Friday, January 31, 2014

Reader Response: The Miseducation of Cameron Post Pt. 4

Continued reader response to The Miseducation of Cameron Post for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! **

Chapters The-Rest-Of-The-Book

Well, wow. I finished reading Miseducation in bed late last night and immediately booted something out of my top ten favorite books to make room for it. My GoodReads review went as follows:
"While reading this book about a teen lesbian in VHS-era Montana, I kept wondering what I could possibly say to explain the experience. I can't just ask other people to read it because even if they did, it wouldn't capture what it was like for me. I had my answer about a minute after finishing, while I skimmed the Acknowledgements for mentions of people or places here in Lincoln, Nebraska:

This is the closest reading experience to my life experience that I've encountered.

I don't mean the specifics of Cameron Post's personality or what happens in this novel. I mean that for all the worlds I've visited in books of every genre, this is the only time I felt like I didn't leave my own world." [5 of 5 stars]
It's not unusual for me to start out with lots of passion for a book, hope it doesn't let me down...and then be let down. Not so with Miseducation, a feat made all the more impressive by its length. What kinds of elements are making me so glowy about it?
  • Gorgeous, sensual writing, especially when it comes to Montana's natural summer beauty and food. I noticed that one GoodReads reviewer put it on her "food-porn" shelf. Ha!
  • Not all adults are stupid or evil, a pet peeve of mine in YA lit.
  • The adults who are somewhat stupid or evil aren't just that. They're also wise and caring in their own ways. One of my favorite characters, Rick, would be a flat-out villain in a lesser book. Here, he's someone I would want as a friend despite huge disagreements. Ok, there's one woman, Lydia, who is smart and evil and almost completely out of place, except Cameron finally spots the human vulnerability making her that way. There are no monsters in this book, even though monstrous things happen. Emphasis on young adult.
  • ...and no saints. Scratch that. There is one saint, but I'm not revealing that here no matter how many times I warned about spoilers. In all other cases, the characters we're supposed to sympathize with are also shitty in their own ways.
  • The sex scenes are better handled than any sex scenes I've read in a book that lets the reader know what happened. There's just enough information to know what's going on, without the detail that turns me off in most erotica and steamy romances. I'm not the least bit prudish. I'm saying this is the superior aesthetic choice.
  • Culture of the late 80s/early 90s is spot on from my memory of neighboring North Dakota only a couple of years younger than Cameron was at that time. Miseducation has an effortless level of detail that would make historical fiction researchers swoon.
  • The dialogue is realistic, not John Green style. Usually, the most clever responses happen in Cameron's head...too late to use them.
  • Sexual orientation is not presented as a simple thing. The 'Q' in LGBTQ is strongly present.
  • Its overall narrative structure is satisfying. In the places where it's common, there's always something subverting the common trope. I went in knowing how it would start and what would happen in the middle, but I was very pleasantly surprised at the path to that middle, and where things went from there.
One more excerpt to show off the feel of the writing. From a sex scene enough out of context to avoid spoiling much until it happens:
"I stopped at the waistband and silver button on those tiny khaki shorts. I slipped just one finger beneath the band, not far, just against the place where her hipbone pushed out, and I felt her tremble, just barely, but still.
'You tell me when to stop,' I said.
She breathed in big, blew it out, and said, 'Not now.'
And her saying that, just that, not now, made my want of her flutter up inside me again and again like tiny explosions from Black Cat firecrackers, one after another: just her saying that."
A highly satisfying book.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Reader Response: The Miseducation of Cameron Post Pt. 3

Continued reader response to The Miseducation of Cameron Post for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! **

Chapters Seven and Eight and Nine and Ten

This is not a Hollywood movie plot. No mainstream film would spend so long on a protagonist's development before reaching a crisis (besides the one revealed in the first line). If Miseducation were any less of a pleasure on each page, I would be regretting my choice of second LGBTQ book for this class.

I would read a ten volume set of books on this character's whole life at this pace. She isn't even a very interesting character from the outside. It's easy to be Cameron when I'm reading Danforth's prose and what I want is to keep experiencing that.

Hrm, I really only want to say two things about these four chapters: (1) no important characters are allowed to be simple characters, and (2) Emily Danforth can wrote Forebodings in a way that somehow doesn't annoy me. They're not like "Little did I know this would be our last date." They're always more ambiguous that, and sometimes used as part of a larger narrative structure, like the one starting on page 150 of the first edition hardcover:

"[paragraph] But this wasn't the prom moment that got me.

Other moments that didn't get me include [...]

[paragraph]

[paragraph]

And it wasn't [...]. And it wasn't [...] And it wasn't even [...]

[paragraph]

The moment that did get me was [...]"

It worked. So. Well.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Reader Response: The Miseducation of Cameron Post Pt. 2

Continued reader response to The Miseducation of Cameron Post for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! **

Chapters Four and Five and Six

A major theme in these chapters is the complexity of Aunt Ruth. This is a woman who gave up her job as a stewardess immediately to take responsibility for her orphaned niece. She's always made up neatly and always polite, even if that politeness takes on a "hard edge" when she's struggling to maintain it. She does listen to others. She tried to maintain Cameron's family traditions, even outdoing Cameron's mother in terms of making everything perfect. But it's this very striving for perfection that vaguely bothers Cameron and bothers me as a reader. Margot was also neat, stylish, and polite but there was a strong sense that Margot was comfortable with herself and honest. I feel like Ruth my be a wreck underneath, like she needs to be as nice as she is to avoid coming apart.

Ruth is also an evangelical who takes Cameron out of her family's mainline church.
'"[...] It might also be nice for Cammie to hang out with some Christian teens."

As far as I knew, everybody I "hung out with" was a Christian teen, and even if some of them maybe weren't so convinced, not a one of them was talking about their doubts. I knew was Ruth was getting at, though; she wanted me to hang around with the kids who carried their Bibles class to class. She wanted me to wear the T-shirts of Christian rock bands and go to the summer camps, the rallies, to talk the talk and walk the walk.'
There, Cameron is given an Extreme Teen Bible like everyone else. This is the sort of target-demographic Bible with marginal notes and appendices which give answers to all sorts of contemporary questions, like how Christian teens should be handling TV watching or acne. Later on, of course, Cameron uses it to find out what Christian teens should think about same-sex attraction. I liked how Emily Danforth is subtly pointing out that lesbian relationships are covered in the written-in margins, not the Biblical text, but that the attitude of stoning two men to death is discomforting for lesbians all the same. Until attending Gates of Praise (abbreviated GOP, which I smirked at appropriately), Cameron only felt she needed to hide her attraction to girls because mass culture of the late 80s had shown her men and women together, not same sex couples, except for a few VHS movies that the video store clerk would make creepy comments about.

Gates of Praise and Ruth are elements I know well from my own childhood. For me, they represent a type of religiosity that covers over individual struggles with a group separatism. I'm sure it's very comforting for the right personality types. I doubt Cameron would give in even if her feelings weren't being demonized from the pulpit.

I'm not a fan of secret-based-suspense. That's what I expected to happen in these chapters: "When will Ruth find out?!" And, yes, that suspense is happening, but it's not a foreground concern. Cameron develops another relationship that is sweet, and interesting, and an opportunity for her to understand herself better individually and in a cultural context (the other girl is politically aware so we get to see Cameron react to lingo that touches on but isn't a perfect match for her natural feelings).

This book is being everything for lesbian teens that I wish Luna had been for transgender teens.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Reader Response: The Miseducation of Cameron Post Pt. 1

A free-form reader response to The Miseducation of Cameron Post for my Teen Materials class. This is the LGBTQ title I picked from a list, as opposed to the one everyone in the class had to read.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Chapters One and Two and Three

This time, I read the first two chapters in bed, not taking notes as I went. Danforth's prose is longer, more expansive, more detailed, etc. than the other Young Adult novels I've read recently. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (which I'll call Miseducation from now on) is almost 500 pages long and has adult novel font size, line spacing, and margins. To avoid taking forever, I have decided to be more lax in my notes for this book (unless I feel the need to do otherwise!).

What struck me more than anything else in these two chapters is the sensuality of Emily Danforth's writing. I'm not using "sensuality" as a euphemism for sexual content. I mean that her descriptions of taste, touch, and sound are very evocative. I can't judge visual descriptions because of my mental handicap in that area, but I had more-than-abstract experiences of these other senses while I read. A scene that covers a couple of those senses:
"Grandma put on a Murder, She Wrote rerun after lunch, but she always dozed during those, and Irene and I had seen it, so we quietly left her asleep in the recliner. She made tiny whistling noises as she breathed, like the last seconds of a Screaming Jenny firecracker.
Outside we climbed the cottonwood tree next to the garage and then swung over to its roof, something my parents had told me over and over not to do. The surface was black tar and it was sticky and melted; our flip-flops sank in as we stepped. At one point Irene couldn't pull her foot out and she fell forward, the melted roof burning her hands."
As far as pacing goes, I'm almost annoyed by the slowness and the back-and-forth timeline. But I'm not. And by the time I reached the end of Chapter Two, I realized that I wanted to experience everything in that first 40 pages before seeing Cameron as orphan.

The most uncomfortable thing has been the shoplifting, but it fit the characters so well and I could almost feel the stolen gum hidden under my own clothing as I read it. Emily Danforth is turning out to be an extraordinarily pleasing writer, as I adjust to her pace. It's hard not to want to be this protagonist having this golden childhood, except for the dying parents part of course.

I liked Cameron's choice of escapism: movies, movies, movies. It's something many people do without recognizing it so explicitly. I also see a rationale being demonstrated here for carrying films in public libraries. In contexts where privacy is less emphasized, it can be oppressive to constantly have to worry about what the person handling checkouts thinks of selections...and how they feel entitled to interact because of those judgments.

Margot, a world-traveling, confident childhood friend of Cameron's mom, came to visit Cameron in particular when Margot was back in the States, months after her parents' funerals. Their dinner together was handled so well. Emily Danforth could have overdone or underdone the implications of Margot's relationship with Cameron's mother easily, but she didn't. It was the perfect amount of understanding for Cameron and for readers:
"She smiled a tight smile at me and said, 'I'm going to level with you here, Cameron, because you seem adult enough to handle it. Grief is not my strong suit, but I did want to see you and tell you that if you need anything from me, you can always ask and I'll do my best.' She seemed like she was done, but then she added, 'I loved your mom since I met her.'
Margot wasn't crying and I couldn't read on her face the potential for it, but I knew that if I looked at her long enough, I could definitely get weepy, and maybe even eventually tell her about me and Irene and what we had done, what I had wanted to do and still did want to do. And I knew, somehow, that she would make me feel better about it. I could just tell that Margot would assure me that what I had done hadn't caused the accident, and that while I wouldn't believe anybody else telling me the exact same thing, I might actually believe her. But I didn't want to believe her right then, so I didn't keep looking at her face but instead drained the rest of my Shirley Temple, which took several swallows; but I finished every last sweet pink-red carbonated drop until the ice clacked against my teeth."
The end of Chapter Three was about Irene's changing social class, which led her to leave Cameron behind. But since Irene was much less affected by kissing Cameron, it's likely this mismatch would have led her away in a more painful way if she had stayed.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Reader Response: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Pt. 2

Continued reader response to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

** Spoilers everywhere! **

Chapter "My Sister Sends Me an E-mail"

Mary Runs Away finally speaks (or types)! I'm kind of disappointed here, but only because Sherman Alexie built up some mystery about her, and this didn't resolve any of that mystery. He gets points for making me want more.

Chapter "Thanksgiving"

Have to share part of scene. Junior is missing having Rowdy over for Thanksgiving, so he draws a cartoon of himself and Rowdy in super hero outfits giving each other a fist-bump "like we used to be," and took it over to Rowdy's home where his dad lies and claims Rowdy isn't home, then:
"'Oh, well, I drew this for him. Can you give it to him?'
Rowdy's dad took the cartoon and stared at it for a while. Then he smirked.
'You're kind of gay, aren't you?' he asked.
Yeah, that was the guy who was raising Rowdy. Jesus, no wonder my best friend was always so angry.
'Can you just give it to him?' I asked.
'Yeah, I'll give it to him. Even if it's a little gay.'
I wanted to cuss at him. I wanted to tell him that I thought I was being courageous, and that I was trying to fix my broken friendship with Rowdy, and that I missed him, and if that was gay, then okay, I was the gayest dude in the world. But I didn't say any of that.
'Okay, thank you,' I said instead. 'And Happy Thanksgiving.'"
See what I mean about Sherman Alexie being clued into the ways gender restrictions also cause problems for men? The macho thing is making it not okay for Junior to say that he misses his best friend. I appreciate that it's a physically abusive adult being a jerk because it should help teen readers dis-identify with that kind of thinking (and the "gay!" slur). At the same time, Junior models being polite to someone who doesn't deserve it, when preaching wouldn't help anyway.

Chapter "Hunger Pains"

Junior gets ahead by seeing a weakness in another person and...showing kindness when it wasn't expected.

Indian kids aren't the only ones with dreams and limitations.

Chapter "Rowdy Gives Me Advice About Love"

Good advice, actually.

And in this chapter we have a media literacy lesson.

Chapter "Dance, Dance, Dance"

Some insight into the psychology of being poor and the importance of not appearing to be.

Chapter "Don't Trust Your Computer"

It's nice to see how the same technology people blame for being alienating can also provide opportunities for communication when face to face talking is...more problematic. And it's nice to read a book depicting this.

Chapter "My Sister Sends Me a Letter"

Mary Runs Away is entirely too positive all of the time. I'm worried.

Chapter "Reindeer Games"

I feel like I just read an inspiring sports novel in a single chapter. Much respect for this coach character, for seeing Junior's strengths and working with his weaknesses. And being the best all-around human being in this book so far. He doesn't go over the top like the reservation's math teacher did, but he certainly exceeded my expectations.

Chapter "And a Partridge in a Pear Tree"

I'm grateful that I didn't grow up with an alcoholic parent.

Chapter "Red Versus White"

And more grateful that I didn't grow up with non-alcoholic parents who ignore their children.

Thanks a lot, Sherman Alexie!! I know I hadn't cried in, like, pages, but damn that was the most sublime set-up for a sucker punch I've ever experienced as a reader! ...I'm starting to think that if I could go back and cut out a couple of pages in the chapter about the math teacher, this would be a flawlessly amazing book, instead of just an amazing book.

Chapter "Wake"

The most astonishing thing is that this chapter was a break from emotional storms, considering what it was about. I appreciated the portrayal of community here.

Chapter "Valentine Heart"

Couldn't decide if I wanted to throw this book or keep reading. It's cruel to write emotional roller-coasters like this and expect people to read it. Of course I'm going to invite everyone to take this ride when I'm finished.

Chapter "In Like a Lion"

One thing I like best about PTI is that nothing is simple. It's not ambiguous either. It's strong and clear in different directions, like life. Arnold's interview with the sports report is an example. In a more simple book, the obviously-on-the-way gag about Arnold only saying "Weird." in response to the on-camera prompt after giving an honest answer would have been the end of it. But it's a more adult book than that. The reporter calls Arnold a name and Arnold realize that, yes, both of them were being assholes to each other. So he asks to try again. I was surprised the reporter bothered, but then Arnold gave an honest answer that went beyond basketball.

It's definitely a book about getting past that first layer of personality, that first role, the expected response.

Just realized I switched to writing about "Arnold" instead of "Junior." Well, he's growing up and so is my perception of this character.

Chapter "Rowdy and I Have a Long and Serious Discussion About Basketball"

This book.

Chapter "Because Russian Guys Are Not Always Geniuses"
"I'm fourteen years old and I've been to forty-two funerals.
That's really the biggest difference between Indians and white people."
Chapter "Remembering"

Another big lesson of this book, as I read it: The problem isn't having identities, it's in identity being too simple. We are all many things.

Chapter "Talking About Turtles"

Completely satisfying ending. I will go off into the world and evangelize for this book now.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Reader Response: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Pt. 1

Free-form reader response to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I selected this as my second "Contemporary Realistic Fiction" work for Teen Materials class. What I'm doing here isn't required, but I'm starting to like the process of reviewing as I go...and multiple friends have encouraged me to continue.

** Spoilers everywhere! **

Before Chapter One, this book has a creative edition notice page! Copyright, publisher, cataloging information: it's all askew in roughly the shape of a cartoon tornado.

Also, a Yeats quote in block letters with 3D shading across from the title page:
"There is another world, but it is in this one."
These are good signs.

Chapter "The Black-Eye-of-the-Month-Club"

PTI  (short for Part-Time Indian which is still too long) opens with the narrator telling readers about his medical history. He stutters, has a lisp, and wears the one style of glasses issued by Indian Health Service. He gets picked on at school, then called a "retard" and beaten on the reservation. So he hides and he reads and he draws. I see pen-drawn illustrations scattered all over PTI's pages!
"Just take a look at the world. Almost all of the rich and famous brown people are artists. They're singers and actors and writers and dancers and directors and poets.
So I draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation."
As a reader, I want to know more about this kid who has been going through social exclusion, medical problems, and ethnic prejudice...but who still has so much hope and good humor and creativity. I think teen readers who identify with any of the above are going to accept this narrator and stay to listen about the other experiences.

Chapter "Why Chicken Means So Much to Me"

I figured it out. This kid needs the humor to be alive at all. Think of the saddest end of the saddest movie you saw as a kid. This second chapter tops it, already. Hmm, I should include one of the drawings both for style and a sense of why they're so important to the storytelling:


The most heartbreaking thing is that his parents' failed dreams were so modest, as dreams go. Decent clothes. Good jobs. Some appreciation from a small community. This is the most succinct, audience-appropriate explanation of generational poverty that I've read:
"It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it."
I'm still shuddering about the line in this chapter about nerves. This book hits like a flash flood.

Chapter "Revenge Is My Middle Name"

PTI is not about dispelling prejudice by showing a reservation full of decent people being kept down by outsiders. It's about showing readers that Indians don't "feel half as much pain as white people." It's about showing how oppression has come to live inside the reservation, and is perpetuating itself there.

I love this kid's friend, "Rowdy," as a character. He's a hurricane of violence and rage, but lets the narrator--the weakest boy on the reservation--stand inside the eye of that hurricane.

Chapter "Because Geometry Is Not a Country Somewhere Near France"

Sherman Alexie has an amazing ability to write light text with the heaviest undertones. It's nothing like reading John Green's characters be weepy and overly poetic about heavy topics. There are layers here. Not hidden layers, either. It's like looking at an illustration of a geological column and having one bit catch your attention, then looking up or down at what else is going on in this slice.

Somehow this chapter goes from school jitters, to masturbation, to geometry, to hiding in nooks and corners, to his sister's intriguing introduction, to worries about how high school will change his friendship with Rowdy, to a teacher's introduction, to context for "You can't teach at our school if you don't live in the compound. It was like some of prison-work farm for our liberal, white, vegetarian do-gooders and conservative, white missionary saviors.", then to book love, and finally to underfunded education.

I can't tell yet whether this will be one of those Young Adult books where none of the adults can be trusted, but it is using another technique: showing teen readers that this isn't a book approved by a committee of "give them gentle, clean reads" parents. It's more age appropriate than that.

Chapter "Hope Against Hope"

This chapter goes about two pages too long to keep from being over the top in two ways, but I was already about to break down all good-weepy by then.

Adults are not automatically enemies here. Not the white ones, anyway.

Chapter "Go Means Go"

And not just the white ones.

Chapter "Rowdy Sings the Blues"

Teen boy protagonists also deal with gender restrictions. Nice to know Sherman Alexie is clued in and sympathetic. ...and then there's this line:

"Rowdy stopped screaming with his mouth but he kept screaming with his eyes."

Junior, as I finally found out he was called a couple of chapters ago, is not lacking in either physical or social courage.

Chapter "How to Fight Monsters"

This was an interesting bullying situation. Junior knew all about one kind of bullying, but here the problem wasn't that he was helpless. The problem is that he responded in a culturally inappropriate way. The remarkable thing is that he figured it out half-way. It's an inept chapter title, but so off that it has to be on purpose.

Chapter "Grandmother Gives Me Some Advice"

That's one hell of a grandmother! Loving the way Sherman Alexie keeps thwarting expectations. A message of this book seems to be: things are bad, really bad, but not as bad as you think.

Chapter "Tears of a Clown"

This short flashback chapter could be dropped without losing anything, I think. It might depend on what the author wants to do with Rowdy's character later.

Chapter "Halloween"

In this chapter, Junior's white girl crush, Penelope, went from a 0-dimensional character to a 1-dimensional character. Progress.

Chapter "Slouching Toward Thanksgiving"

I had been wondering what was happening in the school parts of school. Junior makes a friend who could have been a quirky love interest in a John Green novel. Thankfully, that's not what happens here. This, however, does:


Librarian challenge: put this on promotional posters and t-shirts.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reader Response: Luna Pt. 3

Continued notes on my chapter-by-chapter reader response for Luna by Julie Anne Peters.

Chapter Eleven

Luna and Regan venture into the mall, seeing if Luna passes. Mixed success. A flashback about the difference between being trans and gay. Luna being hurt in the present and the past by "fag!" slurs. This chapter was a lot of telling, but it was also showing the damage words do.

Chapter Twelve

And then dad became a human being instead of an ogre for a minute. He actually asked Regan what he was doing wrong and gave some insight into how he could be so deluded as to think he was helping Luna. Mostly, I admired Regan for giving a true but non-specific answer. Dad didn't go for it, but at least he asked and listened to the words that came out of Regan's mouth. I was surprised along with Regan to hear that Luna has always idolized dad.

Chapter Thirteen

Another flashback. I give up on complaining about them. They're so integral to the structure of this book. This one does a few interesting things at once that are relevant to Luna's closing comment last chapter. First, it shows that kids can still idolize abusive fathers because Regan's uncles felt that way about their own abusive father. Second, it shows that this abusive grandfather tried to pull this on Luna and their dad intervened forcefully. Third, Regan remembers that dad drove Luna to school himself to keep bullies at bay. Different reasons Luna might adore her father despite feeling like a constant disappointment. I like the complexity and ambiguity here. Dad is becoming yet more of a complex character.

Another outing. Some strange delusions of passing going on with Luna. Maybe she needed to believe it was working? A big coincidence of Regan's crush showing up while Luna was changing. If he's telling the truth about dropping the class knowing he could have used Regan for math help, then my opinion of him has gone back up.

I am, however, bothered that Luna was changing in the rest room for forty minutes. The only thing that makes sense to me is a lot of psyching up time before stepping out.

Chapter Fourteen

There is a behavioral similarity between Luna and dad: they care, but they're both bad at noticing when their own concerns are trampling other people who are letting that happen.

Their father has finally reached the point where he's ready to deal with the possibility that his son is gay. He asks Regan straight out and gets the (incomplete) truth, then is relieved. It's not what Luna needs, but it's a shaky step in the right direction.

Chapter Fifteen

For me, the most significant thing in this chapter was the way Regan and Luna's mom had felt trapped in the role their father expected of her and that's why she went into catering despite his barbs and complaints. And why she has a drug problem. This is a more general message about how soul crushing it is to spend life conforming to someone's expectations who might genuinely care in some ways, but who doesn't care enough to listen and respond to personal needs.

Chapter Sixteen

More teen crush adorableness. Then Bad Ideas in Babysitting. Suspense just went back up. Regan should know better to have someone substitute with the babysitting whom the kids' parents haven't met, even if she knows Luna is safe.

Chapter Seventeen

The physical comedy distracted me from the tension for a couple of minutes.

Chapter Eighteen

I did not expect this to be such a pleasant girl/boy puppy love story. Regan is a good protagonist. I wonder if some of this is on purpose to say: hey, are you cisgendered and straight? Cool too! It's also a nice juxtaposition. Sure, Luna likes boys, but it's definitely all about personal identity with her.

Chapter Nineteen

Luna is reckless, selfish, and the worst to Regan. At this point I feel much worse for Regan than Luna. On the bright side, I'm not reading a book where the oppressed transgender teen is a shining paragon. It makes Luna more mixed. More human.

Chapter Twenty

"What just happened here, besides nothing?" That's right up there with the line from Haunted: "Nothing happened, and nothing kept happening." Both seem empty (har har), but the lack of what was expected can be the most stand-up-and-pay-attention! thing of all.

A morning of seeming repentant, but it didn't really cost Luna much. Soon she's back to using Regan without caring if Regan wants to be used. Of course she'll go along with it anyway.

I'm starting to wonder if this book exists not only to give hope to trans teens, but to warn them that they can hurt others around them unnecessarily if they believe they're the only ones vulnerable. Luna isn't hurting Regan by coming out, she's hurting Regan by echoing the lapses in empathy of their father.

Chapter Twenty-One

Bad timing for a flashback I didn't need. Must read the next chapter immediately.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Another purpose of this book is to raise awareness that transgender people exist and are human beings. Luna coming out to her best friend suddenly and without Alyson knowing anything beyond the 'G' in LGBTQ went badly. Of course it did.

I appreciate Regan's decision not to cheat on her Chemistry test, as planned. I appreciate Julie Anne Peter's decision for Regan to fail because of it.

Yep. Yep. This is still the most enjoyable romance novel I've read, with a surprisingly prominent side plot about the protagonist's insufferable trans sister. ...but not so insufferable as to deserve a beating from the stock bully character when she showed up to school as herself.

Chapter Twenty-Three

And now Regan is being lectured by a voice inside her head. I could understand this if it fit Regan's personality, but I've been inside Regan's head this entire book and so I can safely say this is Julie Anne Peter's voice. Suspension of disbelief broken. Lame. I hope the end of this book doesn't go back to being as lecture-and-exposition as the opening chapters were.

Chapter Twenty-Four

That flashback was over the top. How many trans women have actually tried to cut off their penises at, um, 10 or maybe earlier? I'm not buying it.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Predictable things happening. I would like something between unbelievable and what I've been expecting for half the book.

Chapter Twenty-Six

"They had been tested as parents and failed. Zero percent." While true for the barely-human "parental units" in this book, I have to wonder how useful this book will be to any trans teens trying to cope with parental rejection. Luna had high tech skills, income that didn't depend on social acceptance, and therefore the money to simply walk away from home and catch a flight to a new life when she hit 18.

This leaves Alyson in the dust as soon as they were starting to deal with being friends with transgender status out in the open. It leaves Regan with a car, and claims of appreciation, but Luna shows no new sign that she would care enough to stop trampling other people's lives while she's doing it.

Regan's romance plot is left hanging, which is possibly the worst thing I can say about this book's ending. But, hey, nice middle.

Goal Check
"I want this book to help me toward becoming a more accepting person. I also want to be able to recommend it to any teen who might be thinking about gender identity, whether it be for his or her own self, for a family member, for a friend, or because of a general interest in social justice. I want Luna to draw clear distinctions among gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. If it could be an amazing story on top of all this, that would be...just swell."
Do I feel like I have become a better, more accepting person toward trans women from reading this book? No. Luna was an out of control jerk whose primary virtue seems to have been lucrative job skills. Does it show the ugliness of transphobia? Hell yes. Despite Luna herself, this is a valuable book for people to read in much the same way that The Autobiography of Malcolm X is valuable to expose the ugliness of racism, despite Malcolm X's own crummy personality. Would I recommend it to teens? Yes. How about adults? No. The difference is that this is very much the sort of teen book where adults uniformly Don't Get It. The main teen characters come around to at least trying to accept Luna, except the one-dimensional bully. Without this anti-adult element working positively on a reader, I don't think this book would be an effective ambassador for transgender acceptance.

Was it an amazing story? As I kept mentioning, Regan's own romance plotline was pretty darn pleasurable, if you don't mind it being left in the air when the curtain closes behind Luna. Typical Luna.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Reader Response: Luna Pt. 2

Continued notes on my chapter-by-chapter reader response for Luna by Julie Anne Peters.

Chapter Three

The long, italicized flashbacks continue. This one is redundant after the last chapter. I'm of two minds about the father being such a concentrated stereotype. One: it's not quality storytelling this way. Two: readers who are less sensitive to gender expectations and restrictions, or have never felt them to be such a big deal might need to see extremes to become more aware and more sympathetic with those who don't fit into such expectations.

I don't remember this level of disassociation in the nonfiction stuff I read previously. It's not just disassociation with Luna's body, but of treating Liam like a separate person she needs to "kill" to be rid of him.

Luna is being an incredibly selfish jerk to her sister in this chapter. Brood on your own time, not Regan's important test day at school!

Chapter Four

"Our final grade was contingent on how well we worked together, our total contribution. The contribution part didn't scare me, since my share was going to be one hundred percent." I can relate with Regan here.

Is it even possible for teen girl narrators to see a guy and think that he looks nice without melting all over the floor?

Oh wow it just keeps going! I must share some snippets:
"Rock solid, top to bottom." 
"This was a dream. Who was this guy, and how had he penetrated the shield?"

"This guy, this real-living-person-like guy, motioned me to follow him. Which I would have, into a noxious cloud of carbon monoxide probably. He was like, hot."

"His eyes plumbed my depth, causing my internal temperature to soar. Was he checking me out?"

"Meltdown. Massive nuclear meltdown."

"Was it permissible to remark, 'Your hair is gorgeous?' Because it was. Black as ink and silky soft. A shock of it fell across his right eye. The left one seemed to gleam, twinkle, tease me."
Chemistry teacher is aggressively sexist. Shield-penetrating boy comments negatively on the sexism. This is how we know he's a keeper.

Chapter Five

Much appreciation for Luna being so technically inclined in a lucrative way. Are her two self-employed jobs intentionally the kind that don't require going to a social office? Good escape plan once she can leave home.

Please. Can we stop having these flashbacks? It's great that Julie Anne Peters thought up a history of the siblings up to the point of the story opening, but there's this technique where characters in the present talk about what happened before, so the reader's viewpoint doesn't have to go: to the past! And then: back to the present! Or involve reading so many lines of italics.

Despite being a flashback, the entire slumber party scene has been the most genuine-feeling thing that's happened in this book so far.

Chapter Six

Even Regan wants another set of parents to adopt her because "They were a regular family. They loved their kids. Really loved them." She goes on to tell of this other father explaining to their kids about the light spectrum when asked why the sky is blue. Regan's own father had responded to this question by explaining that the sky is blue because God is a boy and that it would be pink if God were a girl. By the way, Julie Anne Peters, *that's* how you handle past events in the present narrative. More of that, please.

This chapter impresses again. Regan is babysitting the young children of her preferred parents and the kids pick out Barbies and G.I. Joe dolls (I mean "action figures") in the usual way. "[I]t struck me how ordinary these kids were. 'They fulfill their gender expectations,' Liam would say. Whatever that meant. All I knew was you'd never mistake Mirelle for a boy, or Cody for a girl." Yes, it's still Gender Studies 101 in Regan's mind, but it's showing her process of *reacting* to Luna's gender theory talk. It's coming to mind later when she sees an example, but she's not totally signing on. This is an excellent way of using the dynamic of having Regan be the narrator in this story. It distances the reader from the kind of direct preaching Luna would probably do, while still putting them in the mind of a sympathetic sister.

Chapter Seven

A purposefully awkward chapter of Luna's mannerisms coming out of Liam during breakfast, with an explanation of how this was learned. It was very suspenseful because of the obvious parental discomfort and also because I assume Luna is lying about weekend plans and am apprehensive about what her actual plans are. Two better chapters in a row. Are we getting past opening-of-the-book jitters?

Chapter Eight

Regan's crush is kind of adorable. Yes, it's yet another YA narrating teen girl falling in love with the first handsome fellow to pay her attention. But it's so over the top that I'm enjoying it. It helps that he isn't giving me the creeps like Tris' Four.

This flashback is fitting for the scene. Regan can't get Luna to open her bedroom door and a particular singer is blasting. The last time this happened, she caught her trying to overdose on pills while dressed in a football uniform. Not the case this time, and I'm relieved that the weekend plan probably isn't going to be a suicide in the new baseball uniform. I think Luna's plan is to come out publicly and "kill" Liam by ruining Liam's reputation as a gender-compliant boy. This would be such a smarter plan than pills. Maybe she'll even do it at the baseball tryouts.

A bit too much of an info dump here. I feel like Luna would have gone on about cross-cultural transgender history with her sister before now, so it came across as "to the reader, not Regan" exposition. Regan freaking out about the notion of a sex reassignment surgery, and trying to cover it up was real-seeming. What this does for the narrative is allow both readers and Regan to have that initial reaction, then guide Regan later toward understanding and bring readers along with her.

Chapter Nine


Not so happy with Regan's new friend. "He clamped a hand down over my head like a helmet. [...] I wrenched away. [...] He looked hurt. 'Just messing with you, Regan.' My name, from his lips. It still made my heart leap. 'I know. I'm sorry.' I smiled." Why the hell is she apologizing and smiling at him for that?! And no, the context doesn't make sense of it. I'm very curious whether Julie Anne Peters is showing a common kind of male aggression and take-it-smiling expectation on women without needing to preach about it.

I do like Regan's plan for starting Luna's public transition. I liked her giving up a date with her crush to keep a shopping date with her sister even more.

Chapter Ten

This chapter is straight-up suspense for Luna's first appearance outside, in a relatively safe environment during a blizzard, but still.

On the whole, recent chapters have been more natural and interesting than the opening of this book. It's a pattern I've seen before and will no doubt see again. Good. Stopping here for tonight because I really want to find out what happens next.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Reader Response: Luna Pt. 1

Notes on my chapter-by-chapter response to reading Luna by Julie Anne Peters.

** Spoilers everywhere. **

Pre-Reading

All I know is that this is about a transgender teen. Last fall I read an adult, academic trans woman's book on her experiences and views, watched an autobiographical film about another trans woman, wrote a blog post on a neurological angle, and led a group discussion on transgender issues.

Why the interest? I felt uncomfortable about trans men and trans women, and wanted to do what I could to better understand and be more viscerally accepting beyond having an abstract ideal of acceptance. I'm not to the place I want to be yet, but it helped significantly.

I want this book to help me toward becoming a more accepting person. I also want to be able to recommend it to any teen who might be thinking about gender identity, whether it be for his or her own self, for a family member, for a friend, or because of a general interest in social justice. I want Luna to draw clear distinctions among gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. If it could be an amazing story on top of all this, that would be...just swell.

Chapter One

This is a great, short opening chapter. I was expecting a first-person narrative from Luna, but it seems we'll be seeing things through Luna's sister. The first thing I noticed is that the narrator uses female genders about Luna, even in her private thoughts. I bet this has been a secret between siblings for years, yet this is the moment Luna tells her she has settled on "Luna" for a name...and that she intends to go public this year at school. "Lia Marie" was an earlier maybe-name, but it was "too close." Guessing she was assigned "Liam" at birth.

Luna is at an uncomfortable phase of wearing wigs and dressing femme only at night, without waking up "the parental units." Interesting choice of depersonalizing language there, but that could be a defense against concerns about not being accepted. Or I'm reading too much into that term.

When the narrator tries to go back to sleep: "I studied her through a slit eye. Something was different. A change had come over her. Nothing physical. More a shift in her cosmos or maybe a crack." So there is ambiguity in her sister's thoughts. This feels more realistic and is interesting than starting the book with completely certain thoughts about a loved one's transition.

Chapter Two

Less happy about kicking off the next chapter with an italicized flashback. I did get "Liam" right. I felt like: now we'll insert a childhood scene of Liam wanting to play the mom while Regan gives into playing the dad. At least Liam was first characterized as being a curious reader.

Regan's morning reverie is exposition that's too convenient to feel natural. Now I'm feeling like the author was trying to have Regan think and define "transgender" as soon as possible for the reader. Then there was her thought about having an earlier indication that Liam was "different" but no! ...it's repressed so readers will be in suspense about this earlier scene. Yes, she's back to thinking "Liam" instead of "Luna," which is understandable enough with a new name (possibly name-of-the-week has been going on for a while)...but the masculine pronouns are there too. It's like when Liam puts on a dress, 'he' becomes 'she' in Regan's unconsidered thoughts.

Ah. Liam is her "boy role." It makes more sense for Regan to go along with that if they both see it as a performance. Luna has grown up as smart as the flashback suggested she would, and she gets annoyed by casual gender essentialist comments from dad. A dad who is uncomfortable with his wife earning more than he does.

The joke their dad told was the such a dad joke.

Mom has a drug problem. Dad has a son-must-play-sports expectation. Mom is coming off as a complex character while dad is coming off as a stereotype. Let's go weightlifting, son! No, you may not cook dinner, son. "That's not your job." Then he hears Regan explicitly say she does not want to cook and still declares she is "more than happy" to cook. He has absolutely no regard for what his children want, or say, to the point where he won't acknowledge it two seconds later.

Luna has been taking her mom's estrogen on the sly. It's too bad she can't just talk to her parents.

Glad I didn't have to wait longer for the "earlier memory" Regan teased with earlier. *sigh* I had much higher hopes at the end of the first chapter than at the end of the second. Luna and mother both come across as complex characters, but Regan and dad are hollow so far. They seem like Roles Being Filled in order to Get Points Across.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Reader Response: Divergent Pt. 5

A continuation of reader response to Divergent by Veronica Roth for my Teen Materials class.

* spoilers everywhere *

Chapter Twenty-Five

I hope this book eventually gets around to condemning Tris for being so gung-ho about silencing political speech from repressed groups. I'm reminded of when people went around stealing yard signs that favored my mother in a local election. Tris would totally do that, and apparently she'd litter in the local water supply while she was at it.

The only way...to show this fear landscape who's boss...is to snuggle tighter with me, Four! Hah, I kind of approve of this scene.

Back to disapproving. Four's next fear test involves loading a gun and shooting a woman in the head. How this any kind of fear mastering? The only thing that comes to mind is that he feels guilty about shooting someone in the past, but guilt isn't fear. Or does he believe he needs to kill a specific woman in the future and "dreads" doing that?

The odd ending of the simulation scene most likely means Four has never successfully finished on his own, but seeing Tris in danger finally let him dissolve the fear of his father.

Chapter Twenty-Six

And then there was kissing.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Not sure what happened there. It can't be rare for an initiate to also fear an instructor's fear, especially Tris who was abducted in the night mere days ago. I was expecting her to Divergent her way out of it and hoped she were smart enough not to try. No one should have blinked an eye at this.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

On the plus side, I now know who the conveniently overhearable Divergent hunter was in the hallway a while back. Tris also does a good job of playing up a Dauntless caricature to avoid having to tell more complicated lies. On the minus side, there weren't any interesting revelations about the testing system.

Eric just became far more interesting as a character. Tris is getting better at this lying thing. Still unbelievably slow witted, though. She really didn't get that Four was putting on a brusque show when he didn't hold her hand in front of everyone?

Just in case readers missed the bit about the Erudite leader sneaking around in Dauntless headquarters conspiring with her planted instructor, the conspiracy is revealed (again) by rebel hacker dude Four. Seems reasonable enough. The truth faction isn't going to be good at sneakiness and the stay-nice-always faction isn't going to be good at coups. Plus, it's much smarter to control Dauntless than make enemies of them.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

If a chicken breast, peas, and bread is Abnegation food, what's Dauntless food? Balut?

Chapter Thirty

"What combats powerlessness? Power. And the first time I felt powerful in the Dauntless compound was when I was holding a gun." [...] "As I aim and shoot, I feel the same rush of power I felt the first time I held a gun." Hey teen readers, if you really want to conquer your fears in life, get yourself a gun and start blasting away!

Way to make sure everyone sees that you're Divergent, Tris!

How is the gun to her head scary for Tris when she knows it's a simulation gun? It's not like being burned to death and having to feel that. Guns are overused in this book.

Chapter Thirty-One

These Dauntless are so afraid of questioning authority. "Some other faction said we should all inject ourselves, so let's do it ok? Sure! Why not? Jab me with that big needle!"

Four: the only sane person in Virtuetown. It's still sad that it takes a huge insight to realize neglecting four other virtues in favor of laser focus one is...less virtuous.

No sex in this scene, but lots of intimacy. I sure don't mind. I want to like Four, because he knows he has a problem with being a jerk and is trying to work on it, but why couldn't he wait two weeks for Tris to finish initiation instead of continually leveraging that position in his pursuit of her?

Also, I still don't know what he sees in Tris. She's potentially going to become an interesting person because of her Divergent property, but so far she isn't. I'm tired of books about bland girls inspiring raging devotion in the nearest hunk for no apparent reason. I can, unfortunately, see the attraction of such romance stories for teen girls with low self-esteem.

Chapter Thirty-Two

"A moment later, Tobias' thumb brushes over the injection site in my neck, and a few things come together at once. I don't know how I didn't figure this out before." Perhaps Tris can maintain a normal level of insight if Four keeps touching her at all times.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Zombie serum. Underwhelmed by this master plan. At least the "kill Divergents" thing makes better sense, except the bit about calling them "rebels."

With all of this leg shooting, I must be watching Person of Interest!

Chapter Thirty-Four

"Why are most of the Divergent weak-willed, God-fearing nobodies from Abnegation, of all factions?" Roth miiiiight have a religious agenda with this book. Ignoring that, one answer: Abnegation is about suppressing any natural talents a person has, so it shouldn't be the tiniest bit surprising when some of them do have another talent to suppress. Remember, being Divergent is just being normal in our world. Tris is special because she's not entirely one-dimensional!

AND NOW MR. BOND, APPRECIATE MY EVIL PLAN BEFORE I KILL YOU.

"Send him to the control room." Oh, this villain.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Nice symbolic re-baptism there, Roth. Good thing Tris' mom is a gun fan too. Guns and God to the rescue! ...which, somehow, is still much better than Four magically showing up and rescuing her.

Funny how Tris was just feeling happy she didn't kill murder-happy Eric, but no one bats at eye at her mom killing Dauntless guards who weren't in control of their minds.

Not happy with the whole: commando-mom -> Tris finally realizing mom started out Dauntless -> Mom revealing that she is also Divergent -> Mom murdering more innocent people to distract Tris -> Mom getting shot in a needless scene of self-sacrifice.

So...there wasn't any mind control stuff in the normal serum and it's just that factions are typically able to "condition" most initiates into being one-track Virtue nuts? Even if that were a sensible explanation, why kill Divergent teens? Why not just send them out of the city with the rest of the people who fail initiation?

Why is this whole book being so dramatic about common human psychology?

Chapter Thirty-Six

Dad and brother took all of two seconds to get over mom dying. Is dad secretly a Klingon with his "A good death!" response?

It is satisfying for Tris to show off what she has learned, how she has changed.

"...and surprise whatever guard is shooting at us before he gets the chance to fire a bullet into my brain." So much of this imagery in Divergent.

The messages on when it's ok to kill people are so mixed that I have no idea what Roth is trying to preach here. Tris goes from shooting her fellow initiate in the face to being all nonlethal-gun-ninja. Then just starts shooting to kill again. What's going on here?!

Tris' parents show up just so they both be similarly shot down dramatically by soldiers immediately after they killed soldiers to save Tris? Ugh. Not moved at all. I'm sure in the film version this will be all slow motion and dramatic music.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

"I feel his muscles shift as he pinches the trigger and duck my head just in time. The bullet hits the wall behind me." More head shooting imagery, because that's Roth's favorite form of violence! Good thing Tris can twitch as fast as Spiderman.

A minute ago, Tris was worried about the general slaughter of Abnegation. Now she's prepared to not only give up her own life to avoid shooting Four, but the mission to save all of those other people. Self-sacrifice is a bit more noble when it's just you.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

And then everything is ok(ish) because the villain decided to put a Divergent fellow with precisely the right skills to stop the master plan in the one room where he could stop the master plan if he was able to shake the drug, like had happened in all earlier drug tests.

I would say Divergent is a confusing book, but it's really more of a confused book. I feel like I'm reading a middle-of-the-process draft that hasn't been checked over for coherence. I feel like it suddenly turned into "Christian suspense fiction" in the last few chapters, and did a terrible job of being that. Was the whole draft more religious and an editor asked Roth to keep it down until readers were almost finished? Was there an editor?

I can't say I'm happy about Divergent being popular for teens. There are good bits here and there, more often in the "telling" than the "showing" parts. But I can't endorse it as a worthwhile read with the way physical and personal ideals are conflated, the empowerment-through-guns message, the total lack of questioning when power is used for sexual advantage, poorly inserted religiosity, and just plain shoddy world-building. Every thumb down.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Reader Response: Divergent Pt. 4

A continuation of reader response to Divergent by Veronica Roth for my Teen Materials class (maybe).

* spoilers everywhere *

Chapter Seventeen

I'm intrigued by this hush-hush initiation trip with Uriah, but puzzled about Tris seeing the "Dauntless mania" and echoing the attitude. How is she getting attached to thrill-seeking from the terrible experiences she is having? I can get group bonding, but not running off with someone outside the group to do "something dangerous." Well, I have a guess. When Tris' mom mentioned something about the drug given during the Test, I began to wonder if the drug has longer-term effects than merely running the simulation. Maybe the drug encourages this ridiculous docility I've been seeing. And maybe the problem with divergence is that the docility doesn't take hold properly. So I'm thinking: maybe Tris was *given* a personality push along three different scales instead of the usual one scale, including the Dauntless mania. This would make her both more potentially powerful and less complaint than usual.

Or I'm just trying too hard to save this book from its own inability to portray humanity.

"Something in me deflates like an untied balloon." Oh dear.

Why should I be surprised that Tris can't identify her own jealousy about Four when she took so long to identify her own melty excitement about his body? No one is this oblivious in real life. I hope.

"The train is going much faster than it has every other time I've jumped, but I can't lose my nerve now, in front of all these members. So I jump, hitting the ground hard and stumbling forward a few steps before I regain my balance." Ms. Roth, for the love of hard science fiction, this is not how physics works!

C'mon Tris grab onto that harness and jump off the building before they strap you in! Now's your chance to do something unsafe when everyone else is only doing something I would do for fun in real life. ...nope. Trust falling exercise. I can't handle this. At least not without snickering a lot.

That earned the respect of the Dauntless? Are the Dauntless-born just way more laid back than the import training makes it out to be? Would Tris be the queen of the fashion by now, if the Dauntless-born had watched her stand there when knives were being thrown at her? Or maybe nothing makes sense and I shouldn't try to force it.

Chapter Eighteen

Interesting idea to push someone's fear button and expect them to be all zen about it anyway. At least this is a legitimate, controlled exercise to learn how to think and act when afraid, not just taking dares and bullying. Well, assuming it's humanly possible which is questionable in itself.

Chapter Nineteen

It's time once again for a city politics injection! Erudites jerks are questioning the power structure because, well, they don't have any power. What else would anyone expect to happen with an educated faction that is denied democratic participation? For all we know, half of their curriculum is revolutionary literature by now.

Must admit I didn't see it coming for the stoic perfect love interest to show up drunk and crude.

Poor long-suffering Al. His simulation was acid and Tris is thinking both "heavy" and "large" about him while he's busy saving her from social embarrassment and literally carrying her.

Chapter Twenty

First sign of divergent power. Tris can not only cope with having her fear button pressed: she can unpush it. Also the first hint of what happens to divergent folks: killed off.

"I broke the glass. I didn't know that was an act of Divergence. How did he?" Oohhhh, probably the same way your mom knew her way around the Dauntless compound. Is Tris this dumb to make readers feel smart?

"These people taught you how to use a gun. They taught you how to fight. You think they're above hurting you? Above killing you?" What the hell kind of argument is this? Does Roth think military and marital arts trainers are especially open to the idea of murdering trainees in real life? (Ignoring, for the moment, the total lack of teaching involved in this winnowing process.)

Chapter Twenty-One

"[The article] promotes a return to the democratically elected political systems of the past. It makes a lot of sense, which makes me suspect it is a call for revolution wrapped in the clothing of rationality." Yes, beware of things that make sense! The Erudites are such violent radicals that they're...asking civilly for change!

"I undo the buttons of my gray Abnegation shirt, exposing my arms, revealing more of my body than anyone else has ever seen." Well, except the bullies who stripped her naked and taunted her about it later. Maybe this was true in an earlier draft, but someone said: "Roth, could you go back and insert some more sexual assault to spice things up?"

Once again, the Dauntless born are much more reasonable than Tris' training group. I was worried about the shooting-a-muffin-off-Marlene's-head-at-100-feet dare, but it's "plastic pellets." I'm just going to believe she wears glasses so losing an eye wasn't a major danger. Almost an unbelievably good shot from a pistol, but maybe Uriah has been practicing with those kind of rounds for years.

To complete the contrast between Dauntless born initiates and Tris' group, her group tries to murder her and Al sexually assaults her. Al! I was expecting it to be a fear simulation of betrayal. Then it wasn't. This is the actual plot in this actual book!

I'm going to have a hard time donating this anywhere when I'm done. I just don't think it would be nice.

Chapter Twenty-Two

So, Four is religious. He's the first we've met, so far as I could tell. WHAT?! Four draws appreciation points from Tris by pointing out that he could report her for crying after attempted murder and actual sexual assault, and goes out of his way to caress her in his bed while reassuring her he won't tell? This is not ok to portray as ok.

Pissed at what Roth did to Al. Four's explanation is just rubbing it in. How would he know Al's motivation for--out of nowhere--switching from self-sacrificing hero to leader of the murder and rape gang?

Oh, Four didn't notice the groping before he ran in and started cracking heads. So I will downgrade him from creepy to using his position of authority to advance his sexual interest in...oh, nevermind, he's still creepy.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Then Four is walking around, being all sexy and shirtless and touching her and she loves it, even though she realizes he's not really so much kind as someone who compliments her. Hey! Guess what guys who aren't kind but who are complimenting you are doing, Tris? (Manipulation.)

I like Uriah. Why isn't Tris falling for him? He includes people, plays it safe and sane, and thinks things through. He's not described constantly as overweight, so Roth might not even turn him into a psycho to show readers what happens when you trust "heavy boys."

"The difference is that you are aware, in the fear landscape, that it is a simulation [....]" The other initiates had to calm down in the earlier fear simulations without the capacity to realize it was a simulation? Impossible. Just flat out impossible.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Al kills himself and we get a couple of paragraphs about how much effort it took to haul someone so overweight back up from the chasm. Then Tris gets in a giggling fit about how he won't fit in a body bag.

It sure makes sense for the faction that jumps on and off moving trains to get drunk whenever they're upset.

"In Abnegation no one has ever committed suicide in recent memory, but the faction's stance on it is clear: Suicide, to them is an act of selfishness. Someone who is truly selfless does not think of himself often enough to desire death." No one kills themselves in the faction that strips everyone of self-esteem? Suicide = selfishness? This is such a shallow book. Possibly a dangerously shallow book for teens to read.

I'm less upset about the Dauntless (literally) cheering Al's bravery for killing himself because, finally, something awful is portrayed as something awful. Oh, now Al killed himself because of "Pride." Keep the trite explanations coming! They do: "depressed" & "coward."

Four reveals that he is constantly repressing an urge to "break" Tris and make her fear him. This is not the guy you want to be crushing on.

There are some hints here that are consistent with my guess that the Test serum is supposed to encourage a faction-limited personality.

Full Teen Materials Book List

Posting Teen Materials class reading requirements and options for my own reference, and in case anyone finds it handy for reading suggestions.

(Click any title to see a GoodReads page, even though it won't look like a link.)

Contemporary Realistic Fiction


Required: A Fault in Our Stars (read)

Pick one of...

A Step from Heaven
In Darkness
Monster
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (read)

LGBTQ

Required: Luna (read)

Pick one of...

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Keeping You a Secret
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (read)
Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Historical Fiction

Required: Eleanor & Park (read)

Pick one of...

A Northern Light
Code Name Verity (read)
Crispin: The Cross of Lead
The Book Thief

Fantasy

Required: The Graveyard Book (read)

Pick one of...

Airborn (read)
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
The Diviners
Troy

Censored Novels

Required: None.

Pick one of...

Looking for Alaska
The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Thirteen Reasons Why (read)

Science Fiction

Required: none.

Pick two of...

Divergent (read)
The Hunger Games
Feed
The House of the Scorpion (read)
Incarceron
The Giver

Poetry

Required: none.

Pick one of...

Blue Lipstick: Concrete Poems
I Just Hope It's Lethal: Poems of Sadness, Madness, and Joy (read)
Joyful Noise
Time You Let Me In: 25 Poets Under 25

Novels in Verse

Required: none.

Pick one of...

Impulse
Out of the Dust
The Braid (read)
The Brimstone Journals

Graphic Novels

Required: Boxers & Saints (read)

Pick one of...

American Born Chinese
Friends with Boys
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (read)
The Arrival

Nonfiction

Required:  Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (read)

Pick one of...

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World
The Great Fire
They Called Themselves the KKK
We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (read)

Biography/Memoir

Required: The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child (read)

Pick one of...

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing
The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler
The Notorious Benedict Arnold (read)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Reader Response: Divergent Pt. 3

A continuation of reader response to Divergent by Veronica Roth for my Teen Materials class (maybe).

* spoilers everywhere *

Chapter Eleven

This chapter was about Trice looking at Four at a lot for...some reason. And Four admitting he left while she was being beat up for...some reason. Because why wouldn't she go for the only non-creepy, non-overweight guy talking to her, right? Obviously. How trite.

The city walls are locked from the outside oohhh ahhh! I'm hoping this is because the factionless built the wall to keep the crazy in.

Chapter Twelve

Trice is definitely getting braver. This time she beat up a helpless girl.

"Then I realize what it is. It's him. Something about him makes me feel like I am about to fall. Or turn to liquid. Or burst into flames." Yes, readers have noticed your drooling for chapters. Glad you could finally put your finger on it, Tris!

That was a boring game of capture the flag. I feel like I do when movies have action scenes that suggest clever planning and expert fighting, but a bunch of cuts and zooms obscure the fact that no one bothered to block out something coherent. Tris climbs high, only to be saved by a height phobic hunk! Tris points people in various directions and they win. Yay! C'mon, Roth, give me something thrilling here at some point.

Chapter Thirteen

Since when is bullying "a sign of cowardice"? Nearly everything happening in this training is bullying. I'm sure the knife throwing scene will play well in the film version. Utterly predictable though.

Chapter Fourteen

Oh wow, a week of being beat up and occasional sprinting has made Tris grow muscles and lose all excess fat. Maybe she'll run a marathon next?

One-dimensional jerk trainee gangs up on Tris with his friends and strips her again her will. Is anyone going to be ambiguous in this book? Answer: Tris herself, as she beats another girl bloody for making a snide remark. Maybe this book will be all about how a person can become evil by acting out their dark side and struggling internally with their nobler impulses but doing nothing about them.

Chapter Fifteen

"Tension between the factions" ...yep. Of course. What else do they expect from this explosive setup?

"Mom, how do you know where you're going?" I'm ruling out Erudite for Tris at this point.

I find it very annoying that everyone claims being divergent is such a scary thing, but no hints on why. It's the same thing that made me give up reading The Maze Runner: Something is bad. Why? We can't tell youuuu! It's a particularly unsatisfying kind of tension, especially when Tris' mom says that "many Abnegation children" are divergent. If it's really that big of a deal, the powers that be would watch for it. This book makes no sense and is just about teens hitting each other well-described distances away from their "bellybuttons" and Tris having feelings about the obvious moody sexy guy. I don't care if teens like this. They would like something better at least as well, and I would be happier to read it.

Chapter Sixteen

I've had an epiphany: Al is the hero in this story. He's very strong but after following orders and knocking a kid out, he's been throwing the fights because he would rather be hurt than hurt innocent people because a scary authority figure tells him to. You know what's even braver than Tris taking a beating when she can't win? Al taking beating when he can win! He even picked the faction because he thought he would be protecting people, not entering sociopath school. Meanwhile, he's being snubbed by Tris for being "weak" (and not being sexy and trim enough for her feeeelings to kick in). 

Team Al from here on out. Bet he dies shortly.

This chapter does explicitly reveal that Dauntless wasn't originally supposed to be about stupidity and bullying. What gets me is that faction charters aren't something all of the kids are educated about in school. Their whole teen lives are focused on making this Huge Choice and they're supposed to make that choice based on, what, exactly? Balancing dissatisfaction with the one-virtue focus they were raised with vs. rejection from their family? A simplistic aptitude test that no one blinks at eye at kids ignoring flat-out, but is this huge source of concern if the results are inconclusive?

Was the warning about not being highly ranked because it's some kind of tradition for initiates to stab each other to climb to the top? Also, why is Four saying that they don't want to reward the strong for beating up the weak, then turning around and making a huge penalty for the strong if they don't do precisely this? This ranking stuff has to be a ruse, right?

Also, why does Roth keep characterizing especially short fights as only taking a few "minutes"? This isn't boxing. The shorter, brutally imbalanced fights wouldn't be taking a whole minute. I'm in serious need of reading some of Jim Butcher or John Scalzi's fight scenes after this book.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Reader Response: Divergent Pt. 2

A continuation of reader response to Divergent by Veronica Roth for my Teen Materials class (maybe).

* spoilers everywhere *

Chapter Four

The societal arrangement is a post-war setup, like in The Hunger Games. I'm having a hard time seeing how these claims aren't contradictory: (1) "The city is ruled by a council of fifty people, composed entirely of representatives from Abnegation" and (2) "Jeanine Matthews is Erudite's sole representative".

This chapter's internal struggle is mostly only interesting because we get to overhear the level of resentment that happens when a kid chooses a non-birth faction. Beatrice's closing thoughts about her choice demonstrating the appropriateness of that same choice was clever.

Enough about me, though. What about teen readers? I think this would appeal to their worries about having to decide what to do with their lives, the thought that they might be leaving the comfort and discomforts of home, and the feeling that they're different...even if they're painfully normal. I just wish I knew if it were on purpose that 'special' Beatrice is this boring.

Chapter Five

I want to substitute 'fashion' for 'faction' every time it occurs.

Their ceremonial language is sexist, still? Ugh.

Ok, now I have the origin story. Everyone agreed that humanity's wars were caused by a single personality flaw. It's just that there were exactly five different answers for which single personality flaw this was, so there are five factions devoted to eliminating that single flaw in all of humanity...oh wait, no! Only within a group. And to each group, the other four factions are filled with infidels. It's the perfect setup for a five-way faction holy war. Beatrice is smart to be considering Dauntless. I put money on that faction or Erudite, if they study war tech too. A more believable synthesis would make a better setup for the antithesis that's undoubtedly on its way.

Chapter Six

A reasonable initiation into her new fashion. Tris is a more YA hero sounding name. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that Tris is short for Beatrice. I'm a whole word reader, don't judge me! ;)

Chapter Seven

Competitive training. Ok, I'm actually intrigued to see this testing process.

Chapter Eight

Nothing too notable here. These chapters are so darn short! This is ok.

Chapter Nine

I appreciated the way a major philosophical difference among the Dauntless was shown. I didn't appreciate the explicit explanation immediately following, for the slow readers in the audience.

Not real excited about forcing unprepared kids to do things that are likely to kill them to test their "bravery." This whole society is nothing but disgusting, which is probably intended but I'm not enjoying reading about it. At least with The Hunger Games, the kid-killing was externally imposed and reviled. Here, the democratic society is ok with exile, family separations, and death.

Chapter Ten

I really hope the scoring for these fights isn't based on winners. There's no bravery in beating up helpless people, but there is in bearing that beating as long as possible. I can't help but try to imagine some excuse for this book to be better than it seems to be. How did this become so popular?

Or am I the crankiest reader ever? Don't answer that.

Reader Response: Divergent Pt. 1

While I wait for the delivery of the next book I know is assigned in my Teen Materials class, I picked up a wildly popular one that is merely likely to be assigned. Divergent by Veronica Roth is being featured all over the place in book stores and has a film version coming out soon. Acquaintances keep recommending it to me. The cover designs and title scheme for the series are attractive, so why not?

* spoilers everywhere *

Pre-Reading

I knew nothing about the plot or characters until I saw a film trailer for its adaptation when I was in the theater with a friend to watch Catching Fire. What I understood from that trailer is that a teen girl protagonist confuses a career aptitude test ('diverged' from acceptable categories or something). This is a big, scary deal in her society so she had to join an underground movement that's mostly about a tattooed boy she will flirt with as they (no doubt) fight the powers that are oppressively making teens take aptitude tests instead of letting them change majors four times in college like young adults in a freer world like our own.

More recently, another friend complained about being disappointed in it from a feminist standpoint, then assured me it was exciting reading anyway. 

The front of the book says, "One choice can transform you." How vague. Is there any book in the history of novels that couldn't use that? At least it's not spoiling me. As usual, I'm not reading the back of the book before starting. I usually either check that out at the end, or when I stop reading a book, or halfway through when I figure it should be safe.

Chapter One

What I learn from the first page is that the protagonist's "faction" is an exceptionally poor demographic for Mary Kay sales. Maybe she means religious sect and is using "faction" because "sect" is such an awkward term.

What I learn from the first few pages is that I'm a confused reader: if mirrors are so taboo-unless-necessary, why is one allowed when someone else is doing the hair cutting? I'm thinking that either Veronica Roth didn't think this through, or she did think it through and realized that some tight restrictions work better in the long run when there is structured relief of them. So, right away I feel like she is an especially clever or an especially non-clever author. No middle ground allowed!

I clearly had the wrong idea from the film trailer. The aptitude test is for faction assignment, not career as I'd assumed. The test itself can't be oppressive because, apparently, these teens can disregard whatever it says if they wish. The oppression comes when they pick one of the four factions besides the one their family is in and they're forced to live apart from their family in some sense. That might not be all bad, depending on visiting schedule, video conferencing, etc. I mean, maybe sixteen is a good time to be moving out of the house in their society anyway. Maybe this girl can go some nice place where she can look at herself in the mirror all day long.

Leaning heavily toward not respecting the author. She expects me to believe that society is split up according to five virtues and everyone in the relevant faction is very focused on that one virtue without having to care (much? at all?) about the others? This is the stuff of brief fairy tales or parables, not a book-length realistic-ish narrative!

Sears Tower? So we're in future Chicago. This means Veronica Roth needs to convince me not only that it's reasonable for a society to have come to such a weird point, but that it got there from a starting point of American society.

Selflessness isn't even a virtue in my view. Even if it were mixed with caring about others (which is other people's factional role), the caring-for-others part captures all that is virtuous about someone not being selfish. Striving for low self esteem is simply unhealthy.

The other factional behavior is shown as being narrow and annoying, but at least those are virtues which are good to have in themselves when mixed with others. I don't see how a society like this could function at all! Maybe the lesson will be that it's falling apart because it's better be moderately virtuous in a well rounded way that super virtuous in only one way. If so, then I want to know what real world culture Roth is criticizing.

Chapter Two

The test, aside from being an unbelievably controlled hallucination, is fairly straightforward in terms of which affinities it is testing. It would fit better in a fantasy scenario with "magic!" explaining it than in an Earth future book.

Chapter Three

Hrm, Tori was able to change the hallucination partway through. This suggests the drug was enabling some kind of wireless neural interface rather than containing the sensory input itself. Or magic. Anyway, I find the technology more believable than the notion that she broke the diagnostic process by failing to be utterly one-dimensional. Or it's more that I can't believe most would pass such a flimsy test.

The only charitable way I can understand this is that humans have been re-engineered to be incredibly docile (including the ones who express this docility by going along with any bravery-displaying dares). Even though this girl is boring and normal to readers, she is a danger to a world where everyone else is supposed to be one-dimensional. Somehow. Why would any powers that be care? It's not like the docile ones are likely to suddenly follow her example of being slightly ambivalent.

If it weren't for the likelihood I will be assigned this soon and that it's a very convenient week for me to read it, I probably wouldn't continue. This has come off as entirely too silly for three chapters straight.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Reader Response: The Fault in Our Stars Pt. 5

This is a continuation of a reader response exercise for John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, done as an assignment for my Teen Materials class in Library Science grad school.

** spoilers everywhere **

Chapter Sixteen

Depressing.

Chapter Seventeen

Like Augustus, I was annoyed when Hazel started using "Gus." Yes, I do think it's from a lessening of interest in him.

Augustus wants so badly to be a famous person or a life-saving rescuer to feel his life has had meaning. Hazel feels insulted that the life he's had, including the part with her, is not enough for him. Legitimate complaint. I hope she manages to convince him that the kindness he showed is something worth valuing as a life well accomplished. I am still wondering why neither of them have considered trying to have a child. I mean, what was with using a condom back in Amsterdam? That's a route many, many people take to feel their lives have had significant meaning. I wonder if John Green censored himself on this point, for the audience.

Chapter Eighteen

Augustus' medical emergency is really worrying me because of the vulnerability of the situation. Hazel made a smart series of choices.

I recognize the red wheelbarrow poem from an audio course on modernism. The message I took from it then (and take now) is that simple things are of great importance, if we let them be important.

Yes, the chapters have been short.

Chapter Nineteen

The narrative is sliding inevitably and predictably along. Expecting a poignant scene of Augustus and Hazel going outside one last time to watch the sky and chat before he dies.

Chapter Twenty

Bam. Hazel's pre-eulogy made me my eyes water. I thought too much about the infinities thing last time.

Chapter Twenty-One

"The only person I really wanted to talk to about Augustus Waters's death was Augustus Waters." She lost her talking-partner-who-most-mattered.

I also can't stand condolences which are well-meaning but death-denying, e.g. living on in memory, or in Heaven, etc. I'm glad Hazel herself didn't do that. She didn't take away from the importance of his actual life or the complete loss of a person at death. The universe is in the business of making and unmaking consciousness, and what's important is what happens in-between.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Woah, I was not expecting the funeral guest.

Yes, Hazel, funerals are for the living and you have to accommodate them. She shows that she is an adult in another way, in the car right after that.

Chapter Twenty-Three

I do find it satisfying when people aren't simple. Yes, Van Houten was trying. Trying is the best start. Then I realized that Hazel went to him for answers and might have saved him instead, or not.

Chapter Twenty-Four

More complexity from Hazel's parents, but also misunderstanding. The thing that would have comforted Hazel most about her mother was kept back to avoid causing her worry.

Chapter Twenty-Five (final)

And the misty eyes on the last pages again. It's not about the characters in this novel. It's because I identify strongly with Hazel's views about the importance and unimportance of life. Because this book constantly called people in my life to mind and made me wish I could better explain what they mean to me. I might actually do something about that, which is the best a book can accomplish.

As for the intended audience, yes of course this is a wildly popular title. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, this is an especially well-crafted gathering of philosophy for readers who might not have encountered it before. I appreciate having something to recommend when it seems appropriate. Since this is also my first John Green book, I can also feel comfortable recommending his other books based on what I know of his style and the synopsis of those other books. I had been considering trying him out, so this was a great excuse to do so.

Writing these notes as I go along has been an interesting experience. At least one person has been reading these notes with interest. That helped.