Friday, March 25, 2016

Nonfiction | Buggin', Wiggin', and Keepin' it Real

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Back when we lived in New York, I hated Spring. HATED it! March was always the absolute WORST. As other, more southern parts of the country were quickly thawing, New York felt stuck in some never-ending purgatory of 50-degrees and a looming potential for one last snow storm.

As the weather started to warm up in April, though, I always got a great amount of joy from walking to my local Greenpoint branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and browsing the shelves for my next reads. It hearkened back to my high school days at the library, when I'd read whatever looked enticing (so yes, a lot of judging by the cover!). It's an entirely different approach to reading than selecting titles from my "to-read" queue to check them off the list; instead of planned, it's an opportunity to embrace the unexpected—and perhaps stumble upon a fortuitous discovery.

The temperatures have already begun to climb here in Nashville, inspiring these Springtime visits to my new neighborhood library. It was under this influence that I found on the "new" shelf Jen Chaney's As If: The Oral History of Clueless as Told By Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew and brought it home (and chose it as the "microhistory" for my never-ending Read Harder Challenge!).

Clueless is one of those rare, few movies that occupies a spot in both my AND Colin's top 10 list. We're always in the mood to watch it, and its quotes are a frequent part of our lexicon. Not only is it a witty, creative, self-aware teen film, it was also totally monumental in bringing back the "teen movie" to us, the kids of the 90s. Eighties kids had John Hughes to define their era; and though I was a tad young when Clueless was released in 1996 (a mere preteen at 11, to be exact), one can't deny its influence in ushering in my generation's teen movie glory days. Clueless paved the way for a resurgence in teen movies that brought dozens, from 1998's Can't Hardly Wait all the way to 2004's Mean Girls. (Any issue of the now-defunct Teen People Magazine was substantiated proof of the importance and infiltration of teen movies at the turn of the millennium.)

Chaney's history of Clueless is not your typical author-narrated history. Instead, she compiles soundbites from hundreds of interviews with Clueless's pertinent players to tell the story through the eyes of the people that experienced it firsthand. Not only do we hear from the obvious sources (writers, directors, actors), Chaney includes anecdotes from crew members, studio employees, extras, musicians, critics, professors—anyone who could share a small piece of the Clueless story.

It would be easy for this book to simply be a helter-skelter work of chaos—an onslaught of stories that serve only as reminiscence. Chaney succeeds, though, in establishing a structure, and thus significance, to this history by organizing it into chronological, themed chapters and sections. "When Emma Met Cher: Clueless and the Spirit of Jane Austen" discusses the inspiration behind the story, especially its literary roots. "The Language of Clueless" investigates the research behind its unique dialogue—much of the reason for its lasting status as an era-defining piece of pop culture. Other chapters cover the search for a cast, location scouting, wardrobe curation, music compilation, premier and press, critical response, merchandising, and ultimately, most significantly, the magnificent impact of Clueless—on its cast, its filmmakers, and on the audience that flocked to theaters to see it.

As If! is an entertaining read for fans of Clueless, but it's also a well-curated reflection on a piece of pop culture that had a significant impact on the world in which my Oregon Trail Generation grew up and consumed culture.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Fiction | Celebrating Truth in a World of Lies

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It would've been easy to count any one of my random reads as the YA title in the Read Harder Challenge. I'm constantly reading books from my school library, after all. I decided to be purposeful with this choice, though, so I depended on my Goodreads "want to read" queue to provide a YA book I had probably long forgotten I wanted to read.

The one I settled upon was The Truth Commission by Susan Juby. It's organized as a book within a book (so meta)--the final Spring Special Project authored by 11th grader Normandy Pale. In this project, she relays the stories surrounding the formation of the Truth Commission, an informal group begun by Normandy and her two best friends that seeks truths from their peers.

But before I jump into that part of the story, let me give you the background...

Normandy attends Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, a total hippie art school where students are encouraged to find their voice and express them as loudly as possible. Normandy is actually one of the quieter, less showy students there; she's exploring writing as her avenue of focus, as demonstrated by this final project of narrative nonfiction. She's also used to being secondary to her sister, the legendary Kiera Pale, a best-selling graphic novelist whose familial inspiration unfortunately doesn't portray Normandy and her parents in the best light.

So Normandy is used to the background, and she's created quite a nice little world for herself with her best friends Neil and Dusk. But one random conversation starts to shift Normandy's world off-kilter. When Neil breaks the unwritten code against directness and asks a fellow student about her very obvious plastic surgery (and it's not a totally offensive disaster), the Truth Commission is born with the mission to discourage hearsay and celebrate the beauty of openness. Normandy, though, is more hesitant to jump into the truth than her friends, especially when her truth mission involves a very touchy target—the infamous Kiera herself, who has suddenly returned home from college, seemingly traumatized by some unknown incident.

This was a really odd book. I think most readers will have strong reactions to it, one way or another, and I can't say mine was totally positive. Often, if I have a negative reaction to a book, it's the characters that prevented my enjoyment. This time, it was the less common opposite—I didn't mind the main character so much; I just found the story to be lacking. And not even the story itself, because I like this premise of a "truth commission." Maybe there were too many other small factors that bothered me. Like Normandy's sister who, with her whole ridiculous story is a total UGH, like one of those terrible people you know must exist in the world but is so absurd she seems unbelievable. And her parents who are total doormats. And also the fact that the ENTIRE BOOK is littered with FOOTNOTES, which is basically the most annoying text feature ever, especially when coming from the brain of a 16ish-year-old AND when you're reading it on a Kindle and have to click back and forth and back and forth.

I don't know. I think my adulthood cynicism comes out most often with YA books. Some I love, some I hate, and I think my more negative reactions usually stem from kitschy teen tropes that I know aren't geared towards my 30-year-old self anyways but that I can't get past because I hate teens being defined and pigeonholed any certain way in the first place.

I didn't mean for this to be a whole diatribe of negativity, because really this book isn't bad, and though YA is a genre, really it's just a target demographic, and there are—and should be!—as many different styles and voices for this audience as for any other. So maybe I should just end my commentary here with a 100% personal opinion-based verdict of "good concept, didn't like the execution." But by all means, give it a try—it's got some rave reviews on Goodreads!