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: http://ala.org/ala/newspresscenter. /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.