Sunday, February 18, 2007

"Men's genitalia have no place in quality literature!"

So says a librarian who is seeking to keep this year's Newbery Medal winner, The Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, off her shelves. Apparently, there is a passage in the book where the main character overhears someone talking about how a rattlesnake bit their dog "on the scrotum." Unlike the thematic concerns with the Harry Potter books or Catcher in the Rye, the firestorm over this particular book seems to center around this one word.

In reading this article, I find it striking that several of the librarians who aren't stocking the book are doing so over fear of parental backlash, not because of their personal objections. While there may be some parental backlash, I don't think it's right to deny all the kids in the school a chance to read the book. The book is aimed at children aged 9-12, so it seems age-appropriate to me. Kids are learning about sex and reproduction at that age, and they probably already know several slang expressions for "scrotum". What's wrong with teaching them the real word?

There are also creative ways to teach it without going into graphic detail. When I was in college, I was staffing the table for the Center for Womyn's Concerns. We had brochures, buttons, stickers and free condoms. For some reason, there was a 10-year-old boy on campus and he was looking at amy stuff and asked me what the condoms were. I told him that people who didn't want a baby used them to make sure they didn't get one. And you know what? He was satisfied with that. I didn't have to launch into a lengthy explanation about what sex was and how the condom was used. And if I, as a 20-year-old who hadn't been around kids that age since they were my age peers, could come up with that, shouldn't someone who spends all day with kids and holds a master's degree in teaching them be able to do just as well?

I would be interested to hear from anyone who has actually read this book, or has a differing opinion as to whether or not it belongs in schools.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A new entry in the troubled young girl genre

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, defined this genre. Ever since, there has been a new one for each generation. I never Promised You a Rose Garden was popular in the 1970s.Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation were popular during the 90s. Abigail Vona's book, Bad Girl, intrigued me during a cruise of the Barnes and Noble discount section. I just finished it.

Vona's book differs significantly from the others because she was not mentally ill by anyone's standards. Rather than facing institutionalization, she was sent to a behavior modification camp, often called "boot camps" in the media. Vona was an out-of-control teen, but a typical one: she snuck out, she occasionally smoked pot and drank, and she fooled around (but never had sex with) boys. She got sent to this boot camp by her father and found herself among girls with serious issues. One girl was an anorexic and bulimic and a self-injurer, and talked about putting broken glass in her water at dinner when she lived at home. Another girl beat up her parents. A third molested her sister.

The first few chapters of the book are hard to take. Vona had believed she was going to summer camp and was immediately put in a situation where she had to follow thousands of rules that she was totally ignorant of. Not surprisingly, she had a very difficult time. As time wore on, she began to work on herself and her family issues, and she ultimately leaves a more functional person.

The opening chapters of the book are written the way you'd expect a teenager like Vona to speak: lots of slang, lots of swear words. As she learns to live by and respect the rules at The Village (her boot camp), the amount of cursing diminishes and she's more honest with readers about what she feels. Since she works the Twelve Steps, the first chapter is -12 and continues to count down to zero, then back up to 12. As Susanna Kaysen does in Girl, Interrupted, Vona contrasts her experiences with the clinical notes. Sometimes it will make your blood boil ("Patient appears selfish and needy" when Vona reports having done nothing in particular that day), sometimes it will reflect the day's events with a dark humor (after witnessing a takedown gone so wrong that she had to run for help and wound up staying awake until 2AM, the night staff notes "Patient slept soundly.") Other times you're unsure how her report of the day is supposed to work with the clinical notes. But given the fact that Vona has some serious learning disabilities, the book itself is a remarkable achievement.

After finishing the book, I was left with some larger questions. Why do books like this continue to be popular? How come they are rarely, if ever, written by men? The Bell Jar was released in 1963; although treatment for mental illness has advanced since then, has it come as far as we like to believe? And what do we do with those who just don't fit in, who, like Vona, defy labeling? These questions have been with us for along time. Perhaps stories like Vona's have staying power because they encourage us to work towards better answers.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dragon FEVER

I just finished a two-week long project, Eragon, by Christopher Paolini.

The title character of Eragon is a young farm boy who finds a strange stone in the woods while hunting. He tries, unsuccessfully, to sell or trade it. Then, it hatches into a dragon (which he names Saphira). Eragon and his fellow townsmen live under the rule of a totalitarian leader, Galbatorix, and his henchmen come in search of him, and torch his house, killing his uncle and forcing Eragon and Saphira to depart on an epic journey, along with the town storyteller, Brom, who soon reveals himself to be more than what Eragon had guessed. Eragon learns that he is the first of a new generation of Riders, and will be a key player in the struggle between the Empire of Galbatorix and the free people who oppose him, the Varden.

At 450 pages long, this book is rather slow-moving. It took me a very long time to get into it. I'd seen the movie first. When my boyfriend and I returned from seeing it, a friend of his who had read all three books said that he thought the movie sucked and that they'd cut so much from it, he didn't see how they could make a second movie. Naturally, they'd have to make some cuts, but they did leave out some key scenes.

The book is populated with wonderful characters: Brom, the storyteller; Angela the herbalist and her werecat Solembum; Murtagh, with a dark heritage; Ajihad, leader of the Varden; and of course Saphira herself, who is no dumb animal, but a highly intelligent creature with as much of a consciousness as person. Yet, Eragon himself is not among the wonderful characters. Eragon is bland, defined only by external events. Perhaps Paolini did this deliberately, to allow young readers to project whatever they wanted onto Eragon. If so, it was unneccesary -- Harry Potter is a pretty defined character and that series hasn't suffered in popularity because of that.

The book was also rather geeky. If you've ever drawn a map of Middle Earth or attempted to hold a conversation in Elvish, you'd love that aspect of these books. In fact, many of the ideas are borrowed from Tolkien: the dwarves in this book are mostly miners and metalworkers, the elves are respected for their intelligence and knowledge of magic, there's an ancient language, there's a race of fighters which much resembles Orcs Paolini calls them "Urgals").

But it wasn't terrible. The book picks up towards the end, and often the first book in a trilogy is the weakest because of all the exposition. I will probably give the rest of the series a chance.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Book Club Tonite!!!

I went to the bimonthly (meaning every other, not 2x per) book club meeting at my local library tonight, having completed the assigned read, The Good Earth, Pearl Buck's classic novel. I read this one three weeks ago, when I was interviewing for a job at her home (I didn't get it, though I made it to the top two, so I guess I can tell y'all where the interview was now). It was a happy coincidence that the interview and the book club selection coincided.

The room was filled, as always, with women over 50. I always feel really out of place at these book clubs. I continue to go because it's virtually the only thing to do around here and because the librarians are so earnest and sincere about their book club that I can't help but want to support it. It's been hit-and-miss. There are times when I've gone and it's been great, and times when I've gone and it just pissed me off (like when they all hated Life of Pi -- too much fish-killing, they said. WTF?) Tonight was one of the good ones.

I did enjoy this book. It wasn't quite what I expected, but I liked how Buck kept us off balance. In the early parts of the book, you're rooting hard for Wang Lung and O-lan to make it. You're pleased when they succeed. Yet, slowly, you turn against Wang Lung. He seems to get selfish and arrogant, and he does some things that are a little creepy. Getting his aunt and uncle hooked on opium. Taking Lotus as a second wife, and basically forgetting O-lan, then forgetting Lotus too, and keeping her locked up in that court while she gets fat and old.

O-lan is harder to get a fix on. People tonight posited that she had just been so abused that her emotions shut down, or never even had a chance to develop, or that she was brainwashed by society. There's that hard practicality there, and not much else in some ways. Still, she got a horribly raw deal, and the part where Wang Lung takes her pearls to give to his second wife is just heartbreaking. We talked about this extensively tonight, since our group was all-female. I thought it was interesting that none of us (including myself) were sympathetic to Lotus, the second wife, although she too was sold into slavery (prostitution) at a young age, and probably abused as well.

Buck has a weird style in this book. I haven't read anything else by her, although I might now, so I don't know if it's always how she writes. But to me, it almost sounds a bit like the Bible. Each sentence sounds like a pronouncement. At this moment, I'm bitterly regretting returning my copy so I can't quote anything. But those who've read this book know what I'm talking about. It had the interesting effect of making the story seem as though it had implications far beyond the tale of Wang Lung, and that you, the reader, were supposed to go off and think about what each sentence means.

I'm a little surprised that this book is read widely in junior high and high schools. I'm curious to know how it's taught, and what kids think of it. Are there any teachers, or students, out there who can answer this for me?

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Your Guide to Weird Shit in the Empire State

Have you ever insisted on eating at a particular place because it had a giant plaster chicken out front? Do you drive out to the middle of nowhere to photograph neon signs when you need to relax? Have you ever rearranged your commute just to drive by the haunted-looking house? If so, then Weird New York by Christ Gethard will help focus your travels through the Empire State. This book is part of the Weird US series. My fellow New Yorkers, you have a lot to be proud of!

This book is good for hours of amuseument. It covers every variety of weird shit. There are people, like the Witch of Wall Street, the Naked Cowboy, the Fox Sisters, and Albert Fish. There are properties with more personality than your average human, like the Doll Death House, the Poor Man's Penthouse (a small house atop a warehouse in Syracuse, hidden by a billboard), and the Land of Broken Dreams. There are roadside oddities like Nipper the Dog in Albany, and the Muffler Men of the Magic Forest amuseument park in Lake George. Haunted cemeteries, clawfoot people, incest villages, UFOs, abandoned mental hospitals -- it's all here, all that and more. This was a Christmas gift from my parents, and they complained of its distinct downstate focus, but there's good stuff all over.

The book is 258 pages long. I sincerely wish it was longer. I don't know much about the rest of the series, but if this book is any indication, it's a must-have for people who just drive around looking for weird nationwide.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

New Stuff on the Sidebar

Ever since I started these blogs, I've struggled with how to get more traffic to them. The only strategy I've been able to come up with is leaving comments on the blogs of others, thereby hopefully letting others know I exist. So once again, I laced up my boots, strapped on my pack, and began traversing the Great Interweb in search of comment-worthy blogs. I'm not going to be one of those "hey d00ds chek out this kewl site" assholes who comments on everything I see.

As always, I had to pan through a lot of silt to get the nuggets of gold. I always skip the blogs written in other languages (if I can't understand them, their readers won't understand me), the boring ones about money and software, the ones that look to be merely Adsense farms and those clearly intended for the poster's friends and family almost exclusively (what am I going to do, say "Hey, cute kids! Looks like you had fun at Disneyworld, strangers!" Ewwwww....creepy.) A lot of times I get pissed off and return to my humble abode. I guess today is no different in a way, but today I return bearing links. I found some good stuff out there, and I put it on the sidebar here and over at my other blog. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 3, 2007

In happier book news, a release date for HP7

I seriously doubt that any of you are hearing about this for the first time here (it's July of this year, in case you are) but I'm very excited about it! When Half-Blood Prince was released, I was doing my internship in western Massachusetts. I bought my copy at The Book Loft in Great Barrington and I went over at midnight to pick it up. It was a great event. They'd decorated the whole store. They had a picture frame covered in a black cloth, and an employee hid behind it and yelled shit at you when you went past. There was the Mirror of Erised and the seven vials of potion from the first book. There were dried willow branches all around and a sign to "Beware of the Whomping Willow." People came in costume. To get to the register, you had to walk through a black veil, like in the 5th book.

The best part, though, was that they had a dementor working the register. When I bought my book, he gave me a Hershey's kiss! How great is that?! People came in costume and lined up through the whole plaza. It was the best Harry Potter release event I've ever even heard of. I want to go back there this summer with my sister (although she doesn't know it yet) to get my copy. Does anyone else have a tale of a good HP release event?

Pictures from that night:

A family of uber-fans waits in line

At the entrance to the store

Hagrid, a dementor, and a Muggle, working late to get everyone their HP!

Dumbledore appeases the fans

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Rest in Peace, Molly Ivins

A while back, I had been wondering what had happened to my favorite columnist, and why her columns hadn't been on Working For Change much. I've been following Molly Ivins' columns faithfully ever since I was a teenager, so I knew of her struggles with breast cancer. I had feared the worst back then. Today I found out I was right: Molly Ivins passed away today at the age of only 62.

Liberals loved Molly Ivins' columns for her effective juxtaposition of humor and ass-kicking fury. Conservatives probably frothed at the mouth -- I know I've read more than one angry letter to the editor after one of her columns. Ivins lost her fiance during the Vietnam War and has been a virulent opponent of war and violence of all stripes ever since, from Gulf War I to the war on Iraq, even extending to the assault on Waco and the so-called "War on Drugs" (which, as she so astutely pointed out, was really just an extension of the Cold War by people who just couldn't seem to stop fighting the damn thing). In her columns, she envisioned a governement that was less corrupt, that served all people equally, and that was run for the people and not for big business.

Yet she never failed to charge each of her readers with the responsibility of making that happen. She reminded us over and over again that a democracy needs an involved citizenship. She was always encouraging us to get off our asses for one reason or another, whether it was to vote, to protest, to write letters to our elected officials, to run for office ourselves, to get involved with campaigning, or to encourage others to do the same.

In her memory tonight, I'd like to encourage all of my readers to do the same. Even the conservative ones are invited to celebrate the life of a great American voice. Is there something about our government or our society that's been pissing you off? I invite you, for Molly, to do something about it in the next few days. Write an elected official. Write to the newspaper. Join an organization dedicated to fighting the thing that's pissing you off. It doesn't have to be anything huge. If it aggravates the absolute hell out of you that there's no stoplight STILL at the dangerous intersection in town, go out and get a bunch of your neighbors together and show up at a town board meeting. Get involved. Be one of the good ones. And come here and tell me about what you do.