Friday, May 27, 2011

Listening to...

Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books talk about how blogs are ubiquitous, but how even locally big, loud conversations are, in the grand scheme of things, small, and why no one should fear a bad review--and how those sell books and help people match up with other book people.

She articulated what I haven't quite been able to: readers are sophisticated. They can't be fooled by falsely positive reviews, and they won't just pass books by because of a negative review.

So, if you're blogging or writing a book, what I take away is to be truthful to your core, and not to sweat the disagreements. It's been coming up over and over, this idea that dissent and critique are somehow the antithesis of community, and I don't believe that. (Sarah noted that she wishes more authors could feel like they can review, and that they would--that authors know their genres very well. She acknowledged that it sucks to get a bad review, but you do move on; you have to remember that a review is not about you, but about your book.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

BEA YA Buzz Panel

The session with editors buzzing upcoming YA books is standing room only, packed to the gills well before the start time, with more people pushing in (and really, really hot). (Hint: if you have eight bags of books, don't think you're coming in five minutes late and getting a seat in front.) Every time someone is all eh, young adult books are for losers--well, I guess there are a lot of losers, and I'm proud to be one.

You Had Me at Hello

I always end up in the far left-hand back corner at the children's breakfasts at BEA, no matter how early I think I'm going to be there. Luckily, this year (unlike one past I remember), there is plenty of breakfast, and there are big screens--but really, one needs to listen, mostly. Well, squinting at Brian Selznick's shiny red shoes doesn't count as listening, but the good listening part is that his WONDERSTRUCK nods to FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, a book that I recently re-read and have always loved. And now I have a copy to read!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Out of My MindI wasn't entirely sure that I wanted to read Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper (Simon & Schuster - Atheneum). Without being too specific, I had certain personal preconceptions about the book and what it might be about, and I wasn't interested in some fiction along that vein.

That said, I ended up enjoying Out of My Mind despite myself, and despite several points where I thought the book would go off the rails. Eleven-year-old Melody has cerebral palsy, and her ability to move and to communicate with her family is very limited, but at the same time, she's a very smart girl--and that was my first eyebrow-raise. Of course, we should never assume that a physical disability equals--or comes with--an intellectual one. I have had experience (not always directly) with the extremes, though: the almost-magical discovery that there is a brilliant mind at work with little physical sign of it, and the despair of hoping that someone's still in there. So, I was worried that this was going to be fiction of that super-idealized sort, where it's just--I don't know, not realistic.

What did become realistic for me was Melody's struggle for not just inclusion, but inclusion once she goes to school. She not only has to contend with the petty power struggles and bullying that come with growing up--the ones I think happen no matter how hard we try to encourage children to refrain--but with not fitting in in other ways related to her CP. And then there's the horror that even though Melody is vital to the school's trivia team, they don't see it that way.

Disability advocates will notice a few instances where person-centric language isn't used; I think that the differences make sense in context. One man says that his son is in a wheelchair, where person-centric language would have him say that his son is a wheelchair user, I think; the more important factor, for me, was that he acted to remove an access barrier for Melody without it being a big deal. Also, of course, people with disabilities are not all in agreement about a lot of things, including language use. Those with some knowledge of "the system" may get a little frustrated, too, with the slow pace of access to services like a communication device for Melody and her oddly-planned access to classes in school. I don't recall an IEP meeting for Melody, but it's been a long time since I read this, now (I've had a draft open for months), and it may have happened off-screen.

A fair warning is that Out of My Mind doesn't have the sort of ending where our heroine gets everything she wants, and that feels especially unfair because she starts at such a disadvantage. Yet, I still think this makes for a good middle-grade read, because middle-grade readers are--due to age, etc.--in a state of restriction, and even if their situations are different, I think they'll identify with Melody's desire to be heard and to have more agency. And Melody is a really fantastic character with an outstanding voice. I'd want her on my team.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Frankenstein on a Friday

Mary Shelley

*I think I read an edition from 1833, but it might have been 1826. I read this as part of the Sirens reading list and also because I had it on my review list for the conference newsletter, but as it turns out, I don’t think it will be needed, and so, here.

I admit it: After a few pages of Frankenstein, I wanted to put the book down. Even though I was interested in what it might have to say about women writing monsters, and in how it has influenced so many books and films, I wasn’t enjoying anything about the writing or characters--and my scanned, digitized version was riddled with so many errors that I was getting especially frustrated. I took a break to peek at Wikipedia for a little bit of background information. There, I found out a lot of things. I’ve sometimes confused Mary Shelley with her mother. I’d been told--and since forgotten--that Frankenstein is the monster’s creator, not the monster himself. The monster isn’t green, but a sickly yellow. This wasn’t Mary Shelley’s only book, but it is the most popular today; when it was first published anonymously, it was assumed to be Percy Bysshe Shelley’s work, and a second edition toned down the drama, supposedly with Mary’s cooperation. Armed with these tidbits, I approached Frankenstein with renewed curiosity.

In the end, I don’t know if the extra information helped me with my reading, as I found myself wondering what a reader of yesterday perceived, as opposed to my personal perceptions. You see, Frankenstein is riddled with big-picture monsters: class, race, gender, education inequities, colonialism, and other concerns appear one after another and are abruptly shouldered out of the way, opening multiple threads for further analysis. The question of whether or not people should mess around with nature--or a deity’s work--isn’t entirely buried, but the conflict between Frankstein the creator of the monster and the monster’s resistance to Frankenstein’s power takes a very long time to develop. That said, Frankenstein raises all sorts of interesting questions about monsters, about being a monster, about the value of life, and about revenge and regret.

Frankenstein is also very interesting structurally. The point of view spirals inward slowly; the story begins with the letters of a naive young scientist who hasn’t yet unraveled his own arrogance enough to understand that his ambitions might not be worth the lives of his crew, intensifies with Dr. Frankenstein’s account of creating a monster and then rejecting and fearing it, gives the monster a voice in telling his own tale of searching for place, and then has the monster relate a story of a family that he has observed and their “monsters.” After this close up, the point of view reverses quickly, as if we’ve seen the worst of humanity and recoiled. The tale was first a short story that was later expanded, so I was surprised to find so much structural sophistication.

Overall, while I didn’t truly enjoy Frankenstein, I think it has provided me with a foundation for thinking about monsters, the monstrous, and how monsters are created and defined.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Best Of: One Year Ago

The Ear, the Eye and the ArmI decided that I'd like to highlight some past reads this month, as I'll probably be too busy to do much blogging. I only wrote two reviews last May--well, only two that I published on Blogspot, and I do have some transferring to do, of course--but one of the two reviews is of a book I liked a lot. If you haven't checked out The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, it's a great read.
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