Things I’m Reading and Thinking About This Week

As per usual, these are the things I’ve been reading and thinking about this week.  It’s YA-heavy this week, but that’s kind of where my passion is, so it is what it is.  Without further ado, let’s get into it.

Unplugging from John Green and Rob Thomas (Persnickety Snark)

vmI was so happy when Adele from Persnickety Snark started blogging again after a fairly long hiatus.  I love her posts and her thoughts about books and pop culture, and I was particularly struck by a recent post in which she talks about fatigue from being deluged by a creator’s updates about their process.  Because I agree.

Like Adele, I was a Veronica Mars movie Kickstarter Backer, and also like Adele, the updates from Rob Thomas got to the point where another one would appear in my inbox and I would think, “Seriously?”  She gets to the heart of it here:

At this point in time, Thomas has sent out 92 updates on his highly successful Kickstarter initiative to revisit the world of Neptune High.  92 updates, a media eclipse of content, a mediocre film and nowhere to run.  Even in unfollowing every cast member and creator, I was still inundated with information about the script, the casting, the production, the team working on it, the media appearances, Rob’s new VM related projects, the premiere, and now I am getting news on an unrelated Thomas driven project via the Kickstarter updates*.

I’m with her, and I’m also with her about the updates we’re now being subjected to about iZombie.  I can’t tell you how much I don’t care about iZombie.  Actually, I can.  I don’t even know what it is, apart from the fact that Thomas is working on it.  I can’t even be bothered to Google it, so irritated am I that I’m receiving updates about it.

This part of her post also stuck out to me, because it’s exactly how I feel about it:

But in a world where we are becoming increasingly interlinked, escape is becoming less probable.  I want some mystery back.  I love hearing about the process, and the creators’ emotional journey etc after the end result.  If the process is intensely detailed as it’s happening – I need to disengage.  I don’t want to be over the book/film before it has even made its way to the public.  I am then robbing myself of some great storytelling with the added benefit of surprise.

Just something to think about.

Why the Eleanor and Park Movie is so Important (BookRiot)

If you follow YA news at all, you probably already heard that Rainbow Rowell’s excellent (seriously, seriously excellent) Eleanor & Park has been optioned by Dreamworks.  Although it’s a long road to actually becoming a film, because of the book’s intensely vocal (and wide-ranging) fanbase, it seems pretty likely to do so.  Of course, this movie news is influenced by the recent surge of other realistic YA novels being optioned for film.  But this one feels particularly important in a way that other YA lit movie news doesn’t.

For one, it doesn’t include Shailene Woodley in the lead role (is she in everything, or is she in everything?) This Book Riot post gets to the heart of it pretty quickly:

But when it comes to casting, it’s not a surprise that we’re seeing the same faces over and over again…by using the same actors over and over again are telling movie audiences: “These are people whose stories are worth telling. If you look like this person, your story is worth telling. If you don’t…um… it’s like… I don’t know what to tell you, dude.”

The argument here, of course, is that this won’t work with Eleanor & Park, because Park is half-Korean and Eleanor is not a waif.  This means, if the movie hews closely to the book, casting directors are going to have to go outside of their comfort zone, at least a little.  Maybe?

No One Wants to Discover New Music? Ridiculous. (Salon)

Books might be my first love, but music is a pretty close second.  I’m an audiophile, and I’m obsessed with discovering new music and tracking what’s being released when.  Most of my music discoveries happen through music blogs, but I definitely use things like Pandora to help discover new stuff, especially when I’m hanging out with people and we want background noise.

This article appeared at Salon this week, and takes issue with another article (linked at the site and not here, because I kind of feel like the original article is troll-y click bait) that purports that streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are fighting an uphill battle that they will never win.  Essentially: music listeners don’t want to discover new music, because they are comfortable with what they know they like.

Which, what?  This is true of some music listeners, sure.  It’s impossible to make a blanket statement one way or the other, but the original article attempts just that.  And it’s super ridiculous.  The article from Salon agrees:

What’s so astonishing is that, now, more than ever before, it simply doesn’t have to be that way. When I was an impressionable teenager it was logistically difficult to get exposed to new music outside of the narrow confines of Top 40. It required money and transport (or, at the very least, a good FM DJ). But today it’s the easiest thing in the world. For the last week or so, I’ve been occasionally listening to a Pandora station seeded by the Broken Bells, and I’m continually amazed at just how much creative, interesting music is out there that I’ve never heard of.

So maybe for casual music fans, there’s a certain truth to the original argument.  But for people who actually love music and are interested in discovering new bands and sounds?  Streaming sites like Pandora are a mecca.

The Hazards of Book to Film Adaptation: Further Thoughts on Attempted Rape in Divergent Divergent  (Stacked)

I finally got around to seeing the Divergent movie last week and was surprised that there was a divergentscene in which Four attempts to rape Tris during one of her fear simulations.  I didn’t remember it from the book, but I sort of brushed it off because I read the book years ago and the details of the plot are hazy at best.  But then I started reading articles on the internet, and I realized that I hadn’t forgotten the scene–it had been added.

Which is disturbing for a lot of reasons.  But this piece by Kimberly Francisco at Stacked gets to a lot of what makes that decision so uncomfortable.  She wonders why the filmmakers decided to fundamentally alter Tris’s fear landscape to include an attempted rape:

The kindest answer to my question may be that the filmmakers thought it would be too difficult to communicate Tris’ fear of sexual intimacy – or just affection in general – on the big screen.

So if that’s the case–and I agree with Francisco, that’s likely what propelled the decision to change the scene from one in which Tris is afraid of sex because of how scary sex is when you’re a teenager to one in which the fear is of actual rape–it sends a completely different message to viewers:

Perhaps they did not intend to explicitly tell readers and viewers that they felt Tris’ fear of sexual intimacy was equivalent to fear of rape, but by making the choice to exclude the book’s scene and create the attempted rape scene, that’s exactly what they have done. 

Which is, of course, completely alarming.  Francisco is not the only person who takes issue with this choice in the movie.  Melissa Montovani at YA Bookshelf has some great pieces about this movie and how it fits into rape culture, and I encourage you to take a look at them.

At any rate, I’ve been thinking about this since I saw the movie, and I think I’ll be thinking about it for a good long while still.

What got you thinking this week?

 

Book Review: The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder

Hannah and Zoe are the best of friends, and completely inseparable.  They’ve always been there for one another, so when Zoe tells Hannah that it’s time to leave their po-dunk New Jersey town and see the world, the two embark on a crazy road trip adventure.  Along the way, Zoe tries to teach Hannah about the intangible things in life: like insouciance, audacity, and happiness.

Wendy Wunder’s sophomore novel has high aims and delivers on many of them.  This novel has much of what many readers of contemporary YA look for in their books: romance, independence, self-discovery, and a great deal of wit.  The result is a mixed bag, and while it will work for many readers, it didn’t completely gel for this one.

Because Zoe’s bi-polar disorder plays such a prominent role in the novel, it’s impossible to discuss the novel’s limitations without also touching on that.  Zoe has relied on Hannah to help her down from her episodes, and while it has worked in the past, the two girls find that it is harder and harder to self-medicate when it comes to Zoe’s increasing mania.  Therein lies the biggest issue for this reader when it comes to this book.

Without disputing the fact that bi-polar disorder is a very real thing that some teens face, there was something about the portrayal in this novel that didn’t sit right with this reader.  Too often, Zoe felt like a manic pixie dream girl, and while Wunder did try to showcase the other side of that coin, it felt oddly hollow.  Hannah shoulders a great deal of her best friend’s burden, but something about the story didn’t feel authentic.  Zoe has a support system in place at home, so it seemed odd that that support system would just allow the two girls to go off gallivanting.

So much time and energy is spent on describing Zoe’s zaniness and illness that it feels as though Hannah gets the short shrift often.  Unfortunately, this reader never connected to either character, making this harder to get through.  Lacking that connection to these girls made the stakes feel very low, even though that was clearly not Wunder’s intent.

That being said, the novel is–like her previous work–incredibly well-written.  There are some real gems of insight here, and there is a certain segment of the reading population that will love this one.  Wit and a certain rawness are present throughout the novel.  It just wasn’t enough to sustain the novel to its inevitable (and predictable) conclusion.

Also, the sudden veering into magical realism near the end felt like a way to add some safety netting to the conclusion, which harmed the emotional impact.  Not all readers will feel that way, though.

The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder. Razorbill: 2014. 

Waiting on Wednesday: Girls Like Us by Gail Giles

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles

Expected Release Date: May 27, 2014

We understand stuff. We just learn it slow. And most of what we understand is that people what ain’t Speddies think we too stupid to get out our own way. And that makes me mad.

Quincy and Biddy are both graduates of their high school’s special ed program, but they couldn’t be more different: suspicious Quincy faces the world with her fists up, while gentle Biddy is frightened to step outside her front door. When they’re thrown together as roommates in their first “real world” apartment, it initially seems to be an uneasy fit. But as Biddy’s past resurfaces and Quincy faces a harrowing experience that no one should have to go through alone, the two of them realize that they might have more in common than they thought — and more important, that they might be able to help each other move forward.

Hard-hitting and compassionate, Girls Like Us is a story about growing up in a world that can be cruel, and finding the strength — and the support — to carry on.

(summary via Goodreads)

Being put out by Candlewick this May, Gail Giles’s novel is about a couple of teens in special education.  There are a lot of things that I love about this novel already: it’s literature of inclusion featuring characters that are virtually invisible in most YA lit these days; it takes place at the older end of the YA spectrum (my favorite range), and it’s being published by one of the companies that I think is taking some of the greatest risks with YA.

I can’t wait to read this one.  Can’t wait.

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy

Alice is diagnosed with leukemia and finally accepts the fact that she’s not going to live a long life.  She convinces her best friend Harvey, who has been in love with her forever, to help her fulfill a bunch of her bucket-list items.  These include things such as revenge on an ex-boyfriend, random acts of kindness, and a bunch of other important life stuff.  But just when she feels like she’s ready to peace out, she gets startling news: she’s in remission.  Her parents are thrilled; Harvey is overjoyed and cautiously hopeful that they can finally be together.  But Alice is at a loss at how to start living like she isn’t dying.  Can she repair the damage she’s done to those around her, and can she even allow herself to be the kind of vulnerable she’ll need to be in order to be with Harvey?

Julie Murphy’s just the latest author to offer readers a book about a teen with cancer, but she takes that trope and turns it on its ear.  Instead of having Alice lament the fact that she’s dying, Murphy jumps forward, for the most part, to where Alice has accepted it and is making peace with her time that’s left.  The result is a prickly, acerbic heroine who isn’t always the most likable of protagonists.  But it works, because Murphy is firmly in control of her characters and the narrative.

The book alternates between narration from Alice and her best friend Harvey.  Both voices work and are distinct enough that readers shouldn’t confuse the two.  However, the narrative demands extra attention because the two of them switch back and forth between the “then” and the “now” of the story, forcing readers to keep two different timelines in their heads.  Because Murphy is a strong enough reader, this largely works.  The fact that the characters are very real and authentic versions of themselves helps further this device.

Alice is a complex character, which is why she works on the page.  If Alice were only a revenge-seeking superbrat, readers would grow tired of her antics very quickly.  She’s not the nicest person, and she recognizes it fully. Her ability to be completely honest with herself elevates her characterization.  She’s kind of the worst, and she knows it–but she’s also dealing with the very real, very looming threat of the cancer coming back at any moment.  This makes everything about her situation all the more raw, moving, and honest.

This one is a stand-out in the cancer book genre (is that a thing?).  Murphy is a talented writer who has crafted very real teens with a narrative worth telling.  Readers will be glued to the book’s hopeful end, wondering what will come next for these incredibly well-rendered characters.  Recommended.

Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy. Harper Collins/Balzer + Bray: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

Books that Stick to Your Ribs

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the books that stay with you long after you’ve finished them.  This could be anywhere on the spectrum of Emotional Reactions to Things You Have Read (this isn’t a real thing, yet) : it could be books you hated to your very core, or it could be books you loved so much that you feel actual heartbreak when they’re finished.  For me, the books that stick to my ribs are the ones that I either love so much it hurts, or they’re the ones that challenge me to think differently about the world.  These are not mutually exclusive criteria.  They overlap, sometimes.  Here are a few of the books that come to mind when I think of the books that have stayed with me and even shaped me (as a person and a reader, natch).

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: I first read this book in high school, and I revisited it in college when I took a (terrible) freshman-level English class that the instructor turned into a dystopian-themed course (because that’s what his dissertation was on, obviously).  I loved the book when I first read it and found the entire thing incredibly haunting.  When I revisited it as a depressed, displaced 20-year-old (I refer to my early college days as my “Dark Days,” and that, my friends, is a story for another time), I found that I still loved it, but that I also identified with it in new ways.

Like Offred, I felt incredibly stifled by my life and longed for the days gone by, when things were easier and freer.  Obviously I wasn’t living in a patriarchal society in which women weren’t allowed to read and the few fertile women were sold to powerful older men to basically be Baby Machines, but there were aspects of the book that stood out to me I had missed the first time through.  I suspect if I were to revisit the book now, nearly 10 years later, I would find other things.

Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty: This one is harder to explain, mostly because my relationship to it is more complicated than my relationship to the other books on this list.  I first came across McCafferty’s funny, achingly real Sloppy Firsts when I was 19 or so.  My cousin had recommended it.  Although it can sometimes be found in the adult fiction section, it is definitely YA, and at that point in time, I didn’t read YA, I didn’t understand YA, and we weren’t yet in the publishing boom that is YA today.  So my frame of reference was super warped and limited.

I remember reading this book and staying up all night to finish it, because Jessica Darling and I were, like, totally the same girl.  I mean, not even remotely at all the same girl, because I didn’t run track and I definitely didn’t have anyone as challenging or intriguing as Marcus Flutie interested in me, but apart from that, we were totally the same person.  Before reading Sloppy Firsts, I had no idea that YA fiction could be so great, that YA fiction could be funny and really smart and so real that sometimes it was like holding up a mirror to myself.  Before this, my frame of reference for what YA books looked like was Sweet Valley High novels.  So this revolutionized my view of books and reading.

I credit McCafferty for being my gateway author into the weird, wonderful, rich world of YA.  If you’ve spent a second of time with me in real life, read my Twitter, or taken a look at my blog, you know that YA fiction is where my passion is.  So this book—this entire series, really—has stuck with me and shaped me into the passionate (sometimes crazy) reader that I am today.

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver: I like to joke about this one, because it might be the book that took me the longest time to read, like, ever.  By the time I finished Shriver’s smart, thoughtful, Sliding Doors-esque novel about a woman with two different timelines splitting off from one moment in her life, I’d been reading the book for close to a year.  I’d read some, put it down, and come back to it sometime later.  I didn’t start over.  I just kept going.

Shriver’s book really is excellent—and I remember that at the time I couldn’t believe how immersed I’d become in these characters’ lives only to drop them again without really meaning to.  But it would happen, again and again.  And yet, I kept coming back to the novel.  I found myself thinking about the characters during those in-between times, which must mean something.

Here’s the thing: I read The Post-Birthday world years ago, back before I started blogging and reviewing books.  I’ve read literally hundreds of books since then.  But I still think about Irina and Lawrence and Ramsey Acton (you have to say his full name, because reasons).  I still wonder about those richly drawn characters, and I feel this weird pull to revisit them now.  I’m closer in age to them than I was when I read it originally.  Would I root for one of Irina’s timelines more than I did before?  How would my growth as a person impact my reading of it if I were to pick this one back up now?

That’s the thing about books that stick with you: they change as you change.

Sometimes My Book Club Makes Me Feel Like a (Book) Hater

if-i-hate-it-when-i-hate-it-am-i-a-hater

I’ve always been a reader, and I’ve always loved writing.  I grew up in a house where both activities were encouraged greatly: my mother is an English professor and instilled in me a love of reading and writing.  Although I’ve kept a journal of some form since I was little, both online and off, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I married two of my favorite activities and starting writing about books.

When I started my (current) blog nearly five years ago, it didn’t really have a focus.  But it didn’t take long for me to start recognizing a pattern in my own posting: I was writing about books, movies, and TV.  Since then, my writing has honed in on the aspects of books, reading, and popular culture that I’m most passionate about.  Like many other book-lovers, I read voraciously.  As a result of reading books, reading about books, and writing about books, my relationship to how I think and talk about books has been altered dramatically.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized how true that actually is.  This past year, I joined a book club, something I’ve always wanted to try.  In the interest of full disclosure, it’s a casual book club on its best day: about half the members show up each month, and we mostly drink wine and talk about everything except for the book.  But we do spend at least a portion of the evening (sometimes only 10-15 minutes) talking about the book.  And my responses to the text—no matter what we’ve read that week—are markedly different from the other women’s.

I don’t mean to say that what the other people in the book club have to say about the book isn’t valid or thoughtful or smart—because these are smart, very educated women—but that the way they talk about the books is completely different from how I talk about the books.

Some of them come armed with a couple notes about the text; I’ve been known to show up with the book bursting at the seams with post-its and pages of highlighted hand-written thoughts (the highlights are useful for finding the most important bits after my second glass of wine).  While they talk about how they enjoyed the book or not, I talk about the fact that the writing was weak, that the author continually told the readers instead of showing them things, that the plot was contrived, the dialogue stilted, and that the plot holes were gaping.

“I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about this next one,” one of the women said to me a few months ago.  “You always have such a strong reaction to what we read.”

At the time, I sort of laughed it off.  But then what she said started to worry me, ever so slightly.

Is it because she thinks of me as a hater?  I hope not.  I haven’t loved everything that we’ve chosen to read in the club, but isn’t that the point of something like this?  Reading outside of your comfort zone?  Picking titles that you wouldn’t otherwise have even glanced at and getting to hear different perspectives on what worked or didn’t?

Is my intense reaction to what we read because I write about books and because my job (as a librarian) largely revolves around books, reading, and evaluative thought?  Could it be because I’m a reactionary person (I totally am, ask anyone who has had a conversation with me longer than 5 minutes) and feel things intensely?  Or am I really just a hater, determined to find something to criticize, even in books I love?

I’ve struggled with this thought for a while now, even going so far as to write about it my (private, paper) journal.  I don’t have any answers that I find wholly satisfying, but I do know this:

  • Writing about books has made me a stronger reader because it helps me develop the vocabulary and critical thinking skills necessary to really think hard about books.
  • Writing about books has made me a stronger writer because the more you practice something, the better you get at it, duh.  (I’m still waiting for this “practice makes you better” thing to apply to my ability to cross stitch, but I hear patience is a virtue or something.)
  • Writing about books has made me a better, more resilient reader, one who is unafraid to take risks, tackle challenging books, and confront my assumptions about books and reading head-on.

So, there’s that.  Maybe because I write about books and regularly engage with other readers who write about books, I approach reading differently than the women in this book club.  Maybe?

Or maybe I’m just really a hater.  Even when it comes to my favorite material thing in the world: books.

What I’m Reading and Thinking About This Week

I took an unintentional hiatus last week because I took a few days off work (and subsequently from blogging), but I’m back this week with the things I’ve read this week that made me think.

The F Word: Inside Amy Schumer, the Most Sneakily Feminist Show on TV (Slate)

I actually saw Amy Schumer last week when she was in the Twin Cities for her stand-up tour, and she was amazing.  She’s definitely got the gross-out humor thing going for her, but there’s also something really subversive about her comedy.  I loved every second she was on stage (although the gentleman behind us didn’t much care for her abortion jokes, which made me wonder why, exactly, he was at an Amy Schumer show), and I love her show.  I’m so glad that the show was renewed for a second season, which just started.  If you haven’t checked it out yet, I encourage you to do so (the show airs on Comedy Central, you can watch clips on their website or Youtube, and the first season is streaming on Amazon Prime).

This sums up Schumer’s subversion pretty well:

Schumer hides her intellect in artifice and lip gloss—that’s how she performs femininity. By wrapping her ideas in a ditzy, sexy, slutty, self-hating shtick, her message goes down easy—and only then, like the alien, sticks its opinionated teeth in you.

And this stuck out:

The best sketch of the new season has Schumer playing a video game not unlike Call of Duty with a male friend. Schumer picks a female avatar—the friend grimaces at this—who, in the game, is raped by her superior. The guy Schumer is playing with doesn’t believe that it happened. Schumer must have “done something wrong.” Meanwhile, the game starts bullying her—“You were just assaulted by a fellow solider. Do you wish to report?” “Yes.” “Are you sure? Did you know he has a family? Does that change your mind about reporting?”—before sending her to Level 25, which is all paperwork.

You can’t argue that what she’s doing isn’t important or smart, because it is.  I love her, unabashedly so.

A Censored History of Ladies in YA Fiction (Book Riot)

I’ve actually been sitting on this link for a while, but I had to include it because I think Kelly Jensen writes such smart, interesting stuff about YA and librarianship and gender politics.  Everything in this article is great–S.E. Hinton paving the way for YA literature but doing it with only her initials because she would be dismissed by male critics if they knew she was a woman, the fact that the books most challenged are written by women, etc.–and it’s well worth your time.

Jensen writes:

Call them by any name you want, but these challenges stem from fears about girls’ stories coming to the front and being told. Men have their novels challenged, too, but less frequently and, more likely than not, for reasons similar to why women’s novels are: the fear of something different (anything outside the “mainstream” white, straight male standard). Blume has more titles on the most-challenged list than any other author — even Robert Cormier could only muster three — because being female and writing about issues girls face are challenge- and ban- worthy actions indeed.

She also makes this point, which is something that’s been talked about a lot recently:

Men write universal stories. Women write stories for girls. Men write Literature. Women write chick lit. Even in a world where women do publish in heavier numbers than men do, they are underscored, underseen, and undervalued. Twilight is and will remain a crucial part of YA’s history — YA’s female-driven history — despite or in spite of the fact it doesn’t garner the same praises that those held up as idols within the community do. Men like John Green become symbols of YA’s forward progress and Seriousness as a category, whereas Stephenie Meyer gets to be a punchline.

Anyway, read it.  Be incensed.  Think about the larger issues at play.

5 Biblical Films That Sparked a Religious Backlash (Alternet)  

To be completely honest, I don’t have any interest in the Noah movie.  I’m not a religious person.  I think that biblical epics like this one, featuring a bunch of white people, are totally ridiculous.  The reviews on this one have been pretty mixed (with many critics coming down on the “It’s a trash heap” side of things), and I honestly thought that it was supposed to be a movie pandering to the fundies.  But apparently not? Because they’re actually sort of up in arms about it?  In a hilarious way?

This article talks a little bit about the Noah film, but it also lists a few other films that have been super controversial for the Christian right.  It’s worth a look, I guess.