Monday, March 9, 2015

A pair of YA book reviews: critiques of misogyny and of publishing

Bennett Madison's September Girls promised mermaids and commentary on misogyny and contemporary sexual ethics: a run-down beachfront island resort populated in part by Girls, unnaturally alluring teenage girls who are really mermaids exiled from the sea by their father. They can only break the curse by sleeping with a teenage virgin. The protagonist Sam, one of those coveted curse-breakers, is kind of a jerk, objectifying women left and right, and his older brother and best friend are even worse - while the Girls are given voice only in the plural, with short interludes between chapters explaining their collective situation. When Sam and his brother each fall in love with one of the Girls, they are both forced to confront their own past actions and desires towards women.

I see what Madison was trying to do, writing a book with characters, thoughts, and actions so offensive that they themselves critique a society that says that women exist for men's pleasure, and that their only power comes from crafting the most desired form so that they can manipulate men. However, I had a really hard time stomaching most of the book. I'm not one who thinks an exaggerated anti-feminist message is all that helpful for feminist concerns, and I do worry that many teenage readers, less sophisticated in their analysis, might simply take the messages of this book at face value. Unsurprisingly, the book itself has garnered highly polarized reviews, some appalled and others loving its subversiveness.

Scott Westerfeld's Afterworlds also got on my to-read list through recommendations by other book bloggers. While almost as unlike September Girls as can be, it too engaged in critique: a meta-commentary on the YA publishing world. After high school senior Darcy Patel (a queer woman of color as protagonist!) wrote a YA paranormal romance for NaNoWriMo, she was astonished when it got picked up by a major publishing house, which contracted her for a sequel and paid enough money for the pair of books for her to defer college by a year, move to NYC, and try her hand at being a professional writer. We readers are treated to chapters of the novel itself, Afterworlds, in alternation with Darcy's story. This book-within-a-book features a "YA hottie" based on the death god from Hindu mythology who guides protagonist Lizzie as she struggles with her new calling as a psychopomp or soul guide. It's fascinating to realize that what we're reading is the revised and edited version - we see Darcy incorporating edits and ideas from her new world in the NYC YA publishing scene.

Darcy's Afterworlds itself is derivative and meandering, but I think that's precisely the point that Westerfeld was trying to make about debut novels and the current craze for paranormal romances. Far more interesting for me were Darcy's chapters, as this immature, unorganized, and sheltered high school graduate struggles with budget woes, revisions of Afterworlds (her publisher demands a happy ending!) and a first draft of the sequel, currently named Untitled Patel, and a budding first romance with another debut YA author.

I was ultimately disappointed by Darcy's novel (fully half the book!) and by my own mistaken expectations. I went into this novel thinking - hoping - that a large part of its plot might be focused on the actual writing of a NaNoWriMo novel, a process I find fascinating. Instead, the book begins after that first draft is already written. However, I enjoyed the insider's look at YA publishing and the frank and unfinished discussion about writerly appropriation of other cultures and religions,

Friday, February 20, 2015

Watership Down and the prize-winning re-readability of children's books

I've fought (and conquered!) a cold this week. Conveniently, it's the snowpocalypse and on top of a straight-up snow day, various additional classes and events have been canceled, so I've had plenty of time to lay in bed with a never-ending supply of hot tea. Some of my reading has been student papers to grade or books for dissertation research, but on one of the early days of the cold when I simply couldn't think coherently, I read an old childhood favorite.

I honestly don't remember how I discovered Watership Down. Probably my parents got it for me - I imagine them looking up similar books about animals for their Redwall-loving daughter. (How did they find it? Did they already know the book? Did they ask around? How did people ever find similar things without the internet and its countless "if you loved x, try y" lists?) My copy of Richard Adam's most famous novel is a well-worn paperback with the bottom half of most of its pages pulling away from the spine. I've read it countless times and yet it never ceases to delight.

As I've grown older, I've come to see more and more in it. As a child, I loved the fact that I could tackle an adult book (is it? Or is it officially categorized as a children's novel?). Certainly it was one of the longest books I'd ever read, the first time I read it. I ignored the literary quotes introducing each chapter and just fell in love with Hazel and Fiver and their friends, encouraging them along their journey and cheering the cleverness of their tricks. As I got older, say, high school, I began to see it as political commentary, its four very different forms of government making a clear statement about the ideal of a democratic republic and the perils both of anarchy and despotism. This time through, I actually read all of the literary quotes for the first time ever, and enjoyed the explicit recognition of the Odyssean quest narrative through quotes from Greek dramas, and the later ties to American and British popular cultures through the quotation of ballads and folk song lyrics. And despite my hrair (thousand) re-reads and the fact that I know this book so well I can read its four hundred pages in a single day, it has lost none of its charm.

This is a beloved book. It's one that for me, perfectly exemplifies this recent article in The Guardian, which argues that children's books should be considered for more major literary awards because a children's book is designed with re-reading in mind. As the article writes, "re-reading is a given for children's authors. It's one reason why we try to write books that have many layers and work on different levels, rewarding re-reading by growing richer each time." Thus a good children's book has already succeeded at what adult fiction strives for. A literary prize "asks of books something they're not really designed for: to be read three times in a row by people probing for weakness. Most books just crumble under that kind of pressure: only the most rich, the most layered, continue to dazzle and reveal ever more."

Watership Down, The Dark is Rising, and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, all named in the article as favorite re-reads by prominent authors and literary critics, are favorites for me too. They live in my bedroom fiction bookcase and get pulled down periodically. Chosen each time because of the joy they bring me, every time they reveal something new. Not officially prize-winners, perhaps, but with a re-readability that puts them on the shortlist of my most beloved books.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

State of the TBR

One of my goals for the year is to reduce my TBR (to be read) pile from two and a half shelves down to one. This bookcase is now supposed to house all of the dissertation books that don't live in my office, and space is already getting cramped - and I'm only one month into the project!

Here's the pile, in all its glory. Plus the spot where my Kindle, my Gameboy Color, and my computer game live (not that the games have gotten much use lately). The shelf labels are rather out-of-date: originally the TBR was just the top shelf; when I expanded onto the second, I labeled it "TBR overflow"; and with the advent of the third shelf I didn't even bother.

The top shelf has nonfiction on the left (which I may move to my other nonfiction shelf for days when I read something non-dissertation-related). The top shelf also has my classics by male authors, including a few by Trollope and Flaubert, and my Russian novels, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Crime and Punishment. Also interesting are Jostein Gaarder's The Solitaire Mystery (a Portuguese friend's favorite novel) and a lovely hardbound copy of A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad (the only book I own that comes in a box!).

The middle shelf is the heart of my collection: Viragos (both green and black) and other literary fiction by women authors. Many of these came from the twice-annual public library book sale, but I've acquired others from secondhand bookshops from all across the country (and even England). The Oxford/Penguin pile is mostly my set of Gaskells and Eliots - at this point I own just about their entire output and ought to start seriously reading them and not just collecting.

The third and last shelf isn't full, and I hope to read enough TBR books in the near future to soon eliminate this shelf space altogether. However, it was just increased in size thanks to the recent arrival of the three Holtby novels! The Garth Nix series came courtesy of the free table at the divinity school - considering my enthusiasm for fantasy, it's hard to believe that I've never read them before. And finally, my Moomin books, which I'll definitely read this year per another one of my 2015 reading goals.

Do you keep your TBR organized, and if so, how? Do you separate male and female authors as I've largely done? Do you sort by genres? Do you alphabetize anything?

And as I try to tackle my own TBR, do you have any recommendations? For example, I've only read George Eliot's Silas Marner; which of her other novels should I do next? If you have several Viragos by the same author, do you prefer to read them together or space them out? Are the Russian novels as intimidating as I've been led to think?

Best of luck to anyone else also trying to reduce the number of books waiting patiently to be read!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Christmas books - a very Holtby holiday!

A day or two after Christmas, I lamented that no one had bought me books as Christmas gifts. When I was a child, I usually received a book - and more often several - but as an adult with somewhat specific and eclectic tastes, no one seems to like buying me books anymore. I can't blame them; as husband reminds me, I curate my collection very carefully and people are unlikely to know just what I want.

So I lamented, but it seems my theatrical disappointment was a bit premature, because a few days later, my mother-in-law sent me the critically-acclaimed Girl Reading, which has been on my to-read list for a while now. Evidently the author began with a number of real-life portraits of women reading throughout the ages, and imagined what their stories might be. I'm excited to read it, and what a gorgeous cover! I'll have to find images of the paintings to have at hand as I read it.

My husband then found me a Winifred Holtby novel on paperbackswap, something I'd put on my wish list a few years ago. Because he's awesome, husband checked to see if the person was giving away any other books I might want - and she was! So he ordered me both Holtby's Poor Caroline and The Land of Green Ginger, and I've been eagerly anticipating their arrival for about a week now.

The first and thus far only Holtby novel I've read is her last one and masterpiece, South Riding. I knew practically as soon as I started it that I'd want to own my own copy, but I sometimes get picky with cover art and this book was one of those of which I wanted a very specific version. The new Virago edition is absolutely lovely, its cover apparently a vintage railway poster. I've searched for it in various online secondhand book shops, but could never be sure I'd get the exact cover I wanted so I never ordered it - but I thought it unlikely that I'd ever find it in an American used bookstore either.

So imagine my surprise and delight when I opened the battered yellow mailing envelope to find not two, but three Holtby books! A very sweet little note from the sender offered South Riding as an extra gift - and in the amazing new edition! I owe the sender a tremendous thank you. She couldn't have known how much I loved the book nor how much I adore this particular cover. I'm so excited to revisit the politics of the South Riding community and encounter these other two novels for the first time. Thank you, mysterious paperbackswap member, for your kind generosity. You've totally made my Christmas holiday.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Bookish goals for 2015

Last year, I set myself ten reading goals, the first time I'd ever planned my reading in such an organized fashion. I failed two outright, never quite getting around to Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers or finishing Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, but I had a fairly successful realization of (or at least attempt at) my other goals, and thanks especially to my desire to read more contemporary fiction (published in the last five years), I found myself getting back into fantasy and science fiction, my first great love.

The experiment went so well, in fact, that I've put together ten more bookish goals for this year:

  1. Finish Les Miserables. I'll probably have to start this one over, since it's been about a year and a half since I last visited it. My bookmark still sits at 478 pages out of 1463.
  2. Finish Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Another brick of a book that I started and then allowed to languish on my bedside table. You'd think as an academic, I'd love the footnotes, but somehow at least in the introductory section they make the book feel like work. I genuinely love my work, but I like my fiction to not feel like work, if that makes sense. However, various folks have assured me that the book picks up soon, so I'm willing to revisit it.
  3. Read the long form of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. I read the short form last year; it was exquisite and deeply moving. I'm still extraordinarily disappointed not to have made it to my patron saint's church when I visited England last summer.
  4. Read Shirley or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for my winter break Bronte. Only two Bronte novels left before I've read their entire oeuvre and have to loop back to the beginning!
  5. Begin reading my complete Sherlock Holmes for October. I tried reading Wilkie Collins's Armadale last year for my annual Wilkie Collins October, but it wasn't nearly as engrossing as his Woman in White or The Moonstone. I still love the idea of reading something mysterious or suspenseful around Halloween, so I think I will open up this annual tradition to other authors. I bought the complete Sherlock Holmes well before I fell in love with BBC's Sherlock, but still haven't taken the time to read it (although for a little while when we were dating, husband read a few of the short stories aloud to me, which was lovely).
  6. Read another novel by Shusaku Endo. In the last three years I've read Silence, Deep River, and Volcano, each more inscrutable than the last. I thought I was reaching the limits of his novels that had been translated into English, but it turns out that my university library has an entire shelf of them - so my next ten years at least are covered!
  7. Read the Moomin series and The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh in conversation with each other. I often describe the Moomins to curious Americans as a sort of Scandanavian Winnie the Pooh, and I figure I should follow up this intuition with some comparative reading. I own almost the complete Moomin series, all except the newer and rarer The Moomins and the Great Flood. I've read two of them so far, and am eager to encounter the others.
  8. Get my TBR pile down from two and a half shelves to one. Especially since they live on the bookcase newly designated for my dissertation work, and which is quickly filling up! This goal should also help minimize new book purchases, because anything I buy would add to the TBR pile. A lot of my TBR books are Viragos, which will be fun - for a while I was alternating YA fiction with Viragos for a really nice contrast in themes and intended audience. To help reduce the TBR pile further, I'm considering moving the nonfiction to the separate nonfiction stack earmarked for "Tangential Tuesday," in which I read something not dissertation-related in order to keep my mind thinking about things other than the English Reformation.
  9. Get my public library to-read list (mostly fantasy and sci-fi) down from over a hundred to 75. This may be tricky because every time I get it down below a hundred, one of the blogs I follow posts a few excellent review that brings it back up again.
  10. Write my book. Since I was about five years old, I had a children's book planned out, and I've been meaning to write it ever since. This will be a deeply emotional process, because it represents deep loves and, in a way, abandoned dreams...but dreams that I can pick up again by writing the book. I know that sounds cryptic - sorry - and I hope one day to write about it here.
How about you? What are your goals for the year? Are you participating in any challenges or setting yourself a book-buying ban? Or do you perhaps have a non-bookish New Year's resolution you'd like to share?


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Revisiting my 2014 reading goals

Last January, I created a set of reading goals for the year. It was the first time I'd ever planned my reading in such an organized fashion; I tend to read as the mood strikes me or according to the order in which I've checked books out of the library.
  1. Read something contemporary (as in, written in the last five years). This was the year I got back into YA fantasy, and thanks to a number of fantastic blogs - Book Wars and Book Smugglers among them - I caught up on recent developments in YA and children's fiction since I left high school and no longer paid attention. Favorites included Elizabeth Wein's Rose Under Fire, Franny Billingsley's Chime, Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls, Margo Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island, Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and Laline Paull's The Bees. I also read a few adult novels published in the last five years, including Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters (rated an honorable mention for the year), Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (meh), Jim Crace's Harvest (absolutely loved), and Drew Hayes's NPCs (delightful and fun). It would seem that after a couple of wonderful years reading mostly older fiction, I've begun to strike a balance.
  2. Read something Victorian (not including the Victorian things on this list). I had wanted to read another book by George Eliot or Elizabeth Gaskell, or perhaps try Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I did none of these things, and am feeling somewhat regretful about it. However, I still met the challenge, reading Oscar Wilde's A Picture of Dorian Gray (which a high school crush adored but after reading it, I can't really see why), E. Nesbit's The Story of the Treasure-Seekers and The Railway Children, Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, and Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat
  3. Read something by Shusaku Endo.  This year I read Volcano, and found it even more inscrutable than Silence or Deep River.
  4. Read something by Marilynne Robinson.  Failed at this one. I started Housekeeping twice but couldn't get into it. I'm disappointed, because she's so beloved by a number of book bloggers whose opinions I generally share. Perhaps I'll try again some day when I can devote my full attention to her dense prose.
  5. Finish Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. The plan had been to take my copy with me to England, but I ended up bringing my Kindle and no physical books. So Les Miserables still sits on my nightstand, a bookmark at 478 pages out of 1463. I'm definitely going to get back to it someday, but by then I'll probably have to start over! Perhaps I should make this, as well as the other unfinished brick of a book on my nightstand, goals for next year.
  6. Re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Check! And it was absolutely amazing to read LOTR while in England, usually on the London Tube but occasionally on trains to other cities, catching glimpses of the rolling green hills that feature so prominently in Tolkien's descriptions.
  7. Read South Riding by Winifred Holtby.  I expected to love this one and I did!
  8. Read Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope.  Oops. Nope. Maybe next year?
  9. Read Armadale or No Name for my annual Wilkie Collins October. I borrowed Armadale from my music librarian and started it around Halloween, per my tradition, but I got bogged down in this one. It's more detailed and less directed than The Woman in White or The Moonstone, and includes entirely too much obsession with names and family trees. I didn't finish and may give up on it.
  10. Read ShirleyThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall, or Wuthering Heights for my annual winter break Bronte novel. I'm partway through Wuthering Heignts, and will definitely finish this one! I'm enjoying it so much more than I did in high school, when we read it for my AP English Lit class - so atmospheric and so psychological.
Eight out of ten isn't bad, especially as it was my first year with reading goals and I spent the entire summer with only a Kindle. Having this kind of loose plan - nothing too restrictive or strenuous - was a fun experience and I'm already thinking about some goals for this year.

How about you? Did you set reading goals, and did you meet some or all of them? Did you share any of the same goals as me, and if so, did our results overlap? Did you love any of the books I did?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Sexual awakening and privilege allegories in Labyrinth

Having several loads of laundry to fold and a pile of clothes waiting to be ironed, I settled in with a childhood favorite to watch as I worked: Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. It was a big part of my formative years. My sister and I used to sing along with our cassette tape (yes, really!) of songs from the film, and friends and I used to watch it at sleepovers and crack jokes about Jareth’s pants. As a geeky Lord of the Rings fan, its opening scene, dressing up in medieval garb to recite favorite lines, felt intimately familiar to me, and even today the film remains eminently quotable (though depressingly, my husband never catches the references).

I haven’t watched it in a while, though, and since the last time, my skills at analysis have improved and my attention has turned to feminist concerns. I noticed something I’d never caught before. When Sarah returns home late for her babysitting obligation, allowing her parents to go out on their weekly date, her stepmother says in exasperation,

“I’d like it if you had a date; you should have dates at your age.”

Sarah’s father walks in from another room and changes the subject while Sarah storms upstairs, and this line seems like a throwaway…but it’s not. It sets up one of the fundamental points of the plot: Sarah’s sexual awakening as a means of coming-of-age. The narrative agrees with Sarah’s “wicked” stepmother: Sarah should have dates at her age. She wastes her time in fantastical dreaming when she could be out on a date; entrance to adulthood requires the advent of one's own sexuality.

But even while living out this normative script, Sarah does it on her own terms, not her stepmother’s and by extension, society’s. Initially enjoying her disorienting dance with Jareth, she rejects the illusion and later the Goblin King himself, even when he pleads for her to "just fear me, love me, and I will be your slave." By the end of the movie, Sarah has become aware of desire and of masculine power in sexual encounters, but she asserts power of her own in the final confrontation at the castle by refusing Jareth and in the movie's final moments chooses  – for now – to focus her attention on friends rather than romantic relationships.

I had an even more startling revelation about halfway through. One of the most repeated phrases is Sarah’s complaint, “It’s not fair!” Throughout the movie, she has to come to terms with that fact. When she steals Hoggle’s jewels in order to force him to continue helping her, Hoggle makes the same complaint, and with a look of dawning understanding, Sarah retorts, “No, it isn’t, but that’s the way it is.”

It’s a privilege allegory.

Labyrinth does many things, but one of them is call attention to privilege. Or more specifically, to the lack thereof, to the people for whom life is eternally “not fair,” and who are constantly told, outright or through microagressions and cultural narratives and assumptions, that they should just come to terms with that fact, grin, and bear it. “It’s not fair…but that’s the way it is.”

And just as I had this realization, we got to this scene:

Here we have two door knockers, whose rings interfere with their ability to hold conversation. One cannot speak and one cannot hear. One cannot make his voice and words audible and the other is unable to listen to them. In order to ask how to move forward in her quest through the labyrinth, Sarah removes the ring from the silenced knocker’s mouth:

With audible sighs of relief, the knocker thanks her: “It is so good to get that thing out.” But even once he can speak, the other is still unable to hear him. “Mumble, mumble, mumble,” the deaf knocker says. “You’re a wonderful conversational companion.” The freed knocker retorts, “You can talk, all you do is moan!” but the deaf knocker continues to be unable (unwilling?) to understand, answering snidely, “No good, can’t hear you.”

Sarah, meanwhile, gets the answers she needed and forces the ring back into the freed knocker’s mouth, even as he complains, “I don’t want that thing back in my mouth!” This white protagonist violently forces him back into shackled silence, holding his nose until he must open his mouth to breathe, when she shoves the ring back in his mouth.

“Sorry,” she says with a smile afterwards. “That’s all right, I’m used to it,” the knocker answers, and Sarah continues blithely on her way.