Month: July 2015

REACTIONS – Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider

Goodreads description: 

From the author of The Beginning of Everything: two teens with a deadly disease fall in love on the brink of a cure.

At seventeen, overachieving Lane finds himself at Latham House, a sanatorium for teens suffering from an incurable strain of tuberculosis. Part hospital and part boarding school, Latham is a place of endless rules and confusing rituals, where it’s easier to fail breakfast than it is to flunk French.

There, Lane encounters a girl he knew years ago. Instead of the shy loner he remembers, Sadie has transformed. At Latham, she is sarcastic, fearless, and utterly compelling. Her friends, a group of eccentric troublemakers, fascinate Lane, who has never stepped out of bounds his whole life. And as he gradually becomes one of them, Sadie shows him their secrets: how to steal internet, how to sneak into town, and how to disable the med sensors they must wear at all times.

But there are consequences to having secrets, particularly at Latham House. And as Lane and Sadie begin to fall in love and their group begins to fall sicker, their insular world threatens to come crashing down.

Told in alternating points of view, Extraordinary Means is a darkly funny story about doomed friendships, first love, and the rare miracle of second chances. 

  • Things I loved: There was terrific imagination and thought given to this topic of tuberculosis in the present day. It’s incredibly relevant to discuss infectious disease given the fairly happenstance hysteria over various maladies. While some mania has been a bit much bordering on offensive and others should be discussed more in many households, this topic of an untreatable infection has been explored time and time again throughout books and movies. I love Schneider’s choice to center this topic around young adults being alienated from society – for good reason. So often in YA we are treated to adolescents who are treated poorly because adults just don’t get them. Here you have kids removed from society for their benefit as well as society’s. It’s an interesting and unique conflict where there is no clear villain yet very real pain. The teenagers were not, in fact, caricatures, and nothing felt over-done or unrealistic – quite an achievement given that their school and this scenario is fictionalized (though based on past historical events).
  • Things I have question about: I can’t quite discuss my questions too fully without spoilers, but I think some of the points I bring up in a previous post might apply here. Any time YA or kids’ books deal with illness or death can be tricky, yet I think Schneider handles it tastefully.
  • Bottom line: Definitely a book for John Green fans, people who enjoy alternating POVs, and anyone interested in going down the “what if” path about infectious diseases without venturing into full-out dystopia.

REACTIONS* – The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato

4/5 Goodreads stars

This book was heralded as one of the best books of 2015 so far, and I can definitely see why. A Goodreads reviewer described it like this: “…a faux-academic text/true crime account, replete with footnotes, about the disappearance of a fictional pop star, that takes numerous detours into various ideas, conspiracies, and subplots.” This is the best way I can describe it without giving away too many spoilers, which unfortunately for me, were embedded in the actual description of this book. If you’re at all interested in this book, read what you see here and avoid reading much else – it’ll make the ending that much more incredible.

  • Things I loved: The Chicago setting was breath-taking. One of the characters works at the Rainbo, which is a bar I am lovingly acquainted with, and she and her partner also live in Humboldt Park and Ukrainian Village – neighborhoods I know extremely well. They visit awesome places like Old Town Aquarium and the Violet Hour, and it is seriously cool. I loved how real the made up portions of this book seemed and how fake the real portions felt. It messed with my mind in the best way possible, and I found myself Googling constantly out of immense curiosity.
  • Things I have questions about: There were multiple levels of framing this narrative that I think I like, but it made following the narrative that much more confusing (but I think in a good way). Also, the book devolves in many parts into long, drawn out tangents about an obscure social movement that eventually ends up being essential to the plot and pays off. In the moment, it doesn’t feel like it though. You are constantly back-tracking to previous events, which again, if you are tolerant of non-linear narratives, this might not be a huge problem. Lastly, the footnotes. Like I hinted at in a previous post, these can become tiresome quickly and might not make this book for everyone. I found some to be irritating, but it contributed to the atmosphere and the voice of this book so effectively that I can forgive them. Below, you can see how it made the absurdness of this book seem authentic somehow with links to fake interviews and websites that just seem so real.

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  • Bottom line: Pick this up if you like mysteries, Chicago settings, and want to try something new. There was definitely nothing I hated about this, and there were certainly things that left me feeling awed.

*Please note I will be calling what some might argue are reviews on my blog REACTIONS instead – this is for several reasons. To begin with, I find “reviews” to be fraught with feelings I later change or am concerned with. I stumble upon at least half of my Goodreads star reviews and feel very differently about these books months or even years later. Therefore, my REACTIONS catalogue what I’m feeling right this moment and are subject to change at any time. Lastly, there are smarter people than me who write reviews of these books, and you should read those if you want “professional” thoughts that are usually more timely. Don’t get me started on the fact that I haven’t read this yet.

Right Book, Right Time

Book Riot recently published a piece describing the experience of reading the Right Book at the Right Time. Writer Kat Howard (@KatWithSword) goes on to describe how this means engaging with difficult texts at times when you are ready for them and similarly indulging in lighter texts when also seemingly necessary. I can think of several important times when I did this successfully and felt a need of mine met in a way I am still to this day very grateful for.

  1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison – I’ve never met a person who read this book and didn’t like it. I was fortunate enough to read this in both my senior year of high school as well as my senior year of college. In my senior year of high school, I was beginning to learn about the privileges I benefitted from as a result of my race and why I needed to be made constantly reflective and conscious of them. Similarly, at the end of college, I gained a deeper enduring understand of what my privilege will mean in the world at large and apart from my bubbles of where I grew up or where I went to college. The importance I ascribe to re-reading will be left for another time, but suffice it to say I find it essential to return to texts and experience them over and over again in different stages of life. This book is the perfect fit for this exercise.
  2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King – This was a book I read right after making a major location change in my life. It’s not a book I would typically pick up as I always maintained that Stephen King was just not for me. However, I was feeling sad having to leave a book club community that nurtured me during my time in my former home, and this was their next pick; I read it to feel connected one last time. At 880 pages, it was literally a long and difficult journey; the story itself, however, was even more devastating. You cannot take a reader on a journey like this and not have them come out the other side a little bit changed. I’d guess the significant loss of community in my own life made this book that much more powerful.
  3. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn – The same book club I mentioned above was reading this the first time I joined. I’ve mentioned before how this book began my post-college journey into reading non-fiction for fun. Beginning that new life after college wasn’t easy (does anyone transition to Real Life seamlessly?). This book contained information on some astonishingly cruel and urgent problems for women in other countries, so while a challenging topic to read about, it gave me incredible perspective and was very important at that time period.
  4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – I read this book in college in a Modern American Literature course. This book is considered essential reading for any lit major, yet reading through the lens of a pedophile is by no means an easy task. I try hard to avoid being narrow-minded and fully believe in reading controversial texts. This, nevertheless, needed to be a requirement for me or else I never would have read it. This book will forever change my experience with reading literature in the canon, and I could never have read it in any other context aside from a college course.
  5. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan – To end on a happier note, this book was a blessing to me in my first year teaching. I’d always appreciated YA books, but this was a book that began a series that created an experience very similar to reading Harry Potter for the first time. I was content seeing this as “professional development” cuz hey – it’s for the kids! But really, it gave me an escape during a tough time, and I still view this as one of the most important books I’ve ever read. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart also fits this criteria and time frame in my life.

Books are not always therapeutic; I often read for fun, information, relaxation, or again to find some community. But if and when they have some occasional, grander influences, I will continue to be grateful for the solace and/or perspective they can bring me during crucial times in my life.

We All Love Judy Blume’s Books – So Why Aren’t More Made Into Films?

Why do we want to see on screen what we imagine in books? Why are we not satisfied with keeping our most treasured characters in our mind’s eye?

… many great films are brilliant adaptations of books. So what is it about adapting Blume’s stories specifically that made me feel uncomfortable?

My reaction to the question is more personal, more simple and more essentially fearful than a theoretical argument could explain: If I had watched a film of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret then I perhaps wouldn’t have bothered to read the book. And then I may not have read anything for pleasure at all. Ever.

I found this article by Julia Wagner at Huffington Post about book-to-screen adaptations to be an interesting one. My opinion on these types of projects changes on the regular. People often assume I feel angry, mistrustful, or disappointed that some of my favorite books in the world become films; in fact, however, I love seeing characters and worlds I adore re-interpreted and brought to life in a way that is different from what I most likely already imagined. Furthermore, there are many projects that I think make better films than books, and I don’t feel disappointed to have to state my opinion on that. Of course, there are also plenty of books that become movies that disappoint tremendously, but the upside is that it doesn’t matter – the source material still rocks, and I can always return to it on my own.

It’s important for me to keep in mind, though, that books for kids and young adults have a higher risk attached; like she points out, there are often “trigger books” that catapult a kid’s life-long love of books… or at least a life-long feeling of NOT hate. What we do when we make them films is we never allow that step into independent world-building and imagination to take root, and by showing your kid a film of something that is also a book before they read it, you’re removing the chance for that book to be the One That Made Books Awesome.

I encourage kids I’ve taught and their parents I’ve talked with to make it a routine – kid sees a movie trailer they like and are excited about. Tell them you’ll take them once they’ve either read it independently or you read it with them. It’s fun to discuss, compare/contrast, and develop an opinion on them. Kids will have an incentive to read. And who knows? They might beg for every other book that author ever wrote, and then you know you did something right.

What’s the One That Made Books Awesome to you? Comment and share!

The Best Books of 2015 So Far

Book Riot presented The Best Books of 2015 so far last week. I’m going to a highlight a few that I’ve either read or are on my (very) short list to be read soon.

  • The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato

Rainbow Rowell’s FANGIRL for adults, written with a penchant for old maps and undocumented 15th century explorers. For literary readers with a taste for suspense: two women hunt for a missing pop star and become ensnared in her secret society, following clues through the dark underbelly of Chicago.

I just started reading this book today. So far, I love the Chicago setting, and the author is doing some really interesting things with her narrator and footnotes. Question: does anyone like footnotes? Generally, I am inclined to say hell no, but this has been a hilarious journey thus far.

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Hailed by Toni Morrison as “required reading,” a bold and personal literary exploration of America’s racial history by “the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States” (The New York Observer)

A memoir from someone saying some of the most interesting, compelling, and somewhat controversial things about race in our country, this is a must-read for anyone interested in race politics and the necessary dialogue books like this inspire.

  • In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar

These nine globe-trotting, unforgettable stories from Mia Alvar, a remarkable new literary talent, vividly give voice to the women and men of the Filipino diaspora. Here are exiles, emigrants, and wanderers uprooting their families from the Philippines to begin new lives in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere—and, sometimes, turning back again.

On deck for my August book club meeting, I’ve heard about this book in four different places. I’ve had a lukewarm relationship with short stories until several years ago when I read Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri; I think I read it it one sitting with my mouth half open and my heart beating quickly the entire time. Since then, I’ve been much more open-minded to to give collected short stories a try.

  • More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again–but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely.

When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is.

I received this book in my June Owl Crate box and have been eager to start it ever since. YA books with LGBT characters are few and far between, and I’ve heard from several people that it’s a beautifully written narrative.

  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

For the past three years, Jon Ronson has traveled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us, people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly or made a mistake at work. Once the transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know, they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job.

This book passed The Non-Fiction Test, but just barely. I read it with colleagues, and I couldn’t stop talking about it with people for months. I’m shocked how much more I now empathize now with people I never thought I’d empathize with given how much more I think about public shaming, social media, and the responsibility of being a human so plugged in to the world around me. It didn’t answer many questions I had, but instead provoked many more of my own – this is one of the better outcomes for a book to have in one’s life, I think.

  • Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

“Whom to marry, and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence.” So begins Spinster, a revelatory and slyly erudite look at the pleasures and possibilities of remaining single. Using her own experiences as a starting point, journalist and cultural critic Kate Bolick invites us into her carefully considered, passionately lived life, weaving together the past and present to examine why­ she—along with over 100 million American women, whose ranks keep growing—remains unmarried.

Books like this appeal to me more and more as I get older–for obvious reasons. I heard of another one recently with similar themes except it gathers thoughts from people without children. I think the most important things to keep in mind when reading books like this is that they shouldn’t be criticisms of people who do indeed follow the life path that is more conventional; instead, I anticipate them being interesting, sharp insights into the hilarity of being so different from those around you.

We still have five and a half months to go, and 2015 is far from being over. I recently finished book #50 of the year, and I have some personal favorites of my own not mentioned on the list. Stay tuned for my re-cap on the year this December!

Why do I read? I just can’t help myself – Part 3 of a series (continued from The Purpose of YA)

The Goodreads explanation of this book:

The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor and Park in this exhilarating and heart-wrenching love story about a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die.

Soon to be a major motion picture starring Elle Fanning!
 
Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.

Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.

This is an intense, gripping novel perfect for fans of Jay Asher, Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Gayle Forman, and Jenny Downham from a talented new voice in YA, Jennifer Niven.

Warning: spoilers below

To borrow from Sherman Alexie’s point in my last post, I understand that topics in novels like All the Bright Places are important for young adults. It’s required that young adult writers discuss themes of suicide, mental health, and fitting in. However, I believe these topics require great care and attention to their messaging. I read three separate articles that describe why this book falls short in being meticulous with its messages and how alarmed people should be. Finch chooses to commit suicide, and Violent ends up being the one to find his body. I commend the author for taking risks in going to this extent and not shying away from incredibly difficult content. However, I find myself wondering – did this have to happen? And if so, why was so much of the book flippant and silly and glib? Is it authentic to have a suicidal kid get “saved,” or should more kids be committing suicide in books and movies? I find films like Dead Poets Society to be incredibly difficult to watch, re-visit, and even recommend to kids because I grapple with this question myself. One way to resolve it is to point out that traumatic content is received depending entirely on the viewer/reader’s experiences and triggers; therefore, it isn’t up to me to decide what is appropriate or isn’t. It’s up to individuals. This gets complicated, though, when we produce and market content specifically for young adults and claim that it’s important and appropriate.

Last year, I attended a young adult literature conference that had a panel of authors whose books were concerned with serious topics of depression, suicide, eating disorders, and mental illness. They were all brilliant women who had clearly spent countless hours researching the things they wrote about; not a single person sat down and said, “I’ll picture what it’s like to be suicidal and hope people like it.” That being said, one author in particular complained about being “softly censored,” in that librarians weren’t featuring her book because they were afraid kids would get the “wrong idea” or be negatively influenced to be suicidal, depressed, or ill themselves. Alexie challenges this decision-making when he says,

Does Ms. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?

It’s preposterous to protect young adults from learning about heavy topics and trauma. Nevertheless, do I sometimes steer children away from books like All the Bright Places? The answer is – yes. I want my students reading books that affect, educate, console, inspire, and sadden them. But they have to be phenomenally intentional and responsible about it. And while this book featured beautiful language and some incredibly brave writing decisions, I can’t write this off as something I’d recommend. The rate at which books are being written and then becoming best-sellers that feature controversial content like this send a variety of messages including but not limited to why suicide is a valid option, that severe mental health issues shouldn’t ever be addressed with medication, or that young adults are just misunderstood and should never seek help from adults. The articles I linked to above expand more explicitly on how this applies to All the Bright Places.

Ultimately, I’d like my kids to read about suicide, rape, mental illness, murder, and trauma. I’d also like them to read about marriages, boyfriends, girlfriends, difficult tests, sports, going to college, brothers, sisters, moms, dads, current events, and opinion pieces. I’d like them to read The Fault in Our Stars one day and pick up a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt the next. Everyone should always be aiming to Try New Things. And they shouldn’t all be about suicide (though some of them can be, and they should be great).

NOTE:

I do think Rainbow Rowell’s portrayal of mental illness in Fangirl is an incredibly respectful, authentic one. Furthermore, when reading about Theodore Finch in this book, I was constantly reminded of Leonard Bankhead from The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

The Purpose of YA – Part 2 of a series (continued from “Why do I Read?”)

Gary Paulsen’s quote starting with “Why do I read?” from my last post is one I’ve shared many times, either in my classroom, at school literacy events, poetry open mics with kids, and extracurricular book clubs. I have asked kids to perform it on a YouTube video for a presentation and even had a colleague who had kids write and perform their own versions of poems answering this very question.

As adults, most people might say we read for information – I read the news, opinions, the weather, sports. I read for my job. I read e-mails because I have to. I read to be informed, to feel happy, to feel satisfied, to feel aware. I read perhaps to not sound stupid among my peers, or to in fact sound extra smart around them. I read to feel inspired or to relax.

For young kids and middle-grade kids, we want them to become literate adults; therefore, we have them practice. Also, I think parents may also use reading as a time to bond with their child, and for teachers, reading is a great opportunity to teach character, empathy, compassion, and self-awareness–especially about issues regarding race, religion, illness, gender, sexuality, etc.

Walter Dean Myers built on this idea here when he discussed the severe consequences of underrepresenting certain groups of people in children’s books:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

But for young adults, the adults’ answers and children’s answers to “why do I read” don’t easily apply. The YA genre has changed drastically since I was a young adult (see new adult here). With the advent of dystopian mania (i.e. Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.) and romance/death/melodrama (John Green everything) turned into their inevitable multi-billion dollar film franchises, it’s easy to become skeptical and perhaps a bit disenchanted with the purpose of what young adult literature has evolved into. However, Gary Paulsen’s quote, I think, captures the purpose of what reading for young adults should be: “I read for strength to help me when I feel broken, discouraged, and afraid. I read when I’m angry at the whole world. I read when everything is going right. I read to find hope.” If that doesn’t capture the essence of YA books, I don’t know what does.

In Sherman Alexie’s “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood,” he builds on this more eloquently:

Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.

And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them.

As a child, I read because books–violent and not, blasphemous and not, terrifying and not–were the most loving and trustworthy things in my life. I read widely, and loved plenty of the classics so, yes, I recognized the domestic terrors faced by Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. But I became the kid chased by werewolves, vampires, and evil clowns in Stephen King’s books. I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

This idea of teenagers bleeding is an important one – because they are. Not every single one, and not always the ones you would think, but growing up is hard. I write all this to say that YA authors and YA consumers have a responsibility to critically examine what this genre has become, what young adults ‘need’ to read based on Alexie’s argument, and yet how much of what has become popular in YA theoretically meets this criteria but unfortunately sends damaging and destructive messages. This thought will be built upon with my upcoming post on All The Bright Places, and I’m going to do more reading/reflecting on what does it mean to ‘ban books’ or censor kids from content that we as adults deem isn’t ‘appropriate.’