Casterbridge" & "Far from the Madding Crowd." I have all of Walker Percy's novels & some of his nonfiction works, but I have only read "The Moviegoer," "The Last Gentleman," & part of "The Second Coming." I own a good many of J. M. Barrie's novels & plays, but I have only read "Peter & Wendy," "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens," "The Little White Bird," & about half of "The Greenwood Hat."

These guys are strange to me because I adore them, but I am hesitant to get through their books. Not only have I not read many of their works, but they are some of the only authors whose books I've stopped reading partway through. I hate to do that! I never do that! So why does it happen with these guys? How do I get halfway through a brilliant book of Barrie's essays & stop?

While the best books are those that get better with every reread, there is only one first reading of a book. I will never again be able to cry for Jude like I did - late at night, summertime, in bed, ninth grade - when he died, the summertime Rememberance Day music flowing in through his open window, alone except for his beloved books.

I will never again be able to reach the end of Will Barrett's journey - in my college apartment, the dwindling evening sun coming in through the window - in a fury of curiosity only to find that I was left hanging, & then to sit & stew over what might've happened after he and Sutter pulled away in the Edsel, kicking up a cloud of dust, while the room darkened around me.

& I'll never again cry steady, unexplainable tears - in the middle of the children's department of the Hoover Library while I ran the summer reading tent, trying so hard not to weep openly - when Peter forgot, when the Lost Boys became businessmen, when Wendy couldn't fly anymore. (Actually I will always & forever weep through the entirety of "Peter & Wendy," just not as uncontrollably as the first time.)

Hardy, Percy, Barrie, authors I hold so close to my heart, they're all dead. I know their fingers will no longer clack away at a typewriter or put pen to paper, so this is all I've got. The six Walker Percy novels sitting dusty & unread on my shelf? Those are the only Percy novels I'll ever read. So why would I devour them when I can parcel them out over a lifetime, or at least the next ten years or so?

I suppose my question is - Am I alone in this? Is there something weird about getting a thrill from knowing that I still have shelves full of unread books by my favorite authors? At some point in my life, that'll no longer be the case. It's like getting a letter from an old friend, which is better: actually reading the letter, or holding the unopened envelope in your hand, like a wrapped present? The gratification or the anticipation?

For me, knowing I still have more of Will Barrett's story to unravel, more of Barrie's psyche to probe, more fabulous melodrama from Hardy, is worth dragging out.

Just a thought for your Friday. Happy reading!


Monday, June 6, 2011

"Re: Darkness Too Visible," or "Why I'm Apparently Going to Hell"

While everyone has put in their two cents about Meghan Gurdon’s WSJ piece on YA literature (see this excellent parody, Laurie Halse Anderson’s response, & Philip Nel’s), I have to throw my coins in the pot, too, because I was as incensed as many readers were.
Gurdon’s piece bemoans what she sees as the prevalence of “lurid… dramatic… dark… darker than when you were a child, my dear” books in YA lit.
“…kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18. Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail.”

Forty years, how convenient. YA, as a genre, was just getting to be a “thing.” But look a little further into the past to the 1800s, 1700s, even the 1600s. There wasn’t yet such a thing as children’s literature, but there was literature, & you know what it was about? Well, looking at fairy tales of the 1600s alone, you have kidnapping, incest, cannibalism, & necrophilia, to name a few. Those stomach-clenching pathologies are not new to literature. If the offensive part is that this literature is now marketed to teens, I’d like Gurdon to find me a single person who ever only read books marketed to his age group. (More on that later.)
“If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.”

If what Gurdon thinks should happen is a return to the good old days of purity in literature, she doesn’t know much about literature. & if she thinks there is more purity in life than is reflected in literature, then she doesn’t know much about life. I was privileged to have a childhood free of any Laurie Halse Anderson- or Robert Cormier-esque experiences, but not all childhoods were. If any YA novel is a “hideously distorted portrayal of what life is,” then let’s talk about Twilight & the message it’s sending to young girls about their self-worth. But most of the realistic fiction Gurdon cited is not perpendicular to reality. Is reality free of “damage, brutality, and losses”? Ask the parent of a child who was murdered for being gay.

“It has to do with a child's happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.”

I can only speak for myself here, but as a reader whom Gurdon would say “seeks out depravity,” I will say that this is a harsh, uninformed judgment, as wrong as saying that atheists cannot be kind and loving people because they reject the notion of a “kind and loving” creator. Am I less tender of heart, less spiritual, less moral, less happy because I enjoy media that is violent, gory, scary, grim, or dark? I might be more cynical, but I’m not less happy.

”Adolescence is brief; it comes to each of us only once, so whether the debate has raged for eons doesn't, on a personal level, really signify.”

Yes, adolescence is brief. But I think Gurdon is using the wrong word here. She’s talking about preserving the innocence of a time in a young person’s life. That’s not what adolescence is about; that’s childhood, pre-adolescence. Adolescence is about leaving innocence behind, for better or worse. Is there anyone more inquisitive about the deviant nature of humans than a teenager? I really don’t think so. Maybe Gurdon doesn’t remember straddling that awkward line between childhood and adulthood but it wasn’t all fun & games, & YA novels help ease the transition, realistic or otherwise. Why did Gurdon not ask in her article why YA is rife with these books? Why did she not entertain the idea that authors are writing what teens want & need? Was she never a teenager crossing from naiveté into the “lurid, dramatic, dark” world of being a grown-up?
People curse. Yes, even teenagers. Teenagers pepper their vocabulary with words their parents won’t allow them to use because they can, because in the smallest of ways they are exercising their independence. It’s a miniscule rebellion, & teenagers will do it until the end of time, regardless of whether you like or not. People also have sex, & who is more curious about sex than an adolescent?
It gets worse, Gurdon. People bully. People do meth. People murder. People die. There are depressed teens out there who practice self-mutilation. Is this a blanket endorsement of the horrors of the world? Definitely not. But darkness is out there. Some kids are living it, and for the kids who are lucky enough not to live it, you can’t stop the dark side of the world from holding a delicious intrigue, as weird as that is.
Gurdon has two problems, if I’m reading her correctly. One is that she argues realistic YA fiction is too grim. The other is that unrealistic YA fiction is too grim, like the wall in Andrew Smith’s novel “covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts.” To this, Gurdon asks, where’s my happy ending? I say, awesome! A wall covered in rotting body parts!
I know I’m not speaking only for myself when I say that there is an entire population of children with a penchant for the dark, gruesome, & grotesque. How big this population is, I can’t say. They are the ones who seek out depravity, as she says, & this fascination, I believe, is innate. Since I’m always looking for an excuse to quote Maurice Sendak, from a Newsweek article:
Reporter: “What do you say to parents who think the Wild Things film may be too scary?”
Sendak: “I would tell them to go to hell. That’s a question I will not tolerate.”
Reporter: “Because kids can handle it?”
Sendak: “If they can’t handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it’s not a question that can be answered. … This concentration on kids being scared, as though we as adults can’t be scared. Of course we’re scared. I’m scared of watching a TV show about vampires. I can’t fall asleep. It never stops. We’re grown-ups; we know better, but we’re afraid.”
Reporter: “Why is that important in art?”
Sendak: “Because it’s truth. You don’t want to do something that’s all terrifying. I saw the most horrendous movies that were unfit for child’s eyes. So what? I managed to survive.”

I wouldn’t tell Gurdon to go to hell, but I would tell her, as my mom always said, that’s why they make chocolate & vanilla. The kids Sendak writes for are the kids who went from his picture books to Caroline Cooney’s in hopes that titles like “The Face on the Milk Carton” indicated a plot about a girl who disappeared, was brutally murdered, & whose brutal murder was depicted in all of its grim, gory glory. (It wasn’t.)
Why did I read Goosebumps, Lois Duncan, Suzanne Collins? Why did I read Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe? Why did I pick up “Frankenstein” when I was eight years old? Why did I curl up with my girlfriends in elementary school to watch Stephen King’s “It” over & over even though after it was over we couldn’t go to the bathroom alone? Why did I flock to books about dystopian futures that are never bright or happy?
Because I wanted to be scared. Creeped out. Disturbed. Nauseated. Shocked. I wanted to be afraid to turn out my bedside lamp. I wanted to get lost in a world that wasn’t my own. There is a thrill that comes from something shocking, or gross, or terrifying, or just different. That is not lost on young children, & it certainly isn’t lost on teenagers.
Where would Gurdon draw the line, I wonder? If you’re trying to keep kids from anything deviant, you’re gonna have to avoid picture books. Have you ever read “Guess What?” by Mem Fox (its wonderfully vivid illustrations depict a witch in her underwear & buttons promoting the Sex Pistols), or “In a Dark, Dark Room” by Alvin Schwartz (a girl’s head falls off), or “Outside Over There” by Sendak (a baby is stolen by goblins – have you ever seen anything as scary as the frozen face of the ice-baby?)?
Better stay away from all classic literature, too, as most books that have withstood the test of time are sure to offend in one way or another. Should the teen who shouldn’t read Lauren Myracle’s book in which a boy in a small Southern town is brutally beaten also not read Flannery O'Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” because – spoiler alert! – a robber murders a grandmother & her grandkids? Should he not read “Lord of the Flies” because children commit cold-blooded murder? & yet “The Hunger Games” is too much of the ol’ ultraviolence?
If these dark books depress Gurdon, or 46-year-old-mother-of-three Amy Freeman, I say, go back to middle grade. Is “Tuck Everlasting” tame enough? “Anne of Green Gables”? “Holes”? “Hatchet”? Just stick to middle grade – they’re wonderful, after all – and arrest your kids’ development. Because real life doesn’t mirror a middle-grade novel.
“It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person's life between more and less desirable options.”
Yes, parents, when your kids are little enough, you can put books in their hands or take books out of their hands if you so choose. (Though I would argue that a parent should never take a book from a child’s hands, unless it’s, I don’t know, pornography, in which case what is it doing in your house?) But by the time a kid has the urge to read YA lit, hands off, mom & dad.
I am a strong proponent of the belief that children are self-censoring. If a teen, or preteen, gets partway through a rough YA novel & feels that they can’t handle it, will they keep reading? No. If they read on to the end, can’t we assume that they have learned something? Or, God forbid, that they just plain enjoyed it? Why is this scary? In Anderson’s rebuttal to the article, she argues it’s because parents are afraid to tackle these topics with their children. I think that’s very valid. If Gurdon honestly believes books about cutting should spark fear in parents because it might encourage their children to cut, well, those parents should probably talk more with their children. Is there something gained in sheltering children from things like cutting, anorexia, rape, harassment, suicide, bullying, drug use, assault, sex, alcoholism, etc.? The move for preservation of innocence is both illogical & damaging. These kids still live in our world, don’t they?
As for “every other aspect” that Gurdon refers to, it’s like she’s likening watching mindless torture porn like “Saw” to reading “The Hunger Games.” She says “One depravity does not justify another,” but why did she never bring into the discussion the purpose of these depravities? What if there is a point? What if the depravity is a commentary on today’s society? What if it’s to reach out to a troubled teen? Or a non-troubled teen trying to understand a troubled teen?
“At the same time, she notes that many teenagers do not read young-adult books at all. Near the end of the school year, when she and a colleague entertained students from a nearby private school, only three of the visiting 18 juniors said that they read YA books.”

This isn’t surprising at all. Kids read up, as I first mentioned… uh… four pages ago. Elementary students read middle-grade novels. Middle-schoolers read YA. Young adults read adult novels. Maybe not all kids, but I’d wager most kids. I bet the other 15 juniors are all reading adult literature, & according to Gurdon, shouldn’t that scare the grown-ups more?

“No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives.”

She closes with that, & I’ll close with that too because I have gone on long enough, & because this makes my blood boil the most. Those evil book publishers, right?! They just want to indoctrinate children with vileness and evil and dark thoughts, to rise up a generation of depraved evildoers. & if the publishers are bulldozing coarseness & misery into children’s lives, then so are the authors. Seriously, Gurdon? You think the aim of YA authors is to blacken children’s hearts and corrupt their impressionable little minds?

Give the kids a little respect. Actually no, give them a lot of respect. They’re no less smart or moral or kind or discerning than you. If anything, they’re more open-minded, inquisitive, and imaginative, because they’re growing up in a world with more books than you had.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Enchanted Castle

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit, 1907.

E. Nesbit is a cornerstone of early 20th century British children's lit, as well as founder of the Fabian Society & a very liberal lady. Fun fact: Her marriage was a menage a trois.

So how, I ask, did the woman manage to write books that are dull by comparison? Maybe dull isn't the right word exactly. Aimless? Rambling?

Now don't get me wrong, I adore some rambling, dusty old British lit. But Nesbit manages to tell a magical tale in such a way that I end up begging her to just get on with it.

I read the charmingly yawn-inducing The Railway Children a couple of years ago. The story was darling, but forgettable.

The Enchanted Castle, written a year later, is similar in that it is sweet & tends to plod along on occasion. Three siblings - Jimmy, Gerald, & Kathleen - come across a castle, a young girl named Mabel, & a magic ring that is whatever the wearer wishes it to be. Chaos ensues when the kids start wishing.

There are moments in the plot that are just fantastic. The children put on a production of Beauty & the Beast in the house & create audience members out of hockey sticks, umbrellas, brooms, clothes, & painted faces, which come to life when the children wish for their applause. These "Ugly-Wuglies" are both funny & terrifying. One, who upon animation asks to be directed to a "good hotel," becomes a well-known London banker, Mr. U. W. Ugli.

The language is dated, which isn't a problem if you have a dictionary nearby, but can trip you up otherwise.

Nesbit's occasional first-person interjections & a handful of dry-witted, perceptive narrative remarks are what make this book worth reading. Mabel comments, "I thought Americans didn't believe in anything but machinery and newspapers."

& this sentence, which I probably read ten times: "So the carnations were bought, a bunch of yellow ones, like sulphur, a bunch of white ones like clotted cream, and a bunch of red ones like the cheeks of the doll that Kathleen never played with." Perfect.

When her prose doesn't get away from her ("One wonders how one can ever have wondered about anything. Space is not; every place that one has seen or dreamed of is here. Time is not; into this instant is crowded all that one has ever done or dreamed of doing." Oy.), this book is magical. But it's not because of the magic ring; it's because of the moments when Nesbit's writing transcends the real and becomes something magical.

Which, I suppose, is why people are still reading her a hundred years later.

All in all, I would recommend this book. Just don't expect to breeze through it.

Next up, The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

You will never see the word "unputdownable" here... after today.

I was just sitting here contemplating whether or not to start writing book reviews again, when James Patterson's fat face showed up on TV hawking his new book, Tick Tock. (You can see the commercial there, along with his jowls.) The ominous voiceover called it "unputdownable." A sign from God if ever there was one. 

It doesn't really matter if anyone ever stops by this page for one person's opinion about books; what matters is that there are people out there informing the uninformed that unputdownable is not a word, nor is it a creative, Dahl-esque non-word; that book commercials for crime thrillers are unnecessary & ridiculous; & that James Patterson isn't even writing those books, those non-books so like potato chips. Fluffy, greasy, insubstantial, completely lacking in nutritional value, but possible addictive if you let yourself buy a bag, & really bad for you if you keep stocking your pantry - or library - with them.

Someone, in the name of good books, needs to pick up the gauntlet that James Patterson has thrown down. 

So I'm going to hop on the blogging bandwagon (that I've really been a part of since 2000 with the inception of my first Livejournal) & get to talking about books again. I used to review books regularly for Armchair Interviews, but business there has slacked off & I just miss it. I know book blogs are a dime a dozen, but whatever. It's fun. I hope, if nothing else, to provide some recommendations for folks out there looking for a good read.

I just finished The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit, so it'll be up first.