sex, fictional and factual

First, a little context:  I've been asked to guest lecture in a class on sex in the media, and at the same time I've been asked to write an article on how LIS should envision young adults.  So I've chosen to focus on controversies and censorship of factual sexual health books for young adults, hopefully to bring the two together.  I may even be able to write about talking to this class of freshman in the article.  Some background on the central book I'll be looking at is here.

Though nonfiction is the focus, I also opted to delve into a little YA fiction on the topic, thanks to the help of the always wonderful CCB GAs, A. and L.  Thanks you two!  This is the first of that pile that I'm reading.  Since the presentation and article are going to focus on books that support comprehensive sex education for young people, this may also be the last of the pile.  We'll see. 

The Making of Dr. Truelove by Derrick Barnes
I've read a lot of YA fiction, and this is by far the single most graphic sexual opening I've ever read, albeit an opening in which the characters completely fail to have sex.  Main character Diego and his lovely girlfriend Roxy are in love and are trying to have sex for the first time, but Diego ejaculates prematurely.  Twice.  Roxy is totally understanding, completely nice, but Diego freaks out, can't handle it, and afterward he starts blowing her off.  Meanwhile his boy J. comes up with a love advice website idea that he says will make Diego irresistible to the ladies.  But J. really wants to dress up as Dr. Truelove and make media appearances while Diego does all the advice column work.  And Diego is surprisingly really, really good at the advice column work.  He's a compassionate guy with a sexy edge, and it intrigues readers. 

Unfortunately, it also completely distracts him from the real issue, which is that he need to talk to Roxy.  Roxy is kind about it, but she does let him know that she's thinking of seeing someone else, after Diego stands her up at least twice and stops returning her phone calls.  Diego takes hit after hit to his pride, until finally a jazz historian contest gives him a chance to invite Roxy to something he knows he's good at doing.  But what he learns is unexpected; there's another guy who needs to win the contest even more, an old dude, and Diego throws the competition even though he could have won, choosing to make friends rather than to win. 

The context of Diego's world is humorously saturated with sex, from his own successful mother (a doctor) and father who are clearly enjoying themselves as he carries her off to the bedroom nightly to J's sister Tori who really wants Diego for herself.  Though it was less believable that the older Jewish man at the jazz historian event would tell Diego he wants to win so he can get some tonight, most of the sexiness is pretty believable.  It's sex-saturated, but it's also humorous and acknowledges that not everyone is into the same things.  J., for instance, wants to be Dr. Truelove so he can get with numerous hotties, though he seems to achieve the same thing in his regular high school life.  While Diego really wants to be with Roxy.  And, in the end, he makes the speech he needs to make, all the apologies come out, and they're reunited.  They momentarily rush toward sex, making up for what they missed before, but then both think better of it and decide to wait. 

Kiss It by Erin Downing
The review said this was a book about a sexually assertive girl who "knows what she wants and goes after it with gusto and without apology," but I do not like the protagonist as I expected to and so I'm dropping this one like a hot potato.  As of p. 30, we know that narrator Chaz (short for Chastity) ended her virginity with the unwitting Hunter at her parents' Christmas party.  When he lasted for all of 4 seconds, she was abusively cold to him.  He says "Oh" and she replies "Yeah, oh" and thinks to herself that she "certainly didn't want him to think this lame attempt at sex was going to count as something magnificent for me."  He asks her out, she says "Never.  Now get the fuck out, Hunter."

Turns out that I find nothing feminist in this kind of damaging assertiveness.  I've seen firsthand what being sexually shamed and/or humiliated does to someone, and it's pretty horrible.  Yes there are men with deflowering obsessions, yes there are people who use one another for sex, yes there have been eons of men wolfing around even vaguely available women.  But it isn't sexy to be manipulative and then cruel to vulnerable people.  Period.

Is it fair to judge a book by the first 30 pages?  No, but I'm just another reader and not some exalted judge.  And this reader doesn't want to read about women using unsuspecting men for sex any more than the other way around.


What a great title for an article in this year's Book History about the extreme differences between British and U.S. versions of Charlotte Yonge's works in the late 19th century.  The whole title is:

"Re-Authorship:  Authoring, Editing, and Coauthoring the Transatlantic Publications of Charlotte M. Yonge's Aunt Charlotte's Stories of Bible History" by Leslee Thorne-Murphy, Book History 13 (2010)

The whole argument that Thorne-Murphy (T-M) makes is fascinating, showing that Yonge was produced as an author, to some degree constructed and re-written as a character in her own books.

Two particular aspects of this very well-written article fascinate me. First, T-M examines the British/U.S. publishing divide at a cultural level by examining the differences in how the author is figured in these very variant editions of the same work.  That's interesting in and of itself, but it's especially useful to me as one of the comments on my book chapter on evolution in children's science books was that distinguishing these publishing contexts would be a good idea.  And so it would!  I know I'll refer back to T-M's brief lit review in this regard (note #9, Meredith McGill's American Literature... and S. and C. Moss's American Episodes Involving Charles Dickens).  It seems likely that the work I'm doing on children's science books is new enough that I won't find specific publishing numbers before the chapter has to go to press, but I'll be attempting to do so.

The other angle that grabs me is the way that T-M goes about trying to decipher the editorial process that led to such different editions, pointing out practical tensions such as the publishers not paying Yonge as well as divergent narrative choices.  In Britain, the narrator was an omniscient "Aunt Charlotte," already a character, but present only "in the title and on the title page."  In the U. S., the narrator takes on a life of her own and becomes a person in the book.  T-M does a lovely job of analyzing the complexities and contradictions inherent in and editor's rewriting of the author, hence the titular "re-authorship."  I find this fascinating in relation to another project I have brewing that looks at an exchange between editor and author in the late 40s in regards to the depiction of race in children's books.  That paper is still a glimmer in my eye, but it will emerge eventually, and T-M's citations on interactions between authors and editors (notes 17-19) will be a big help.  This may in fact be the only article I've yet seen that addresses editing as part of the production dynamic of children's literature.

This is an excellent article, and while the above notes are really my reading it for my own purposes, I'd recommend it to anyone interested in authorship as a concept.  The idea that an author's identity is "produced" seems more American Idol than 1880s, but T-M demonstrates that it was in fact in operation at that quaintly perceived period as well.

just jake

I can blog about Jake because it's no longer up for award consideration for the Gryphon Award, though a fair smattering of my reading at the moment is geared toward the needs and ideas of that committee.  Like reading for reviewing, reading for awards committees is an art in and of itself.  I have to balance my critic with my reader.  This means leaving room for the contradictions of both keeping an eagle eye out for flaws at narrative, cultural representation, or other levels while also trying to just drop into the absorption of a good narrative.  It's like reading for class used to be, back before I finished all the degrees I'm doing.
Jake by Audrey Couloumbis

Jake is ten and it's almost Christmas when his mother slips on the ice in the grocery store parking lot.  After that, a lot of things change quickly.  His mom is unconscious and has a twisted leg fracture, so Jake has to stay with their neighbor.  Even stranger, his grandfather comes to town, and Jake hasn't seen the man since he was a baby, since Jake's father died.  His grandfather isn't that friendly at first; he brings a mean dog and the expectations of an ex-Marine, which Jake and his mom don't seem to live up to.   And it's all up to Jake, since his mom is unconscious and then in surgery, and he doesn't get to talk to her for days. 

Couloumbis tackles the big issues of family, identity, connections lost and reestablished, but never veers from the perspective of a 10-year-old kid, whose deep concern for his mother is peppered with concerns over what will happen for Christmas and whether he'll finally be allowed to have a bike.  Since Jake's father died in an accident, Jake's mother has been extremely cautious, but he knows that 10 is old enough to start to take some risks.

And he does, first with his grandfather when he tries swimming, albeit with prior verbal assurance that the old man won't throw him into the deep end.  Then he walks his grandfather's dog, and that paves the way to an easier truce between him and his grandfather.  Couloumbis opens with Jake remembering the smell of cigarettes, which he associates with his father though his mother corrects him.  Couloumbis never spells it out, but instead shows Jake realizing that this is a memory of his grandfather.  At the end, in a rare playful moment, his grandfather is bouncing Jake on the bed and Jake says "I remember!"


Had a great conversation with Les yesterday about narratives as information structures, or about a theory of narrative that would look at what is revealed and withheld among the network of characters.  This got me thinking, Roland-Barthes-style, about what those "codes" would be of the kind of information that is revealed or withheld.  First would be the exploding bomb or other dangerous or magical object.  Second would be identities or roles of characters, and there ought to be a special case in which the protagonist's own identity is a central mystery (Harry Potter is just one example).  I'd welcome input about other kinds of information, as what I've covered so far hits both ends of Louise Rosenblatt's efferent/aesthetic reading but sort of skips the middle.  (What is the middle of that spectrum, anyway?  It's called a spectrum, but it's always defined in terms of the dichotomy.)

All while putting together a list of narrative theories and theorists, going back to Aristotle, for my storytelling class this spring, which starts next Thursday.

poet/photographer and a dead librarian

Christmas was good to me in terms of books.  I got Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids about her long connection with Robert Mapplethorpe from Ben and a signed copy of Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck as a gift from my lovely student Genevieve along with a pile of other books that may soon be chronicled here. 

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck
He won the Newbery for A Year Down Yonder, and I am particularly partial to A Long Way from Chicago, so it's nice to see him follow up with more young adult historical fiction.  This one begins with a wild Indiana tornado in a small town that disturbs a graveyard, uprooting, among others, the recently deceased librarian.  Peewee sees the wreckage, and then gets back to doing what she does best, which is helping her brother fix cars at their little garage.  When an Indianapolis paper slams their rural borough for closing the library when the librarian died, the town elders open up a search out of pure consternation.  When four young women in the library training course of Butler University express interest in sharing the position, the whole town takes notice, and Peewee's older brother Jake takes notice of one young lady in particular, not least of all because her father is a car manufacturer.  Peck has written another humorously understated tale of gentle life in a midwestern town of the past.  The plucky Peewee saves the day at the big auto race, making this a satisfying short read.

Just Kids by Patti Smith
She's best known for her album Horses (which I have yet to hear), but Smith also lived an eventful life as the partner and later close friend of Robert Mapplethorpe in a late 60s/early 70s New York brimming with artistic life.  Smith started out as a poet, and the care she takes in crafting the words describing her romantic and then platonic relationship with Robert makes this an incredibly satisfying book to read slowly.  Part of the joy of this book is the diligence and honesty with which Smith recounts her journey in accepting Mapplethorpe's sexual orientation and then sexual explorations.  They lived for a long time on a rarely described border between partnership and individuality, loving each other and promising to be together while allowing both and each of them to explore relationships with various lovers.  At Smith says at one point, their children were their artistic projects together, and they thrived in various studio spaces and at the Chelsea Hotel as Mapplethorpe developed installations, collages, and finally photography that began to document the unabashed and yet hidden world of sex in New York City at this time.  Smith, in the meantime, was developing a performance poetry that slowly became rock and roll, and she became a rare woman who used her appearance to further define her art rather than allowing her appearance to define her.  It is fascinating to watch her intuitive glimmers of understanding as this path emerges for her.  Even after Robert has cemented ties with his lover and patron Sam, when Patti leaves the city to marry, Robert's question is "what about us?"  They created a kind of siblinghood out of their once sexual love.  Smith richly describes her disappointment when Robert's path diverges from her own, but also exhibits a world of nuanced acceptance for the person Robert needed to become to follow his own sexual and artistic paths, which were sometimes one and the same.

There are too many quotes from this book to pick just a few.  It already won the National Book Award, and it's by far the best memoir I've read in several years.  Though the later chapters drag slightly with era-related names, Smith almost always manages to give a sense of the poetry of the interactions she had with this dazzling array of personas.  It's an immensely satisfying read that affirms the wide expanses of life that committed love between friends who respect each other deeply can encompass.

This book got me thinking about long-term connections, both conventional and unconventional.  I did a little research and here's a quick list of other memoirs about relationships that caught my eye as fodder for future reading:

Two Part Invention:  The Story of a Marriage by Madeline L'engle
The Commitment by Dan Savage
In the Garden of Our Dreams:  Memoirs of a Marriage by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip
The Gastronomy of Marriage:  A Memoir of Food and Love by Michelle Maisto