Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Reading and Writing

Since the end of the semester I've read 23 books. Really more--I haven't counted the three Harry Potter novels I've reread so far, for example. 23 that I had either never read before or (Roll of Thunder, anyone?) had forgotten ever reading before. I'm also partway through at least three other novels, and am in the luxurious position of being able to start a book and decide I just won't finish it.

I haven't written nearly as much as I'd like to since semester's end. I did finish up a column, of course, and I've actually gotten started with a writing group, I think. But there has to be a lot more reading before the writing really gets moving.

In the meantime I have today finished a draft of the most boring writing I do every year. More boring than the syllabus (which is actually quite fun to write) or the committee report, the annual review is one big exercise in tedium. After all, I already did the stuff; now it's just reporting and (even worse) collating.

Nonetheless, it's almost done, and then I can move on to...article revisions! Whoopee!

Monday, June 25, 2007

On Romance

Justine Larbalestier has a great discussion going on her blog about romance. I commented there, but I kept thinking about it last night and this morning and I found I had more to say. There are lots of comments there, so go read them, and then you can come back.

OK? So: I agree with Jenny Davidson and Libba Bray, I find, in liking banter and an initial mis-alignment or problem. (Jenny calls it "painful misunderstanding," and that's just right.) But what I most want, I think, is a couple that learns from each other and grows. I also like--as several other commenters noted--some kind of equality. Thus I prefer Elizabeth and Darcy to Emma and Knightley--Knightley just doesn't (need to) change as much as Emma does, and he remains superior to her throughout, whereas Darcy and Elizabeth both need to shed their preconceptions and grow. I am also less invested in the brooding lovers--the Heathcliff and Cathy types--because they don't change or grow. Heathcliff is the same throughout--eternal, unchanging, as Cathy says of their love--and that just doesn't do it for me. Theirs seems to me an adolescent love, and I'm just not that interested in that. Or, to put it better: I don't find it romantic. I think adolescent love can be well depicted in literature--most YA literature deals with crushes and intense first love rather than mature commitment, after all, and that's entirely appropriate--but while I'm happy to read about that when it's done well (The Magic or Madness trilogy does that nicely, in fact, with Reason's attraction to Danny), I don't find it romantic.

The couple in Megan Whalen Turner's Thief books seem potentially brooding and unchanging, and one of the pleasures of that series is finding out how much they are both growing without quite demonstrating it. Which is why for me Lord Peter and Harriet are also such a romantic couple--the growth they demonstrate over several novels makes them believable, makes them a couple to root for.

I'm a little surprised that no one mentioned Gone with the Wind in the comments over there. The more I thought about the question the more I think Rhett and Scarlett fit the bill as well: she has to grow up and give up her romantic ideal of boring Ashley Wilkes, and he has to rein in his cynicism and admit there's something that motivates him beyond self-interest. They are right for each other without knowing it, and they keep getting it wrong. The fact that they can't ever be in love with each other at the same time is what makes the novel tragic rather than comic, of course, and I tend to prefer the comic (and, yes, there's all sorts of baggage with Gone with the Wind that I'm not talking about right now). But it is romantic, absolutely.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Missing out

I love libraries. I spent my childhood hanging out in them, and even had a paying job in the library in college. Then my first job out of college--first real job, anyway--was with a company that did library automation, back in the day before everyone had a pc on his/her desk and the internet was everywhere. In fact it was (believe it or not) before the internet. Anyway, libraries and I, we go way back.

The American Library Association annual conference is absolutely the place to be this weekend. All the cool kids are going to be there.* And how great is that?

I was going to be there, too. But, alas, not this time. Our car is acting up, and we have houseguests on the way, and we're just back from a trip, and it just can't happen this time. So the coolness will have to go on without me. Maybe another time.

*Note: I am sure many more cool kids will be there than those I linked to, but those are on my feedreader so I know about them.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Happy Father's Day

I spent a surprising amount of my childhood hoping to be my dad when I grew up. Oh, I didn't want to be a boy or anything -- having two brothers pretty much dispelled any mystique of masculine superiority -- but I did want my dad's job. It looked like a pretty sweet deal to me: a little telling people what to do, a little dressing up, a little singing, and a lot of reading, writing, and being at home when other people's dads weren't. Yes, he did have to work on Sundays, but then again he was home at least one day during the week to make up for it.

Read the rest here...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking

I'm late coming to this memoir, I know. It's hard for me to read books during the academic year if I'm not using them in my teaching or research, so stuff gets saved up. But I was talking to a friend about this book recently and realized that I really had no reason not to read it. I did hold off during the 48-hour book challenge, figuring I might want to savor it a bit, but in the end I think I read it just as quickly as anything else. (No, I didn't keep track.)

A lot of people seem not to like Didion much. They find her self-important, smug, neurasthenic. A college classmate characterized her as a snob when we read "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream." And I suppose characterizing the San Bernardino Valley as "the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew . . . where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion but hard to buy a book" could be called snobbish, though I believe it's also pretty accurate, or was at the time.

Anyway. I liked Didion then. When I moved to California after college I thought of her description of the Santa Ana winds when I first experienced them: "the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread." In retrospect, that wasn't the best time to start graduate school. And there's a description of changing lanes on the freeway in Play it as it Lays that I always think of when I drive in LA--it's just that accurate, that true to my experience. But I haven't really read much Didion since the early stuff, save an occasional piece in the NYRB.

So what I didn't expect in The Year of Magical Thinking was that it would occasionally make me laugh out loud. Not, perhaps, in a guffawing, you've-got-to-hear-this way. More like a chuckle of bemused recognition and, maybe, shame? Because there's something in me that really identified with the Didion of the book--not the California privilege, but the "core belief in my ability to control events"--something she also calls "management skills"--and the persistent need to be right. The Didion that, I think, many people don't like.

So this passage resonated with me in that slightly embarrassed chuckle of recognition way:

Why do you always have to be right, I remembered John saying.
It was a complaint, a charge, part of a fight.
He never understood that in my own mind I was never right. Once in 1971, when we were moving from Franklin Avenue to Malibu, I found a message stuck behind a picture I was taking down. The message was from someone to whom I had been close before I married John. He had spent a few weeks with us in the house on Franklin Avenue. This was the message: "You were wrong." I did not know what I had been wrong about but the possibilities seemed infinite.

I fully expect to find such messages--and to know, immediately and without doubt, that they are for me--if and when we ever leave this house. Indeed, it might be a good reason not to move.

I also loved the scene she remembers of driving past the now-empty lot where a house they had sold once stood. The realtor had encouraged them to give signed copies of the books they had written in that house to the new owners--who had razed the house within the year. "My first reaction was fury. I wanted the books back."

Again, this is not necessarily a nice person, but she feels very familiar to me.

This may be smug, too:
Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way "competitive," that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage.
But again, even the slightly fussy construction (why withhold that adjective, "competitive," for so long?) sounds right to me, familiar. Which is why I found the book both completely engrossing and oddly disappointing. I want her to recognize that needing-to-be-right for the failing (I think) it is, to change, to disavow it somehow. But this is also profoundly a book about how even grief, even mourning, does not really change one. She is still Joan Didion, which is why the loss of her husband is so great: he was so much a part of her that she doesn't quite know how to go on being herself, though she still must.

I don't much want to see the one-woman show based on the book. I'm not sure I'd even find a reason to read it again. But I'm glad I read it.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

packing it in

I think I chose my time badly for the Reading Challenge, but I'm satisfied with my achievement anyway. I have to end before 11 today so I can get to church, so I'm calling it closed now. My totals? 8 books, 2094 pages, 15 hours out of the 48. The last few books were a real mixed bag. I started yesterday afternoon with Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, because I'd heard a talk about it last March and couldn't remember reading it. Well, turns out I had: I remembered Cassie, the narrator, Mama and Big Ma, T.J.--I remembered the plot, even, once I got moving in it. Still, it was worth the re-read; another way of working through some history that doesn't often get told. (And, of course, it turns out that the one I haven't read is The Land, which I still haven't read. Ah, well.)

We had a party to go to last night and I had some cooking to do before that, as well as just some general down-time, but after the party I picked up Farthing, by Jo Walton. I had remembered that Jenny Davidson recommended it, though I didn't remember why. What a fabulous book! It starts out like a terrific country-house mystery (and remains that) but at the same time it's an alternate history: what if Britain had negotiated a peace with Hitler in 1941? Turns out Walton doesn't think that would have been a good idea. Lovely, lovely writing and a plot that was just twisty enough without being (as Fforde's quite deliberately are) too convoluted.

This weekend's reading reminded me of how much I used to love reading mystery novels, which I've almost completely given up. Maybe it's time to rethink that.

Anyway, this morning I figured I had time for one more, and I managed a quick read through Chicks with Sticks: Knit Two Together, by Elizabeth Lenhard. Turns out this is actually the second in a series (looks like there are at least three), but I actually picked it up by accident, thinking it was a teen knitting book. Rather, it's a teen knitting novel, chick-lit with IMing and knit-night. I'm not sure the knitting actually adds much to the story--I kept second-guessing it, actually, wondering if the descriptions were really that accurate. What the knitting mainly adds is another way to name-drop labels, so along with the Balenciaga bag (really? do teenagers really carry Balenciaga bags?) there's also ArtYarns and Lorna's Laces. Fine.

So that's it. I'm done. And here's what I discovered: I think I make reading enough of a priority most of the time that the contest didn't really add that much. I've never actually counted pages or hours before, and I certainly read later last night than I would have if I weren't trying to finish Farthing so I could blog about it, but otherwise the only thing I did that I might not have otherwise was finish Chicks with Sticks when I could have been reading the Sunday New York Times. That, however, will have to wait until after church. I'm done for now.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

update on the reading challenge

So far it looks like I've spent about 9 hours reading and have consumed 1238 pages. Whew! So here's the report:

After Psyche in a Dress, I wanted something funny and silly, so I read Jasper Fforde's The Big Over Easy. I'm pretty sure I missed some of the twists, but the way Fforde plays with story is genius. Oddly, it linked up with my next book, Cupid, by Julius Lester, which is a retelling of Cupid and Psyche that's much more to my taste (this week, anyway) than the Block. Lester plays with story, too, though not at all in the same way as Fforde; the novel retells the tale with the voice of a black story-teller--one who doesn't, in many ways, seem too far from Lester himself. Interestingly in both Cupid and The Big Over Easy the question of what it means for a mortal to ally herself with an immortal comes up--in the Fforde novel, the immortal (Prometheus) relinquishes his status, while in Cupid Psyche attains immortality. I enjoyed both.

After Cupid I took a brief break and then began Chasing Vermeer, which Nick had just finished. I'm sure I'm not the first person to summarize it as From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler meets The Westing Game--a better description, I think, than the jacket copy, which calls it "The Da Vinci Code for tweens. " Ick. I fell asleep last night before I could finish, but got back to it this morning--what fun! I'm a sucker for codes (though maps leave me cold), and I want to make some pantominoes, too.

Continuing with the YA reads, I picked up Edward Bloor's London Calling next. I'd enjoyed Tangerine, and though I'd try this one out. Very different, but thematically similar. Martin/Johnny is an engaging narrator, and the novel does a nice job of opening up some of the stories behind the official history of the Battle of Britain.

So that's been fun. Now I've got to do some laundry and figure out what's next on the list. I'm not going to get much (if any) reading in tomorrow before my time runs out, so today's the big day. But I've got to say, the eyestrain has started.

Friday, June 08, 2007

One down

I'm not going to blog every time I finish a book this weekend, but I thought I'd mark the first one. I nearly quit on Psyche in a Dress partway through. I wasn't sure I could take any more Francesca Lia Block being poetic about child abuse. (If you've read I was a Teenage Fairy you know what I mean.) This one's not just "poetic" but actually poetry: free verse retellings of Greek myths in Hollywood garb. Psyche becomes Echo becomes Eurydice becomes Persephone becomes Demeter--and in that circle of females it's not quite clear that our heroine can break out of the cycle of abuse, but maybe. I think I would have loved this when I was a teenager: it would have made me feel smart, and capable of handling "important" themes. It would have validated my desire to be more intense, more "deep," than I really was. But even Demeter makes me tired now--too much self-sacrifice, too much angst! Still, it gets better as it goes on. And, as promised, it's very short.

Next up: I haven't quite decided yet.

Starting Now

I'm in the 48 hour book challenge. I'm starting at 11:00 am Friday, and will stop probably at 9:00 am Sunday to go to church. So I have to cut it short, but I figure I won't be reading every second anyway, so what's another two hours?

I'm starting with Francesca Lia Block's Psyche in a Dress. Yes, it's short: I want to get a sense of accomplishment early in the challenge.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Am I crazy?

I've decided to join MotherReader's 48-hour book challenge. I'm a pretty fast reader, but I've never actually tried to read a lot of books in a short period of time. Still, I went to the library the other day and brought back 14 books (just went and counted) and I only have them for two weeks, so I might as well kickstart the process. Not to mention the fact that I need to re-read the Harry Potters before too long.

I'll start as early as I can tomorrow and stop 48 hours later, presumably some time on Sunday. The only real problem is that I have several knitting projects I'm itching to work on, and I have never successfully knit and read at the same time.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Kindergarten readiness?

(I'm cross-posting this at the other blog; I couldn't decide if it was more about family life or about reading/kids, so I'll put it both places.)

Lots of posts out in the world today about yesterday's NYT article on kindergarten readiness. The take-home lesson I got from it was that if you can afford to think about "red-shirting" your child (keeping him--and it's most often him--home for a year when he's technically eligible for kindergarten), then whether you do or not, he'll probably be fine. That is, school "success" is primarily a socio-economic, not an age, issue. If you need the free day-care, and your kid isn't really ready for school, you'll send him/her anyway and s/he may not "succeed" as well as one might hope. If, on the other hand, you don't need the free day-care, you can probably provide what your kid needs.

Yes, this is reductive. But note that all the "red-shirt" success stories are from people who didn't need free day-care.


I was a young starter: with a February birthday I should have started kindergarten at five, but since I knew how to read, I started at four. (I was briefly "held back" when we moved, but then started first grade--in another school--at five.) At my recent college reunion I kept reminding people I was a year further away from fifty than they were. Nice. (Hmm, maybe those social skills still need work?)

I probably should have taken a gap year between high school and college. My parents wanted me to, but I was academically ambitious and up for the challenge. Emotionally/psychologically, maybe not so much, but I got by ok and I don't feel scarred by the experience. As a nerdy kid, I was used to being a bit on the outskirts of things socially anyway--I'm not sure age had a whole lot to do with it. I did take three years between college and graduate school, and that was an absolute necessity, in my case. I think grad school would have chewed me up and spat me out at 21, but at 24 I had supported myself for three years, moved across the country, and figured out that I was both employable and at least marginally date-worthy. I no longer thought my only successes would be academic, and that made grad school's pressures much easier to bear.

Mariah, with her December birthday, is one of the older kids in her grade. One of her best friends, three months older, just graduated from high school; Mariah's got another year. She's academically at the top of her class and seems to be holding her own socially/emotionally. She could have skipped at one point, but we opted for a multi-age grouping (in a Montessori middle school) instead. She doesn't seem to have any regrets, and is considering taking a gap year between HS and college even though this would have her turning 20 as a first-year college student. (I wish all my students would take a gap year...)

Nick, with his early August birthday, is one of the youngest kids in his grade. He's not markedly smaller than other boys--this is the year some are shooting up and some aren't, and he's still right in the middle--nor is he particularly delayed socially as far as I can tell. (He does sometimes cry more easily than other kids, but is that his age or just his temperament? Hard to say...though it's true that his mother was a big cry-baby in elementary school.) Academically, he's doing more than fine. According to "conventional wisdom"--which is that boys mature more slowly, so should redshirt if anyone should--he should have been held back and Mariah sent ahead, but we actually did benefit from the free day-care (public preschool at age four) and never really thought seriously about holding him back. Will he struggle in college? If he's like his sister, maybe we'll suggest a gap year at that point. Right now, though, he's fine.

One more anecdote: when my younger brother was tested for kindergarten, he was asked to draw a man, but drew something else--maybe a table?--instead. He was a bit young (November birthday) but pretty bright. The teacher or principal or someone called my mother and said he wasn't ready, he couldn't draw a man. My mother, though, talked to my brother who said he just didn't feel like drawing a man--and convinced the school administration to take him anyway. Years later he admitted that he really couldn't draw a man--but he did know how to game the system!

So there are my anecdotes. I find myself wishing more and more for flexibility in schooling, for some kind of readiness-testing that looked at the whole child rather than just the age or just a test or two. Obviously that's what home-schooling gives people, and that's absolutely what's most appealing about it. But for those who can't or won't take that option, for whatever reason--what to do?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Tolstoy Lied

OK, so Becca didn't like this book much, but I actually thought it was a fun read. No, the tenure battle wasn't particularly convincing (the process just didn't ring true to me), and one of the friends--for me, not the gay colleague but the actress-friend--was a bit too much, but I liked the main character and found her "love" story intriguing enough, and her "work" story compelling. A friend recommended the novel on the strength of the crazy grad student plot, and that did work for me: the way the colleagues battle by proxy through the grad student, the way the grad student herself participates in their battles, the way each small utterance takes on such great significance...yes, I bought it. And I'm intrigued, too, by the idea that we don't know how to talk about happiness. A professor at UCLA tried working on happiness some years back--and, you know, I don't know whatever happened to that project! (OK, it came out in ADE Bulletin...) Mark and I often complain that all we do is complain (yes, we're aware...)--but, really, what are literary critics trained to do except spot problems? Student writing or literary reading, we go for what doesn't work, having a much harder time with praise than blame. So I like the idea of trying to trust happiness, trying to look for the ways that story can be told. No, I don't think this is the last word on it--but then again, have we had the last word on tragedy yet?