Akata Witch

I wouldn't describe this as a relaxing summer, although I'm able to physically relax more than in the school year.  It's a juggling summer of 4 papers (14 months to tenure dossier deadline!), 2 new classes, files to clean out in two offices, volunteer work for GSLIS, a bathroom remodel, and a small host of random Things that Must Be Done.  Still.  I'm enjoying the juggling.

And I'm not even counting as work the new reading I'm doing for the fantasy class.  I love it, but I do feel like I'm holding auditions when I read these novels.  Fortunately, they won't get their feelings hurt if I don't pick them.  This year, I've changed the rules a little.  I used to have a firm only-in-print-paperbacks rule to keep textbook costs down.  But I'm bending that rule now, assigning about 5 books that are so new they are only out in hardback, with the expectation that, since it's a LEEP course, many folks will get them from libraries.  That's a reasonable expectation for all my classes these days, I've found, as economics make it more expensive to go to school.  So I'll ask my students to buy or borrow the 35 novels we'll read in fall, knowing that many of them will just want to buy them anyway.  And pointing out the hardback-only books as good ones to try to borrow!  This is one of those....

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
This is a new twist on one of my favorite "genres:" children's group capers.  I just love stories where a bunch of people crowd around together, each of them uniquely portrayed, but with a well-developed group dynamic too.  (Diana Wynne Jones, Hillary McKay, Trenton Stewart, and many more authors write in this "genre.")  Akata Witch is set in Africa, where protagonist Sunny is Nigerian-born, American-raised, and then has come back to Nigeria.  She's also albino, and gets picked on a lot at school because of it.  Her friend Orlu introduces her to Chichi, and things pick up when they initiate her into the Leopard people, revealing that she is even more different than she previously knew.  Sunny's magical abilities make her a natural-born Leopard, a person with spiritual abilities that manifest in the physical world (as distinct from the Lambs, those born without special powers).  The threesome becomes a fabulous evil-fighting foursome with the addition of Sasha, whose American family has sent him to live with his African relatives because of his rebelliousness.  The balance of the group is key.  They are two boys (Orlu and Sasha) and two girls (Sunny and Chichi), two Africans (Orlu and Chichi), one African-American (Sasha), and Sunny, who feels American having lived there for her first nine years of life, but is also Igbo and Nigerian.  Sunny "walks between" different worlds, with her mixed background and fair albino skin.  The diversity of the group gives a flavor for the Nigerian setting; each does magic in his or her native tongue, and that's Igbo for Orlu, Efik for Chichi, English for Sasha and Sunny.  As they travel around, they also meet people who speak accented English from all over the world, a trope that Okorafor uses subtly to emphasize the diversity of people who come from Africa.

Okorafor strikes the right balance for readers in the late middle grades (generally 6th and up) between Sunny's introspection about her deceased grandmother's status as a Leopard and the group's adventures.  They learn swiftly together, traveling to Leopard Knocks, the secret home of the Leopard people who are born with special abilities, visiting the teacher Anatov, buying books from the magic bookstore... there's a hint of Rowling's Diagon Alley here.   Each of them finds a teacher who will continue their instruction as they grow.  Well, each of them but Sunny, who has met the woman she hopes will become her teacher under bad circumstances.  Sunny frightened her chronically bullying classmate by revealing her spirit face, thereby breaking one of the central codes of the Leopard people.  She meets her teacher while under punishment for this violation.

But they have to grow fast, because bigger things are afoot than Sunny's misbehavior: the fab foursome is desperately needed because there is an evil man, a serial killer and maimer of children, on the loose in Nigeria, and he must be defeated.  In fact, he is reading himself to summon world-devastating evil.  Overall, I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys a solid fantasy read.  The characters are delightful, well-drawn while being action-oriented kids up for an adventure.  There's a more ominous sense of danger here than in many fantasy books for young people:  "More is at stake than your lives" (p. 310) comes up multiple times.  Early on, Anatov chides:  "It's as I taught you.  The world is bigger and more important than you."  While it's more fearsome, it's also a more humbling and humble perspective than most fantasy writers take.  Yes, you are here to save the world, but the world would also go on without you.  There's weightiness but also balance in that thought.

Ruins of Gorlan

Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan is the first of the Ranger's Apprentice series.  I came to this one by local library colleagues, who I asked for some of the best and most popular new-ish middle-grade fantasy.  I can see why this one is a winner.  Among the castle wards, it has come time to choose a path in life, and Will thinks he wants to go to Battleschool even though the bully Horace is going there as well.  But, in fact, when the choosing comes, a letter arrives about Will but its contents are not revealed to him.  Will climbs to the tower where the letter was last seen, and there he is surprised by Halt, one of the Rangers, and discovers that he has in fact been chosen to serve as one of the mysterious Rangers.  Once he is used to the idea, Will thrives under Halt's exacting guidance.  But a war is brewing, and the evil Morgarath has loosed two monstrous creatures on the land, killing some of the kingdom's most brilliant warriors in secrecy.  Halt and the Rangers discover what is happening, and so they set out, with young Will, to kill the monsters.  I'll not spoil it by saying how Will saves the day, but suffice it to say that there's a happy ending to this battle, with more books in the series to come.

Fans of the first Harry Potter book will love it for its relatively short length, action-packed adventure, special hero Will (whose mysterious identity is revealed by the end of this book), and general kids-growing-up-and-saving-the-world flavor.  As compared to Harry Potter, this is simpler, with less humor and somewhat less character development.  That's not to say there is none of either.  In fact, the character of Halt the Ranger is nicely detailed with some wry witticisms, and Will's own emotional world is just evident enough to keep the reader engaged with his struggles.  Side character Horace's story is flatter, and his transformation from bully to victim of bullying is a bit pat.  Still, it's a good read, and I'd definitely recommend this to middle school readers looking for easier fantasy or a stepping stone to the longer Harry Potter books. 

Much as I have waaaaay too many other things to read, I think I'm going to buy the sequel on Kindle for bedtime reading.  So that's a pretty good endorsement!  I hardly ever have or take the time to read further books in a series beyond the first these days, what with the demands of work in general and the fantasy class in specific.  Students tend to get annoyed when I assign sequels, and I don't really blame them. 

Half a Life, contrasted with the stridency of positive thinking

"All the things get done and you regret them and then you accept them because there's nothing else to do.  Regret doesn't budge things; it seems crazy that the force of all that human want can't amend a moment, can't even stir a pebble." (p. 194)   
--Half a Life  by Darin Strauss

Today I met a woman who believes.  Angel cards, affirmations, being positive, visualizing the exact number of the weight/wealth/world you want and making it so by sticking it to something, anything, where you can see it.  I was polite, but I mentioned that I'd seen those ideas used as weapons to blame others for their shortcomings.  Privately, I was thinking my usual thoughts about religious dogmatism that pushes for stridency and obliterates nuance.  Her response was a perfect example of what lies beneath "positive thinking," and that was to trash-talk her sister who has a chronic illness and "bad luck."  "Do you wake up thinking something bad will happen today?  Well, there you go."  This healthy woman justified her faith in the positive by blaming her sister's health on her negative thinking, as though a bad thought were a toxic bomb just waiting to explode.  It's both judgmental and simplistic, wiping out all need for nuance, ambivalence, or simple compassion for those who are in pain. 

The interaction made me think of the memoir I just finished reading by highly acclaimed author Darin Strauss, called Half a Life.  It is the opposite of this.  It is a tour through the world of emotional nuance in the face of devastation, a personal and unvarnished look at confusion and pain.  Darin describes a life of striving to be good enough in the face of a horrific accident in which, when he was 18, a girl swerved her bike in front of his car and died from the impact.  He works his way to "I killed her" by the end of the book.  But it's a perfect example of one of those horrible, negative, hurtful, difficult things that happens not because someone thinks the wrong thought in the morning, but instead because cars exist and bikes exist and sometimes, more often than we'd like, they collide unpredictably.

The memoir starts with a chronology of what happened, the accident, the numbness, the high-schooler's performance of grief, all written with a crisp self-consciousness that makes this accurate.  It's unfakeable, this depth of clarity.  "I've come to see our central nervous system as a kind of vintage switchboard, all thick foam wires and old-fashioned plugs.  The circuitry isn't properly equipped; after a surplus of emotional information the system overloads, the circuit breaks, the board runs dark.  That's what shock is." (p. 17)  He writes his memories from within the shut-down of shock.  Life goes on, he goes abroad to study, and the parents of the dead girl file a vengeful lawsuit, all the more pointless because it was declared a no-fault accident by multiple eyewitnesses.  But Darin doesn't know this, because he's still blaming himself, an act of contrition and of the self-centeredness of the young.  He hopes the trial will end it, declaring him innocent or guilty once and for all, but then the trial is canceled.  He muddles along, as we all do.

If we're honest, if we look closely enough, we all have some cause for guilt and remorse.  It may not be something as extreme as this accident, but there's something there.  As Strauss writes:  "I think we all build superstructures in our heads, catwalks and trestles that lead us from the acceptance of our own responsibility to the cool mechanics of the factory, where things are an interlocking mess, where everybody's pretty much unaccountable.  To be alive is to find a way to blame someone else." (p. 110)

The worst moments come when he describes a date gone horribly wrong.  At a movie, Darin's extreme stress kicks in at a depiction of an accidental death from car accident.  His date is not compassionate, and instead blames him for being dramatic. "How can you even go on living?" she asks.  He wonders:  "Who was this person[...] did she kick puppies for fun?" (p. 140)  To his credit, he backs away.  She follows with a phone call, and he just says "all right."  Good for him.  That's no kind of date to have, no kind of person to have in one's life.  That's the negative crazy worth running, not walking but running, away from.  That's toxic, that blame.  It's no way to spend a life, harboring those voices, internally or otherwise.

The memoir ends with the kind of happy ending that is possible to believe in, one built of a solid partner and their children together and a long stretch of therapy.  But even in this, Strauss doesn't overplay the positive, seeing life for what it is.  Books like this make me grateful for not only the realists but also for those who are unflinchingly willing to see nuance, contradiction, and complexity.  This is a poetically written memoir, and so I have more quotes than usual.  This book reminds me what it is to survive anything that is or feels life-threatening.  The accidents that shape us.

A few more favorite quotes:

In the United States, some two thousand drivers a year survive "dart-outs."  And these drivers are more likely to get laid out by post-traumatic stress syndrome than are those who are irrefutably to blame in fatal accidents.  No one knows why.  Probably the brain prefers a sturdy error to fixate on.  It's hard to learn so viscerally that the questions of guilt and worth are managed with indifference, by nasty chance. (p. 127)

My ideas, my language, support me in the face of disastrous horror over and over. --Harold Brodkey (quoted on p. 143)

Ten year later, talking about it remained a crackling horror.  Probably, just by acting weird, I'd shown myself stained by the blemish of it.  Whatever private anxieties we endure are, of course, never really private.  Our own dissembling behavior guarantees their eternal, public return. (p. 164)

In fiction classes [...] you find that epiphany has a pretty high rate of occurrence.  It's a story, it's tidy.  At the end, the hero finds himself standing under just the right tree, reaches up without quite meaning to, and plucks down just the right fruit.  /  But when you tell your own story honestly, that epiphany thing is rare:  there is no walk, there is no fated grab.  You try every fruit, or forget there even are trees and wander from forest to forest, losing sight of any destination.  The only changes are emergencies or blessings:  when you wake up, notice the surroundings, then fall back, and wander more.  And if you're lucky you end up walking again through a life where you're never called on to do too much noticing. (p. 173)

(describing Complicated Grief Disorder:) And this decisive suffering--which lasts and lasts, and offers "no redemptive value"--has been given a name, to distinguish it from what used to be called sorrow:  Complicated Grief Disorder. (p. 185)

That's the meter you come up with, as you approach forty.  If your relationship fills you with a sense of luck, you've chosen well. (p. 188)

Things don't go away.  They become you.  There is no end [...].  But we keep making our way, as we have to.  We're all pretty much able to deal even with the worst that life can fire at us, if we simply admit that it is very difficult.  I think that's the whole of the answer.  We make our way, and effort and time give us cushion and dignity.  And as we age, we're riding higher in the saddle, seeing more terrain. (p. 203)

The accident has formed me.  I can no more discard it than I can discard having grown into adulthood.  But I am grown now.  And because I am, I can say no.  I can say no to the hectoring, blistery hurt.  I can say to myself:  It's all right to take in the winter beach and grass smells, and crackle back across the sand of the road, and smile at the faces you love. (p. 205)

City of Bones

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare was first of interest to me because Clare's career started as a Harry Potter fan fic writer.  See here for a brief list of the various scandals (proving that there is always someone staying up too late because someone is wrong, plagarizing, or being mean on the internet).   I've had longstanding criticisms of the Harry Potter series, beginning with the extreme length of book four (Goblet of Fire) and the fact that 100 pages pass before we actually see Harry.  I had similar problems with the rest of the series, and this is relevant here because Clare really is writing in a similar vein.  Clare's City of Bones is plot-driven bestseller fantasy, which frankly is perfectly enjoyable as it is.  But great works of children's and young adult fantasy, in my opinion, are those that received the extensive editing that both Rowling's later works and this book by Clare lack.

City of Bones follows the extraordinary revelations that follow with our heroine Clary's mother suddenly disappears, her mom's friend Luke apparently abandons her, and demons appear in her apartment.  Fortunately, she has just met the Shadowhunters, teens like herself who live in NYC and fight demons in their spare time.  Clary isn't one of them, but she's oddly able to understand and tolerate runes in ways that most "mundanes" are not.  (Note the similarity between "mundane" and Rowling's "muggle").  Although the story bogs periodically bogs down in details of both cute outfits and unnecessarily complex architecture, the main plot is thrillingly suspenseful at times, and Clary is a sturdy and believably sympathetic protagonist.  There's plenty of magically-aided violence, mysterious questions about Clary's identity, and other tropes that do make this a good counterpart to the Harry Potter series.  There's something interesting about a fanfic writer turned novelist, and the fact that the novel is a fun read keeps on troubling those assumptions in ways that are good to think about.

However, I was cringing at racial slurs in the book (a generally insensitive character uses "chico" for a Latino vampire on p. 263, another more sensitive character makes a Jewish joke on p. 304 (though the character making the joke is revealed to be Jewish himself on p. 357 and possibly earlier), and "she's got nixie eyes" which admittedly is a fantastical "race" and so only loosely related). I later realized that Clare is not entirely unconscious of the first and third slur, and in fact they partially serve to set up a reversal when the looked-down-upon magical Downworlders (vampires, werewolves, etc.) turn out to be key to triumph in the end over the evil Valentine and his Circle.  Still the Latino slur and Jewish joke are not addressed as part of the magical prejudices, and the idea of racism--magical or otherwise--as a personal attitude problem rather than a systemic cultural problem rests unexamined. 

There's a fair amount of Star Wars here too, as when highly attracted teens turn out to be siblings, and the villain turns out to be father to them both.  Still.  Some folks will love the sprawling nearly-500-page world that Clare creates here precisely because it works from familiar tropes that they have thoroughly enjoyed elsewhere.  If you like bestseller fiction generally and/or were a big fan of the later Harry Potter or Twilight books, this might be a great read for you (ignoring the ethnic slurs).  Personally, I did very much like the poetry quotations throughout the novel (they set up various sections) and those led me to explore and re-explore a couple of poets, including William Carlos Williams and his poem The Descent which I'd recommend (p. 387, first page of Part Three).  Clare may not achieve the grandeur she strives for, but she hits grand notes occasionally, and the result is a fun fantasy read (first in a trilogy).

Into the Closet, part 1

Victoria Flanagan's book Into the Closet: Cross-Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children's Literature and Film has been on my to-read list for awhile.  This post will only cover up to the end of chapter 2; I'll write about the rest of the book in a different post.

What I'm noticing, having read Flanagan's other work, is that she has solidified some interesting ideas here, especially in chapter two, about three models of cross-dressing.  I'm currently only interested in two of them:  female-to-male (FTM) cross dressing and transgendered cross dressing.  The FTM model is specific to children's literature, which Flanagan points out has relatively little sexual content.  Remarkably, these sorts of books show females cross dressing quite easily, "passing" as male immediately and without fanfare.  "The majority of children's texts that feature a female cross-dressing theme spend little or no time describing the newly adopted attire of the cross-dressing character.  Their central concern is whether the character can act like a boy." (p. 27)  This, too, female characters accomplish both easily and heroically, and in fact she "incorporates both masculine and feminine behaviors into her gender performance" (30) such that:  "The female cross-dresser's successful performance of masculinity disrupts the presumption that gender is biologically decreed by dissecting masuclinity into a series of behaviors and gestures that can be learned by a female subject just as easily."  (p. 31) 

The transgendered model is what Flanagan uses to talk about books that include sexuality, puberty, or anything about coming-of-age, basically anything that pushes beyond the (as she describes it) asexuality of childhood and gestuers toward adulthood "where the many dilemmas of contemporary adult transvestism and transsexualism begin to encroach on an otherwise simple and straightforward story of gender disguise." (p. 28)  Alanna (the Tamora Pierce character) is the prime example here, with the story of her getting her period pushing her character toward adulthood.

These are my current thoughts:  while Flanagan's model is an excellent starting point, I see problems inherent in separating childhood female cross-dressing and the resultant "liberatory and fluid conceptualization of gender"(xvi) from the next stages of life, those that involve puberty, young adult sexuality, and coming of age.  I want to argue that gender and sexual orientation are inextricably linked.  One way to do that would be to reveal that sexuality and sexual content are also present in children's books, albeit indirectly in many cases.

If I could re-read Alanna by Pierce and show that there is sideways sexual content, homophobia, or other evidence of biological sex, gender performance, and sexual orientation being tied together in inextricable ways, that might be something worth writing about in the article I'm editing.

More to come on chapters 3-8!

Quotes I'm mulling over:

"By disengaging itself from the sexually oriented world of adult transvestism, the construction of female cross-dressing favored by children's texts allows them to reclaim it as their own, refashioning female cross-dressing into a clever strategy for the interrogation of traditional gender categories." (p. 20)

"She [the FTM cross-dressing protagonist] has nothing to lose--in terms of socially constructed gender status--by deciding to discard her femininity temporarily in favor of masculinity.  Her cross-dressing enables her to improve her gender status (becasue masculinity is traditionally regarded as superior to femininity), and therefore does not pose a threat to her femininity.  She ultimately resumes her original gender position as a heroine, having redoubtably proved herself as a hero.  Her final victory is her ability to bridge the distinctive literary traditions of masculine and feminine success, ingeniously weaving them together in order to deconstruct and interrogate their modes of operation." (p. 21)
     [I'm thinking of the sexual threats to both Charlotte and Mary/Bloody Jack...  stepping out of gender identity is stepping into both power and vulnerability, specifically sexual vulnerability.]

"A person's gender, as these children's books and films demonstrate, is principally based on how that person behaves rather than who he or she is inside." (p. 30, cites Culler)
     [There's a "real person" problem here... mixing postmodernism and liberation doesn't necessarily work...  Flanagan tackles that somewhat:]
"The concept of 'agency' is similarly problematic here because an ideological distinction must be drawn between the humanist definition of agency, wherein people are viewed as individuals who have the capacity to act reflectively and purposively, and Butler's postmodern concept of agency, which is specifically located in actions that disrupt and vary the normally reiterative nature of gender performance." (p. 42) 
     [p. 48 also touches on "who they actually are" vs. prescribed gender... do we exist outside of prescriptive norms that we embrace or resist?]