Sunday, February 23, 2014

Reader Response: The Graveyard Book

A free-form reader response to The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman for my Teen Materials class. This was the Fantasy title required for the whole class. I'm writing this response a day after finishing the whole book, instead of during the read.

** spoilers **

Pre-Reading

I hadn't heard about this title before seeing the list of required reading for the semester, but I had read his Sandman comic series, his novels American Gods and Good Omens, watched the film versions of Coraline and MirrorMask, and I could swear there was at least one more thing I can't recall. Would recognize the art if I saw it.

Post-Pre-Reading

As usual with Gaiman, it's a pleasure to read/view but never quite to the point of a personal favorite. (Please don't stone me, Gaiman fanatic friends!)

I enjoyed the illustrations at the beginning of chapters more than I should admit in public. Not the specific illustrator's style, but just having something more than text is, wow! I really need to demand more from my adult reading. I had to show everyone around me the first two-page spread dedicated to the first line.

I also enjoyed the mix of historical appreciation and modernity. I laughed quite a lot at Scarlett's question, "If you wanted to find out about a  murder, where would you look? I already tried the Internet." Especially when it was followed up by a strong pitch for using public libraries for research. Gaiman is such an effective library advocate.

But the one thing that really stood out go me about The Graveyard Book is subtle. Readers know right away when characters are ghosts, but there are several other characters which are not standard humans and they're not ghosts. The remarkable thing is that Gaiman introduces them as individual people long before he introduces them as a this or as a that. It's a wonderful, subliminal way of showing young readers that who someone is is more important than what someone is. And not-a-shocking-spoiler: the character described as "the man Jack" is an interesting subversion of this trend. This character who seems to be explicitly identified by what he is, is not actually what's advertised.

Of secondary interest for me, Bod's journey from childhood to becoming a man was satisfying. Almost. I felt let down by the climax of the story. If I had been Gaiman's editor, I would have asked him to throw out that chapter and try something totally different. Your mileage may vary.

** You may want to stop here and finish reading after finishing the book yourself. **

The last thing I want to mention is that the book doesn't wrap up everything neatly. At one point in Bod's hero's journey, he is told to find his name. This never explicitly happens. But if you think about it, what's important is the not the name Bod's parents gave him but the name he earns as a toddler and by his coming of age heroism: The Man Nobody Owens. Say it out loud.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Reader Response: Eleanor & Park Pt. 5

Continued free-form reader response to Eleanor & Park for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

*shrug* Nice stuff.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Lubby dubby stuff.

Chapter Thirty

"But he kept finding new pockets of shallow inside himself." It happens.

Chapter Thirty-One

It's hard to apologize when someone won't talk to you. I can't tell if Park realizes all of what he did.

Chapter Thirty-Two

Park's mother just gained some depth as a character. When she saw Eleanor with her siblings, she was able to sympathize with someone in a large, poor family and is finally able to apologize honestly.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Christmas contrasts.

Chapter Thirty-Four

Sorry, less to say in this part of the book.

Chapter Thirty-Five

How dare Eleanor not wear make-up! How dare Park wear make-up! This book is pretty much Feminism 101 by example. Park's parents are definitely complex characters that I'm liking and disliking in rapid succession. Realistic!

Chapter Thirty-Six

Oh, Park wasn't wearing make-up just to show solidarity with Eleanor. This is one of those things he wanted to do but felt he couldn't do. Eleanor's disregard for social rules was the big thing that captured Park's attention in the first place.

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Park's mom is enjoying having a teen girl around to experiment on, hah!

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Stasis.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Along with Park, I didn't realize Eleanor fell over because she was so self-conscious about her weight when Park touched her, as if he might like the way she looks but wouldn't like the way she feels.

Chapter Forty

When an adult at the school finally notices the bullying, "You've got to stop letting them get to you, you know. [...] You just encourage them."

This is known as: blaming the victim. It's one thing for Eleanor's mom to be psychologically trapped by her husband. Kids can't even leave the situation, whether it's at home or at school.

Chapter Forty-One

Well, that's an okay reaction for Park to have to Eleanor in fewer clothes.

Chapter Forty-Two
"When he heard the doorbell, he jerked up to answer it before he was awake. [...]
He was sure it was Eleanor. He opened the door without checking."
I'm so worried!

*continues*

Oh. Whew. "Tina would be so pissed." Indeed! (Though I doubt she's the secret bully.)

Chapter Forty-Three

A chapter of two mothers. I'm more sympathetic with both by the end. I would still only want to be around Park's mom.

Chapter Forty-Four

I would be okay not hearing that "Down, Down, Baby" song in my head again, thanks.

Chapter Forty-Five

Still strange for me to read about a book taking place in Omaha. This isn't allowed!

Smiled at Eleanor's thought about "an Erica Jong novel." Been thinking of reading one. Too much syncronicity: guess I'd better now.

Chapter Forty-Six

Oh. I saw the storm coming, but I didn't see that coming.

I'm glad Eleanor and Park didn't have intercourse immediately before this, because then it would feel too much like every movie where "going all the way" is followed by narrative punishment. Here, traveling all around downtown Omaha and being seen at some point is what triggered it.

Chapter Forty-Seven to Forty-Nine

Is the coping-with-bullying message of this book: kids can be awful, but adults can be much, much worse? That is was brought all of the teens together. And, so far, without including any adults despite how effective it would be legally-or-otherwise to tell Park's parents.

Chapter Fifty

Well of course Park had better do the driving rather than let her hitchhike. Eleanor is still too shy about demanding safe conditions for herself.

Chapter Fifty-One

I know. I know. Novel conventions. But did Park really have to demonstrate that he knew how to drive stick when it was important for Eleanor? I'm sure the other car was needed by Park's family while he was gone, so that's a decent in-story explanation. Park's dad treating him like an adult was probably why Park didn't have trouble this time, which is a decent thematic explanation. Ok, nevermind, it's slightly cheesy but fine.

Chapter Fifty-Two to the End

I've tried, but I can't sympathize with Eleanor cutting off communication because she didn't want her relationship to be less with Park than it was at the running-away climax. That's just the sort of valuing of "being in love" over caring about someone concrete that Eleanor is supposed to detest.

There was no resolution with the abusive home. Eleanor ran off because some adults (including Richie, probably) allowed it. But what about her siblings? What about her mother? Park deciding not to beat Richie to death is still letting him continue.

There were also no answers to bullying, except coming together against adults. In fact, with all of the Watchmen references, I have to wonder if that is the intended answer: that the only way to resolve conflict is to unite against an external foe.

Eleanor & Park is a great book in terms of depicting bad, common situations, but I feel like the solutions aren't commonly applicable. The best I can hope for is that teens read it and have more compassion for their peers.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Reader Response: Eleanor & Park Pt. 4

Continued free-form reader response to Eleanor & Park for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Chapter Twenty-One

Park is anxious about his mother meeting Eleanor. Besides her mother placing great importance on finely-tuned femme clothes, hair, and nails, which Eleanor doesn't fit...
"And it wasn't just the clothes. It was her.
Eleanor wasn't..nice.
She was good. She was honorable. She was honest. She would definitely help an old lady across the street. But nobodynot even the old ladywould ever say, Have you met that Eleanor Douglas? What a nice girl.
Park's mom liked nice. She loved nice. She liked smiling and small talk and eye contact...All things Eleanor sucked at.
When Park's mom is about to walk in, he asks Eleanor to smile. Which she does, and it's unnatural. Instead of telling her that it's because of his mother's expectations, Park says she looks nice when she smiles and Eleanor responds that it would be better if he thought she looked nice when she wasn't smiling.

Meanwhile, of course, Park gets by at home and at school precisely because he isn't "nice" and he doesn't smile. He's cool and intimidating and properly manly because of it. This chapter raises awareness of several expectations put on girls and not boys. I was reminded of Catherine Newman's New York Times article: I Do Not Want My Daughters to Be 'Nice'. It would be a perfect pairing for classroom discussion. I'll be using it, anyway.

Kudos to Eleanor for realizing she wasn't being welcomed properly, even by Park, and refusing to put up with that.

Chapter Twenty-Two

More challenging of gender codes with Eleanor telling Park she didn't want him to fight bullies for her if it was really about her, and not about him. The bully backs off, not from the fight, but from Park performing what Steve recognizes as a claim on Eleanor as Park's possession. At least Park doesn't think of it that way. He tells Steve that it shouldn't matter if Eleanor is his girlfriend or not, that no one deserves to be bullied like that.

More depressing things about Eleanor's mom having to quietly steal money from her husband to pay for necessities for her children, risking a beating and still not being able to provide enough. There's no explicit link except juxtaposition, but I wonder if it was an intentional pairing. Both themes of this chapter were about society respecting the space of male ownership. Whether it's about abusing one's woman (negative but tolerated) or shielding one's woman from outside abuse (seemingly positive), it's a situation that makes women vulnerable to "acceptable" abuse whether single or not.

Chapter Twenty-Three

I like Park's dad. I think I have him figured out: he doesn't understand kids, but he's good at adults. When Park is failing to drive stick, his dad is clueless that his own frustration is bad for Park's ability to learn from him. When Park is standing up to his peers and his mother for liking a "weird" girl, Park's dad respects him for that and gives him space. Rowell explains this indirectly in a great way: Park visits his grandparents and is looking at pictures of his parents from the Korean War and hearing about their relationship at the same time his dad is talking his mom down in private. The reader doesn't realize this until the next scene, and even then it might not be put together consciously. Rowell is pretty good at this writing thing.

Chapter Twenty-Four

I'm becoming curious whether this book will offer any practical advice to kids in abusive homes like Eleanor's. Or on bullying, for that matter.

I feel like there's nothing in our society between allowing abusers to walk all over everyone, and our action movie portrayals of extreme physical violence. Those were the options shown earlier in this book when it was either walk away or use years of martial arts training...which, by the way, was shown to be an effective way of gaining respect. Can you now guess why I don't attribute school shootings to video games or the removal of compulsory religious rites from public schools?

Chapter Twenty-Five

Halfway through the book, and I finally know Eleanor's mom is named "Sabrina." I also know what got Eleanor thrown out of the house. No, Eleanor, you weren't asking for it. You just forgot to be a slave for a few minutes.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Good use of chapter divisions.

Chapter Twenty-Seven
"He almost told her all the things his mom had said about her.
It seemed like it was wrong to keep secrets from Eleanor.
But it seemed like it would be more wrong to share that kind of secret."
Park is a faster learner than I am.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Reader Response: Eleanor & Park Pt. 3

Continued free-form reader response to Eleanor & Park for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Chapter Thirteen

Now that they're noticing each other as people, they're starting to notice each other as people with attractive elements. Eleanor is right about Cyclops being a boring X-Man.

I appreciated the way Rowell is continuing to show, not tell, e.g. Park emptying batteries from everything he can and asking for batteries for Christmas to make sure Eleanor can keep listening to his tapes.

Chapter Fourteen

I'm okay with feminist critiques of the X-Men in my teen romance novels.

Chapter Fifteen

This is the most exciting and emotionally complex hand holding I've read in a book.

Chapter Sixteen

I'm starting to think that one of the most valuable things about young adult literature is the opportunity to see other parenting styles, or maybe even a parenting style a reader has seen in person but might be able to understand better from a step back. In this chapter, Park talks more about always feeling like a failure around his dad. He can't learn any new skills when his dad is trying to teach him. And, as readers, we see why: Park's dad thinks he's being helpful, but he becomes frustrated to the point of pounding things with his fist when his son isn't doing something right. Of course he can't learn like that.

Chapter Seventeen

Hoping the obvious thing where Park does something that makes it look like he's interested in someone else, and Eleanor notices and feels crushed, but finally finds out Park really does like her after...doesn't happen.

Chapter Eighteen

I appreciate how Park is affected by considerations of his own social status going down from associating with Eleanor, and how he feels bad about worrying.

Chapter Nineteen

Before there was email to have close conversations that are easier to have with some distance, there were land line phones! This was a satisfying chapter because I don't enjoy lengthy suspense of people not telling each other how they feel out loud.

Chapter Twenty

A major theme in this book is that kids either don't know when they're in an abusive and neglectful situation, or don't feel like they can say a single thing about it to outside authorities out of fear of making it worse. In this chapter, Eleanor's stepfather is driving kids around in his half-broken convertible, drunk, and no one is wearing seat-belts. But he's the "head of the household" so everything is about what he wants.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Reader Response: Eleanor & Park Pt. 2

Continued free-form reader response to Eleanor & Park for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Chapter Three

Eleanor is neither shy nor social. She's distant, like she's been through something and no longer gives a crap about others.

Chapter Four

I re-read the first couple of pages about five times. I'm still confused. I mean, it's nice that Eleanor didn't conveniently think her family's history for the reader, but this is too much dropped-in-the-middle unless Rowell's goal was to make readers confused. I think the implication is that Eleanor ran away from home for a year or two when her mother started dating Richie and the previous night was her first night back home, to a much smaller home than she was used to.

Chapter Five

Was the English teacher really commenting on Eleanor's absence with his overbearing mention that she could pick "A Dream Deferred" as her poem to memorize? Feeling so in medias res here.

Chapter Six

No, this is a new school for Eleanor. Eleanor didn't run away, she was kicked out by her mom's boyfriend, as a minor. I don't know why yet, but now I know why she hates Richie: he beats her mom. By the time she came back, the other kids are calling him "dad." No wonder she's angry.

Chapter Seven

In a John Green book, the protagonists would be waxing poetic to show off how clever they are. In this book, the protagonists come off as clever without saying clever things, just because their peers are astonishingly dimwitted. No wonder the kids in the back of the bus consider Park to be an authority of some kind.

Chapter Eight

It's interesting how Eleanor develops an interest in the comics Park reads on the bus, even though she's obviously been reading high-brow adult lit for a while. I liked how Park's only response to noticing this was holding them open a little wider and slowing down. He's nicer than he thinks, or maybe nicer than he's had an opportunity to be.

Eleanor's backstory is filling in. She went to stay with friends of her mom's for a few days and that turned into months then over a year. More details about Richie are making me very disgusted at how he can abuse this woman and turn her into someone frantic to please him, then convince all of her kids to think of him as their father because, well, they saw how defying him led to banishment.

Chapter Nine

Adorable. They haven't spoken to each other since the first minute they met, but they're both paying attention. Park is fascinated at her social defiance and Eleanor is surprised someone is showing her a little consideration. Just a little, but it's not something she's had for a while.

Chapter Ten and Eleven

Kids should never have to listen to their mother being beaten in the next room. There's a hint that Richie raped Eleanor's mother afterward. Dark. The detail about Eleanor taking a bath the next morning by washing her top half first then her bottom half so she wouldn't ever be fully naked in this tiny house missing a bathroom door was, well, memorable.

Chapter Twelve

Bam, lost it at Park being decent when Eleanor came onto the bus an obvious mess. And he's not the only decent one in this chapter. One thing I'm liking about this book is that it's not a bunch of crush thinking and grand romantic gestures. It's little things. It's spur of the moment actions coming out of their natures before they realize it. Things they had suppressed to survive around other people who take every opportunity to do damage. They're starting to trust each other.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reader Response: Eleanor & Park Pt. 1

A free-form reader response to Eleanor & Park for my Teen Materials class. This is the Historical Fiction title our whole class is reading.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Pre-Reading

I knew three things before picking this up:
  1. The author is from Omaha which is where I take Library Science grad classes.
  2. E&P was voted 2013's best YA fiction by GoodReads users.
  3. It is also a Printz Honor book, which is the American Library Association's critical award for YA lit.
Sounds promising!

Chapter One

The brief flash-forward before Chapter One is a good hook. Park is going to become obsessed and then lose track of her.

"August 1986" is Historical Fiction? I suppose anything before the Internet revolution is a past age at this point. In my own library, I've been counting Historical Fiction as post-WWII, unless it's heavily focused on a large-scale historical event like the Civil Rights Movement.

The opening lines showing Park trying to ignore the "morons at the back of the bus" by listening to cassette tapes reinforces the time period, which is good (never thought I'd see Skinny Puppy referenced in a novel!), but I'm personally very turned off by school bus drama. Maybe that's because I saw so much and don't even want to think about it.

The dialog kicks off jarringly for me because of the language of the "morons" on the first three pages: fucking, fucking, shit, shit, dicklick, fucking, fuck, retarded, fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking. While this does a great job of reinforcing the characterization of the morons as morons, and I'm not morally offended, I un-enjoy reading or hearing unnecessary amounts for the situation. One or two "fucks" would have gotten the point across without making me quite so desperate to put on headphones myself. Maybe Rowell is just doing a really good job of making me identify with Park.

I didn't mind the awful racism from the morons so much because, again, it helped me sympathize with Park and it also gave me the back-story on his ethnicity without Park having to think about it himself.

Eleanor walking in was a relief. As excluded as Park was, there was a certain level of respect he had earned from the morons. Now here comes someone lacking even that, and Park has no intention to help her out. Park is kind of a jerk himself, but more in a sin of omission style. He's unwelcoming but not aggressively offensive. Now he has to be a dynamic character to go from this to his mindset in the flash-forward. I liked the first description of Eleanor as she struggles to find a seat:
"The girl just looked like exactly the sort of person this would happen to.

Not just new—but big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like...like she wanted people to look at her. Or  maybe she didn't get what a mess she was. She had on a plaid shirt, a man's shirt, with half a dozen weird necklaces hanging around her neck and scarves wrapped around her wrists. She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser. Like something that wouldn't survive in the wild."
After reading a few chapters, I told a friend that I probably would have stopped reading this book after the first chapter if it weren't assigned, butgoing backI was remembering the first few pages as the contents of the first chapter. Eleanor is interesting. Interesting enough that I would have kept on if I hadn't stopped earlier. For me, those first three pages are vital in my voluntary reading (not "pleasure reading" because I choose unpleasant reads on purpose sometimes). I've actually gone through a couple of shelves at Barnes & Noble, reading the first three pages of every novel to get a taste of what's there. Literary agents probably do something similar.

Chapter Two

I like lists. Eleanor is a list thinker. I like Eleanor already.

This like increased when it became obvious she's well read. There's some serious dysfunction going on in her family life, but it's not clear exactly what's going on. She doesn't conveniently have thoughts explaining it to the readers, which is more realistic.

Back-and-forth perspectives can be nice if both characters have a distinct voice. So far, these two do.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Reader Response: Code Name Verity Pt. 2

A free-form reader response to Code Name Verity for my Teen Materials class. This is the Historical Fiction title I picked from a list, as opposed to the one everyone in the class had to read.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Pages 91ish to 332

My "response" to this book went from what I wrote last time:
"Needling the guard who has to translate the account into German for her superior officer is mildly amusing, but I could use a change in tone soon. A lot of this early stuff is sketching WW2 history as it relates to the air force, which is mildly interesting."
to reading it on my exercise bike because I was more desperate to know what would happen next than I was to watch a film I've been wanting to see for a while. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I can't say much without ruining how amazing it is to experience this book without spoilers.

But to address a few of my own concerns from the opening pages of this book: none of my guesses were accurate, and my trouble accepting the way the narrator writes about handling the torture went away with a satisfying in-story explanation for what was going on.

I still think the first half of the book could have used something more than it did to keep readers hooked. I shouldn't have to advise people to stick with it, but: stick with it!

If you're wavering, check out Maggie Stiefvator's non-spoiler review.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Reader Response: Code Name Verity Pt. 1

A free-form reader response to Code Name Verity for my Teen Materials class. This is the Historical Fiction title I picked from a list, as opposed to the one everyone in the class had to read.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Chapter One

Nevermind about chapters. I flipped through just enough to see that there are chapter-ish entries by date at first, but by the end there aren't. Or I just missed them. I'm too worried about automatically reading a phrase in the text to look again. Since there's about 330 pages in the softcover edition with the cover art on the right, I'm going to break this down into whichever natural breaks are near multiples of 30 pages.

Pages 1-30ish

Despite the first line, I'm not buying into the protagonist being a coward if she's young enough to call herself a "girl" and has finally broken after days of torture. Convenient enough framing that she has agreed to write down her story for German intelligence...and for us, of course. The first impression I had was that she was nude before breaking. Elizabeth Wein lets most of another paragraph go by before qualifying that this girl is at least in her underwear. It's intended to be both cold and invasive for her, so it's not much of a mercy. We learn that she's British and a specialist in radio ("wireless") cryptography. Possibly a civilian expert sent to open a secure channel with the French resistance, considering there's a boy fitting that description being tortured nearby. Possibly, just possibly, this account is total bullshit and her capture is part of a disinformation plan. Three reasons I'm suspicious by the third page:
  1. The short quote before the first page is: "Passive resisters must understand that they are as important as saboteurs." Maybe she's an intellectual saboteur, intending (or intended by others) to break or mostly break.
  2. I'm reading what she wrote for her captors, not what she's thinking outside of that context. So far, anyway.
  3. The name of the book. Too opposite to be irrelevant!
This went from creepy torture suggestions to contemporary snark so fast. What? False note for me. Let's not have this please. Please?
"I am in the Special Operations Executive unit because I can speak French and German and am good at making up stories [....]"
a page later...
"I don't think I'll ever know how I ended up carrying her National Registration card and pilot's license instead of my own ID when you picked me up, but if I tell you about Maddie you'll understand why we flew here together."
Please, author Goddess, please intend for readers to assume this girl is Maddie and the surprise is that she really isn't and she really doesn't know how the IDs got swapped. If this is Maddie, I'm docking a star from my final rating.

Pages 31-60ish

Needling the guard who has to translate the account into German for her superior officer is mildly amusing, but I could use a change in tone soon. A lot of this early stuff is sketching WW2 history as it relates to the air force, which is mildly interesting.

Pages 61-90ish

Oh. Page 84-85 made it too obvious by having two underlined sentences in quick succession. I would have noticed fine with just one because the underlined sentence on page 62 was also intelligence on where the narrator is being held. One page before that, the circle around the note that "RED is Engel's color" is probably the real first note to whomever else is reading these things, or it's a RED herring.

I like the cover I have on this edition of the book. Heavy red bicycles leaning against a stone wall is a nice reference to the bike ride of the two friends seen in this part of the book.

I finally figured out what's bugging me so much from the start. There's a lot of torture talk, yet the protagonist is only selling me on the idea that she's afraid of the promised execution of having kerosine poured down her throat and lit on fire. She's not selling me on the horror of hearing, and watching, and feeling all of the other torture going on. I could get defiantly trying to make light of it, but she's doing a little too good of a job. I would rather see the torture stuff toned down. I suppose the other fix would be to see her agony and fear turned up, but that's not my preference.