…is right here.
There’s a long tradition of Socialist Worker movie reviews generating major debates, so I am eagerly awaiting responses.
…is right here.
There’s a long tradition of Socialist Worker movie reviews generating major debates, so I am eagerly awaiting responses.
SimonPulse emblazoned the front cover of Deb Caletti’s THE SIX RULES OF MAYBE with an SLJ blurb comparing it to the best of Dessen, and a glance at the back shows that all of Caletti’s books have Dessen-esque covers in overall look even if they lack the emphasis on disembodied body parts.
“Their marketing strategy is to trick you into thinking you’re buying a Sarah Dessen book,” I told Emily (we were at Books of Wonder; I’d never read Caletti). “Works for me.”
And I know why the SLJ blurb said that: it’s that narrative mix of emotional over-articulation, rendered in very deliberate, almost trite, imagery, blended with quick and astringent judgment, so you understand right away that the smart girl who’s narrating is knowing and wry, but not so knowing and wry that she doesn’t think her high school experiences are worth metaphors. And it’s that cadence where the sentences come long and then short, like it’s all flowing out of that girl faster than she can control until she’s pulled up short by her own realizations. I thought nobody did sentence-level pacing like Dessen; Caletti sure comes close. Well. It’s tone and pacing and character fused, because it always adds up to a girl who is looking, looking, looking, and wanting, and there’re reasons why these books, despite their fundamental similarity, never get old for me.
So that’s all to the good, and Caletti maybe isn’t edited as well — multiple passages, especially early, feel overwritten in a way that Dessen rarely does — but at her best she’s quotable as hell in the way of Meg Rosoff or John Green.
But I actually think Caletti does the big picture better than Dessen usually does, and it’s because she lets her protagonist fail harder. Here’s the core piece of my favorite scene:
I wanted to open that smile up wider, to see the Hayden of the afternoon back again. But I suddenly couldn’t think of anything else to say, and the smile was retreating. He was retreating. I could feel the moment of connectedness passing, my chance being lost. I wanted to play and volley and be back in that place we had been together before, that great place. I needed something, something quick — I grasped and caught something silly and lighthearted. Silly and lighthearted would do.
“So, Hayden Renfrew. What was your most embarrassing moment?”
It sounded workable until I said it. As soon as the words slipped out I knew I had done something horribly and terribly wrong. A humiliating misstep. I felt it all in one second of pause. The night, the cigarette smoke lingering in the air, the heaviness of his thoughts — my words were inappropriate and idiotic. Oh God, why had I said that? Why, why, why? And why couldn’t you take back a moment sometimes? One little moment? Is that asking so much? God, I suddenly sounded thirteen. My red shorts and my white tank top felt young and shameful, my feet in my flip-flops did too. I felt so ashamed of my painted toenails in the streetlight.
The rest of that scene and what comes of it is perfect. And you can see everything here: that Dessen probably would’ve written this scene better, with more economy and precision (and certainly less pleading*), but also that probably she wouldn’t have written this scene, because while each of her characters is allotted her one emotional failing to work through by the book’s end, their humiliations are never really their own. They get humiliated by their mothers or their sisters or their boyfriends’ mothers, but not by their own sudden recognition of their immaturity. That’s what Caletti gets right. She gets growing up, the way it feels to look with contempt (long before affection) at where you’re coming out of, and the way you mostly can’t see very clearly what you might become, and when you do glimpse it it might be with shame and terror.
There was that whole dust-up last year about how dark YA can be, and I always figured that books in the Dessen genre, serious subjects though they all have, were imagined as the counterpoint. But maybe if you do it right, if you let the characters fail and flounder in the humiliation that they made themselves — if you don’t just let your characters feel inadequate, but you let them actually be inadequate to what’s ahead of them — then this little corner of YA can be darker, and richer, than it seems.
* I mean, that’s really pretty awful, right?
HUGE SPOILERS for THE HUNGER GAMES and CATCHING FIRE!!!
(note, this is the first of several semi-related posts on the Hunger Games trilogy – stay tuned for more!)
So, I love the whole trilogy, but CATCHING FIRE is my favorite, and here’s why – its about organizing. And I’m an organizer and activist, and thus love and appreciate books (non-fiction or fiction alike) that actually show the organizing process – the how of how change comes about, which mainstream history and a lot of fiction tends to skip past. CATCHING FIRE doesn’t get into as much detail as I personally might like, but I recognize I’m probably on one extreme of that preference spectrum in Collins’ overall readership, so I’ll cut her a little slack. Because what she does quite well is thread in bits and pieces throughout the book that make two things clear: a mass rebellion does not occur “spontaneously;” and depending on your personal experience and context, you are going to see and understand (or not see and not understand) what is happening very differently.
We get a number of glimpses of organized resistance before Katniss re-enters the Games, which we see primarily through Katniss’ perspective, but which we also get important alternative interpretations of through other characters.
The changing of the head peacekeeper and general crackdown in District 12 bring to light the extent to which the underground economy centered around the Hob was in fact a set of organized survival mechanisms within an oppressive regime – ones that have not, in Katniss’ memory at least, been used to challenge that system and thus were permitted to exist, but which actually put in place the kind of networks of communication, mutual support, and solidarity upon which more overt resistance movements build. Which is why it makes sense that the Capitol immediately does what it can to wipe out the whole underground world of District 12 upon the emergence of resistance elsewhere and small signs that at least a few individuals in District 12 might have similar thoughts. Of course, burning the Hob to the ground and electrifying the fence doesn’t destroy deeper community networks. In fact, Katniss’ mother makes it clear that the period of laxness has been relatively short (although apparently long enough that Katniss doesn’t clearly remember the last harsher time), and she and others seem to return pretty seamlessly to the roles they played previously.
Katniss interprets the crackdown as largely a personal retaliation by the Capitol against her. She has no clear memory of previous similar situations, so unlike her mother and some other townspeople who seem to see the lax period as an exception and the crackdown as a more of a return to what came before, Katniss sees the opposite. Furthermore, without context for understanding how collective action happens, how and why people respond to oppression in various ways at different times, Katniss sees both the acts of overt resistance that seem to her eyes to crop up out of nowhere, and the Capitol’s response, as direct consequences of her defiance with the poison berries. President Snow, of course, encourages that line of thinking and its corollaries: that she is personally responsible for any and all actions that follow down the line, and that she has the capability to stop others’ resistance. (More on this in a later post).
Gale provides an important contrast here, because at the start of THE HUNGER GAMES his perspective is actually quite similar. He’s portrayed as a more rebellious personality than Katniss – he sees the system as unjust and unfair, and it makes him angry, and more than anything else he comes off as frustrated. Which makes sense because the only solution he’s able to present is for him and Katniss to run away and live in the woods. Which they can’t do, because they’re each primarily responsible for feeding their families. While Gale may be bolder than Katniss in stating his feelings towards the Capitol, he’s no more equipped to do anything about it than she is. It’s after he leaves school and begins to work in the mines that his perspective shifts. When Katniss tells him about seeing the District 8 uprising on the Mayor’s TV, his immediate reaction is completely different from hers:
“And it’s my fault Gale. Because of what I did in the arena. If I had just killed myself with those berries, none of this would’ve happened. Peeta could have come home and lived, and everyone else would have been safe, too.”
“Safe to do what?” he says in a gentler tone. “Starve? Work like slaves? Send their kids to the reaping? You haven’t hurt people–you’ve given them an opportunity. They just have to be brave enough to take it. There’s already been talk in the mines. People who want to fight. Don’t you see? It’s happening!”
Whereas Gale proposes running away early in THE HUNGER GAMES, and is willing to try running away at Katniss’ suggestion moments before the conversation above, he’s able to see collective rebellion as a viable third option beyond the status quo and running away, at least under the right circumstances For Katniss it doesn’t register that way, even after Gale presents it. While there are many things that I think go into explaining Katniss’ reactions (which I will write about more fully in future posts on the series), what seems to me to explain the shift in Gale’s outlook is that he’s gone to work in the mines. Presumably Gale is learning from others at his job who have been in that context longer and may have previous experiences acting collectively. Katniss doesn’t get that education.
The other two examples of organized rebellion Katniss encounters are her glimpse of riots in District 8 on the Mayor’s TV, and the District 11 response to her and Peeta’s stop on the train tour.
In both cases, Collins made it clear to me as a reader that the people of those districts had chosen to organize against the Capitol. Perhaps Katniss’ berry moment provided inspiration or created a moment in which people decided to take that step into defiance, but between that moment and the scenes Katniss witnessed they have clearly done significant collective organizing work to create and then attempt to carry out a plan for active rebellion against the capitol. It’s that in between part that Katniss, unfortunately but also very realistically, doesn’t have the context to recognize. When, after her speech honoring Rue and Thresh in District 11, the audience offers a salute, she realizes, “What happens next is not an accident. It is too well executed to be spontaneous, because it happens in complete unison.” But she doesn’t seem able to get deeper into what that means.
Likewise, when she sees the District 8 uprising on the mayor’s TV, her response is: “I’ve never seen anything like it, but I can only be witnessing one thing. This is what President Snow calls an uprising.” She doesn’t seem to have a sense of what must have happened to lead to the violent, frightening scene she’s seeing, nor, importantly, does she seem to latch onto what it might lead to, other than the immediate effect of people being hurt or killed, and the threat to her family and loved ones because of her conversation with President Snow.
Katniss evaluates what she sees based on what she knows – she doesn’t know any system other than the one she grew up with, and she doesn’t seem to have learned about or latched onto the idea of substantial change as a real-life possibility. That makes sense because she doesn’t know collective action, she doesn’t understand organizing, and without some sense of that she has no context for thinking about how what seems like a complete fantasy (ie, overthrowing the Capitol) could occur. Without some idea of how, its hard to imagine it as real.
“This” is Paula Fox’s ONE-EYED CAT, a classic (a Newbery Honor) that I discovered only recently, and the problems of the book’s beginning were heightened by the fact that I couldn’t really get my head around the character; take this scene early on:
“I believe it must be close to your birthday,” she added. Ned was surprised; grown-ups often recalled things he thought they would have forgotten.
What kid doesn’t believe adults are always thinking of them and their birthdays? I scoffed. I now think this was in character for the book’s protagonist, an extraordinarily gentle boy who makes a mistake that leads him into secrecy and misery throughout much of the book.
Paula Fox, in fact, doesn’t mess around with her characterizations. The character painted with broadest strokes in this book is one Mrs. Scallop:
Ned went over to the radio and drew a finger down the back of the bronze lion. He imagined Mrs. Scallop saying, “Mrs. Scallop doesn’t dust lions.”
Or take this exchange that I particularly related* to:
He opened his mouth and she said at once, before he could speak, “Calm down, calm down.” He hated the way she spoke in that false soothing voice, as if she owned the country of calm and he was some kind of fool who’d stumbled across its borders.
But Fox rescues Mrs. Scallop from being a parody, not by redeeming her as much as simply revealing her. At the end of the book I still didn’t like or even particularly respect her, but I truly believed in her.
What I love about Fox is how moral her books are, and by that I don’t mean that she moralizes. I mean, instead, that she presents characters whose choices matter, and she shows us how they matter not by over-dramatizing their consequences in the outside world, but by showing the characters realizing how much their own sense of themselves depends on what they do.
In ONE-EYED CAT, I also particularly like the relationship between Ned’s parents. His father is the town minister and his mother, because she is the mother in an atmospheric novel for kids, has a mysterious ailment (I believe its technical name is Disneyosis). We get tiny glimpses of the family’s complicated relationship to religion; Ned remembers that before his mother was sick, his father (who provides very loving care for his ailing wife) never spoke in his “preacher voice,” but now he sometimes uses it like a shield; Ned’s mother has her own beliefs, which are not necessarily her husband’s, and not necessarily anything she feels an urgent need to spell out to Ned. They seem like real people, in other words.
And… holy shit, you guys. Writing this post and thinking about how principled Fox’s books seem to me made me want to learn more about her, and the first thing Google has taught me? Paula Fox is Courtney Love’s grandmother.
That kind of just took the wind out of whatever I was going to write. I leave you with that odd bit of trivia.
* One of my boyfriend’s favorite ways to annoy me — one of many, I might add — is to adopt just this condescending tone. “There, there, relax,” he’ll say, just to piss me off. “Just — shhh…... Just calm down.” He does it because it drives me to violence. He perfected this technique on his sister growing up; I think it’s a wonder she still speaks to him.
I’m in the odd position of loving children without being very good with them. You know how there are those adults who really get how children think? I’m not one of them. But Beverly Cleary sure is.
(So is Emily, judging by her ability to articulate what she likes about SMASHED POTATOES. Plus, children always like Emily. I’m kind of like my dad: I tease kids in the one way I know how, and they either like it or they don’t, and if they don’t we’re both stuck.)
I was thinking about this lately because a few recent reads have had these little snatches of expressing something about childhood or adolescence. John Berger, observant as always, offers these small asides of descriptions in FROM A TO X, the adult novel I can’t stop talking about because I’m so proud I read one — like, “He already had a man’s voice but not the pace of a man’s voice.”
Or this one, which is now one of my favorite all-time descriptions of youth:
What the young know today they know more vividly and intensely and accurately than anyone else. They are experts of the parts they know.
There was a really good example in EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT BEING A GIRL I LEARNED FROM JUDY BLUME, too. Berta Platas kind of mentions in passing an actual event from her own childhood:
I even sighed over Randy, the guy in homeroom who had a crush on me and gave me my first Valentine ever. I read it so many times that I can still recite the little Hallmark poem inside, and the signature, “Your friend forever which is Randall.” Sigh.*
Who could make up a Valentine like that? I mean, I guess a really good writer could. But I sure couldn’t. I love kids.
* (And yes, the inclusion of the “Sigh.” is an example of what I was saying about this book, about being startled by what strikes me as the sloppiness of the writing. It’s just kind of… all like that.)
Mildred Taylor’s ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY has always been a favorite – I’ve read it, and its 2 sequels, over and over. But I only just recently learned that there is a prequel, THE LAND, that has been sitting there, unread by me, all along. No longer.
THE LAND is excellent in all the ways that ROLL OF THUNDER and LET THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN are excellent (I think THE ROAD TO MEMPHIS is very good, but not quite on par with the prior two). Great, complex characters, engrossing story, and most impressively, a really deep exploration of slavery, racism, and how people, black and white, deal with injustice in a realistic way (which Elizabeth wrote an excellent post about a while back). THE LAND is the story of Cassie Logan’s grandfather Paul Edward. Its set during Reconstruction, and Paul Edward is the son of a man and one of his former slaves. The exploration of his relationships with his father and his white brothers is pretty impressive in that it manages to very realistically humanize the white characters without in any way excusing their racism, or ignoring the reality of their place in the post-slavery power structure, and the power imbalances in their relationships with black people. As in Taylor’s other books, the way the characters, white and black, respond to and live within their racist society, is varied, nuanced, and believable.
What struck me most, though, was that reading THE LAND felt like finally hearing the full story of something you kind of know about and have often heard in bits and pieces, but now are getting all the gaps filled in, all the bits of information you just sort of know put in order and strung together. Which is an incredible testament to the world Mildred Taylor built in this series of books – its common to talk about world-building in fantasy books, where authors have to construct a full and consistent reality, but I think its a different kind of impressive to so fully construct a “real” world, one which is historically accurate, but has characters and places rich enough in detail, with personal histories so full, that reading more about them feels like hearing your grandma tell stories about when she was growing up, where a lot of it you didn’t really know, but it all sort of feels familiar anyway. I can’t recall another book where I felt that sensation of familiarity so strongly.
And actually, reading Taylor’s books again set me off on a civil rights history kick in my reading – and so I will mention, although its, you know, not on the topic of this blog, that LETTERS FROM MISSISSIPPI, edited by Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez, is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in civil rights history.
We are both blogging this week about Frankie Landau-Banks, her history, and its lack of reputability. Emily posts about the book’s use of language today; come back tomorrow (or however we space them out) for Elizabeth’s take on the book’s feminism.
Elizabeth had told me I would love THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS, by E. Lockhart. Not just that it was a great book, but that I particularly would love it, and she couldn’t tell me why because that would ruin it, but trust her.
So I was at Barnes and Noble soon after that and picked it up to read a few pages and see if it was worth buying, and I got to page 2 and burst out laughing at “It’s not for me to pugn or impugn their characters.” And then I finished reading Frankie’s letter to the headmaster and really couldn’t contain my glee at “gruntlement”, and I called Elizabeth and left a long voicemail, in which I definitely gave up on words a few times in favor of happy squeal noises, and said I didn’t know if this was what she meant as the reason I would particularly love this book (as it turned out it wasn’t), but it was incredible and if there was some other reason on top of it I couldn’t even fathom what a great book this would be.
And while there are many great things about TDHFLB, having read it fully twice what I genuinely love most, is the language, and that’s for a few reasons. One is just I like language and puns and silly words and silly usages of words, and did I say puns? So reading that Frankie does not want to pugn anybody’s character is endlessly amusing for me. On a deeper level, though, I think Lockhart does an incredible job of using Frankie’s language and thought patterns (which relate properly to each other in the way that they do in real people) to create her as a character. And while lots of books have characters with clear styles of speaking, or accents, or slang, that help put them in a time and place and form a piece of the character, I can’t think of another book where not just the way a character speaks, but the way she herself explicitly thinks about language are so key to understanding her personality.
It also helps that Frankie’s particular attitude towards language happens to be very similar to mine. I like to use language the way it ought to logically work, even when that’s not how it really works. I always get annoyed at the redundancy of the phrase “from whence”; and when no actual word in the English language signified the meaning I needed to express in my senior thesis, I made one up and used it throughout. I was telling a friend of mine about TDHFLB and the neglected positives and it was only once we were deep in argument that I realized we were having almost the exact conversation that Frankie and Matthew have:
“Mmmm,” she whispered. “Now I’m gruntled.”
“Gruntled. I was disgruntled before.”
“And now, you’re…”
She had expected Matthew’s face to light at the new word, but he touched her chin lightly and said, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”
“Gruntled means grumpy,” he said, walking over to the dictionary, which stood on a large stand.
“Why? Frankie was cross that he was being so literal. “That makes no sense, because if gruntled means grumbly, then disgruntled should mean un-grumbly.”
“Um…” Matthew scanned the dictionary. “Dis- can be an intensifier, as well as a negative.”
Frankie bounced on the couch. “I like my version better.”
EMILY: And the best thing is, she comes up with these neglected positives, like where there’s a word with a negative prefix but the positive version isn’t a word or doesn’t mean what it should. Like, there’s disgruntled, but there’s no gruntled. Hee! Gruntled!
ADAM: But that doesn’t really work, its not how the language evolved.
EMILY: But gruntled!
ADAM: We have different attitudes towards language. I don’t like made up words.
EMILY: Or ept! Like inept, ept.
ADAM: Yes. I’m glad you’re enjoying.
EMILY: But they’re such good made up words. And sometimes you have to make up words, if the one you need doesn’t exist.
ADAM: Then you find a word that does exist.
EMILY: I like my way better.
A lot of folks have written a lot of great posts and comments about why TDHFLB is a great book, and Elizabeth’s going to write about feminism in the book tomorrow later this week, but ultimately, why I love it is neglected positives.
Having just finished it, I can attest that this may have something to do with its boring as all get-out prologue. Seriously, four pages describing the island it’s set on and crab fishing, when we don’t yet care about the characters? Why did a writer as skillful as Paterson ever think that was a good idea?
Another possible explanation for my never having really cracked its spine in all the years it sat on my shelf is that, as I recall, the cover of my childhood edition strongly emphasized the biblical reference in the book’s title. Since I was totally unfamiliar with this*, the book became associated in my mind with Hard Things I Don’t Understand.
All of which is too bad, because it’s actually a great book. Shortly before reading it, I happened to read a discussion on writer Jennifer Hubbard’s blog about how good writing is about revealing emotions that we wouldn’t typically associate with an event, but that ring true when we read them. Or, as she put it much more pithily, “what it feels like instead of what it’s supposed to feel like.”** As it turns out, this is one of the things Paterson excels at in this book.
Here’s a handful of the tiny details that stuck out to me in this vein:
The biggest example, though, is a plot twist that I won’t spoil, but that definitely took me by surprise midway through the book. Suffice it to say that our protagonist develops an emotional response that I most certainly did not see coming, and that I think most authors would be hard-pressed to include today.
And speaking of things that felt dated (and I don’t necessarily mean that as an epithet): JACOB HAVE I LOVED follows its protagonist from age 13 until well into her adulthood. I think this would be a very rare choice today. Anyone got counterexamples, or a sense of whether I’m right or wrong that this this might have been more normal in the late ’70s/early ’80s?
* My most embarrassing story of how my childhood reading was distorted by my total ignorance of all things biblical: I was probably about nine when I first read Madeleine L’Engle’s MANY WATERS, and as I read this story about modern-day twins transported back to the dry, dry desert… living with a man who is the town laughingstock because he thinks God told him to build a big boat… a man named Noah… it did not occur to me that this was a retelling of Noah’s Ark until it actually occurred to the book’s main characters to speculate on this fact.
On the other hand, I did learn the story of Abraham from a very early age. Except, I think the part about how God said he wanted the killing done out on Highway 61 may have been embellished.
** It took a mighty effort to repress a MY SO-CALLED LIFE reference here. Bonus points to anyone (besides Emily!) who can identify it in the comments.
One interesting thing about Jennifer Donnelly’s A NORTHERN LIGHT is that I think I love the book for different reasons than she does.
In an interview I read, Donnelly talks about how the whole book was inspired by Theodore Dreiser’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, which apparently played a central role in Donnelly’s own life. Her book is framed around this classic story, set in 1906: a young woman and young man go out boating, and she drowns. Can you guess what happened and why?
I’m not even directly familiar with Dreiser’s book, but I knew from page one what had happened; that’s what a childhood spent watching Lifetime Original Movies will do to you. This part of the story didn’t grab me at all, because the “mystery” was so easily solved, and the dead woman, Grace, didn’t develop enough to interest me. (Even though the book is built around this subplot, it’s actually rather peripheral to the main characters’ emotional journey, which is really just as well.)
However. The original story that Donnelly created around this now-cliched tale is fascinating and, for me, was almost absurdly moving. The main characters are Mattie, a white girl, and Weaver, a black boy, best friends and poor teenagers whose one hope is to escape their confining town in the Adirondacks and make their way to college. They both wind up working at the ritzy Glenmore Hotel (where they intersect with Grace’s murder) as a way to earn their keep (and, in Mattie’s case, get a measure of independence from her family), but subsequent events destroy each of their seemingly best strategies for finding their freedom.
The book’s central tension is in showing all the ways the deck is stacked against these characters, while nevertheless showing how deeply their own choices matter. Weaver’s one act of resistance has tremendously negative consequences, leaving the question of whether he should have protected himself by not standing up for himself — and what emotional price he would have paid for that choice. The fact that neither option was remotely acceptable is not belabored by Donnelly; it’s simply obvious from the character she’s created, and it’s a deeply painful and unfair fact. Meanwhile, Donnelly manages, with great skill, to end the book hopefully without seeming for a moment like she’s settled for an easy answer for her characters.
Indeed, A NORTHERN LIGHT ends with more questions about Mattie’s and Weaver’s future than it does with any certainty. I found this absolutely maddening as a reader, because I cared about these characters so deeply — for days after I read it last summer, I could not get them out of my head — but she couldn’t have done it any other way. A NORTHERN LIGHT is a very original and powerful story, no matter what cliched origins have left their scars in the setup.