partly read

Isn't it wonderful to have the simple freedom of not finishing a book?  Okay, I recognize that some non-librarians have never experienced this form of freedom.  It's freedom from an odd guilt that, admittedly, only applies to the diligently bookish.  Then again, if you've never been a paid book reviewer, then you don't know the special hell that is I-must-finish-this-book-so-I-can-judiciously-and-fairly-trash-it.  On its own merits, of course, and without resorting to comparing it to other books you wish it had been.  Books make it or don't on their own terms, at least if you're reviewing books fairly, and it can be a total bear of a task to finish a bad book because you have to.

So, geek that I am, I revel in the freedom to not finish.  Happily, neither of the following books I didn't finish were books I had to review, just books I was interested in reading for pleasure.  And they both remain part-read.  Ah, freedom.

How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom

Chapter 1, titled The Essence of Pleasure, was great.  Bloom is a Yale psychologist, and he's making a complicated argument that pleasure is neither an entirely evolutionarily prescribed experience (though most of our pleasures attach somehow to pleasures that were, at some point, evolutionary:  food, sex, etc.) nor predominately a cultural experience (though our tastebuds are dramatically influenced by the flavors we grow up tasting).  Instead, it's a mix of both.  And he totally had me until chpt 2, when he launches a discussion of foodies by presenting a graphic story of cannibalism.  A few pages later he describes the visceral qualities of disgust, which, yes indeed, I had experienced earlier in the chapter.  I thought Bloom had misinterpreted Darwin's quotation, but thanks to Bloom himself contacting me, I realized that I was flat wrong.  Darwin was wondering at his own fellow Victorians for their physical sensitivities to verbal descriptions of eating strange foods.  Though Darwin seems surprised, it doesn't seem strange to me that the Victorians would have been more likely to have experienced "retching or actual vomiting from the mere idea of having partaken of any unusual food" (Darwin, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animal, p. 258) than people today.  Bloom quotes this slightly differently ("from having ingested") but the point is the same.  Still, I've seen gross-out sessions amongst 5th graders, college students, and at cocktail parties full of academics, so perhaps we're all that different today.  For instance, I was gagging reading his earlier cannibalism story, and I'm not a Victorian, nor am I the most sensitive person I've ever encountered (though I am sensitive).   To Victorians whose God could organize the creation of misleading fossils as a test of faith in divine order, it seems reasonable that moments when their own actions challenged that perceived divine order would result in visceral disgust.

Great first chapter!  I haven't actually returned this one to the library yet, and I feel that I owe Bloom a thorough read and fairer blog review, having made mistakes in my earlier post. 

Moo by Jane Smiley

This is a book that I know for a fact to be good, because people I trust have said so, but the narrative has left me stranded.  There's a host of characters in this book, such that one could argue that the real character is the imagined midwestern college campus and town that the characters all occupy.  Kids from farm towns going to school at the University, professors, administrators cutting deals with big money guys...  maybe it's a little too familiar, too close to home (Cope, one of those trusted readers, said it might be).  I found that there was only one character I liked, until she randomly slept with an administrator in the library and then lied about who she was.  I know I should be reading this as comedy, like the series Mad Men, where there are no saints and the point is that it's supposed to be amusing, but somehow I'm not amused.  The narrative creates compelling characters, but then the snippet-like chapters give you only the briefest glimpses into their lives, and then you're on to the next one.  Cecelia, my favorite character, looks like she's about to get into a relationship with Tim, but:  "...that wasn't working out either.  He was turning out to be one of those men whose interest diminished as they got to know you.  You got into this pattern of trying to be interesting by revealing more and more of yourself, like a salesman unpacking his sample bag, but the man, though he looked like he was smiling and paying attention, was really shaking his head internally--not that, not that either, no I don't think so, not today.  The temptation was to unpack everything, not exactly for that particular guy, but just to rise to the challenge, just to get the nod." (p. 117)  See, Smiley is really good.  Just quoting that passage makes me want to give the book another whirl.

Maybe I will.  If the point of freedom is choosing what you will, then I might just choose to change my mind again.

another movie

This movie is an old favorite, because the November paper has been submitted, the poster is done (I pick it up in an hour), and all but the one last student has their grades.  It's snowing outside, again, adding another layer to this coldest December on record, and I am sleeping for record periods of time, myself, as appropriate to the weather.

High Fidelity
Was it the tail end of the John Cusak era or the start of the Jack Black era, or both?   Nick Hornby's novels are great, and this movie adaptation is sweet and funny and set in a grungy part of Chicago.  John Cusak plays the screwup boyfriend Rob who has just been dumped.  He wallows in pity arranged as Top Five lists, mirroring his obsession with music.  He owns a little record store, where he has two employees who he hired part-time years ago, but they show up every day.  There's the timid guy Dick and the nonstop clown Barry (Jack Black, who is obviously improvising some of his own material into the script.)  I don't really like those movies where Black plays the main character, but here he is brilliant, adding spice to Cusak's stew of self-pity.  Rob has just been dumped by Laura, but over a course of several sets of Top Five lists, including Top Five Breakups, we learn that he, well, kind of completely deserved it for being a total asshole.  Even Rob comes to understand this, amazingly enough, after he revisits the other women on his Top Five Breakups list.  It does seem to help that he and Laura's friend Liz (played as only a sister could by Joan Cusak) comes by to scream at Rob ("you fucking asshole") very briefly, pointedly, and effectively.  It's a story of immature self-absorption overcome, narcissism faced and wrestled to the ground, the search for the new and improved girlfriend put to rest for good when Rob nixes the mixed tape he was making for the petite redhead music critic.  When Laura's father dies, Rob goes to the funeral, and begins with an apology.  That's basically what Laura needed to hear.  This is not typically romantic, not in any inspirational way, but oddly enough it is loving in a meaningful way, because it's a story of two people who decide to grow together when they could have grown apart.   

Hornby's novels-made-movies have been parodied by British comedians Mitchell and Webb with the track "Nick Hornby Epiphany" from That Mitchell & Webb Sound (disc 2).  And here's a list of great quotes from the movie:  And don't miss The Beta Band... the song Dry the Rain from the soundtrack is great.

movies lately

When you're reading 143 applications for work, it's not blog material.  Same goes for grading final papers.  So here are some great moves and shows I've seen lately instead on these cold, dark winter nights.

The Lives of Others
Set in Communist East Berlin prior to the fall of the wall, the story follows an investigation by a high-ranking security officer who is looking to a group of artists to find communist traitors.  He sets up 24-hour bugging and live monitoring of the apartment when a playwright and actress live together.  At first, he is dedicated to finding and reporting anything traitorous.  But then something unexpected gradually happens, and we see the man begin to feel compassion for the people he is spending most of his days monitoring.  He gathers evidence, but does not turn it in.  He begins to fake the transcripts of the monitored conversations, editing out the damning content.  As we see more of his life, we begin to realize how lonely he is, having no other relationships besides paranoid ones at his workplace.  It's disconcerting and heartrending at once, and when he realizes that his entire operation is the result of a government official's attempted affair with the actress, he loses all stomach for hurting his subjects.  In the end, he saves them by hiding an incriminating typewriter, an act that reveals his existence to the playwright.  A warm, sentimental ending where hidden camaraderies are revealed would dull the sharp edge of this tale.  After the fall of the wall, the playwright eventually discovers the records of his monitoring, and dedicates his book to the security officer to who saved his life, but they never meet or speak.

Man on Wire
The young Frenchman who walked between the twin towers was a singularly gifted person, a person who was born with and cultivated an extraordinary gift for walking the high wire.  But this documentary lays to rest any easy presumptions that such a gift for balance on the wire signifies a gift for internal steadiness or emotional balance.  We see the preparations in detail, from multiple perspectives, and the filmmakers do a great job of splicing interviews so that even though you know from the start what happens, there's great suspense throughout.  The charismatic figure who leads a group of young Europeans and Americans in pulling off this and several other feats of daring is a complicated figure, full of both inspiring joy and insipid self-absorption.  The most poignant moment is the moment when it all falls apart, right after the great feat has been accomplished.  Rather than celebrate with his girlfriend and their amazing team, he accepts the offer of a stranger to have sex immediately after coming down from the towers.  While you see his passion for the pleasure, you also feel its hollowness in this moment.  His friends simply describe the dissolution of the group.  I was left with a sense of appreciation for wonderful, miraculous things that inevitably come to an end at the very moment of their culmination.  This is deeply honest film making.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I heard this was a wonderful mystery book, and though I can't compare the two I can say that the movie version was spectacularly suspenseful.  Scenes of rape, torture, and images of ravaged bodies make this tough viewing for the sensitive (as in: me) but the characters are worth it. Set and made in Sweden, an investigative journalist convicted of libel has 6 months before serving his sentence, and during the interim he's hired by an old man to investigate the 40-year-old murder of his niece.  He was framed, but this is not a simple story of redemption, though that comes in the end.  The story is about the evil that can exist in families, passed on from generation to generation, and the old man's complex extended family is tough to track.  But the girl who helps him, first by hacking his computer and cracking a code about a series of murders, is a fierce character in herself.  She's out on parole and being sexually abused (and then tortured) by her parole officer, and though she can get even and does (another harrowing scene), it's not enough.  She gets drawn into solving the puzzle of the 40-year-old case alongside the journalist.  The two have a tender but distant relationship; you get the sense that she has sex with him because he is kind and because she needs to feel something other than pain.  He, meanwhile, falls in love with her and is doomed to be disappointed.  But they do solve the mystery, leading to one small, poignant family reunion amidst the larger dysfunction.  And the bad guys all get their due, every last one of them.  That's satisfying in its own right.

Battlestar Galactica
Maybe I should wait until I've seen the whole series, but we're 3 seasons into it, and I think this is one of the best imagined sci-fi shows or movies I've seen.  There are creepy twists in the first few seasons, as some of the "humans" who escaped the cylon attack on the planet of Caprica turn out to be cylons themselves.  For awhile, Ben noted that I was really excellent at the spot-the-cylon game; (spoiler) I pegged the weirdly clean-cut PR guy the minute he appeared onscreen.  So while the plot is a crazy joy ride, it's the characters that get me (isnt' it always?).  Kara/Starbuck is so tough and fragile, loyal and deeply dishonorable.  Laura Roslin is a fabulous leader who has real imperfections and makes real errors.  Characters like the Chief are forced to question their humanity as they wrestle with their emotions for specific cylons.  And who wouldn't love to hate Baltar, betrayer of the human race and the ultimate self-serving narcissist?  The puzzle of what his interactions with the blond cylon actually are has been solved at this point in the series, but for the first two seasons it was one of the more intriguing mysteries.  With mysteries to solve (including the bigger quest for human survival) and plots to follow, there's so much to appreciate about this series.  And I couldn't be happier that Ben and I are watching the whole thing together (hi Ben!) as he wraps up his first semester of art school of putting his own tech skills to aesthetic purposes, with a successful painting robot and reality-tv-related installation.


Sometimes I write epiphanies here, simply because it's an easy place for me to access later.  This is one of those.

In a great conversation with Heather, at lunch on Friday, I was finally able to articulate what I dislike about what Danielle calls "new age gangsters."  I do value nurturing in myself and others, and I value knowing how to care for myself, and there are real things to be taken from resources that touch on those topics (such as, for me, Sark's fun and honest books).  But I have serious problems with two particular aspects of what I see as "new age."  First, people blame the victims.  They use magical thinking to presume that, for instance, if a person is victimized, they must have brought it on themselves with their attitudes, as this website details related to rape and sexual abuse.  I've actually heard a Hay-House-sponsored podcast that blamed the Iraq war on the mental/emotional attitudes of the Iraq people, as sick and twisted as that sounds.  Second, this way of thinking encourages terrible emotional boundaries.  It must become impossible to hear other's perspectives or accept the variety that life entails if you're constantly internally busy constructing a positive reality.  New age gangsters turn this outward, feeling entitled to judge (and presume) others' emotional lives or mental states and prescribe affirmations if they don't seem "positive" enough.  It's an inversion of the old 19th century "cult of true womanhood;"* now women learn (from new age books/cds) that they can and should use their intuition to police the emotional states of others.  It's just about as neighborly as Foucault's panopticon.

Real healing doesn't come in a neat package.  The raw and furious rant can be just as healing as the happy and polite affirmation.  Coldness and distance make breathing room for inventing new ways of living that forced optimism can suffocate.  Cultural norms already dictate that women control their bodies, weight, tempers, tongues... all to be "good."  How deeply sad that women opt in to controlling their own thoughts and emotions rather than reaching for acceptance of all the wonder and horror and compassion for others.

*a nod to Barbara Welter

That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo hasn't been a regular for me like he is for some academics.  I read Straight Man on the recommendation of a grad school friend, and it was enjoyable, funny enough and sad at times, but it didn't make me a Russo fan.

That Old Cape Magic is softer, less hard-edged and more forgiving.  The story begins with a narrator who can't precisely explain why he's reflecting on his east-coast life as a professor and his 34-year marriage.  We slowly learn that he's hauling his father's ashes around, and that his father's death was recent.  This is not living the examined life, but it is the way tragedy works, sneaking in on the edges of consciousness in bite-sized shockwaves.  There's so much that the narrator understands about his life, and yet so little that he really grasps, and the frequent phonecalls from his comically self-absorbed mother derail him over and over.  It's as though we're peeking into his first emotional reflections, and there's something touching about how little he can fathom himself as he's sifting through the history of his family and his wife's family and the basic disconnects that exist there.  Disconnects that are subtle, not epic, and yet the reader sees how far they have grown apart thanks to Russo's brilliantly indirect writing.

When he leaves his wife, at first he's just annoyed with her schedule, and then suddenly he realizes that something else is wrong.  He asks her, and learns that she fell in love with a mutual friend years ago, though the emotional affair was not realized in physical terms.  Rather than stay and deal with the aftermath, he just leaves, going back to their old life in L.A. for a year.  Oddly, he goes to that very friend with whom she was infatuated for many years, his old screenwriting partner.   For a year he stays there, but that year is left out of the narrative except in description.  His mother died, so in fact the year in L.A. was in great part spent in a nursing home in Indiana.  And now he's walking around with his mother's sarcastic voice in his head, all the time.

The climax of the story is tragic, farcical, and emotionally resonant.  His daughter, Laura, is getting married, and so the families are back together again, he and his wife in the same place.  Both have brought dates to the wedding, though they have not discussed divorce.  Twin brothers-in-law throw punches, a wheelchair ramp collapses, his wife's family patriarch lands in a wheelchair upside down.  Everyone is taken to the hospital for stitches, broken fingers, head injuries... It could be hilarious, but Russo holds anything slapstick back, and instead there's a genuinely mournful quality to even the silliest moments.  In the end, he is able to leave his parents' ashes on Cape Cod, his mother on one side and his father on the other, as requested.  He also reconciles with his wife, and the swiftness and incompleteness of her forgiveness are breathtaking.  He asks if he killed it all, and she says "You only killed the parts that could be killed."

That's love.

(Thanks to Laura for the recommendation!  And Happy Thanksgiving.)

will grayson, will grayson

When John Green and David Levithan got together to make a novel, they took a seemingly silly premise and make it sing.  Two boys both named Will Grayson from nearby suburbs of Chicago cross paths in a wildly unlikely way.  We follow their alternating narration from chapter to chapter, these two Will Graysons.  I can just hear the authors giggling at the set up.

Will Grayson #1 is the best friend of big, gay, soon-to-be high school musical director Tiny, and he has two rules:  "1. Don't care too much.  2.  Shut up.  Everything unfortunate that has ever happened to me has stemmed from failure to follow one of the rules." (p. 5)  As Tiny's amazing gay musical takes off, this Will Grayson feels left out, alone, but he does begin to cozy up to new friend and soon-to-be girlfriend Jane.  Tiny set him up with Jane, but Will Grayson #1 is still feeling strange about how he and Tiny seem to be growing apart as the big day of the production approaches. 

The other Will Grayson is himself gay, albeit deeply closeted at school, and, after a failed attempt to meet his online paramour "Isaac" in Chicago leads him to a porn store... well, to save the spoilers, he runs into the other Will Grayson, they meet and marvel, and Will Grayson #2 quickly becomes Tiny's boyfriend.  So quickly that it's a bit too intense, of course, as these things are wont to be on the high school romance front.  But WG#2 comes out to his mom in a scene that ranks pretty high in all-time teen-parent interactions:

     "mom:  how was chicago?
      me:  look, mom, i'm totally gay, and i'd appreciate
      it if you could get the whole freakout over with 
     now, because, yeah, we have the rest of our lives to deal 
     with it, but the sooner we through the agony part, the better.
     mom: the agony part?
     me:  you know, you praying for my soul and cursing
     me for not giving you grandbabies with a wifey and
     saying how incredibly disappointed you are.
     mom:  you really think i'd do that?
     me: it's your right, i guess.  but if you want to skip that
     step, it's fine with me.
     mom:  i think i want to skip that step."

The thing is, the story is big and overdone and maybe there are too many details... maybe that's a given in this kind of collaboration.  I'd like to say that Green's more measured outlook is wildly complemented by Levithan's bouncier prose (see Boy Meets Boy for the ultimate example), but I'm not sure they haven't reversed their usual world views here.  The authors state that they did, in fact, write this in alternating chapters, but it's Levithan whose Will Grayson is clinically depressed, though he does pull off the most triumphant post-break-up appreciation of Tiny at the end.  And Green's Will Grayson is a little (okay, a lot) insecure and self-absorbed, though he comes around in the end too.

So that's the review.  All thumbs up.  Read it, revel in it, enjoy it, and score one for a novel about gay teenagers that is populated by multi-dimensional characters at every turn. 

A few of my favorite quotes:

About best friends:  "I think about how much depends upon a best friend.  When you wake up in the morning you swing your legs out of bed and you put your feet on the ground and you stand up.  You don't scoot to the edge of the bed and look down to make sure the floor is there.  The floor is always there.  Until it's not." (193)

About sex and love:  "How can our sentient fucking lives revolve around something slugs can do.  I mean, who you want to screw and whether you screw them?  Those are important questions, I guess.  But they're not that important.  You know what's important?  Who would you die for?  Who do you wake up at five forty-five in the morning for even though you don't know why he needs you?  Whose drunken nose would you pick?" (259)

About friendship troubles:  "When you date someone, you have the markers along the way, right:  You kiss, you have The Talk, you say the Three Little Words, you sit on a swing set and break up. [...]  But with friendship, there's nothing like that.  Being in a relationship, that's something you choose. Being friends, that's just something you are." (260)

On breaking up:  "this is why we call people exes, i guess--because the paths that cross in the middle end up separating at the end.  it's too easy to see an X as a cross-out.  it's not, because there's no way to cross out something like that.  the X is a diagram of two paths." (277)

On what is hot:  "'Compassion is hot,' she says as we kiss."(292)

A concluding aside:  That's the last book to be read as a full-on nonstop read until November draws to a close.  I hereby declare for the world to hear (hi, world) that I will get this article written and submitted by Monday, November 29, and I'll do it the way I usually do when motivation is low:  by starting a couple of really amazing books and making myself write so that I can read chapters as rewards.  Doctorow's For the Win and Westerfield's Leviathan are on the agenda.  If those get too bleak, I'll be back to YA romance/realistic fiction or whatever motivates the writing.

Feed as an audiobook

Everybody told me.  But, until now, I didn't listen.

Feed by M. T. Anderson is an incredible book, an utterly absorbing snarky sci-fi read about a future in which our brains are wired for digital communication from birth.  The upside is messaging each other with minds alone.  The downside is all the ads from the corporations who, collectively control the feed, and thereby also control our minds.  When Titus meets Violet, whose feed was installed later than his own, he learns all kinds of things that he hardly has space to absorb in his product-saturated existence, things about socioeconomic differences and how expensive it really is to go to the moon.  Which is where he met Violet, on spring break.  This book has possibly the best first line ever:  "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck." 

But now I'm listening, and I mean really listening, because I finally got (read:  broke down and bought from Feed as an audiobook.  And it is beyond worth it.  The feed is acoustically animated, if you will, bringing the sense of being inundated with ads, stories, images right into your earphones and into your head.  I'm glad I read it first, back when it came out in 2002, rather than hearing it first, because this interpretation (and it really is an interpretation) is powerful.  Even the voices of the characters suggest varying levels of sincerity and vapidity, differentiating them while also defining them in ways that print could not.  And yet, never before have I had the experience of wishing that an audiobook wouldn't end, just so I could keep having the pleasure of listening to the inventive interpretation.

I find that my emotional read on the characters is a little different this time around at a level that goes beyond the voices.  While before I felt sickened by Titus' callousness (and of course I overidentified with Violet. Duh.), this time I hear the cultural context differently.  Violet argues that the feed keeps people from thinking, keeps them focused on desire and gratification, and on the next desire.  This time, that makes more sense to me, and I blame Titus less for his inability to empathize at the most basic level.  The feed is more real, perhaps, and therefore I see its distraction possibilities more vividly.  Or maybe we're at a different point in history now than in 2002, and I'm susceptible to the lures of internet entertainment in ways I wasn't then.

Not all audiobooks are this impressive, of course, but I'm definitely going to pay more attention to the Horn Book audiobook reviews for my own future use.  We change, and, for me, books that I re-read show me how I've changed.  I'm positive the audio format and the extraordinary performance have something to do with this.  But it's also true that I am on facebook regularly, blogging right now, and connected to email throughout my day.  2002 looks old fashioned from here.

"Keep Listening"

From the book The Ethnography of Reading, edited by Jonathan Boyarin (Univ. of California Press, 1992) comes a chapter titled "Keep Listening:  Ethnography and Reading" by Johannes Fabian.  The opening is interesting, walking through arguments about literate vs. oral cultures that have, in short, set them apart and given literate cultures advantages.  On p. 82, he makes an interesting argument.  Writing, Fabian argues, has been dematerialized.  We've paid for "theoretical progress" in our understanding of literacy and/in culture with "a dematerialization of the object of research."  Though he doesn't explore it, I'm curious about the ways that literacy and writing can be thought of as material culture.  If books/scrolls are cultural objects, then is the written page as well, not just its formalist properties, but also its content?  It's simple to say yes, but then again content prompts immaterial interpretation faster than the blink of an eye.

Fabian then goes on to interrogate how the process of writing anthropology is endlessly complex, including the transcription process which we generally think of as fairly simple.  He describes arguments with his informant-collaborator over how certain phrases should be written based on tapes.  Some of this is now relatively old news in anthropology, but still interesting.  My favorite part is when, on p. 92, Fabian insists that the "oral tradition" was a discovery made within a print culture, and amounts to no more than the absence of print.  That's one way to put it, and though it's a familiar idea to look at how context informs what we think of as "discovery," this is still pretty interesting to consider.  Walter Ong has other perspectives on this, and ones that lend themselves more readily to the digital age, but I like what Fabian is doing here, even the relatively simple assertion that "literacy is part of the phenomenon anthropology tries to comprehend."  (p. 83) 

It's not going to serve its original purpose, as a piece for the doctoral seminar 590HR--The History of Readers, the new class that Mak and I are teaching in spring--but it's still an interesting piece for future reference.  The rest of the chapters in this volume are situated more in particular locations as ongoing anthropological and/or historical sites:  ancient Israel, Anglo-Saxon England, Indonesia, Colombia, pre-modern Japan, etc.  Elizabeth Long shows up too, with a piece on collective interpretation.

I promise, to readers and to myself, that young adult (fantasy) novels are coming back! I owe this blog (and myself) several long absorbing fantasy reads, coming soon.  Thanksgiving week, if not before.  It's October, which means Halloween stories next Saturday at Spurlock, and I'll be singing a spooky favorite that dates back to the 1500s in print and who knows how much earlier in the oral tradition.  November is writing month, at least in my calendar... here's hoping for much article-related productivity!

what d&d character are you?

In my fantasy literature and media for youth class (LIS590VV) this week, there's a student group presentation on role playing games.  Did I mention lately that I love my job?

According to this site:

I Am A: Lawful Good Elf Ranger (6th Level)

Ability Scores:







Lawful Good A lawful good character acts as a good person is expected or required to act. He combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly. He tells the truth, keeps his word, helps those in need, and speaks out against injustice. A lawful good character hates to see the guilty go unpunished. Lawful good is the best alignment you can be because it combines honor and compassion. However, lawful good can be a dangerous alignment because it restricts freedom and criminalizes self-interest.

Elves are known for their poetry, song, and magical arts, but when danger threatens they show great skill with weapons and strategy. Elves can live to be over 700 years old and, by human standards, are slow to make friends and enemies, and even slower to forget them. Elves are slim and stand 4.5 to 5.5 feet tall. They have no facial or body hair, prefer comfortable clothes, and possess unearthly grace. Many others races find them hauntingly beautiful.

Rangers are skilled stalkers and hunters who make their home in the woods. Their martial skill is nearly the equal of the fighter, but they lack the latter's dedication to the craft of fighting. Instead, the ranger focuses his skills and training on a specific enemy a type of creature he bears a vengeful grudge against and hunts above all others. Rangers often accept the role of protector, aiding those who live in or travel through the woods. His skills allow him to move quietly and stick to the shadows, especially in natural settings, and he also has special knowledge of certain types of creatures. Finally, an experienced ranger has such a tie to nature that he can actually draw on natural power to cast divine spells, much as a druid does, and like a druid he is often accompanied by animal companions. A ranger's Wisdom score should be high, as this determines the maximum spell level that he can cast.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

contradictions: DiMaggio and Caudill

Contradictions, but not paradoxes, at least not this time.  The two things I need to blog this time are at opposite ends of several spectra...  new and old, nonfiction and fiction, social theory and historical fiction... okay, those last two aren't even on a spectrum together, but you get the point.

"The Iron Cage Revisited:  Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields" by Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell
My favorite theorist, from undergrad social theory class, was Max Weber whose talk about the Protestant Ethic and bureaucratization made sense, for me, out of hundreds of seemingly nonsensical bureaucratic experiences.  DiMaggio and Powell take Weber one step further, to discuss why organizations tend toward "isomorphism," or all having the same shape.  Or you could say, looking the same.  Or at least using the same rationale, like when libraries call their people "customers" and borrow from business models.  I like this kind of theory, in that it takes a big step back from the particular values of the day (such as "cost recovery" in the university) and instead think about why institutions do or don't look the same.  They point out the inadequacy of the business-is-biology metaphor by pointing out that institutional forms homogenize around different central forms, and therefore it's less survival of the fittest and more metamorphosis (hi there Kafka).  Coercive isomorphism, mimetic processes, and normative pressure are the mechanisms they name for the structural homogenization of institutions.  For librarians, or maybe for LIS instructors, the last is the most relevant, in that professionalization tends to lead to homogenization.  I saw this vividly in my research on early children's librarians uses of surveys.  In 1882, Caroline Hewins did a national survey of libraries asking about children's services, using just one open-ended question.  By 1898, the survey had morphed into a nearly 20-question rubric of "good services."

Of course, I'm always thinking about what use this might be... Dimaggio and Powell are building theoretical frameworks.  It makes me think about the ways I continually strive to push my students to contextualize, to understand that, while professional standards are vital, the ways that standards are implemented can and should vary wildly in different locales, different social contexts.  But the real use value for me of this article is simply that it explains why fewer librarians do real storytelling in story hours and tend to gravitate toward programming books.  Institutional isomorphism.  It's safer to tread the path that has been marked, and perhaps it's more efficient.  It's also a recipe for reducing risk, and that's a creativity killer.  We still need librarians who invent, create, and respond to their child audiences in libraries, especially in public libraries, however homogenous and isomorphic the institutional structures become. 

And now for something completely different.

Barrie and Daughter by Rebecca Caudill
It's not a novel I would pick up otherwise, but Caudill's Barrie and Daughter turned out to be a relaxing and reasonably enjoyable read, if very slow by today's standards.  Caudill is the namesake of the big reader's choice award in Illinois, but that's not why I'm reading her.  I'm reading her because I want to see how race was depicted in her books.  They are historical fiction, set in the mountains in Kentucky.  This story is about a girl, Fern, who old-fashioned mother Blanche takes much convincing to allow her to take up shopkeeping when her father, Peter, decides to open a store to compete with the overpriced store nearby.  It's also about Fern growing up, taking responsibility, and very gradually falling in love.  There are guns and horses and really dramatic moments near the end, but for up to 200 pages the narrative meanders like a lazy river, nice to read but not especially gripping.  And the answer appears to be that, in fact, race is completely ignored or edited out of this book.  Fortunately, I have the correspondence between Caudill and her editor May Massee, so I'll know which soon enough.  And that's the topic of the paper too, the editorial/publication process and race in children's literature.  Two more to go by Caudill, Tree of Freedom and Susan Cornish, and then I'll be ready to reexamine the archival documents and get to writing.

Summer 2010 in review and Kook

First the book, then the summer in review...

Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave by Peter Heller was an over-a-month page-at-a-time bedtime read for me. And for the most part it worked well that way. The one night when I reached for it during 4am sleeplessness and he was describing the slaughtering of whales, well, that didn't work so much. However. Mostly, it was great, in that it captures the adventurous spirit of a guy who has done a lot of running around alone, and now takes on both surfing and couplehood (SPOILER: marriage, in fact) at the same time. I appreciated the unconventional approach to life that this portrayed, and the author, while not a deeply introspective type, did manage to catch himself being a crappy partner more than once. But the real appeal was the landscape, the descriptions of waves and surfing, and the appreciation of our oceans. Heller has been an activist in defense of marine wildlife, and he sprinkles the adventure with healthy doses of reality about how seriously the oceans are in trouble. And this was before the BP oil flooding of the gulf. He describes coastlines in California and Mexico vividly, highlighting the differences between them. The fact that (SPOILER) his last reported surfing attempt nets him both a tubular wave and six stitches gives you something of the flavor of the whole book.

And now for something completely different. It occurred to me recently that, hey, I have a blog. I know, I know, this seems a little silly, but what I mean is that I could, occasionally, seasonally, capture some of my own adventures for the sake of posterity and celebration and all that. I'm not looking to transition this into being some kind of online journal. But, occasionally, I though I might post some pics. As fall is well underway, with the official season having started on Thursday and everything (with a full moon, no less), I thought I'd take a brief tour back through the highlights of summer 2010.  If you're here for the books, then you'd probably want to skip this part.

Summer started with a big, mysterious back/leg injury for me in May, so our trip to Chicago had to be delayed for a month. So, in the meantime, I grew some peas in the garden. Carefully. In a raised bed, I'm glad to say.

It was a slow first month, but it picked up!  First there was the marvelous play Aquatown and Andrea who directed it.  Meeting her and hosting the cast party was a delightful experience, of which I wish I had pics.  Then came a party at Richard's (for Boyd's visit) where Jerry found a cat who loved his beard and I enjoyed meeting Richard's partner for the first time.  Plus a motley assortment of other folks.

i haz a beard

(I don't have pics of the Mikki/Ellen birthday shindig either, unfortunately, but that would go well with this.) 

Then, finally, in late June instead of late May, I had healed enough to get to Chicago for our anniversary trip.  Ben found us the most spectacular hotel ever, called The Wit.

Ben at The Wit

And the next day we went to the Art Institute and then to Millenium Park for the Bean and some live music...

Ben and a duck
Ben and Bean
Me and a lovely beer @ Karen's Cooked (great vegan restaurant)

And finally to good old MCA with its raucously painted steps.  Ending with dinner at Frontera Grill.  Best Mexican food since, well, Mexico last December.

Then we left Chicago proper and spent a fabulous day and night at Sof and Nadeem's house.  So glad we did all that, even though it took some serious recovery time!  Worth it.  Totally worth it.  

In July, Laura and Todd created an insane feast experience for a bunch of us as Golden Harbor, which does indeed harbor insanely good Chinese food!  I had thousand year eggs and tried the duck feet dish (but couldn't really handle it).  Was glad I tried, and gladder still to have the opportunity to try so close to home.  I really wish I had a pic of Laura, but every time I got out the camera S. was nursing, so I'm going to keep those off the internets.  Here are some of my other extraordinary peeps at that party.

Danielle is often a blur in my photos, but Marie and Beth are not.

But she's in focus here

Me and Meadow!  She was post knee-surgery
Cope and Walter had an amazing party at the Crystal Lake boathouse and lakefront there.  I didn't get pictures of the Volkswagen-sized bubbles that some of the fancy bubble folks created.  Nor did I get me and little S. hanging out much, though we spent a lot of quality time there.


I love Ben's expression.  Classic.
I'm not sure when this happened, but at some point there was this incredible bonfire at Kord's house.  We were safe about it, and extra careful with the babies (though it looks dangerous, there were 2 trenches, an adult sitting right behind that play structure, and several others to the left).   That fire was big and hot and intense!  

L., Lorien, and Kate

Kord at the grill.  Crazy good italian sausages!

And we bought a water table for S. to have to play with at our house, and this was a night when Lorien joined us with L. too.  But this next pic, at least with Laura, Todd, and S. on our screened porch, could have been so many terrific nights from this summer.


And Ben and I went to see Anna and Lorene's band, Duke of Uke, at one of the downtown Champaign festivals.

Then came Melanie's wedding, which was absolutely gorgeous.  Though Ben couldn't go because his knee was hurt, which (he reminds me) was the side effect of the double-carpal-tunnel onset.  Sheesh.  Great summer, but what a bunch of injuries...

Melanie and Vince
My goofy friends Danielle, Mark, and Susan

And finally came my birthday bbq bash, which was a total blast.  Wish I had more pics of the crowd, especially the Gengler bunch and all the kids playing together.  But I was very grill focused, so the camera escaped me. 
Me with my new birthday grill!  Local organic meats only for this party.

Todd, Joe, Kord

And that's summer 2010, or at least all that's fit to print about it!

Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones

I'm a Jones fan from well before the Harry Potter crazes, and this book, while not one of her absolute best, will not disappoint.

The adventure begins when Aidan's grandmother dies and he arrives on Dr. Andrew Hope's doorstep. Aidan is hoping to find Andrew's grandfather, whom his own grandmother had urged him to find should anything ever happen to her. Andrew has only recently inherited the place from his grandfather, and though he has long been part of a magical family, he seems to have forgotten much of the magic his grandfather taught him as a child. Aidan, on the other hand, seems to be brimming with magic and is overjoyed when he is able to show Andrew the trick of looking at things without glasses in order to see their magical elements. Together, and along with a colorful cast of friends, household servants, and local villagers, they set about restoring the old estate to its former glory. This includes cleaning the "enchanted glass" in the shed/abandoned chapel, which until recently has housed an old an rather ill-tempered lawnmower.

Jones' books are often crowded with colorful characters, and this time the identities of those in the crowd are part of the mystery. "Counterparts" from the realm of "those who don't use iron" (read: fairies) begin to appear, and Andrew in his good-natured and slightly clueless way takes them all in, just as he took in Aidan. What appears to be a property dispute with a cranky Mr. Brown turns out to be a magical feud between Andrew's recently inherited magical realm and the realm of the fairies; Mr. Brown is none other than Oberon himself. And he is angry that Andrew is gathering the counterparts from the human and fairy realms together.

Jones is great at providing plausibly happy endings that are nonetheless realistic. In this, she is perhaps a master of juxtaposing the humor of the mundane (from dirty boots and gardening sheds to an unrepentant dog) with classic battles of good versus evil. Though Andrew appears tame, the moment at the Fete when he exercises his true powers resonates through the village and stops the narrative in its tracks. Though he's bumbling and mild-mannered, it's impressive when he comes into his true inheritance as the guardian of this apparently mundane but actually highly magical village. Aidan too comes into his own too, though with a twist. He may be the son of Oberon, and therefore a threat to the fairy king's throne, or, well, he may be something entirely different. Again, Jones juxtaposes classic fantasy themes with the mundane realities of illegitimate offspring in the real world. I won't spoil it, but let's just say Jones demonstrates that there's just as much mystery in finding one's true origins, whether they lead to the realm of faerie or to the exploits of a rebellious teenage mother.

Highly recommended to Jones fans and to anyone who like complexity in both characters and plot twists to track as well as cozy British mysteries. Jones does it all with aplomb.

did I miss anything?

This is something I read, and it is hilarious!

Coming soon, Diana Wynne Jones' latest book...

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The long-awaited final book of the Hunger Games trilogy is out and being read by millions, I'm sure. I'm one of them. I read it a little over two weeks ago, and online discussions with facebook friends kept me thinking and mulling before posting. It is clearly a book that can be read several ways, depending on your feelings about the first two books.

So I'll briefly recap my take on the first two books in order to give context for my analysis of the third one. Hunger Games was brilliant, surprising, and in some ways now looks almost light compared to the books that followed. We see our heroine Katniss stand in for her sister Prim as their district's representative to the Hunger Games, a bloody spectacle in which young players are trapped in an arena until they kill each other off, all broadcast for the entertainment of the political leaders and populace of the all-controlling Capitol. Katniss emerges victorious and saves her friend Peeta too, and we get a very few pages of possible victory savoring in the second book, Catching Fire, until they announce a new game played among victors of the previous games. Though it was a little less engaging than the first book for me, it was nonetheless a riveting and page-turning read to see how Katniss once again saves herself and Peeta from almost certain death. The arena this time is itself a complex puzzle that the players have to understand to survive. At the same time, Katniss is pretending to be pregnant with Peeta's child, and they are pretending to be in love, except that Peeta made it clear long ago that he'd have her if she'd take him. Also occupying Katniss's torn heart is Gale, her childhood hunting friend whose strength she has relied on to keep her family alive while she was at the games. Of course, Gale wants her too.

Mockingjay is a breathtaking and well-written conclusion, in which these games and the protests over them (in part due to Katniss's unusual playing strategies, saving rather than killing a fellow player) fuel a civil war. We find Katniss and her entire home of District 12 either killed or displaced to the top secret District 13. And Peeta is a prisoner in the Capitol. And everyone she ever loved having been killed or displaced is basically the most optimistic part of this novel. Other reviews have noted the persistent obliteration of hope throughout this book. And what I'll say is that, while that is accurate to civil war and even to the larger political situation Collins has created, it doesn't follow the tone of the first two books. From a hopeful story of teen-girl-beats-machine, we're thrust into the dark world of political ambiguity and brutal violence on the streets. District 13 is bombed, the Capitol becomes a war zone, Katniss realizes that her allies in 13 are torturing her former makeup crew from the previous games... even Gale, stout-hearted to this point, is shown to be more violent than expected. And since Peeta has been tortured and has all but lost his mind, Katniss is very very alone. As one friend said, this really became a war story.

Rather than the amazing teen hero who is uncannily able to fight and survive hunger games, we see a girl broken, over and over, who nonetheless has to go on and make decisions as the symbolic leader of the revolution. This is the only logical reason I can offer for some of the more underdeveloped plot points at the hurricane-speed ending. The one that bugs me most is Katniss voting to continue the hunger games, the very institution she has been bent on destroying. In the end, she also choose to be with Peeta rather than Gale, a decision that would have been more satisfying if we had been given more substantive glimmers of her emotional or logical deliberations (or both).

So it's a successful conclusion that isn't entirely a success for this reader. But that's okay. I can admire Collins' brilliance at both character and plot while also being a bit dissatisfied with how she chose to develop those in her last book of this fine trilogy. I've been a fan since Gregor the Overlander, and I'll be eager to read whatever she writes next. Along with millions of others. :)

Sense and Sensibility

Yep, as summer draws to a close (I'm back to work next Monday, still have my entire home-office half painted, and a crisis of mold at Ben's studio threatens everything... and I'm going tubing with Danielle et al. today anyway at Kickapoo, take that life, HA) I'm re-reading S&S by Jane Austen. Dear (blog) readers, may I remind you that "sensibility" is not a version of "sensible," but actually means "sensitivity." I also rewatched the Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson (oh and Hugh Grant too) movie version the other night. Kate is, as always, brilliant, proving once again why she is far and away my very favorite actress. There will be no plot synopses here...

The character of Elinor, the older sister, is almost more likable as Emma T. in the move than as the smart-assed projection of the author in the book. Though you have to admire the various turns of phrase with which she dazzles her fellow conversationalists, Elinor's parts of the dialog read so much like the great retorts we all think of after the fact. Such is the license of fiction.

In both movie and book, this time through, what I notice is the yin/yang pull of Elinor and Marianne. I see in myself the hyper-responsible older sister as well as the twinkling, mischevious, spirited Marianne. Marianne is more fun, but Elinor keeps everyone in food and clothing. We all need both. It's too easy, in a world where success and achievement are celebrated, to bury our Marianne side in Elinor seriousness. On the other hand, if you're prone to being as quicksilver changing as I can be, then a little Elinor at, say, breakfast time, is a very good idea. They are the twin poles around which the story revolves.

Watching the movie this time (directed by Ang Lee), when Marianne (Kate W.) is first asked by Willoughby whether he may examine her ankle, she nods wide-eyed. That is my favorite expression in the whole film, and a classic Winslet look. You can see it 23 seconds into this silly youtube thingy: Most heartbreaking parts are when Marianne, who is so innocent and open, runs to Willoughby at the dance, unable to imagine that he might treat her coldly. And oh does he ever treat her coldly.

So that's how summer is ending this year, with Sense and Sensibility. I'll leave you with a quote about life's adventures, from an interview I heard on NPR's most emailed stories podcast. The author wrote Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave which may well be my next Kindle download (thanks to Laurel for a b-day amazon gift certificate!). Here's what author Peter Heller said:

“And every day, you have to totally commit to something that seems, kind of in your brain, seems insane, which is to throw yourself, you know, over the lip of something that looks, you know, like a wall, and you have to totally commit. You have to let go to a power that's greater than you. And I think, you know, those are really good things to practice, you know, if you want to live with someone else and have a good relationship."

Gotta love the surfer dudes.

Addicted to Her

by Janet Nichols Lynch follows the short-lived but intense relationship between Rafa and the girl he has long fantasized about, Monique. Wrestling and helping his family were his passions before his brief hook-up with Monique, but all those other things fall by the wayside as he pursues her. She's totally hot, but usually goes out with guys who, well, have better cars. And she lets Rafa know that, while he lets her know that she has his heart. It doesn't take a very astute reader to see that Rafa is projecting a whole lotta good things onto Monique's hot body while disregarding her strikingly selfish side. When Rafa's stepdad is deported back to El Salvador, he is pulled back into the reality of his mom's struggle to provide for him and two other kids. As he steps up to be "el hombre de la casa," Rafa is finally struck by how manipulative and shallow Monique really is: "I take one last look at Monique. Creamy brown thighs. Beautiful breasts riding high in the blazing yellow halter dress. Full pillow-soft red lips. I avoid her eyes. Inside those eyes lives a horrible person."

This is solidly in line with the heritage of the YA problem novel, but more honest about sex and sexual attraction. A few posts back I was being cranky that no books ever did, well, this, showing that sexual attraction can be just that, sexual attraction, without any deeper substance. This probably won't sell paperbacks, probably will remain a hit among Mexican-American teens and librarians, but it's an excellent book for showing Rafa's love-blinded perspective in a sympathetic light.

What I almost read...

Where did this summer go??? The truth is, this summer went to parties and lots of time healing from an injury, to worrying but also to relaxing and grilling, and of course to movies and books. Books. Thing is, as I gear up for vacation, I recognize how close we are to summer's end. I'm just not gonna finish all the books. Enormous frown. So here are several that look interesting, and for which the bits I've read have been tantatlizing:

The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine
by Robert Bly and Marion Woodman

This book opens with the long and winding Russian legend of The Maiden King, which reminds me to some degree of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, except weirder. It opens with stepmother incest, when a stepmother falls in love with and begins manipulating her beautiful stepson. He's young, he's weak, and he falls for all of it. Fortunately, he runs into the titular Maiden King, who rescues him in a series of highly symbolic and image-rich adventures. Bly and Woodman are both psychologists, Bly best known for his men's movement work and Woodman for her adaptation of Jung's theories to include bodily, not just mind, experience. Each of the authors, in turn, analyze the legend in their own styles. Bly goes blow-by-blow through the narrative, Woodman writes a more impressionistic analysis of the psychological themes. Both look to this as a legend for our times, when the old gender roles are radically shifted and new ways of being male or female are uncertain. I read enough to know that this is a perfect fireside winter read, so I hope I'll come back to it over winter break.

The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five
by Doris Lessing

Didn't get as far into this one, but this fictional addition to Lessing's novel series, Canopus in Argos: Archives, is another tale of strife between two genders. I'd love to come back to this one when I have time to sink into the narrative rather than skim over its surface. The men and women doing the marrying are atypical in various ways, and from what I've read about the book, Lessing too was struggling with the gender issues of her contemporaries in this writing.

Love in the Western World by Denis de Rougemont
Ya gotta love the French for all things romantic, including the most geeky, least romantic analysis of romance I've ever read. Though I stalled out about a third of the way through, De Rougemont opens strong, arguing that the legend of star-crossed lovers Tristan and Iseult is the core of our Western understanding of romantic. This was written in the 40s, and although it has since become commonplace for every goth kid to equate love and death, de Rougemont did a handy job of showing how the two desires, to give over to romance and to surrender to death, are intertwined in this iconic tale. Of course, the lovers die in the end due to a misunderstanding. In fact, his main argument is that romance is a narrative drive that is fueled by obstacles. When the story runs out of obstacles, more emerge, such that the main cultural messages we receive about romance are about pursuit rather than, say, intimacy, deep connections, commitment, etc. No sustenance, just drive and pursuit and thwarted desire. After de Rougemont turned to analyzing the cultural context of the troubadours, particularly the religious context, I felt I had read enough for now. But I can see that this is one of those early, influential cultural history texts that has influenced a lot of rhetoric in that arena. And it all starts with a folktale...

a few more quotes from Goldberg

On meeting more of yourself, which entails doing anything for more than the short time of the first love-affair with the new. Natalie describes her returning students:

"The love affair with writing was over. They were taking it more seriously. All their resistances had come up. That afternoon I explained to them: 'Last year, when you came it was all new. Writing practice was a joy. You discovered you could write, you recovered old memories. This year, you want writing more, you have expectations, you suffer. It's okay, just keep doing it. You're meeting more of yourself.'" (p. 147)

A lovely metaphor for how we are interconnected, interdependent:

"Whether we know it or not, we transmit the presence of everyone we have ever known, as though by being in each other's presence we exchange our cells, pass on some of our life force, and then we go on carrying that other person in our body, not unlike springtime when certain plants in fields we walk through attach their seeds in the form of small burrs to our socks, our pants, our caps, as if to say, 'Go on, take us with you, carry us to root in another place.' This is how we survive long after we are dead. This is why it is important who we become, because we pass it on." (p. 74)

Our teachers are not impervious.
I've made mistakes like this (and I've suffered slights like this too, from students who project their own emotional characteristics onto me, just because we share some common intellectual characteristics):

"After one lecture, I visited him [Katagiri Roshi] in his study and said, 'Now that lecture was really boring! I had to do everything to keep awake.'
His face fell and I could see he was hurt.
I stopped. 'Roshi, you look hurt. How can that be? You're enlightened, you don't have feelings.'
But of course he had feelings. He was a human being. I saw that then. I had an erroneous conception of what an enlightened person was like." (p. 129)

Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg

"'Meetings end in departures....' No matter how long the meeting or what the relationship, we depart from each other." (p. 179)

Goldberg is most famous for writing about writing in Writing Down the Bones, and her words are so poetic that, no doubt, this post will be full of quotes. Long Quiet Highway is the story of her life, a kind of Zen memoir, where you have to keep reading to see the sense in what she's writing, and even then not everything connects as it does in more conventional writing. Last time I picked this up, I read only to a section about a rainy Sunday feeling on a train, which floored me. What I saw then was the concept of surrendering to whatever is the case, whether it's noise or silence, bustle or isolation. Now I see more of what she was saying: "I was excited. I had physically experienced what the Tibetans talked about, the transformation from neurosis to wisdom. I sat in the train and watched my letting go, my opening into an old painful feeling, and I experienced it in a new way, felt another dimension of it--its largeness." (p. 29) I feel certain I didn't understand that the first time I read it, but after this past year, I understand it better.

Goldberg talks about "digesting my own voice," coining phrases for herself (p. 40). She speaks of this as a phase she went through once, though I've noticed I go through this periodically throughout my life. A thought becomes a phrase that turns into a poem or song, a tiny one, that I carry around for awhile. Sometimes they grow into actual poems or songs, other times they just stay little notecard-sized phrases that I carry around.

I appreciate her description of a feminism that didn't limit her into dismissals of male voices but freed her from sexist judgment:
"Before feminism I'd read books written by men and thought the women characters were the way I should be. I wasn't fooled this time, but wow! could he [Hemingway] write about walking through the Luxembourg gardens after working on a short story in a cafe about how it felt to write, about how his belly was hungry. This is what I took from him and thanked him for. I'm sure he suffered plenty for his attitudes about women, but I got what I wanted." (p. 41)
I still find myself wondering if Hemingway suffered enough, but Goldberg's approach is splendid in that it allows her to stay open-eyed, not defensive.

At one point she describes her father's misery that his brother didn't mention him in his will. "Nothing. All that love wasted," she quotes her father as saying. (p. 66) It's a painful passage to imagine. But this time I found myself adamant that no such thing is wasted. Not being loved back is just an experience among other experiences, it need not bind us into tit-for-tat even-steven loving.

I'm not being very literal in my writing about this book, and I'm veering away from being evaluative. Some will complain that it doesn't cohere enough, but I found the many passages that moved me to be worth it. She writes from the body in ways that defy articulation, and yet she captures a lot. I have a host of yellow sticky notes still begging for transcription, from the middle section of the book, and yet I think I'll stop here. Interestingly enough, I don't have many notes on the end of the book. I wonder, if I read it a third time in another ten years, if I'll understand that section in ways I don't know. The end is about her teacher dying, about letting go of even the sense of being valued by that teacher in order to honor his memory. She speaks of learning best from those who are "whole people," who live what they are in life in the classroom and vice versa. I haven't lost my teacher, and really, I don't want the experiences that would make me fully resonate with such a thing. But it seems likely that experiences may come anyway in the next decade or so. Perhaps I'll come back to this book when they do.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I was told. I was told to read this by folks in the last iteration of the fantasy class. It came up on multiple bibliographies. Ben said it too. Finally, I read it, and I sit here (having to go to a reception in 15 mins) in quiet awe. This is a great book, and though I can't add it to the reading list for this fall, I've just added it to the list for next year's iteration of Fantasy Literature and Media for Youth.

What can I say. A near-future version of San Francisco is hit by a terrorist attack, and Marcus and his 3 closest friends are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are taken and held for questioning by the Department of National Security (DNS), and Marcus's friend Daryll disappears. It's a dizzying start, but it's only the beginning. Marcus gets out after being threatened that he's being watched. Everything, meaning everything, he does is being tracked. He hacks a free X-box machine, a promotional give-away, to run ParanoidLinux, a system designed to encrypt all activity. And from there, he starts the revolution, jamming the system, confusing the tracking devices, and eventually recruiting a host of other under-25-year-olds to the cause of resisting the police state.

In this near-future, the hackers are the heroes. Adults are tv-watching fools who, mostly, sanction the DNS restrictions to make them "safe." Doctorow does a fabulous job of including just enough history of real social movements, particularly the Yippies, to make this fictional, sci-fi story seem even more plausible. It will sound hackneyed, but Marcus also meets a geeky girl. That Doctorow carries off the creation of a believable and substantive romantic subplot along with the tech-geek speak and revolution plotlines... really, what more can you ask?

Did I mention I was in awe?

The only hole I noticed (and I can be damn picky) is that Doctorow doesn't specify, at one point, whether Marcus is using his school-and-DNS monitored laptops to write his papers or not. It seems to imply that he's using his X-box, which is potentially problematic in that the school might proactively monitor his assignment production. But those were extra credit, so nevermind.

See? It's that good. Just read it.

Zahrah the Windseeker

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu is the author of this fantasy novel about Zahrah, a girl who is born dada. Meaning she has plants growing in her dreadlocks, or at least that's what it appears to mean, at first. But strange things start happening to the shy Zahrah, among them that she begins to be able to fly by controlling the air around her, and it becomes clear that the real meaning of being dada has been lost. Okorafor-Mbachu creates an engaging fantasy world, where humans have shunned the Jungle in favor of their "culture," a culture that involves bending many kinds of plants to their own technological purposes. Zahrah only really comes out of her shell when her best friend Dari is bitten by a snake. Then she realizes that she has to go into the jungle, alone, and face down its most ferocious beast in order to save her friend's life.

It's a good read, and one that would work well alongside Farmer's The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm. The world it portrays is interesting, albeit mostly modeled on our technological world today, except with plants that function as technology. The scenes with the Dark Market hint toward layers of society that Zahrah and Dari don't understand yet, and as such beg for sequels. But not in an annoying way. I found myself, at the end, wanting to read more about this world.


On another note, word is out about my winning an award from ALA/LHRT: /news/pr.cfm?id=4171 After a tough year on many, many fronts, from a 3rd year tenure review to various family/friend troubles, a it's a joy to be able to celebrate this accomplishment. And relax and read novels for awhile. :)


Ever since Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson has garnered a well-deserved reputation for tackling traumatic emotional topics. Wintergirls follows in that vein of her writing (as opposed to her historical fiction). It starts as Lia learns that her former-best-friend of over nine years has died, alone, in a motel room. It's unclear exactly what has happened, and since Cassie dumped Lia nine months before, Lia is at first unsure what she wants to know. Lia has problems of her own, as an anorexic who is embattled with her own body, and it slowly becomes clear that part of what drew the girls together were their eating disorders. Cassie died of her bullemia, and Lia seems to be dying of her anorexia and the hallucinations that are either part of another mental illness or a result of her loss of brain tissue. When Lia realizes that Cassie called her 33 times the night that she died, the hauntings become much worse.

Uplifting stuff! Okay, not. The ending is hopeful, in that Lia begins to move beyond the hallucinations and her own family issues to begin to take a grip and flourish in her life. Anderson is a fabulous writer, which is how the ending keeps from seeming pat. Overall, I'd recommend it, but with a notation for the sensitive that it gets pretty dark and self-loathing in Lia's mind. I'd read it on a sunny day.

Alice in Wonderland

but not the book. The movie. The Tim Burton production, to be exact. This is not a movie of the book at all, but an imagined extension of the book, if Alice had come back to Wonderland at 20 instead of only once at 7. As such, its main similarities are in the use of characters that resemble those in the original Tenniel illustrations. Johnny Depp features prominently, if almost unrecognizably in digitally-altered form, as the Mad Hatter. Aside from a rather long middle section where the Hatter gives a bit too much backstory on why the Red Queen is bad, the movie is an enjoyable romp-turned-quest. Though the words from Jabberwocky also feature prominently, gone is all of Carroll's logic games, puzzles, trickery. Alice instead takes on the hero's role; her quest foretold in a scroll and carried out when she dons armor and picks up the vorple sword. All in all, it's a fun DVD to watch.

But that's not really what I wanted to blog about. What strikes me is that, over time, the answer to the question of whether/when you can go back through the portal to the fantasy land has changed. I'd speculate that it has changed in ways that reflect the extension of youth in our society. If you think back to Carroll's Alice or to Wendy in Peter Pan, the answer used to be that the realms of fantasy were relegated to youth, childhood to be precise. Certainly to pre-adolescence. As Hollywood remakes (or makes) these tales, "youth" extends out of childhood and into the late teens and early twenties to provide vehicles for hot young actors of both genders. Jennifer Connelly in Labryinth comes to mind as a mid-range example, and the movie Labryinth also hits this mid point on the can-you-go-back question. Whereas Barrie's Wendy just had to move on and grow up, Sarah in Labryinth was able to revisit her trusty troop of Henson-created friends whenever she needed them. Whether this was real or imaginary was left to the viewer, but when Hoggle says "should you need us" at the end, it seems as if she'll have ongoing connections with the fantasy characters, if not the land of Labryinth. But we never really know the age of Connelly's character, though she appears to be (and probably was) a young teenager.

Now back to Burton's Alice in Wonderland, in which we see fantasy adventure taking place, explicitly, for a 20-year-old young woman who remembers only that she "dreamed" of Wonderland back when she was 7. As the movie begins, she is on the cusp of adulthood, about to consider a marriage proposal. Midway through, she remembers everything, and realizes that the recurring "nightmare" of her childhood was quite real. For the viewer, this frames the original tale as her childhood experience, and allows this new tale in the movie to diverge in a number of different directions. At the end, she eschews marriage and instead takes to the high seas, her rabbit-hole adventure having awakened a broader taste for adventure. It's an interesting shift to note, as we also see a cultural and even scientific extension of the concept of "youth," pushing "adulthood" ever later, into the mid-20s at least.

So the story used to be that you had to leave behind childish things. Now, it seems that childish things are just the transformative catalyst needed to, say, end a disastrous engagement and catapult our young heroine into a life of adventure on the high seas. And just to come back to reality one more time, I also wonder how this way of thinking about the ever expanding place of fantasy interacts with the financial crisis that is sending so many new graduates back to family homes.

Fantasy often says curious things about the culture that is intended as its audience.

teen and middle school realism

Best Foot Forward by Joan Bauer
Bauer's serious-yet-bouncy writing has a style that suits summer. Most of the time. But this sequel to the acclaimed Rules of the Road
is just a sequel. Bauer sadly rewarms the plot from the last half of the earlier book, pitting Mrs. Gladstone and her honorable shoe sales team against the corporate mega-giant takeover, engineered by, again, her son. So the crime, criminal, and motive are all familiar. New aspects such as criminal-turned-salesman Tanner and Jenna's budding romance are underplayed, and Bauer's stalwart belief that anyone can be reformed is unconvincing. Sadly, though I've adored Bauer's work and hope to again, I'd say pass on this one. Just re-read Rules of the Road and you'll be happier.

The Kind of Friends We Used to Be by Frances O'Roark
This, however, is stunning. Gleaned from the BCCB Blue Ribbons list, O'Roark's novel deftly handles the aftermath of two seventh-grade former best friends who discover that they have grown apart. The alternating narration gives the reader the best of both worlds, showing the friends' fragmented social circles and demonstrating how their world views have come to be out of sync. With Kate's new guitar playing and Marilyn's new cheerleading, O'Roark could characterize the divide them in stereotypical terms, but she does anything but stereotype as she explores the nuances of Marilyn's wish to be liked amidst her parents' bickering and divorce and Kate's growing sense of music and poetry, tempered by her crush on a hot 8th grade guitar-playing boy. The ending is phenomenal in terms of structure; the narration suddenly encompasses more perspectives, each of them in staccato bursts, like the ending of a great fireworks show. It won't take long to read this one (I read it on my kindle so I can't give a page count), and it's very worth it.


by Isabelle Carmody is a series book that, I can tell, really requires reading the whole series to "get." It was recommended highly, so I'm going to try book 2, Farseekers, as well. While Penguin published it in Australia, here it's under the auspices of the publisher Tor, which is usually home to more adult stuff in the states.

It's a post-nuclear-holocaust world, we think, although the forbidding of all things from before has made it difficult to tell exactly what happened. Some of the children born since the disaster known as The Great White have unusual mental powers. However, the religious sect that is the current law of the land has forbidden all such powers, condemning people who have them to death or banishment to Obernewtyn, a place rumored to do experiments on those banished. Our young heroine, Elspeth Gordie, is unsure about the powers she has, and her process of finding out what she can do also becomes the reader's process. This bogs down occasionally, as when a new power is required, and it's unclear whether Elspeth knows she has this power or is trying something for the first time.

However, her slow unraveling of the secrets of Obernewtyn is paced just right for young mystery readers. And that the book ends while we still don't really understand Elspeth's powers shows that Carmody is self-consciously mysterious, leading us to the next title in a subtle enough way that I avoid my usual next-title annoyance. (We all have little things that drive us nuts!) I've just put Farseekers, the next title in the series, on hold.

Bite Me not an instruction for any blog readers that may be out there. No, it's the title of Parker Blue's teen vampire novel. This is more Buffy than Twilight, and in fact heroine Val references Buffy in her own vampire-slaying adventures, as a fictional story (whereas hers is the real thing, of course). Val is a tough heroine who becomes sympathetic right away when, on her 18th birthday, her mother and stepfather kick her out of the house. This really isn't her fault, however. It has to do with the fact that her father was a part-incubus, and Val is part-succubus. Val's vampire-slaying has been, primarily, a way to slake her inner demon's lust. But Val's mother only sees the bad influence on her other, non-demon daughter Jen.

The drama here isn't her survival, which is assured relatively quickly and easily due to the interventions of other part-demons who have been watching out for her. And, luckily, she lands a job with the San Antonio police, who are far more aware than they let on about vampires. And, eventually, demons too. Watching Val and her very attractive partner Dan unravel the mysteries afoot amongst the vampires is fun, if not deeply complex. Val has to handle her lust for Dan very carefully, lest her demon side take over and drain his life force. That inner battle is more intriguing, and the combination of roiling internal emotions and kicking vampire ass makes this a well-balanced page turner. Definitely recommended to Buffy fans, and perhaps as an antidote to the passivity of Twilight's heroine.

There are, of course, repeated tropes in genres. Deborah Stevenson pointed out the oft-used teen novel trope of the description of self in the mirror. I've become intrigued by the trope of the truths and myths about vampires. Because every author/novel/series seems to have their own set. Here, Blue's truths are that vampires cannot be in the sun (no sparkly Edwards here) and that holy water, if blessed by a true believer, can be scalding. Silver is a problem too. But she eschews the turning-into-bats powers (those seem to be on the wane overall).


In other news, Betsy Hearne won this insanely huge lifetime achievement award. Wish I could have been at the Children's Literature Association Conference to clap and cry.