Wednesday, November 28, 2012

YA Reading, Round 7: Fantasy

Normally, the fantasy genre is not really my thing. I like books grounded in reality. I like characters and situations I can relate to. But you know what? These picks surprised me. I didn’t totally love them all, but I enjoyed them. And I found myself more engrossed in the stories than I would’ve imagined.

That’s sorta the fun thing about this class—I’m forced to read things I would never pick up on my own. And that’s usually my reading goal anyway! Maybe I haven’t been doing that as well as I had thought…

I had recently added Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol to my own to-read list after I saw a write-up on it somewhere. I do really enjoy the graphic format, so I was pleased to be forced to get to it sooner rather than later. Anya is Russian but you’d hardly know that upon meeting her; she’s purposefully lost the accent and turned herself into a typical American teenager. In fact, the first thing you notice about her is how moody and perpetually annoyed she seems—so typical. One day, in a huff, Anya falls down a well and discovers a ghost who’s been trapped down there for almost 100 years. Once Anya makes it back above ground, she discovers the ghost has followed, and it actually turns out to be great to have a ghost as a best friend. She can help you cheat on tests and learn important info about the guy you’re crushing on. But then Anya makes a discovery that her ghost may not be as good-intentioned as she thought.

Ultimately, Anya’s Ghost is a simple story about a girl who feels like an outsider, who feels like she can’t fully fit into the new world she’s in, and who feels such pressure to change herself entirely to do so. The artwork is very easy to follow for a beginning graphic reader, and this story has a lot of different appeal factors—it’s part paranormal, part mysterious, part multicultural, part coming-of-age. It’s got a lot to offer.

I chose to read Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty because of its premise…and I liked it even though I soon realized that I had actually mis-read the premise a bit. I thought it involved time travel, and I thought, “Awesome! Time traveling from a whole other era!” Well…it is not about time travel. Just gonna throw that out there now.

The story is set in Victorian England, prior to the turn of the 20th-century. Gemma Doyle has grown up in colonial India and desperately wants to return to England. The tragic yet mysterious death of her mother gets Gemma her wish as she heads back to England for boarding school, the very same one her mother attended. Gemma doesn’t make the trip alone, though; there’s a mysterious stranger following her, one she recognizes from the confusing day in the market that lead to her mother’s death. She’s also started having visions that hint there is much more to the story than she thought—much more meaning magical realms and unthinkable evil, all of which can be released into Gemma’s world, good and bad.

Gemma is an interesting character, because she doesn’t feel like she belongs in any of the worlds she is in. The friendships she forms with classmates are wonderfully and realistically complex—self-serving and petty, yet demanding and utterly dependent. It’s not too “high-fantasy” and therefore wouldn’t be a turn-off to non-fantasy fans. It’s also the first in a trilogy…which I will proceed to read as soon as this semester is over! I think it was the historical mystery aspect that got me.

Perhaps the most well-known from this set is Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, also the first in a planned trilogy. My professor loves this book and hasn’t stopped talking about it all semester, even prior to us reading it. This, though, was actually my least favorite of these three. The setting is simple enough—Karou lives in Prague and seems like an average teen in a normal world…at first. But Karou has a lot of secrets about her that she doesn’t even have the answer to, most importantly—where is she from? She was raised by a demon and always a part of a fantastical world that has never seemed anything but normal. She runs errands for him, traveling all over the world in an instant, but she’s never understood exactly why. And then she meets a stranger in a dark alley in Marrakesh, the beautiful Akiva who is just as mysterious as she is, and Karou figures there is a lot she needs to learn.

The reality Taylor painted for this story has a lot more complexity in terms of fantasy than any story I’ve read before. For some teens, it may be hard to completely grasp, especially if they’re not usually fantasy readers, but once you grasp the norms of Karou’s world, it’s easier to follow. And it’s satisfying to read how little pieces of the puzzle are slowly revealed as you learn more about Karou’s world. Most people walk away from this book considering it a Romeo & Juliet type love story, but I think it’s a lot more than that. It also has the universal themes like identity, love, and loyalty that are easier topics to understand and relate to. Teens (and adults) seem to loooooove this book, but it was just ok to me—didn’t love it, but didn’t dislike it either. I don’t feel much drive to continue on in the series, but if a teen does, they’ll be happy the story’s not over yet!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

YA Reading, Round 6: Multicultural

I think teen readers will find Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese either incredibly wonderful or incredibly frustrating. Me? I’m just somewhere in the apathetic middle. This graphic novel is actually telling three stories simultaneously—the Monkey King’s, a popular Chinese fable; Jin Wang’s, the only Chinese-American in his new school; and Danny’s, a popular teen whose life is being ruined by his grossly stereotypical Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee. The stories don’t tie together until a twist at the very end, and this is the reason it may be frustrating to some readers. It’s hard to see the point of all these stories until the end, and a reader may just give up. Or, a reader may love the format and be engrossed the entire time.

Ultimately, American Born Chinese is a story about identity and accepting who you are. On the whole, I just felt disconnected from it, which may have to do with both the format and the stories themselves. I felt sorta like Yang was writing this for someone particular in mind, or like he was intentionally being a bit cheeky in his storytelling. And my reaction was just, “Ok….and?” Maybe I just don’t have enough of a personal, cultural connection to what the author was saying, but I felt like an outsider reading this; and a good book should connect you with the characters, no matter if you share a background or not. Its fast-paced, graphic style will be appealing for reluctant readers, but I’m not certain about its mass appeal to a YA audience.

In Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins, Asha is sort of stuck in Calcutta with her mother and older sister, Reet. They’re living with their in-laws while Baba (father) is finding a job in New York. And now they’re just waiting…waiting to follow and waiting to resume their lives in a whole new world. Immediately, we see that this is a world with very strict tradition. Asha is an intelligent, independent, and athletic young girl, but her aunt, uncle, and grandmother don’t approve of her usual tomboy behavior. Further, Reet is of marrying age, and though she’s not ready for it, the family thinks it’s time to find her a match (most likely to help the financial burden of three extra mouths to feed).

Asha and Reet are forced to grow up following rules of a society to which they are not accustomed. Suddenly, their opinions and independence don’t seem to matter, and they find that the traditional rules of Calcutta are very limiting. Many readers may find the rules and injustices extreme, but these characters are representative of what many persons around the world have had or are still having to deal with. Many parts of the 1970s tumultuous Indian setting may not be relatable to a reader, but dealing with rules, making sacrifices, and finding one’s place are universal themes. Good issues to think about and good topics for discussion.

The Sound of Munich by Suzanne Nelson is one title in the S.A.S.S. (Students Across the Seven Seas) series. It’s not “multicultural literature” by its standard definition. The series follows American teen as they travel the world through a high school exchange program. The plots seem to be relatively simple, idyllic, and also pretty predictable—adventure, friendship, family, romance; in this one, Siena leaves her home in California to find the man in Germany who, decades ago, helped smuggle her father’s family past the Berlin Wall. Naturally, this semester abroad opens Siena’s eyes to new history, new people, and new ways of life.

Now you can see why this isn’t exactly “multicultural” at its grittiest, but I like that this angle of “world literature” was included in our unit of study. A character like Siena is easily relatable—and maybe easier than a story written from a particular ethnic or cultural perspective. These books are like armchair travel; readers get to experience new places in a way that feels comfortable and easy to them. Yes, they’re mostly lighthearted and pretty cheesy in that everything comes together perfectly, but they’re still opening the reader’s eyes to a new world. These are good intro books to multicultural literature, because maybe, if your interest was piqued by the setting you visited, you’ll want to explore further. I’m sure they’ve been called sweet or lame or even awfully misrepresentative, but I probably would’ve eaten them up as a young teen.

I’m not going to say much about the last book I read for this unit, but it’s too entertaining to exclude completely. Winners and Losers is one title in the Urban Underground series by Anne Schraff. The story follows seemingly Latino characters in a setting that, despite the Urban Underground theme, seems incredibly suburban. I feel like the author just had to throw in some key words like “barrio” with decidedly ethnically-named characters, and voila! You have urban fiction! Our class unanimously found this completely “un-urban” but maybe that doesn’t matter, because, as one student pointed out, isn’t a lot of adult “urban fiction” grounded in fantasy romance escapism? Anyway I guess the themes are still pretty universal, with human characters and all that. But for a good chuckle, can we just take a moment to look at a photo of Ms. Schraff? Yeah. “Urban.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Fiction | Love and Loathing in Friendship

It has sadly been a loooong time since I’ve been able to attend one of my book club’s monthly meetings. The last time I attended was in May! Thankfully, our beloved host bookstore survived the hurricane, and, thanks to my Goodreads friendship with another book club member, I was able to find out meeting details, despite the store having no power the week before it. So last Friday it was book club reunited! At last!

The book selected was Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, translated from Italian and published by indie bookstore favorite Europa. Ferrante has written three novels prior to this one, all apparently shorter in length, and this one is the first in a planned trilogy (more on that later).

My Brilliant Friend starts by introducing our narrator Elena, a woman in her sixties, who is reflecting on her 1950s childhood and adolescence with her best friend, Lila. Right off the bat as children, Elena and Lila are not much alike. Elena is good, while Lila is bad; Elena is passive, while Lila is aggressive. These dissimilarities expand as they grow up. Elena has to work hard in school, while Lila is naturally brilliant; Elena is plagued by adolescent awkwardness, while Lila matures beautifully.

Elena and Lila have a typical adolescent friendship, one that is littered with competition and animosity that runs (mostly) quietly below the surface. It’s an accurate portrayal of the internal conflicts one has with a friendship, be it jealousy, competition, etc. You wish the best for your friend while at the same time hoping you come out on top; you’re horridly jealous of her looks but you want to be seen with her. We hear the conflicts of Elena’s friendship with Lila—thoughts of Elena’s that Lila may never even be aware of—but they stem from Elena’s own insecurities. Essentially, Lila highlights Elena’s own flaws to herself and it causes Elena to both despise her and idolize her.

As a reader, I felt I never knew much about Lila’s perspective, how she feels towards her friendship with Elena. We feel distant from Lila, even though we follow her day to day through Elena. Perhaps it’s just a consequence of Elena’s storytelling—she’s writing about the effect the friendship had on herself, internally, and is less concerned on the thoughts and feelings of Lila. It’s just another example of that selfishness found in friendships.

Growing up in the 1950s in a small neighborhood of Naples, Lila and Elena are severely limited as women by the society in which they live. Part of their friendship stems from their mutual distaste of the state of this society, but they deal with their frustrations in different ways. Lila is an aggressive woman and resorts to the same actions and behaviors she is trying hard to escape. To her, this is the only option because she would otherwise remain the passive woman she hates so much. Elena takes her frustrations out on her mother, finding her the representation of everything she doesn’t want to become. Both reject the role for women in their society but have different solutions. Elena finds an escape with an education, while Lila plans to marry rich to get out of a society shaped by poverty.

Really, the very fact that they strive for a different kind of life is what makes Elena and Lila notable characters. Their world is so miniscule, encompassing only a few blocks, and it’s one of those worlds that is easy to get sucked into because you know nothing else. It’s illustrated perfectly when Elena takes a trip into city center that, though only a few miles away, feels like a foreign land to her. She comments on how quiet it feels. All she knows is a society where violence and fighting are the norm. Abuse and arguments are so commonplace that a world without that appears odd to Elena. The setting so strongly defines the characters’ perspectives, and you wonder if it was, in fact, commonplace or if Ferrante paints such a small world to emphasize the characters own experiences. Because growing up, one’s world is small and self-centric, anyway.

I was really disappointed to see that this was published so recently and that the next in the series is not out yet. Lately, I’ve found I don’t have much motivation to continue series I’ve started for one reason or another (Sea of Poppies, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Hunger Games, Palace Walk). They’ve just lacked the something that makes me want to keep reading. But this ended in such a way that wasn’t a satisfying enough conclusion. It’s like a character-driven tv show, where you don’t necessarily care what happens next, but you need to know how their everyday life turns out. There is more to these characters, and we’ve seen just enough of a peek into their futures that we want to know how they get there.

Friday, November 9, 2012

YA Reading, Round 5: Historical

Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied has been on my queue for about as long as I’ve been writing this blog, but I didn’t realize until it was on my reading list for class that it’s considered a YA book.

The story follows sixteen-year-old Evie who is about as naive as they come. Her stepfather Joe has returned home to New York after World War II, and the family’s postwar normalcy resumes pretty quickly. Someone, though, has been trying to get in touch with Joe, and he decides to drive the family, on a whim, down to Palm Beach for vacation, even though summer has just ended. Everything changes for Evie in Palm Beach. As a teenager aching to grow up, she gets her first taste of adulthood with fancy clothes and a crush on a dashing young man named Peter who served in Joe’s company during the war. But then a tragedy occurs that leaves Evie searching for the truth in all she’s seen and learning that she hadn’t really grown up as much as she thought.

This was a National Book Award winner which really surprised me. I thought it was okay…not great but not bad, and not incredibly memorable. The thing about this book for a YA audience, though, is that it has a ton of appeal factors. You could classify it as historical fiction, as coming-of-age, as a mystery, as a thriller. There is an incredible amount of ambiance filling the pages of this book—smoky dinner parties, a muggy noir-ish Floridian atmosphere, the deceiving glamour and simplicity of postwar America—all masking the more serious undertones running throughout. You have this main character who is yearning for womanhood, yearning to be taken more seriously, and as an adult reader, you know what’s going to happen because you can see the reality that immaturity prevents Evie from seeing.

On paper, this has all the ingredients of a book I’d love, but I think Evie got in the way for me. I just never liked her attitude (which may not be a good sign if I plan on working with young adults someday!). It does, though, have plenty of appeal for a YA reader.

At the beginning of the semester, my professor’s comment on Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief was, “Eeeeveryone loves The Book Thief; who doesn’t love The Book Thief?” Well, sorry prof. Maybe you hyped it up too much, but I (and many of my classmates) weren’t as in love as you thought we’d be.

The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany at the beginning of WWII. At its opening, we observe the scene of a young girl at her brother’s grave. She finds an object left in the snow, which turns out to be a book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, fallen out of a gravedigger’s pocket. In the following years, as she’s moved in with a foster family and started a new life, Leisel’s book thievery continues. She’s fallen in love with the written word. Meanwhile, the atmosphere surrounded her small German town is tense. The Nazis are on the rise; Jews are being chased out of town; work is harder to come by for Leisel’s foster parents; and there’s a Jew hiding out in their basement. As the world around Leisel falls apart, she has her books. And, of course, her eyes are opened to what’s happening around her.

So, I am a sap for affecting sentimentality—plot lines that are sometimes sad, sometimes glad (e.g. I can’t keep a dry eye during Parenthood). But there is just something in my emotional make-up that prevents me from getting affected by actual, serious depressing topics. It’s like my brain doesn’t fully process them and keeps them at a distance to prevent me from actually facing the issue. This book is sad; that’s not even up for debate. But it never really upset me, and most people bawl during it. So something just must be wrong with me, and it affected my reaction to it. 

I think this is a difficult book to recommend to a teenager. Really, it’s not a YA book. It can be, for the right reader, but for the majority, I think it has a low appeal. It has an intriguing format in that Death is the narrator, telling the story from an omniscient point of view. And the chapters are told as brief snippets, moments that Death witnesses, with Death’s commentary scattered throughout. Overall, though, I think it’s a tough book to get into. It’s slow-paced and more “literary” in format. I think it’s creative; I think it has merit; I think it is touching. But I just didn’t feel it as much as I expected. And it will take the right reader to get something out of it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Nonfiction | The Plight of the Worker

Believe it or not, Barbara Ehrenreich’s national bestseller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is something I hadn’t before read…and had to read as part of my YA Lit class. Did you know it was one of the most challenged books in libraries during 2010-2011? Our reading list during Banned Books Week included selections from challenge lists, and I opted for this one just because I’d never read it.

I honestly didn’t have much idea what it was about prior to reading, despite all its buzz a few years ago. Ehrenreich performs a bit of an undercover social experiment for this book. She moves from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, starting from scratch in each location. With almost nothing to get her started (except an always-functioning car), she finds a minimum wage-paying, unskilled job and suitable housing, stretching each dollar to live paycheck to paycheck—a lifestyle that is the norm for millions of Americans.

Ehrenreich’s writing is easy to read, and her tone and pace add some light to a subject that can quickly and easily get bogged down by the dark. Her anecdotes often add humor to a situation that, most of the time, feels completely exhausting and hopeless. She also does a good job of putting her experiences in context—whether it’s giving a big picture of housing shortages in an area or an in depth analysis of Walmart’s hiring policies. The author gives just enough context to help with understanding, without feeling like an economics lesson or political lecture.

It was surprising to me that this book was featured on the list of Most Challenged Books of last year. Both of the challenges were in school districts with complaints the book promoted “economic fallacies” and socialist ideas, advocated the use of illegal drugs and profanity, and belittled Christians. So, some people clearly don’t agree with Ehrenreich’s viewpoints. And there are some parts I could take issue with (mostly a general tone from the author that I am different from these people). But I don’t think her opinion or outlook on the matter is what makes this book important. Its very subject matter makes it important. It makes you think. You’re given with a situation—a very real situation of how people live and how our country supports its citizens—and then it’s left to you to form your own opinion about said situation. You can take the fact that’s presented and reflect and respond, agree or disagree, and there it is—you’ve encountered something you may not otherwise have encountered.

To me, the most thought-provoking point was the contrast between “unskilled” labor and the workforce with a college degree. The unskilled labor she covers in this book is hard and exhausting and unappreciated. You’re working to survive, and there’s nothing pretty about it. Meanwhile, my “skilled” desk job is only exhausting to my eyeballs as I stare at a computer all day. It has a higher place in society, but what series of events or developments awarded a job like mine such a status?

If anything, I think the point of this book is to present you with a point you may not have considered, where you can say, “Huh, hadn’t thought of that before.” And then, no matter how small, you’ve got a new perspective to consider.