Tuesday, December 18, 2012

YA Reading, Round 8: Action/Adventure

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I distinctly remember 4th grade as being my biggest reading year as a child. We had a classroom library, and in addition to the books we read as a class, my teacher really encouraged independent reading for pleasure. I read such a variety of genres that year; I was really into the American Girl series and Gary Paulsen adventures AND Bruce Coville sci-fi comedies. This week's topic in my class, Action/Adventure, immediately took me back to those days of Gary Paulsen, and I loved it. This was the most fun week yet!

All of these stories are plot-driven and fast-paced. There's not a lot to think about—you just zoom through the story, hooked and wondering what happens next.

Will Hobbs' Crossing the Wire is about fifteen-year-old Victor's quest to cross the US–Mexican border so he can find work in the US to send money home to his mother and siblings. In Victor's world, there are many ways to cross the border, but all of them are risky. You could pay a smuggler to get you across, but Victor doesn't have that kind of money. Instead, Victor stows away on trains and trucks, hikes through the dessert, and encounters every potentially fatal extreme—scorching heat, freezing cold, hunger. And that doesn't even consider the people he meets along the way, never positive if they're out to hurt or help him. Victor is a character who just keeps pushing. He won't give up, and the story follows that same mentality—it's one thing after another, enough to keep the reader engrossed. One important thing to keep in mind is that this is a story to most kids/teens; they couldn't imagine it as their own struggle, but it's real life to many people trying to find a new life. Victor's story can put readers in someone else's shoes and consider what life is like across the wire. If your readers like this, Will Hobbs has written several more adventure books for YAs.

At the opening of Roland Smith's Peak, a teenage boy is arrested for climbing a New York City skyscraper. Ok. Think about that for a second. It only goes up (pun intended) from there. Our main character, aptly named Peak, has been climbing his whole life; it's in his genes. After his run-in with the law in New York, Peak heads overseas to stay with his father while things cool off back in New York. His father, by the way, runs a climbing company and his new mission for Peak is to get him to be the youngest climber to summit Mt. Everest...with his company. And Peak, despite knowing his father's selfish motives, is totally up for it. To say Everest is dangerous is an understatement. During Peak's climb, we learn about every slight misstep that is potential for disaster. Not only is the story full of action, it's also about Peak's relationship with his parents, making big decisions and sacrifices, and determining what's really important. There are so many details in this story to further explore—names and dates and places. Not gonna lie...as I was reading this, I was Googling the crap out of Mt. Everest. I'm too much of a chicken to have caught the climbing bug, but something like Everest is just too amazing to completely ignore.

Stormbreaker is the first book in Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series, and I dug it as a quick and thrilling ride. Fourteen-year-old Alex lives with his uncle in London until suddenly, beloved Uncle dies in a car crash. They claim he wasn't wearing a seat belt, but Alex knows that's not possible. Something's up. After his own investigations, Alex discovers his uncle was actually murdered and is, in fact, a spy for Britain's top intelligence agency. And now that Alex knows all this, he's essentially blackmailed into finishing his uncle's work. Suddenly, Alex is training with the toughest men in the country and weaseling his way into the circles that probably killed his uncle. Stormbreaker doesn't have much beyond action and adventure—only minimal moments of character introspection and growth—but it will attract a reluctant reader and excite those readers that want an on-the-surface thrill ride. And lucky for them, this is just the first in the (so far) 9-book series. (Also, there is apparently a movie.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Revisiting Anne, Part 3: Anne of the Island

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Anne's world continues to expand with L.M. Montgomery's third in the series, Anne of the Island. After spending two years teaching in Avonlea, it's finally time for Anne to head to Kingsport to attend Redmond College. She's leaving her beloved Green Gables and her beloved best friend behind for a new adventure she's not so certain about.

But of course, it's Anne. She finds her niche, after a while, in a sweet and cozy little house with wonderful new friends and roommates. She excels in her "new life" away from the Island, while, of course, never letting it get too far out of sight or mind.

Anne, at heart, is a local girl, a homebody. She relishes in familiarity, surrounded by the people and places she holds dear; her nostalgia for these things only strengthen the bonds between Anne and the things she loves, finding comfort in the memories and associations she's created in Avonlea. Though this Anne is actually a great deal younger than me, I think this is the version of Anne I relate to most. Her level of contentment with things "as they are" is higher than most; and though she craves new adventures and new interactions, she has a tendency to fall back on the past if things get too new and unfamiliar.

This Anne seems to grow up quickly. It's her first real realization that one must grow up—the dreaming and scheming of childhood cannot last forever. But the lovely thing about Anne is that she disregards that standard. She sticks to her dreamy, romantic notions because she wants to. So while the story starts with an Anne who feels the pressure to "grow up," who you fear will lose her youthful optimism, four years pass at Redmond, and Anne grows just as we hoped she would—maintaining her childlike wonder and gaining a level of maturity simply by becoming self-aware, understanding what it means to grow up.

I enjoyed this one much more than Anne of Avonlea. I felt we really got to experience life with Anne, instead of viewing her life in brief snippets. As Anne starts to experience real things—like loss and friendship and figuring out if it's love or not—we get to see how she handles everything that comes at her. And it's exciting to follow this character as she encounters important points in her life and see how she responds...and if it fits with how you believe she is as a person. Anne is growing up, and though it's bittersweet, you're somehow confident she'll never really change.

My favorite thing about Anne has always been her ability to think about every situation, no matter how small. To look at it in the big picture, to truly appreciate it, to fully understand it, and to get as much out of it as she can. And then be able to present her thoughts in such a poignant, poetical way. Maybe it's just the author's voice, but I like to believe that's who Anne is.

"It has been a prosy day for us," she said thoughtfully, "but to some people it has been a wonderful day. Some one has been rapturously happy in it."  
She felt very old and mature and wise—which showed how young she was. She told herself that she longed greatly to go back to those dear merry days when life was seen through a rosy mist of hope and illusion, and possessed an indefinable something that had passed away forever. Where was it now—the glory and the dream? 
There is so much in the world for us all if we only have the eyes to see it, and the heart to love it, and the hand to gather it to ourselves—so much in men and women, so much in art and literature, so much everywhere in which to delight, and for which to be thankful. 
She wondered if old dreams could haunt rooms—if, when one left forever the room where she had joyed and suffered and laughed and wept, something of her, intangible and invisible, yet nonetheless real, did not remain behind like a voiceful memory.

And L.M. Montgomery is a true fan of the em-dash. And I am such a fan of that. Also...Gilbert!!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

YA Reading, Round 7: Fantasy

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Normally, the fantasy genre is not really my thing. I like books grounded in reality. I like characters and situations I can relate to. But you know what? These picks surprised me. I didn't totally love them all, but I enjoyed them. And I found myself more engrossed in the stories than I would've imagined.

That's sorta the fun thing about this class—I'm forced to read things I would never pick up on my own. And that's usually my reading goal anyway! Maybe I haven't been doing that as well as I had thought...

I had recently added Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol to my own to-read list after I saw a write-up on it somewhere. I do really enjoy the graphic format, so I was pleased to be forced to get to it sooner rather than later. Anya is Russian but you'd hardly know that upon meeting her; she's purposefully lost the accent and turned herself into a typical American teenager. In fact, the first thing you notice about her is how moody and perpetually annoyed she seems—so typical. One day, in a huff, Anya falls down a well and discovers a ghost who's been trapped down there for almost 100 years. Once Anya makes it back above ground, she discovers the ghost has followed, and it actually turns out to be great to have a ghost as a best friend. She can help you cheat on tests and learn important info about the guy you're crushing on. But then Anya makes a discovery that her ghost may not be as good-intentioned as she thought.

Ultimately, Anya's Ghost is a simple story about a girl who feels like an outsider, who feels like she can't fully fit into the new world she's in, and who feels such pressure to change herself entirely to do so. The artwork is very easy to follow for a beginning graphic reader, and this story has a lot of different appeal factors—it's part paranormal, part mysterious, part multicultural, part coming-of-age. It's got a lot to offer.

I chose to read Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty because of its premise...and I liked it even though I soon realized that I had actually mis-read the premise a bit. I thought it involved time travel, and I thought, "Awesome! Time traveling from a whole other era!" Well...it is not about time travel. Just gonna throw that out there now.

The story is set in Victorian England, prior to the turn of the 20th-century. Gemma Doyle has grown up in colonial India and desperately wants to return to England. The tragic yet mysterious death of her mother gets Gemma her wish as she heads back to England for boarding school, the very same one her mother attended. Gemma doesn't make the trip alone, though; there's a mysterious stranger following her, one she recognizes from the confusing day in the market that lead to her mother's death. She's also started having visions that hint there is much more to the story than she thought—much more meaning magical realms and unthinkable evil, all of which can be released into Gemma's world, good and bad.

Gemma is an interesting character, because she doesn't feel like she belongs in any of the worlds she is in. The friendships she forms with classmates are wonderfully and realistically complex—self-serving and petty, yet demanding and utterly dependent. It's not too "high-fantasy" and therefore wouldn't be a turn-off to non-fantasy fans. It's also the first in a trilogy...which I will proceed to read as soon as this semester is over! I think it was the historical mystery aspect that got me.

Perhaps the most well-known from this set is Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, also the first in a planned trilogy. My professor loves this book and hasn't stopped talking about it all semester, even prior to us reading it. This, though, was actually my least favorite of these three. The setting is simple enough—Karou lives in Prague and seems like an average teen in a normal world...at first. But Karou has a lot of secrets about her that she doesn't even have the answer to, most importantly—where is she from? She was raised by a demon and always a part of a fantastical world that has never seemed anything but normal. She runs errands for him, traveling all over the world in an instant, but she's never understood exactly why. And then she meets a stranger in a dark alley in Marrakesh, the beautiful Akiva who is just as mysterious as she is, and Karou figures there is a lot she needs to learn.

The reality Taylor painted for this story has a lot more complexity in terms of fantasy than any story I've read before. For some teens, it may be hard to completely grasp, especially if they're not usually fantasy readers, but once you grasp the norms of Karou's world, it's easier to follow. And it's satisfying to read how little pieces of the puzzle are slowly revealed as you learn more about Karou's world. Most people walk away from this book considering it a Romeo & Juliet type love story, but I think it's a lot more than that. It also has the universal themes like identity, love, and loyalty that are easier topics to understand and relate to. Teens (and adults) seem to loooooove this book, but it was just ok to me—didn't love it, but didn't dislike it either. I don't feel much drive to continue on in the series, but if a teen does, they'll be happy the story's not over yet!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

YA Reading, Round 6: Multicultural

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I think teen readers will find Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese either incredibly wonderful or incredibly frustrating. Me? I'm just somewhere in the apathetic middle. This graphic novel is actually telling three stories simultaneously—the Monkey King's, a popular Chinese fable; Jin Wang's, the only Chinese-American in his new school; and Danny's, a popular teen whose life is being ruined by his grossly stereotypical Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee. The stories don't tie together until a twist at the very end, and this is the reason it may be frustrating to some readers. It's hard to see the point of all these stories until the end, and a reader may just give up. Or, a reader may love the format and be engrossed the entire time.

Ultimately, American Born Chinese is a story about identity and accepting who you are. On the whole, I just felt disconnected from it, which may have to do with both the format and the stories themselves. I felt sorta like Yang was writing this for someone particular in mind, or like he was intentionally being a bit cheeky in his storytelling. And my reaction was just, "Ok....and?" Maybe I just don't have enough of a personal, cultural connection to what the author was saying, but I felt like an outsider reading this; and a good book should connect you with the characters, no matter if you share a background or not. Its fast-paced, graphic style will be appealing for reluctant readers, but I'm not certain about its mass appeal to a YA audience.

In Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins, Asha is sort of stuck in Calcutta with her mother and older sister, Reet. They're living with their in-laws while Baba (father) is finding a job in New York. And now they're just waiting...waiting to follow and waiting to resume their lives in a whole new world. Immediately, we see that this is a world with very strict tradition. Asha is an intelligent, independent, and athletic young girl, but her aunt, uncle, and grandmother don't approve of her usual tomboy behavior. Further, Reet is of marrying age, and though she's not ready for it, the family thinks it's time to find her a match (most likely to help the financial burden of three extra mouths to feed).

Asha and Reet are forced to grow up following rules of a society to which they are not accustomed. Suddenly, their opinions and independence don't seem to matter, and they find that the traditional rules of Calcutta are very limiting. Many readers may find the rules and injustices extreme, but these characters are representative of what many persons around the world have had or are still having to deal with. Many parts of the 1970s tumultuous Indian setting may not be relatable to a reader, but dealing with rules, making sacrifices, and finding one's place are universal themes. Good issues to think about and good topics for discussion.

The Sound of Munich by Suzanne Nelson is one title in the S.A.S.S. (Students Across the Seven Seas) series. It's not "multicultural literature" by its standard definition. The series follows American teen as they travel the world through a high school exchange program. The plots seem to be relatively simple, idyllic, and also pretty predictable—adventure, friendship, family, romance; in this one, Siena leaves her home in California to find the man in Germany who, decades ago, helped smuggle her father's family past the Berlin Wall. Naturally, this semester abroad opens Siena's eyes to new history, new people, and new ways of life.

Now you can see why this isn't exactly "multicultural" at its grittiest, but I like that this angle of "world literature" was included in our unit of study. A character like Siena is easily relatable—and maybe easier than a story written from a particular ethnic or cultural perspective. These books are like armchair travel; readers get to experience new places in a way that feels comfortable and easy to them. Yes, they're mostly lighthearted and pretty cheesy in that everything comes together perfectly, but they're still opening the reader's eyes to a new world. These are good intro books to multicultural literature, because maybe, if your interest was piqued by the setting you visited, you'll want to explore further. I'm sure they've been called sweet or lame or even awfully misrepresentative, but I probably would've eaten them up as a young teen.

I'm not going to say much about the last book I read for this unit, but it's too entertaining to exclude completely. Winners and Losers is one title in the Urban Underground series by Anne Schraff. The story follows seemingly Latino characters in a setting that, despite the Urban Underground theme, seems incredibly suburban. I feel like the author just had to throw in some key words like "barrio" with decidedly ethnically-named characters, and voila! You have urban fiction! Our class unanimously found this completely "un-urban" but maybe that doesn't matter, because, as one student pointed out, isn't a lot of adult "urban fiction" grounded in fantasy romance escapism? Anyway I guess the themes are still pretty universal, with human characters and all that. But for a good chuckle, can we just take a moment to look at a photo of Ms. Schraff? Yeah. "Urban."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Fiction | Love and Loathing in Friendship

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It has sadly been a loooong time since I've been able to attend one of my book club's monthly meetings. The last time I attended was in May! Thankfully, our beloved host bookstore survived the hurricane, and, thanks to my Goodreads friendship with another book club member, I was able to find out meeting details, despite the store having no power the week before it. So last Friday it was book club reunited! At last!

The book selected was Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, translated from Italian and published by indie bookstore favorite Europa. Ferrante has written three novels prior to this one, all apparently shorter in length, and this one is the first in a planned trilogy (more on that later).

My Brilliant Friend starts by introducing our narrator Elena, a woman in her sixties, who is reflecting on her 1950s childhood and adolescence with her best friend, Lila. Right off the bat as children, Elena and Lila are not much alike. Elena is good, while Lila is bad; Elena is passive, while Lila is aggressive. These dissimilarities expand as they grow up. Elena has to work hard in school, while Lila is naturally brilliant; Elena is plagued by adolescent awkwardness, while Lila matures beautifully.

Elena and Lila have a typical adolescent friendship, one that is littered with competition and animosity that runs (mostly) quietly below the surface. It's an accurate portrayal of the internal conflicts one has with a friendship, be it jealousy, competition, etc. You wish the best for your friend while at the same time hoping you come out on top; you're horridly jealous of her looks but you want to be seen with her. We hear the conflicts of Elena's friendship with Lila—thoughts of Elena's that Lila may never even be aware of—but they stem from Elena's own insecurities. Essentially, Lila highlights Elena's own flaws to herself and it causes Elena to both despise her and idolize her.

As a reader, I felt I never knew much about Lila's perspective, how she feels towards her friendship with Elena. We feel distant from Lila, even though we follow her day to day through Elena. Perhaps it's just a consequence of Elena's storytelling—she's writing about the effect the friendship had on herself, internally, and is less concerned on the thoughts and feelings of Lila. It's just another example of that selfishness found in friendships.

Growing up in the 1950s in a small neighborhood of Naples, Lila and Elena are severely limited as women by the society in which they live. Part of their friendship stems from their mutual distaste of the state of this society, but they deal with their frustrations in different ways. Lila is an aggressive woman and resorts to the same actions and behaviors she is trying hard to escape. To her, this is the only option because she would otherwise remain the passive woman she hates so much. Elena takes her frustrations out on her mother, finding her the representation of everything she doesn't want to become. Both reject the role for women in their society but have different solutions. Elena finds an escape with an education, while Lila plans to marry rich to get out of a society shaped by poverty.

Really, the very fact that they strive for a different kind of life is what makes Elena and Lila notable characters. Their world is so miniscule, encompassing only a few blocks, and it's one of those worlds that is easy to get sucked into because you know nothing else. It's illustrated perfectly when Elena takes a trip into city center that, though only a few miles away, feels like a foreign land to her. She comments on how quiet it feels. All she knows is a society where violence and fighting are the norm. Abuse and arguments are so commonplace that a world without that appears odd to Elena. The setting so strongly defines the characters' perspectives, and you wonder if it was, in fact, commonplace or if Ferrante paints such a small world to emphasize the characters own experiences. Because growing up, one's world is small and self-centric, anyway.

I was really disappointed to see that this was published so recently and that the next in the series is not out yet. Lately, I've found I don't have much motivation to continue series I've started for one reason or another (Sea of Poppies, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Hunger Games, Palace Walk). They've just lacked the something that makes me want to keep reading. But this ended in such a way that wasn't a satisfying enough conclusion. It's like a character-driven tv show, where you don't necessarily care what happens next, but you need to know how their everyday life turns out. There is more to these characters, and we've seen just enough of a peek into their futures that we want to know how they get there.

Friday, November 9, 2012

YA Reading, Round 5: Historical

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Judy Blundell's What I Saw and How I Lied has been on my queue for about as long as I've been writing this blog, but I didn't realize until it was on my reading list for class that it's considered a YA book.

The story follows sixteen-year-old Evie who is about as naive as they come. Her stepfather Joe has returned home to New York after World War II, and the family's postwar normalcy resumes pretty quickly. Someone, though, has been trying to get in touch with Joe, and he decides to drive the family, on a whim, down to Palm Beach for vacation, even though summer has just ended. Everything changes for Evie in Palm Beach. As a teenager aching to grow up, she gets her first taste of adulthood with fancy clothes and a crush on a dashing young man named Peter who served in Joe's company during the war. But then a tragedy occurs that leaves Evie searching for the truth in all she's seen and learning that she hadn't really grown up as much as she thought.

This was a National Book Award winner which really surprised me. I thought it was okay...not great but not bad, and not incredibly memorable. The thing about this book for a YA audience, though, is that it has a ton of appeal factors. You could classify it as historical fiction, as coming-of-age, as a mystery, as a thriller. There is an incredible amount of ambiance filling the pages of this book—smoky dinner parties, a muggy noir-ish Floridian atmosphere, the deceiving glamour and simplicity of postwar America—all masking the more serious undertones running throughout. You have this main character who is yearning for womanhood, yearning to be taken more seriously, and as an adult reader, you know what's going to happen because you can see the reality that immaturity prevents Evie from seeing.

On paper, this has all the ingredients of a book I'd love, but I think Evie got in the way for me. I just never liked her attitude (which may not be a good sign if I plan on working with young adults someday!). It does, though, have plenty of appeal for a YA reader.

At the beginning of the semester, my professor's comment on Markus Zusak's The Book Thief was, "Eeeeveryone loves The Book Thief; who doesn't love The Book Thief?" Well, sorry prof. Maybe you hyped it up too much, but I (and many of my classmates) weren't as in love as you thought we'd be.

The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany at the beginning of WWII. At its opening, we observe the scene of a young girl at her brother's grave. She finds an object left in the snow, which turns out to be a book, The Gravedigger's Handbook, fallen out of a gravedigger's pocket. In the following years, as she's moved in with a foster family and started a new life, Leisel's book thievery continues. She's fallen in love with the written word. Meanwhile, the atmosphere surrounded her small German town is tense. The Nazis are on the rise; Jews are being chased out of town; work is harder to come by for Leisel's foster parents; and there's a Jew hiding out in their basement. As the world around Leisel falls apart, she has her books. And, of course, her eyes are opened to what's happening around her.

So, I am a sap for affecting sentimentality—plot lines that are sometimes sad, sometimes glad (e.g. I can't keep a dry eye during Parenthood). But there is just something in my emotional make-up that prevents me from getting affected by actual, serious depressing topics. It's like my brain doesn't fully process them and keeps them at a distance to prevent me from actually facing the issue. This book is sad; that's not even up for debate. But it never really upset me, and most people bawl during it. So something just must be wrong with me, and it affected my reaction to it. 

I think this is a difficult book to recommend to a teenager. Really, it's not a YA book. It can be, for the right reader, but for the majority, I think it has a low appeal. It has an intriguing format in that Death is the narrator, telling the story from an omniscient point of view. And the chapters are told as brief snippets, moments that Death witnesses, with Death's commentary scattered throughout. Overall, though, I think it's a tough book to get into. It's slow-paced and more "literary" in format. I think it's creative; I think it has merit; I think it is touching. But I just didn't feel it as much as I expected. And it will take the right reader to get something out of it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Nonfiction | The Plight of the Worker

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Believe it or not, Barbara Ehrenreich's national bestseller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is something I hadn't before read...and had to read as part of my YA Lit class. Did you know it was one of the most challenged books in libraries during 2010-2011? Our reading list during Banned Books Week included selections from challenge lists, and I opted for this one just because I'd never read it.

I honestly didn't have much idea what it was about prior to reading, despite all its buzz a few years ago. Ehrenreich performs a bit of an undercover social experiment for this book. She moves from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, starting from scratch in each location. With almost nothing to get her started (except an always-functioning car), she finds a minimum wage-paying, unskilled job and suitable housing, stretching each dollar to live paycheck to paycheck—a lifestyle that is the norm for millions of Americans.

Ehrenreich's writing is easy to read, and her tone and pace add some light to a subject that can quickly and easily get bogged down by the dark. Her anecdotes often add humor to a situation that, most of the time, feels completely exhausting and hopeless. She also does a good job of putting her experiences in context—whether it's giving a big picture of housing shortages in an area or an in depth analysis of Walmart's hiring policies. The author gives just enough context to help with understanding, without feeling like an economics lesson or political lecture.

It was surprising to me that this book was featured on the list of Most Challenged Books of last year. Both of the challenges were in school districts with complaints the book promoted "economic fallacies" and socialist ideas, advocated the use of illegal drugs and profanity, and belittled Christians. So, some people clearly don't agree with Ehrenreich's viewpoints. And there are some parts I could take issue with (mostly a general tone from the author that I am different from these people). But I don't think her opinion or outlook on the matter is what makes this book important. Its very subject matter makes it important. It makes you think. You're given with a situation—a very real situation of how people live and how our country supports its citizens—and then it's left to you to form your own opinion about said situation. You can take the fact that's presented and reflect and respond, agree or disagree, and there it is—you've encountered something you may not otherwise have encountered.

To me, the most thought-provoking point was the contrast between "unskilled" labor and the workforce with a college degree. The unskilled labor she covers in this book is hard and exhausting and unappreciated. You're working to survive, and there's nothing pretty about it. Meanwhile, my "skilled" desk job is only exhausting to my eyeballs as I stare at a computer all day. It has a higher place in society, but what series of events or developments awarded a job like mine such a status?

If anything, I think the point of this book is to present you with a point you may not have considered, where you can say, "Huh, hadn't thought of that before." And then, no matter how small, you've got a new perspective to consider.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

YA Reading, Round 4: More Issues!

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More issues, more drama. According to YA lit, that's what being a teen is all about. I remember the teenage years being melodramatic, but eeesh, nothing like this!

Allison Van Diepen's Snitch is what, I guess, one could sort of classify as urban fiction (though not the sexy urban kind). Julia and her best friend Q are two of the only neutral kids in their Brooklyn high school, neutral meaning they're keeping out of gang life. It's a promise they made to each other back in middle school, and so far, they've done a good job at keeping it. But when a new boy, Eric, shows up and Julia finds herself falling for him, all her rules are broken. Snitch is a good, easy-to-read story about the complexities of gang life, the consequences of one's actions, and the lines of friendships and relationships. It's not too heavy but deals with some serious subjects. It was also next to impossible to find this book available anywhere in NYC! [I had to trek to a Queens PL branch and sign up for a card just to get this!] The copy I read was well-worn, so I get the impression that this is a popular book that speaks a message in just the right way to its intended audience.

Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole has a great story premise. Laura attends a Catholic high school in Miami and is about to celebrate her two-year anniversary with her girlfriend, Marlena. But then one slip of a passed note in class, and Laura's entire world finds out that she has a girlfriend. On top of the taunts from peers and being disowned by her very traditional Cuban mother, Laura also gets dumped. So her life is in shambles, and it feels like it was for nothing. Laura is strong, though, and she works to put her life and relationships back on track while figuring out exactly who she is. Now, I am completely split on whether to recommend this book or not. First and foremost, the writing was terrible. The author is Cuban, and I can't figure out if this is a translation from the original Spanish version. Regardless, the dialogue is incredibly choppy and unrealistic, and a lot of the colloquial phrases just don't make sense [this is where it could be a victim of poor translation]. However, I really commend the subject matter and how it was handled. One of the most interesting aspects to Laura's story is that she never defines herself as "gay." She's had one girlfriend but can't classify herself strictly as a "lesbian," and I thought this was a great point to bring up for teens (or anyone) struggling with their sexual identity. The supporting characters in Laura's story were pretty one-dimensional (especially her mother, who I found to be one of the story's weakest parts), but it's Laura that matters. We follow her situation and she how she handles it on her own.

Cecilia Galante's The Patron Saint of Butterflies is another one of those YA novels that introduces you to a different kind of lifestyle...one that has its own controversy surrounding it. Agnes and Honey have grown up in the Mount Blessing religious community, where their life follows the strict rules of their prophet, Emmanuel.  Though they've always been friends, they are incredibly different. Agnes is an Emmanuel devotee—a Believer down to her core. Honey, on the other hand, thinks, essentially, that it's all a load of crap. A surprise visit from Agnes' grandmother, Nana Pete, reveals some things about the community that Emmanuel is very eager to keep quiet, and Nana Pete doesn't take it all so lightly. She kidnaps Agnes, Honey, and Agnes' brother Benny to escape, and that's where their story of discovery begins. This book has a lot of action and twists (though, fairly predictable to me as an adult reader) that will keep a reader engrossed. It's got the same draw as The Chosen One in that it follows fairly ordinary, relatable teens who are living in extraordinary circumstances.

Last but not least, Angela Johnson's The First Part Last is a really short, simple book that's garnered lots of prestigious YA awards. Bobby is your basic teenager—he's sometimes reckless, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes acts older than he is, sometimes still acts like a child. The only difference between him and every other teenage boy is that he's also a father. Once his girlfriend Nina got pregnant, childhood ended for both of them real fast, and they faced new decisions, the biggest one being whether they're even going to keep the baby. Bobby's story is told through alternating, fractured chapters that go back in time to tell his full experience—with Nina, with his friends, with his parents, before the baby, and in the present. It's a good book for provoking thought and discussion, and teens should be able to get through it easily. It does a good job reflecting the scattered thoughts that one experiences. And one of my favorite parts about it is how it's so ethnically "neutral," if that makes sense. You never get any sort of racial background or description to most of the characters, which makes this story even more relatable to a wide audience.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Revisiting Anne, Part 2: Anne of Avonlea

I bet that if you took a poll, you'd get a lot of different answers as to what exactly "Anne of Green Gables" is. Some would remember it as a single book's title, some as more encompassing character, some as a movie. I bet, however, that it's only the die-hard Anne fans like myself who are aware that Anne's story continues in print beyond the Anne of Green Gables classic.

Anne of Avonlea is L.M. Montgomery's follow-up to Anne of Green Gables, and I love how, as Anne's story expands, so does her world. In the series opener, Anne came into her own at Green Gables. Now, she's finding her place in a bigger world, in her town of Avonlea. (Spoiler alert: book three's title is Anne of the Island!) I love how our view of Anne's world expands alongside her own. We became comfortable at Green Gables, and now we're thrust into a bigger place, learning the ropes alongside Anne.

At the story's opening, our heroine is much more a young lady than the girl we met at Green Gables. Anne has completed her schooling at the Avonlea schoolhouse and has now become its schoolmarm (and only at age 16!). She's working with her own school chums on a project to improve their town—the Avonlea Village Improvement Society. And Marilla has adopted two young twins, the rambunctious Davey and the obedient Dora. Throughout it all, we hear Anne's internal monologue, as always, and see how she's maturing through experience but without ever fully submitting to "grown-upness."

In all honesty, I liked this one more when I was younger than I did this time around. Anne of Avonlea the miniseries is actually a bit of a compilation of storylines from the next three titles in the series, and I can understand why—the story just seemed a little lacking. It wasn't any different in style than the first in the series—chapters still capture small stories or experiences that give us a peek into Anne's life and ultimately define Anne and her way of thinking. This one just sort of felt like those awkward breaks from college when you return home to a setting that hasn't changed, though you have...or that terrible year after college graduation when you're just waiting for what's next. In this, it seems like Anne (though she would never be this cynical) is just biding her time in Avonlea until she can move on with her education and life experiences. You just know she wants to see and do so much, and her current environment is just shrinking in scope. 

I had some other thoughts while reading this:
  • Montgomery really doesn't like the French! I was surprised by all her rude comments about them! Must be a reflection of French-Canadian relationships at this time.
  • I also didn't really like how disdainful she was of Dora, the obedient child! Montgomery (and as a result, Marilla and Anne) actually thought less of her because she wasn't as spunky and disobedient as Davey. Poor Dora! She can't do anything right, even when she's perfect!
  • It was still hard to comprehend that Anne was only 16 during most of this. She was mostly considered "grown" by her society, while today at 16, we've generally got a lot of "growing up" to do.
  • Also funny how teaching seemed to be the only option for the educated directly after primary school. It wasn't just for women—Gilbert did it too! It seemed to be the stepping stone before continuing education. And if you weren't doing that, you apparently just started a trade or stayed home and waited to get married (poor Diana).

It was at least so lovely to end the story with a bit of a peek into Anne's shifting feelings towards Gilbert, as she begins to actually think about him, and consider him as a person and more than just a figure in her adolescent schooldays. Oh, Gil!

Friday, October 12, 2012

YA Reading, Round 3: Issues

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Issues. That has been the theme of my last two weeks of YA reading, and let me tell you...it makes for a semi-depressing class. The structure of my class readings is this—we have one or two books that everyone reads and then we get to pick one or two books of our own from our textbook of book lists. Then, we share what we read, as if we're describing it to a teen reader.

There are a lot of downer YA books out there. And some of those plots sound like the authors are the ones trying to work out some serious issues. [Seriously, how do people think up some of this stuff? And why???] Luckily, my choices weren't too dark, but the class got us to talking about why so many YA books have such serious subjects. One thought is that the adolescent years are when you start really feeling. You discover you have a reaction and you can empathize, and you feel more intensely than ever before. I remember that overflow of emotion being addictive. So maybe it's that.

The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams was recognizable to me from the book blog world, actually. I think there was a lot a buzz about it a couple years ago. The story follows 13-year-old Kyra who is growing up on an isolated polygamist compound. The only world she knows is one in which she has three mothers and twenty siblings, and the Prophet's word is synonymous with the Word of God. Once he decrees that she must marry her 60-year-old uncle, though, Kyra snaps. She's desperate for the outside world and starts planning her own escape. Readers will quickly connect with Kyra, who you just know is different. She's independent and inquisitive and isn't under the same spell as her peers on the compound. Her hunger for knowledge leads her to befriend the local book mobile driver (on the sly, of course), and the illicit library books she reads each week open her eyes to a world outside her own. This story has a quick pace and is a bit of a thriller towards the end. Readers will be interested in this infamous lifestyle that is (probably!) so different from their own.

Brian Katcher's Almost Perfect introduces us to Logan, a high-school senior who is recovering from the sudden break-up with his longtime girlfriend. In small town Missouri, it's hard to get over someone when your world is rather small and you see them every day. But then, enter new student Sage. First of all, there's never a new student in Boyer. Second of all, there's just something about Sage that sucks Logan in. She's tall and bold and boisterous—totally unlike any of the other girls roaming the halls. But Sage has a secret that she eventually shares with Logan [this is not a spoiler; it's on the back of the book]. Sage—the girl Logan can't stop thinking about—is actually a boy. Almost Perfect is told from Logan's perspective, and it captures all the confusion and mixed emotion as he finds out that everything he believed...everything he knew...about Sage was a lie. It captures all the hurt and solitude and misunderstanding of a transgendered teen trying to find his/her place in the world. There are definitely times when you think that Logan is a jerk with his hurtful reactions, but I also really like that the author didn't sugarcoat the story. It's a difficult subject and a difficult situation, and I thought Logan's reactions, though they made me sad, were probably realistic. There's a lot of repetitiveness as Logan goes back and forth, back and forth, in dealing with the situation, but I think that's the only place the narrative stalls. Otherwise, it's well-written and engrossing. It would be interesting to pair this with a novel from the transgendered teen's perspective; I Am Jay by Cris Beam is one to consider.

My last one of the week, Schooled by Gordan Korman, is by far the simplest and least depressing. I mean, it is published by Hyperion (owned by Disney), so what do you expect? Capricorn (Cap) Anderson grew up on a commune with his grandmother, surrounded by nature, yoga, and political activism. But now he's entering public school for the first time, and the normalcies of a 21st-century middle school are completely lost on him. And unfortunately, he's walked into a tough crowd. It's school tradition (unbeknownst to the administration) that the 8th grade class always nominates the dweebiest kid to be Class President, setting the kid up for a year of pranks and torture, and Cap is their new man. Cap, though, just doesn't get it. He's so naive that he doesn't realize when he's being bullied for someone else's amusement, and he just keeps trying to get the job done. In true Disney fashion, though, the student body has a change of heart as they get to know Cap, and Cap becomes a hero. It's a fun read, though totally unrealistic. (You can't just assume bullies will eventually see the error of their ways!) However, it did make at least one good point: Cap's bullies got incredibly frustrated when he didn't react to their pranks, so there's a lesson about bullying in there somewhere!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

How to Be a Rebel: Read a Banned Book

Image credit: bannedbooksweek.org

I've known that Banned Books Week was coming up this week for quite a while, but I've never really prepared anything to say about it. But as a prospective librarian (and even more specifically, a Young Adult one), I would be remiss not writing something about it! So this post may be all over the place, but its intent is to highlight an important part of reading and education, particularly as it relates to children and young adults.

My day job in publishing has connected me to a number of librarians nationwide, and I love discovering how they are keeping their kids engaged. One such librarian is Michelle Luhtala, a rockstar in the world of librarians. She was the keynote speaker at a school district conference I attended for work, and I overheard her presentation on how she encourages her students to use the Internet to its full potential, because this level of worldwide real-time connectivity—through Twitter, Facebook, news feeds, etc—is the present and it is the future. She organizes a Banned Websites Awareness Day every year (her school library has no bans or filters) to remind her students that not everyone enjoys the same access that they do.

And that's it in a nutshell. That is purpose of Banned Books Week and other events that recognize censorship—to remind us that access is not equal, whether its prevented by a web filter or by a close-minded teacher or librarian or parent.

One of the fundamentals of librarianship is to ensure access of information and material to all, and I think there's no more important group for that apply to than children and young adults. Because books, and movies and websites are how you experience the world. This is how you can learn opposing viewpoints, experience different lifestyles, and relive history without ever leaving your seat. And in a society that is increasingly global, it's imperative that children grow up knowing what's out there and knowing how to experience it.

I would've liked to have had a list of books I'd read and discuss during this week...but I just have so much to read as it is. (The day I get to read as book that is NOT considered YA will be a joyous day.) Instead, here's a list of the most frequently challenged books of the past decade. What's your favorite from the list? Do you think the challenges are warranted? Are you surprised to see any of these on the list?

I recently had to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian for school, and I loved it. In fact, compared to many other books I've read, I am continuously surprised this one has such a history of frequent challenges. I think it has a wonderful overall message that yes, life can be hard, but here you have this character who is defying the society around him and taking control of his own life. It's optimistic, it's realistic, and it's inspiring for anyone in a similar position.

As to the rest of that list, I actually shrieked a little bit when I saw the cover of It's Perfectly Normal, a sex ed book by Robie Harris. My mom bought this book for me when I was about 10 and left it in my room with the intent to have "the talk." I have never been so terrified of anything in my life, and I avoided physical contact with this book as if it held a communicable disease. That book was the stuff of my nightmares for at least a year of my adolescent life. Luckily, "the talk" was somehow avoided, and the book is probably at the top of a closet by now. Whew!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fiction | Resisting History

You remember Oliver Stone's JFK? (I know...who doesn't? It's a pop culture icon, also infamous from an episode of Seinfeld.) Well when I first saw that movie, that whole conspiracy thing got me—hook, line, and sinker. I Wikipedia-ed the crap out of everything relating to that assassination (because, yes, I first saw JFK so recently that Wikipedia existed).

Anyway, to say that the plot of Stephen King's 11/22/63 intrigued me is putting it mildly. JFK assassination AND time travel? What an amazing combination! I'm not exactly sure why it took me so long to read this book. I'd heard of "that new Stephen King book" since it first came out when my mom thought about buying it as a gift for Colin, but I knew nothing about it; just figured it was another Stephen King book. When I saw it on the library shelves recently, though, an uncontrollable impulse just lead my arm to reach out and grab it, so then it was pretty much decided. I was going to read it.

And it's actually the first and only Stephen King book I've ever read.

The plot of this book, for those of you still as clueless as I was, can be summed up in a sentence: Modern-day English teacher Jake Epping finds a wormhole that leads back to 1958, and he decides to take a stab at changing the course of history by stopping the assassination of our 35th President.

That's putting it simply. In its 849 pages, this book gets sooooooo much more complex. We jump through the portal as Jake does, discover its quirks as he does, put the pieces of the puzzle together as he does. And we're left to decide, as he is, if a different course of history would necessarily be better.

At 850 pages, 11/22/63 qualifies as a top-shelf chunkster, but it reads so unbelievably fast that you won't even notice it. I am not exaggerating when I say this story sucked me in, completely and hypnotizingly. I got so caught up in this fantasy world that it put me in a daze whenever I stopped reading. King pays such ridiculously close attention to detail that you do forget you're sitting in 2012 reading a fictional story. And further, the plot has got that same feature of The Shadow of the Wind in that it covers any and all genres that may interest you. Action, sci-fi, history, romance—it's all thrown in and mixed together to create this really amusing and thought-provoking ride through history. Because say somehow, some way, you can change history...do you think it really wants to change?

Monday, September 17, 2012

YA Reading, Round 2: Contemporary

This week's theme in my YA Lit class was contemporary life, with subjects like coming-of-age, identity, relationships, and so on and so on. It was quite a departure from last week's classic YA novels, and it's pretty amazing just how many types of stories are available to the YA audience. The three books I read were each very different in plot and theme and appropriate for very different audiences. They each contained a story that would resonate with its audience, though—stories that would hopefully connect to their readers.

The most lighthearted of the bunch, Maryrose Wood's My Life: The Musical, is a pretty simple story about a pair of Broadway-obsessed best friends. Emily and Philip haven't been able to stop thinking about Aurora since the first time they saw the show. Literally — it's all they talk about, all they write about; Emily has even been ordered not to write another English class paper on anything relating to Aurora or Broadway. However, rumor starts that their favorite show is about to close, and the desperate Emily and Philip are forced to think of life beyond Aurora while grappling with many of their own day-to-day issues.

This was sort of the most painful one to read, simply because it reminded me of my own high school days when I was beyond obsessed with Buffy. I cringed just thinking back on myself then and how I let a TV show consume my life. On a whole, though, it's just a light read for the right teen. A theatergoer is the obvious target, but someone with a really strong interest in some form of media would find this relevant. It has a titch of identity-awareness as Philip questions his sexuality, but that plot point doesn't dominate the story.

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson is apparently a pretty well-known YA pick as of late. The story follows a high school senior, Tyler, who used to be your average overlooked high school boy until he got busted for graffiti art on his school's building. Since then, he's gotten himself a rep, and he's having some trouble adjusting to his new identity. Trouble seems to follow him now, and, worst of all, people expect it to. A string of events that could seriously affect his future leads him to question everything in his world.

This book carries quite the punch. It deals with some serious identity issues, especially as they interact with environment — parents, siblings, school, peers. Tyler is struggling with all of these things internally, as many teens do, but he has the added complication of an external identity shift. I think that's a very realistic predicament, and it's often out of an individual's control; people will make up their own minds, and that's often very difficult to change. Add on to that, Tyler has a poor support system in his parents, and he has trouble finding help. Twisted isn't a downer, really, but it does deal with some serious topics that are pretty universal to the teen brain.

Matt de la Pena's Mexican WhiteBoy is probably the one I enjoyed the most, partly because it dealt with a specific community of people, one that is foreign to me. Danny is half white and half Mexican. He's spending the summer with his dad's family in San Diego because he wants to be closer to his dad who's somewhere in Mexico. However, he's the only one that doesn't speak Spanish, and he feels just about as out of touch as I would in his situation. Oh, but he can throw a baseball. Like, seriously throw it. So there's that to get him through. Danny's summer opens his eyes to a lot about himself and his family and helps him find a place in a world he's never felt a part of.

Danny doesn't talk much, but you still understand how he feels, and he has a lot of the identity issues that any teen may have, not just teens of mixed race. I really noticed the dialogue between the characters and how casual it felt. It never felt like forced conversation of the author trying to imagine what a group of teens may say; it felt like he just jotted down a conversation he had recorded. I think this book would be good for a reluctant reader because it's fairly short and it doesn't try to smack the reader in the face with a big message or moral. It's just a good story about a simple character trying to figure it all out.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Fiction | Maggie Now or Never

Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been one of my favorite books since I was about 17, and I've only re-read it once since then.

One of the great things about it? I never remember the story exactly; I just remember how it made me feel. And whatever that feeling was, it was great. That's my favorite kind of book—the kind that sticks with you not because of the plot, but because it made you feel so amazing during and after reading it.

Since A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I've tried to pick up some of Smith's other novels. I read Joy in the Morning a year or so ago, and when I saw Maggie-Now—one I'd never heard of—at a book conference this winter, I picked it up to add to my collection, expecting great things.

Maggie-Now is the daughter of a reckless Irish immigrant, Patsy, who married Maggie's mother mostly just to prove something to her father. Patsy was a lowly stableboy when he first came to America, Brooklyn specifically (obviously, since this is a Smith novel). The daughter of the household for which he was working, Mary, took a liking to him. Her father was not a fan of these affections, but they proceeded with a marriage anyway. Once we're post-wedding, Maggie-Now enters the scene—a curious, mischievous, bright-eyed girl who earned her nickname by people always yelling after her, "Maggie, now stop doing that," or, "Maggie, now come inside," etc, etc. When Mary dies in childbirth with Maggie's much-younger brother, Maggie's life changes as she takes control of a house and child while still just a teenager.

Despite quite a long build-up to even get to Maggie's story, the rest of the novel follows the decades of her life—from raising her brother almost as a son, to falling in love with a travelling man, to the never-ending daily struggles with her quarrelsome father. Maggie-Now matures before our eyes through the slow, gradual pace of the novel. My favorite reflection of hers:

What a pity, she thought, that you get used to things and never see them again the way you saw them for the first time.

I think that all the time.

Maggie-Now was written with a tone nearly identical to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The structure is similar—following a young girl protagonist as she learns the ins and outs of life, its joys and disappointments. But this book did not have nearly the same effect. Why is that?

Frankly put, I couldn't much sympathize with Maggie-Now. I read one comment on this novel that called her the "proverbial doormat" and I think that's it, dead-on. She lets the men in her life walk all over her. And she claims she wants this lifestyle, but I can't accept that. For someone who was so precocious and full of life as a child, her character just...sagged. Once she passes out of adolescence, she lacks the spunk, the independence, the backbone, and the curiosity that made A Tree's Francie such a strong character. Overall, I found this story lacking, because I just couldn't get behind the character that the reader was so clearly supposed to support. Maybe it's unfair to compare the two, but the books are so similar in tone that it's hard not to, and it helps decipher why this one just fell flat.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Reading Roundup: Tales from Across the Pond

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According to my "recently read" shelf, I unintentionally took a literary trip across the pond, hopping from Scotland to England for these two imports. They're not exactly Jane Austen, but at least they still serve afternoon tea.

The incomparable Maisie Dobbs—do you know how difficult it is to get a hold of this book from the NYPL? I was on the wait list for an embarrassingly long amount of time! I first tuned into this series after seeing some promotional pieces in a publisher's booth at a library conference (can't remember which one). I love a good series, so I immediately put myself on the hold list, having no idea it would take so long. (At this rate, I will move out of New York before even getting to book 3.)

At the story's opening, we learn that it's London in 1929, and Maisie Dobbs has set herself up as a private investigator, following in the footsteps of her beloved, and retired, mentor. Most of this book, though, tells Maisie's backstory—her humble beginnings as a housemaid, her unconventional education, and her nursing experience during WWI. Though the series has fallen into the Mystery genre, this one was more historical than mystery, as Winspear painted an elaborate backstory to the character we'll follow for many more books down the road. You get a good grasp of English society post-WWI and come to understand how unique Maisie is as a woman with a profession. I think this will be a fun, light series. I probably won't remember them all in detail, but I'll enjoy reading them.

Jane Gardam's Old Filth—not about a dirty old man, instead an old lawyer who Failed In London, Try Hong Kong; our protagonist has lived quite the international life. Old Filth (a nickname, of course) was born to an Englishman in the Eastern Empire, turned "Raj" orphan once his mother died, but "saved" by a missionary and shipped back to England. There, he jumps from place to place, never fully connected to a family but funded by his absent father. University leads to law; law leads to Hong Kong; retirement leads back to England, where Old Filth never feels fully settled.

My book club read this over a year ago, and I had purchased the book but was unable to attend the meeting. The Book Club Member Whose Opinion I Trust really liked this book and thought I would, too...but I found it just ok. I liked the overall structure of the story, in that it was like storytelling on why this part of his life affected that part of it and affected who he is now. I keep reading how the story is very Dickensian, though, and based on my limited experience with both this book and Dickens, I would have to agree. Normally, I really like character-driven stories, but maybe my tastes are changing a bit; I find it hard to really like such a book if I don't have very strong feelings for the character in it. And that's how I felt about our Old Eddie Feathers; he was just kinda there. I chuckled at some incidents and sympathized with him at others, but overall, I wasn't head-over-heels compelled by his story. But many many others disagree with me, so maybe it's just me. The Man in the Wooden Hat is Gardam's follow-up—which I have that on my shelf—so maybe I'll try that one out, too.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Revisiting Anne, Part 1: Anne of Green Gables

I've posted before about my epic love affair with Anne of Green Gables and the recent completion of my own personal set of the series—a collection process lasting well over a decade! Though I've read the entire series before, I haven't picked one up since high school, and I thought now would be a good time to slowly make my way through the series again.

I have to say, my introduction to Anne began with the CBC miniseries, and I don't actually remember my first experience with the classic novel. Unlike most stories I've read over and over and love from the bottom of my heart, I can't remember anything about how that first encounter long ago with Anne of Green Gables made me think or made me feel; I can't remember where I was when I read it; I don't know if I savored it or sped through it. So in some regard, despite already knowing and loving the story, this re-read is like reading it for the first time. Maybe my thoughts will come back to me, but maybe I'll form new ones.

The opener of the Anne series is nearly identical to the first film, and reading the book now, it's hard to separate the two. Anne is an endearing character—optimistic, curious, and always always thinking—but she's not without her faults. She's vain, occasionally selfish, impulsive, and rash. She has the imagination of a child, which constantly gets her into trouble. I've never been able to really relate to Anne throughout our history, because I've always felt my personality to be so incredibly different than hers. Reading it now—as a person who is, by definition, an "adult," but still so determinedly refuses to grow up for good—I can see how I've always connected to Anne...

She refuses to grow up for good, too. In this first book, we watch Anne develop from early adolescence to her "grown up" late teens. As she matures, the lovable, troublesome faults of her youth are "pruned down and branched out," as she says, but she hasn't lost the curiosity and imagination and introspection of her childhood days; she has just learned how to control them to keep her out of scrapes. Anne is still the same Anne, and will always be the same Anne, no matter how old she is.

Beyond the title character, Montgomery's descriptions of people, places, and relationships have always made these stories special, because those descriptions appeal to my Anne-like sensibilities. I read them with all my senses, permanently locking those feelings in my brain as a special memory, as you only can when you know how something looks and smells and tastes and feels for those experiencing it.

As I re-read this series as an adult, and follow Anne on her own journey through life, I wonder if maybe I'll find more to relate to in the characters and stories. Maybe I'll see them from a new perspective, or maybe they'll just remain the sentimental stories I've always loved. Either way, I'm sure I'll enjoy them.

It's not too late to hop on the read-along! I'll be reading Anne of Avonlea this month, and moving on to Anne of the Island in October. Join in — I'd love to hear your Anne experiences!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

YA Reading, Round 1: Classics

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You're going to start seeing a lot of YA books on this blog.

This semester, one of the classes I'm taking is called Materials for Young Adults...and basically that just means reading a lot of YA books. The purpose of the class is simply to make one familiar with YA materials—based on genre, interest, ethnicity, reading level, certain issues, etc, etc. While I've never been averse to YA books, and read them voluntarily from time to time, much of the genre does not pique my interest. Teenage angst, dystopian realities...these are just things I don't really care to read about. But now I am going to have to...and there are a lot of them to read! Since this is going to take up a good chunk of my reading time, and these are books I'm supposed to sort of remember for my future career, this is going to be the start of a little series I'll just have to call "YA Reading." I'll mix in my opinion with some comment on its appeal to its intended audience.

These first two titles are labeled "Classics" by my course syllabus, and I haven't read either of them before. (That is the point of this class—read things you haven't encountered.)

Robert McCormack's The Chocolate War was one I'd heard of but always surmised it to be similar to the good-humored The Pushcart War. It is not.

The Chocolate War tells the story of one boy, Jerry Renault, who refuses to sell chocolates during his (boys' Catholic) school annual fundraiser. It starts out as a simple enough prank, masterminded by the school's not-so-secret society, The Vigils, but his continuing refusal defies the very structure upon which the school and its students run.

This is definitely one of those typical required reading books for the 7th or 8th grade, because it is filled with tons of the 'themes' and 'motifs' and 'metaphors' that junior high English teachers love to analyze. In fact, I can hear my own 7th grade English teacher as she drilled the phrase "man's inhumanity to man" into our heads, because it would apply to this story. Ultimately, it's about groupthink, to a degree, and mental manipulation; how evil exists, and the only thing you can do is try and fight it; and how powerful an agent fear can be. Lots of parallels can be drawn to goverment control and historical events, but honestly, I think all of this would just make this book boring to a lot of 13-14 year olds--analyzing the heck out of a book is the worst. But I also think this is one that, if you had to read as a teen, you'd probably understand it more once you go back and read it as an adult.

Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly, like The Chocolate War, is a timeless story, one in which the plot isn't dependent on a particular time and place in history. The story is set during the summer after Angie Morrow's high school graduation. She has always gotten by as sort of an 'outsider' to her peers--never popular enough to be found at the local hangout with a group of people, but not unhappy either; she's always just been off the radar. It's surprising to her, then, when popular and attractive Jack Duluth takes a sudden interest in her. They start a summer romance which serves as an awakening to Angie--what it means to grow up, what it means to love, and what it means to really think about the future.

Aside from some dated evidence of mid-century innocence, the sentiment of Seventeenth Summer still rings true. Angie is an eloquent, pensive character, and all her thoughts are put on paper; the narrative is wonderfully descriptive. There's just something about adolescence that makes everything feel heightened; emotions feel stronger, experiences feel more memorable. It's a time where details mean a lot, and you can tell Angie's voice was written by an author aware of this. [Daly was 17 when started writing this.] Some teens may have a hard time getting past the simplicity of a time where hand-holding was something to swoon about, but I think if they ignore the small nuggets of the 1940s, they'll find universal thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

An interesting sidenote: some consider Seventeenth Summer to be the start of the YA genre; it's one of the earliest books written about adolescents specifically for adolescents.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fiction | Rosamunde Pilcher Is Beach Reading At Its Finest

Last summer when I was on vacation, I read Rosamunde Pilcher's Coming Home. The cover really looks like it's a romance novel, but I assure you that it is not! Not that I minded that so much, though, because the cover just made it look like the perfect beach read that it was.

Last month when I was visiting home in Nashville and took a trip to McKay's, I was determined to pick up another Pilcher book—any Pilcher book—for another great summer read. I opted for September, which was written five years before Coming Home but takes place about 40 years after and has equally as awful of a cover.

It is NOT an awful book, though! September takes place in the lush green landscape of Scotland sometime around what I can determine to be the 1980s. (It was written in 1990 and the narrative sounds rather 'present' as opposed to 'past'.) Supposedly this is a very loose follow-up to her most popular, The Shell Seekers, but from what I've gathered, it only really has one character that sort of overlaps.

The Scotland in this story is one that still holds tradition close, especially in the upper echelon of society. It's early summer in a rural Scottish town, and head matriarch, Violet Aird, is helping a neighbor plan a great big party for her daughter. Violet's son Edmund is a businessman often away working, while his much-younger wife Virginia spends her days around the estate, caring for their 8-year-old son. Longtime friends of the Airds, Isobel and Archie (aka Lord Balmerino) are technically "rulers" of the land and estate, but declining income has brought them down to middle class, requiring them to open their home to vacationers during tourist season. Meanwhile, Edmund's daughter Alexa has finally found a boyfriend in London (Noel Keeling; here's where Shell Seekers comes in!); Archie's free-spirited sister is debating a return to Scotland after decades away; and a mental patient returning home unnerves the entire family.

The great thing about this Pilcher book, like the last one I read, is that the tiny details don't really matter. Pilcher writes with a style—a sweeping family narrative that has just the right amount of sentiment and drama; it's never over the top with one or the other. You don't need the details to get sucked in, and, frankly, you'll probably forget most of them once you've finished. But with Pilcher, you don't need to remember the details; the process of reading her books is simply enjoyable, and they have enough heft to keep you satisfied for a while. If you don't even remember the characters' names a week after turning the last page, you'll at least recall, "Oh, I really enjoyed reading that. I should read more."

**Note: The non-romance-y, legit-looking covers of several Pilcher books come from a 2005 re-issue by British publisher Hodder. This now makes sense why I can't find them anywhere (yet, why are they default cover on Goodreads??).

Monday, August 20, 2012

On Growing Up

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That night, lying in bed, I could not help wishing that there wasn't so much sadness in growing up. It was all so confused in my mind. There had been the long, long days of being young and not wondering about tomorrow at all and thinking in a strange, forgotten child's world. There were days when my thoughts were as mild as feathers and even an hour seemed like a long time. Then suddenly it was like turning a sharp corner—you were older and the things that counted when you were young didn't count anymore at all, and looking back, you couldn't even see them. Growing up crowds your mind with new thoughts and new feelings so that you forget how you used to think and feel.

—From Seventeenth Summer, Maureen Daly, pg. 218

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reading Roundup: Revisiting Graphic Memoirs

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I went through a graphic novel kick back in 2010 and found that I reaaaaally enjoy them, particularly graphic memoirs. Actually, I can't even say I've read any graphic fiction; my entire graphic oeuvre is memoirs, but I think the two genres really lend themselves to each other. There's something so much more personal about reading a story someone wrote and then seeing it through their eyes in the way they decide to show it to you.

This summer, I decided to revisit the graphic memoir genre because of two recent releases that caught my eye...

Way back when (only two years ago, so not incredibly long), I read Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and absolutely loved it. Therefore I was beyond psyched to find out that she had a new book out, Are You My Mother? While Fun Home focuses much on Bechdel's father and her own adolescence, Are You My Mother? puts the spotlight on the author's mother and their own complicated relationship.

Here's the thing about Bechdel—her books sometimes sound like a psychology lesson. Her use of language is something I commented upon back when I read Fun Home, but then it just seemed almost like a quirk of the author; the heavy use of language is like a humorous contradiction to the story's comic panels. Are You My Mother?, though, reads like the notes from a deep psychological analysis--notes that no one but the patient and the psychologist should, or need to, read. And it was so meta. She's writing about writing the book...you know, that sorta thing. Bechdel examines interactions with her mother, the development of her own love life, and her exploration into the literature of psychology. And frankly, it was mostly boring. It lacked the character intrigue and adolescent curiosity that came with Fun Home. And maybe that's not Bechdel's fault—I already knew most of her story from Fun Home, and I didn't feel the need to be clued ito this part of her life. I'm sure writing this book must have been very therapeutic for Bechdel, and if she felt an immense sense of relief after writing this, good for her. I just didn't need to read about it.

Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg's To Timbuktu: Nine Countries, Two People, One True Story popped out at me one day in one of my local bookstores. While I'm considering this a graphic novel, it's actually got a different format. It looks, upon first viewing, like a chunkster. And from the art on the cover, I expected a graphic memoir in the style of Blankets. But then you open it, and it's all words with some pictures scattered throughout. It's less graphic novel, more adult picturebook with illustrations coloring the pages.

Anyway, To Timbuktu is the story of two college kids from different schools who met while studying abroad in Morocco and then adventured through parts of the world together in the years immediately following graduation. This is my kind of story through which to live vicariously, because...helloooo....travel bug. Casey and Steven were both charming characters to get to know. Their recollections of experiences were honest but you never felt bogged down by their troubles; and they shared the little things that made each place and experience so special to them. Successful in inspiring world travel? Yes, indeed.

When you think about it, Casey and Steven's story isn't really anything special. Tons of recent grads do what they did—pack up and ship out while you still have the chance. But each and every person's experience is special, because stories and experiences like these are so huge in shaping lifelong perspectives. And for someone like me, stuck at a desk everyday and dreaming of travel freedom, stories like these help tide you over until you do have the opportunity to pack up and ship out. If you liked Lucy Knisley's French Milk and Craig Thompson's Carnet de Voyage, this is in the same vein.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Movie Trailer: Cloud Atlas

Despite having read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas two years ago, it is still the book that garners the most reads and comments of all my posts. I think it has something to do with intrepid readers Googling the book during their own Cloud Atlas journeys; comments range from scathing judgment of my apparent "lack of intellect" during my initial and confusing encounter with the story (clearly these readers did not care to follow up and continue reading my own Cloud Atlas experience, and I think I ended up deleting that anonymous comment) to a sort of relief and found camaraderie of mutual questioning.

These comments really do get entertaining, as the commenters have begun a sort of unraveling discussion and debate with each other, despite comments appearing months apart. My heart always jumps a little when I get the email about a new comment on Cloud Atlas, because I want to shout to these comments (except for the insulting ones, obvs), THANK YOU. THIS IS THE POINT OF THE BLOG.

Anyway, because of all this, I feel it necessary to post this newly released trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of Cloud Atlas. I cannot even begin to imagine the difficulty in translating Mitchell's words from paper to movie screen. It's beyond me.

Watch. Think. Discuss.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Nonfiction | The Complexities of the Rez

David Treuer's Rez Life is a nonfiction work that examines the histories and complexities of modern day American Indian Reservations. With a style that shifts between story-telling, journalism, and history lesson, Treuer looks closely at issues such as treaty rights and sovereignty, mostly from the perspective of the Minnesota and Wisconsin tribes around which he grew up.

I learned some really interesting things from this book, things such as:

  • There are 564 federally recognized tribes in the US and 310 reservations, 12 of which are bigger than Rhode Island and 9 of which are bigger than Delaware.
  • The Hard Rock Cafe franchise is owned by the Seminole tribe.
  • Native Americans weren't considered US citizens until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.
  • They couldn't freely practice their own religions until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.
  • And they couldn't legally drink until 1953.
  • Indian gaming casinos bring in $25 billion a year compared to Las Vegas' $12 billion.
  • Tribal land is held in a trust and cannot be taxed by the federal government.

But beyond these quick facts and figures, Treuer delves deep into the controversy, misunderstandings, and complexities of who American Indians are, trying to find a comfortable place that melds their past and present while both discovering and then fighting for the rights they technically already have.

Sovereignty and treaty rights are the two biggest areas of conflict and confusion, within both native and non-native populations. Treuer credits misunderstanding as the root of issue, wonderfully summarized:

"Neither side understands what a treaty is and how treaty rights work. Indians aren't 'allowed' to hunt or fish. It isn't a matter of 'permission. To cast treaty rights as 'special rights' is to suggest that they are in some sense an expression of pity or a payment for wrongs done or a welfare system for Stone Age people. But treaty rights were not 'given' to Indian people because of past cruel treatment or because of special racial status. Nor were treat rights 'given' to Indians in exchange for land...Rather, when Indian bands signed treaties (and no new ones have been signed since the end of the treaty period in the 1870s), they reserved the land, which became reservations, and they reserved rights. Treaty rights are rights that the Indians who signed treaties always had, rights they explicitly reserved in the treaties." (p. 101)

The issue that Treuer attempts to address in Rez Life is simply that many native people don't know what rights they reserved over a hundred years ago. And the non-natives don't know. And the local governments don't know. And the federal government doesn't know. And so many small questions that begin as small conflicts lead to bigger battles and monumental rulings once the time is taken to sift through old documents, determine historic intent, and issue a ruling that can end up being completely groundbreaking.

For example:

  • Do non-natives have rights on native land?
  • Do natives have rights both on and off the reservation?
  • Is tribal law sufficient to handle Indian conflict?
  • Is tribal law sufficient to handle conflict involving both Indians and non-Indians?
  • Can homes, businesses, buildings, and consumer goods on reservations be taxed?
  • Who, if anyone, has power over tribes? State government? Federal government?

I know that describing a book as both fascinating and boring sounds like a total contradiction, but that's the most honest way I can describe this one. As I mentioned, the narrative's style is varied, and sometimes, a history lesson is just not an interesting read. And sometimes you don't want to hear anecdotes about people you don't know. Or read an in-depth profile of something that doesn't personally affect you. But all of these things together paint a much clearer picture of the bigger issues than any single one of these narrative styles would be able to do alone. Even though you may get bored after five pages of history, Treuer has given you the background details to understand where these people you're now reading about are coming from and what exactly they're dealing with. It's actually quite a brilliant way to present a complex issue.

I could go on with the notes I took, but those really aren't going to be of any interest to you. This book, though, should be if you're a nonfiction or history fan. You'll definite feel like you learned something by the end.