(#89) Book Review: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

When the contestants in the Miss Teen Dream pageant find themselves stranded on a desert island after their airplane crashes, they assume rescue will come soon.  The surviving girls continue practicing their routines for the pageant, but it isn’t long before they realize that they have bigger concerns.  As the girls struggle with limited food and water resources, they also start to discover who they are when they aren’t being judged.  Oh, and there are sexy pirates.

Bray’s latest novel isn’t interested in presenting a linear story about beauty queens.  With her trademark wit and scorching satire of the culture in which these girls were raised, Bray tackles big identity questions.  Sexual identity, gender politics, and feminism are well-covered here.  She isn’t interested in making nice so much as she’s interested in creating a surrealist satire of the current world, and nothing is off-limits: reality TV, corporate sponsorship, product placement, and obsession with youth and beauty are all covered.   To say that this is a busy book is an understatement.

The book is inter-cut with transcripts from commercials for products produced by The Corporation, as well as informational sheets featuring each of the surviving girls.  There are a lot of funny moments to be found in Bray’s writing, but the funniest moments are some of the quieter ones–the song titles of the former boy band the girls discuss and the repetition of the subtle digs at race and class are some of the best–and the cultural take-downs are strongest when they don’t feel too over-the-top.

That being said, there are a lot of moments that feel like overkill.  The parody and satire is so thick that it can be difficult to slog through some of it.  Each girl gets her own moment to take on her personal demons and obstacles, which is maybe a little bit too much message, especially when one considers the fact that it takes at least half the novel to get all the contestants straight.

This book is sarcastic and often brainy, and it’s clear that Bray is pissed about the state of our cultural world.  She has a sharp, unique voice, and this book is going to resonate with readers who are fed up with the beauty obsession placed on girls today.  Recommended for those looking for an eccentric read.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray.  Scholastic: 2011.  Library copy.

Movie Review: Horrible Bosses (2011)

Three friends constantly complain about their individual bosses, each of whom make their lives a living hell.  One night, the three of them conspire to kill their bosses, assuming this will be a way to increase their quality of life.  As the three friends try to do some recon in order to successfully pull of these murders, hi-jinx ensues.

First things first: this is an absolutely foul-mouthed comedy that is noisy, preposterous (not to mention completely improbable), racist, misogynistic, and more than a little homophobic.  The problem is that the film is also frequently quite funny.  How does it present such a paradox?  For one thing, it doesn’t try to temper its coarse nature with any pretense of sweetness or light.  For another, it doesn’t pretend that its vulgarity is an act of bravery.  This is a raunchy movie, and it doesn’t attempt to be anything but.  Its laughter is mean-spirited but also very upfront.

The fact that the three main characters set out to do something that is unequivocally wrong is somehow lightened by the fact that they are so completely incapable of performing the simplest of tasks.  Their acts of desperation make the film work more than it should and stretch the story farther than most viewers would think possible.  This desperation allows the film to flirt with more serious social issues, including the tanking economy (and job market) and social class stratification.

But the movie remains, at its core, a comedy bordering on the ridiculous.  The sheer level of tastelessness of the movie will be off-putting to many viewers.  Others will delight in how cheerfully it goes about the fantasy of revenge.  At any rate, the real strength of the film lies in the cast: their timing is pitch-perfect.  Everyone in the movie looks like they’re having a good time (but no one as much as Colin Farrell), and while the casting choices might not be risky (at this point, Kevin Spacey could phone it in as a douche on a power trip, and Jennifer Aniston as a sexy dentist is sort of…underwhelming), they’re well-chosen.

Recommended with serious reservations.  Those looking to turn their brains off for a couple of hours are going to be better off than those who want any real substance in their entertainment.  Viewers beware: it’s a total bro-fest.

Horrible Bosses is playing in wide release now.

Movie Review: Twelve (2010)

For White Mike (Chace Crawford), life in New York has changed since his mother died of cancer and he and his father fell from their cushy life.  Now White Mike deals drugs (but never indulges himself) to the wealthy, vapid beautiful people he used to consort with.  He hides his new job from his childhood best friend, Molly (Emma Roberts), who is the only thing he desires.  Meanwhile, rich kids throw parties, have sex, and get hooked on Twelve, a new designer drug that seems to be a cross between coke and ecstasy.

The story was originally a YA novel written by Nick McDonell in 2002, when he was just seventeen.  This garnered McDonell quite a bit of attention.  The book was hailed as “controversial” and “edgy” and all those other adjectives that critics like to throw around when a precocious teenager writes a gritty account of what it’s like to be young, white, and privileged in New York.  I read the book when I was eighteen (McDonell and I are the same age, coincidentally), and while I remember liking it, I never thought much of it becoming a film.  The resulting film, almost a decade later, is kind of a mess.

Twelve is directed by septuagenarian Joel Schumaker (St. Elmo’s Fire) with a script adapted by Jordan Melamed.  Whatever authentic angst and frustration about high school that McDonell was able to convey in the novel is lost in this flashy, empty adaptation.  The film drowns in its own pretension and self-importance, and the sheer number of characters that populate this film means that the audience can’t get to know any of them enough to care about their (admittedly bleak) futures.

To say that the film takes itself seriously is down-playing it: the film is narrated by an omniscient, gravelly-voiced Keifer Sutherland.  Through his narration, viewers are given a jaded, almost satirical description of who these characters are and what their lives are like.  Of course, the narration focuses mostly on rattling off traits of each of the characters instead of actually allowing the audience to get to know any of them.  The clunky narration is the first clue that the filmmakers lacked confidence in the ability of the film’s cast to accurately communicate the story.

Which is partly true.  Crawford, whose pretty-boy looks have largely allowed him to survive in Hollywood this long, is so painfully miscast that it hurts to watch him onscreen.  Many of the other characters, whose sole purpose seems to be to fill certain stereotypes about wealthy kids in Manhattan, are adequate enough in their roles but are largely forgettable.  Roberts turns in a very cool performance as good-girl Molly, the supposed icon of purity in a film full of depravity.

All is not lost, though.  There are a few solid, noteworthy performances here.  Curtis Jackson (50 Cent) plays Lionel, a really bad-news drug dealer who murders White Mike’s cousin at the beginning of the film (this fact almost gets forgotten in the shuffle of characters).  Rory Culkin plays Christopher, a nerdy kid who gets used for his house and ability to throw parties.  His brother Claude, played by Billy Magnussen, is also good as a ‘roid rehab drop-out who spends his days lifting weights on the balcony.  But these few strong performances can’t support the melodrama happening around them, and the film’s odd, violent end leaves viewers wondering what the point was.

The bottom line is that although the drama attempts to be a bit nihilistic and profound, it comes off as unintentionally absurd.  It’s another film to be added to the genre that so loves to both glorify and shame those lost youth of privilege.  The problem is that the film has nothing new to add.  Skip this one, guys.  If you must, pick up the McDonell’s novel, but do so with a skeptical eye.

Twelve is available on DVD and on Netflix Instant Streaming now.

(#56) Book Review: Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

For brother and sister Lochlan and Maya, life is pretty complicated.  Even though they’re seventeen and sixteen, respectively, they feel quite a bit older.  Caring for their three younger siblings while their absent, alcoholic mother gallivants around town with men hasn’t been easy.  Because they’ve grown up so quickly, Lochlan and Maya don’t really view each other as sibling so much as friends.  Best friends.  Soul mates.  Although they try to resist it at first, the two realize that they’re in love with one another, despite the fact that it’s taboo and totally illegal.  A love story like theirs isn’t exactly all sunshine and daisies, though, and their actions could have serious repercussions.

Oh, the melodrama.

Seriously, you guys.  Unlike a lot of the reviewers on Goodreads, it isn’t the taboo topic of incest that I find so unappealing about Suzuma’s book.  I’ve always found the subject of incest fascinating (I read a lot of V.C. Andrews when I was young), and I have no issues with consensual sex.  I’m not going to sit around and judge fictional characters for their actions.  So no, the incest wasn’t what I struggled with.

What I did struggle with was the incredibly grating, unsympathetic characters we were supposed to feel for.  I struggled with Lochlan’s ridiculously manipulative behavior and out-0f-control jealousy.  I struggled with the pretentiousness of the characters (and with the pretentiousness of the book as a whole), but most of all, I struggled with the unbelievable weight of the melodrama that surrounds the characters.  This isn’t typical teen angst so much as  soap-opera-levels of melodrama.  It was too much.

Lochlan is the most problematic character, but he isn’t the only one to blame.  His propensity to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation is annoying at first and absolutely infuriating by the end.  He’s got a superiority complex about himself that makes being in his head for half the book pretty painful.  This complex is illustrated with overwrought prose and his tendency to act like a tempest in a teapot.  When he cries while interrogating Maya after she comes home from a date?  That’s not being sensitive, guys.  That’s called being a manipulative douche truck.

Maya starts off as a slightly more sympathetic character.  She is slightly younger and very naive.  Because she actually has friends and talks to people outside of her family, her portions of narration aren’t quite as overwrought with melodramatic feelings.  Most of her feelings ring true to the throes of first love.  However, her propensity to put Lochlan up on a pedestal irritated me.

The truth of the matter is that Lochlan is a disturbing personality, and his violent outbursts (he physically harms two of his siblings) and neglectful tendencies make him completely unsympathetic and kind of repulsive.  The last part of the book spends a lot of time hemming and hawing over why their love is real and should be accepted, but by that point, they’d lost me, and it felt superficial, anyways.  They’re selfish characters and the pretension that any of their actions are for the good of anyone except themselves is totally ridiculous.

Of course, the book isn’t completely terrible.  Suzuma manages to pace it very well, despite there being long gaps between action (this could relate to both the sexy-kind and the normal-kind).  She manages to create an incredibly well-drawn world within the characters’ home.  The sex scenes are quite graphic for a YA novel, and it’s my guess that these are the scenes that will be poured over by younger readers and their friends (just as I tended to focus on the sexy bits in V.C. Andrews and Judy Blume books when I was young).  Even so, the novel as a whole doesn’t hold up with such irritating characters.

Forbidden will hit bookshelves TODAY.

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma.  Simon Pulse, 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review from the publisher.

Lists and Procrastination: 5 Things I’m Currently Obsessed With

In my attempt to turn this into a monthly feature here at Early Nerd Special, it feels like it’s time for another edition of Things I’m Currently Obsessed With.  Previous posts can be found here, here, and here.

1. The YA CONTROVERSY

I’m talking about the really interesting discussion that’s been happening since the WSJ published that article about YA books being too dark.  I’m not linking to the article because there’s really no need for me to do so at this point.  Every time I read the article, I get mad, which doesn’t feel good.  What does feel good is the response that writers, readers, and bloggers have had since it blew up on the internet.  If you haven’t been following the discussion, I encourage to you search for the Twitter hashtag #YASaves and read through some of those tweets.  There are also a lot of really great response pieces to check out:

2. Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix

A group of surgical interns at the fictional Seattle Grace Hospital attempt to navigate their hectic lives.  Sleeping with bosses, personal dramas, and general shenanigans ensue.   Although technically a medical drama, there are comedic and romantic elements that often overshadow the drama.

This one is really embarrassing for me simply because I know I should hate the show.  It’s manipulative, the characters are ridiculous, the premise itself is preposterous, and yet I can’t stop watching it.  Granted, I’m only in the second season (which is largely considered the show’s heyday), and I know it’s going to get much, much worse, but for the time being, I’m really enjoying watching an episode or two before bed.

3. Kingdom Hearts

Released in 2002, Kingdom Hearts was a game that used a mixture of original characters as well as characters from Disney movies and the Final Fantasy game franchise.  The RPG has the player embarking on an epic quest that sends him to various worlds (representing many of the worlds found in the Disneyverse).  Donald Duck and Goofy are the co-pilots, and the game is notable for its voice work cast, which included many of the voice actors from the Disney movies but also included actors like Haley Joel Osment, David Gallagher, Hayden Panetierre, and David Boreanaz.

I pulled out my PS2 about a week ago and have been playing Kingdom Hearts ever since.  I can’t explain it, you guys.  Something about the mindlessness of playing a role-playing game is really relaxing these days.  I could blame the heat, but I don’t think that’s what it is.  It’s just kind of fun.

4. The Weeknd – “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls”

Oh my god, you guys.  Have you heard The Weeknd?  He’s been blowing up on music blogs for a while now, but I’m not going to lie, I just discovered him a few weeks ago.  The Weeknd is a Toronto-based R&B singer named Abel Tesfaye, and he released a nine-track album (called House of Balloons) in late March this year.  Drake is credited with initially garneringThe Weeknd quite a bit of attention (he tweeted about him and linked to his website), but to be honest, Tesfaye’s talent speaks for itself.  I find the entire album to be completely engrossing (that almost never happens for me), and there’s something haunting about his voice.  If you haven’t done so already, check him out.

5. The TV Tropes Website

TV Tropes is something that I’ve known about for a while, and every once in a while, I find myself killing a lot of time there, looking up entries for specific shows, movies, and books, but also just sort of doing a wiki walk and finding out all sorts of interesting things.  If you’ve never been to the site, I highly recommend it.  Be prepared for it to suck a good chunk of your time, though.  It’s extensive, and it’s fascinating.  Not only is it a pop culture junkie’s dreamland, it’s also really informative.  Some of my favorite entries include: Twitter, Badass Decay, Blessed with Suck, and Buffy Speak.

Since it’s relevant to this post, the entry about Grey’s Anatomy is pretty entertaining.  Here’s the entry for Kingdom Hearts.

This concludes another edition of Things I’m Currently Obsessed With.  What are you really into this week?

Friday Links and Miscellany

Happy Friday, y’all.  The blog’s content has been on the light side this week because I’m enjoying my last week of freedom before summer classes start.  I hope to have more reviews done and ready to be posted soon, but in the meantime, enjoy these links I found entertaining over the past week.

These “Freaky Friday” sculptures by Nancy Fouts are kind of terrifying and totally fascinating. (via Artstormer)

The Reading Ape has a great blog post about book bloggers and the publishing world.  Definitely worth checking out.

Feministe has a funny and important post about the concept of anti-white bias, an issue which was raised in a pretty terrible NY Times piece.

This video is a presentation about the physics of My Little Pony.  It is awesome and worth the 10 minutes you will spend watching it. (via TheMarySue)

On the New York Times and YA Novels

Dear NYT,

Recently, you published an article about YA novels featuring abusive relationships.  In it, writer Lisa Belkin makes a bold pronouncement:

The purpose of young adult literature is often twofold: to tell a story, and to send a message, usually in the form of a much-needed lesson.

Um, what?  Where, exactly, in the definition of young adult novels does it say that YA fiction has to teach a lesson?  YA novels are not inherently didactic.  As Sarah Ockler says on her blog (in response to this same article), “Learning lessons and adjusting moral compasses might be an outcome of the reading, but that’s entirely up to the reader. If it’s going to happen it all, it will happen organically as she’s experiencing the journey of the story along with the characters.”  This idea that because a book is published as YA makes it automatically an after-school-special-in-book-form is total crap.  Of course, anyone who continued to read Belkin’s review of the two books covered in the article (Deb Caletti’s Stay, which I have read, and Jennifer Brown’s Bitter End, which I have not) realizes that not only is Belkin getting her facts about YA wrong, but she doesn’t understand young adult fiction in general.  What’s more, it’s clear that she doesn’t really care about it, let alone respect it.  Besides entirely dismissing the concept of adults reading YA (she says it doesn’t appeal to them; the internet’s plethora of blogs devoted to the YA book universe written by adults says otherwise) Belkin writes:

But offering a lesson to teenagers is less graceful, less subtle, than conveying an idea or theme, and these books can feel like after-school specials. Where “Bitter End” and “Stay” fall short is more a reflection of the pitfalls of the genre than the talents of their authors…Any girl who needs guidance navigating a threatening relationship will probably not find it here. But this assumes teenagers are more interested in morals than in sex and drama; if that’s not so, the muddiness of the message matters less than the mediocrity of the tale.

It’s not just Belkin’s misrepresentation of the entire YA category that I take issue with.  Her tone throughout the piece is condescending and a little snide, which is both irritating and completely inappropriate.  Like Ockler, I don’t have a problem with critical reviews and thoughtful discussion.  I actually encourage it and hope for more of it to take place.  But that’s not what Belkin is doing in her article.  She’s taking an entire category of books (a category of books that has continued to sell well, both to teens and adults, despite the flagging economy) and making grossly misinformed generalizations about it.  Ockler says it best at the end of her post, taking just as much issue with the phase “pitfalls of the genre” that I did:

More like pitfalls of adulthood, particularly when adults don’t remember what it’s like to be a teen. I’m all for debate and critical reviews, especially when those reviews are thoughtful and engaging. What I’m not for is unilaterally dismissing YA novels based on ridiculous and outdated expectations of what young adult literature is supposed to be or do. Every novel is unique, and each deserves to be read and reviewed for its individual storytelling merit, not for its ability to spin the “proper” cautionary tale.

Just something to think about.  Next time, why don’t you hire someone who actually respects YA to write a piece about YA?  There’s plenty of us out there.

Sincerely,
Clementine Bojangles

Updates on Egan’s “Banal & Derivative” Comments

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Jennifer Egan’s thoughtless comments about female writers after winning the Pulitzer.  You remember the post, right?  It was the one where Egan talked about Kaavya Viswanathan’s plagiarism of other female others.  In the article, Egan claimed that Viswanathan’s plagiarism was “very derivative, banal stuff.”  This comment essentially took aim at some of the most successful and beloved female authors working and writing today.  I wasn’t the only one who was offended or even a little pissed off by what she’d said.  Jennifer Weiner was the champion of the issue, but several blogs, including the Frisky and The Signature Thing, also took issue with Egan’s comments.

She’s since apologized in a short interview with Beatrice.com.  In the interview, she states:

I have nothing to defend in what I said.  I really wish I hadn’t said that, and was incredibly and immediately sorry that anyone was hurt by it.  I don’t blame anyone for being mad about it.I’m all for criticizing; I’m not saying that no one should ever criticize anyone else.  But if you’re going to criticize, you should do it intentionally and thoughtfully and carefully and know whom you’re criticizing and for what. And I didn’t meet any of those criteria.

I have to admit, it’s a pretty good apology.  She does make mention of the fact that she thinks that there’s a conversation to be had about female writers and literary culture.  I agree with her, but I also think that it needs to be approached carefully and conscientiously.

What do you think, guys?  Can we move on now?

Female Writers, Chick Lit, and Name-Calling

So I don’t know if you heard, gentle readers, but fiction writer Jennifer Egan recently won the Pulizter Prize for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.  In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t read it.  However, I have read The Keep, which was very good (and terrifying), and Look at Me, which wasn’t so good.  It’s awesome that a lady won the Pulitzer for fiction, and I’m glad that she’s finding success in the literary world.  However, she made some comments in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that I take issue with, and that is what I’m here to talk about with you all today.

In the brief interview, Egan talks about her reaction to finding out that she’s won and talks a bit about how her book is being considered post-post-modern (I’m not touching that one).  Then this happens:

Over the past year, there’s been a debate about female and male writers and how they come off in the press. Franzen made clear that “Freedom” was going to be important, while others say that Allegra Goodman was too quiet about “The Cookbook Collector.” Do you think female writers have to start proclaiming, “OK, my book is going to be the book of the century”?

Anyone can say anything, that’s easy. My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at “The Tiger’s Wife.” There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models? I’m not saying you should say you’ve never done anything good, but I don’t go around saying I’ve written the book of the century. My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.

The emphasis in her answer is mine, of course.  this is problematic for several reasons, Gentle Readers.  Let’s talk about it like a lot!

The Harvard student that Egan is referring to is Kaavya Viswanathan, author of the novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.*  Viswanathan wrote the novel right after graduating from high school, and shortly after it was published, some claims about her having plagiarized parts of the novel surfaced.  The authors whose work was plagiarized included Megan McCafferty, Sophie Kinsella, Salman Rushdie, Meg Cabot, and Tanuja Desai Hidier.

What I take issue with, of course, is Egan’s disparaging tone about the authors Viswanathan plagiarized from.  She seems to be taking on these incredibly successful female writers and saying that because they write books about women and friendship and love, their work is somehow less important or less valid than the work that she herself does.  Calling these authors “derivative and banal” isn’t even fair, because it isn’t remotely true.  The women she’s describing as “derivative” are the pioneers of the chick lit and YA genres, and they deserve to be given accolades for their accomplishments, not sneering condescension.

Maybe Egan wasn’t thinking clearly.  Maybe she was still really flustered about winning the prize when she gave the interview.  Maybe that isn’t what she meant–maybe she meant that women should aim high and not shy away from dark, difficult topics.  That’s certainly a hypothesis that The Signature muses over on her blog post about this same issue.  Even if that’s the case, though, she’s caused some hurt feelings and indignation.

The fact of the matter is, it’s much harder to be a successful female writer than it is to be a successful male writer.  There are depressing statistics about the number of female writers working for the New Yorker and for late-night shows.  On International Women’s Day, Pajiba published a run-down of the number of females writing and directing projects for movies and television, and…it was not good, you guys.  What is needed, then is for female writers to stand up for other female writers and not tear them down because of what they choose to write about.

Talk back, readers.  What do you think?  Am I blowing this way out of proportion?

*That link takes you to the Wikipedia page about the book.  I encourage you to look at the comparisons between Viswanathan’s book and the other authors’ work in question.

If you want to read more about what’s going on:

Yikes. YA, Cliques, and the YA Mafia.

I have kept quiet about this.  Up until now, I haven’t posted anything about what’s been happening in the YA blogosphere, because I wasn’t sure how to talk about it, or if I was even qualified to weigh in.  But today?  Today I was reading posts about the YA Mafia, and about possible consequences as a result of a bad or critical review, and about how cliquey the YA author world seems to be getting, and I got kind of upset.  So I’m adding my voice to the ring.

There are a ton of blogs out there that are covering this issue (and probably doing a better job than I’m about to), but in order for me to really focus my thoughts about this, I’m going to try to sum up what’s happening, to0 (while also linking to other great posts about it).  Here’s what’s happening.

Some discussion has been happening about the concept of a YA Mafia, a group of YA writers who write blurbs for one another’s books, who are friends with each other, and who defend one another’s work from criticism.  The problem is that a fear has developed amongst book bloggers regarding these writers (and YA writers in general, maybe): if a reviewer gives a bad review, they may face penalty or punishment as a result.  This penalty seems to have to do with a fear of being added to a blacklist of sorts, and it seems to impact reviewers who are also trying to get published.  Much has been made about possible “career ruination,” and this fear has prompted some blogger-writers to question or even give up writing reviews of books.

This makes me sad.  It really bums me out, Gentle Readers, because not only is the Internet being deprived of some great posts about books (I still miss seeing reviews from Jordyn at Ten Cent Notes), but something about this whole thing feels like censorship.  As a teacher, a writer, a blogger, a reader, and a librarian-in-training, censorship really pisses me off.

That being said, I have a few things I’d like to say:

1.  I love books, and most of what I review are YA titles.  While I might not love every single book I read, I try to review them fairly.  My reviews are not for the authors.  They are for readers, and they are also for myself, so that I can keep a record of what I read and what I think about what I read.  It’s a way for me to challenge myself and grow as a writer.

2.  Posting on the internet is public, and I am responsible for the things I write.  As a responsible blogger, I feel like it’s my duty to be honest, respectful, and articulate.  I try to do that with every review I write, even when I’m feeling (internal) pressure to write a positive review for an ARC that I’ve received.  I’m a critical thinker, and I hope that I apply those skills to the books I read.  When I write a review of a book I didn’t love, I try to find things about it that I did like.  I also try to provide a balanced, constructive review of the book, and I try not to ever completely tear something to shreds.  I am honest with myself and in my writing, and I stand by what I write.

There’s so much more to be said about what’s going on, though.

Instead of rehashing the entire discussion happening, I’ll provide some links to posts where it’s going down.  I encourage you to click around, do some reading, form an educated opinion about what’s going on.

Here’s where to go for more information:

YA Highway’s round-up is more comprehensive and better-written than anything I could ever hope to produce.

Want to weigh in?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.