Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Right. So...Howsabout a poll. You like polls, don't you?

I'm busily packing up and moving and doing all the things that entails (read: hassle after hassle after hassle), and in all of that it becomes even more apparent that I have this stack of library books that I've read, but haven't blogged yet. Well, my last day at the library is tomorrow, and I'm betting they'd like their books back. So...this is a little bit of a list so I remember what I need to blog about, but also, something to allow you to give me feedback on what you'd like me to talk about next. Have at it:

Proof that librarians make the WORST patrons. Or, at least, I do.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Let's just stick with a theme.

"Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you." --Ovid, as quoted in Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You.

Sort of a...I don't know...is it a depressing thought? Seems to just say grin and bear it, you'll need the experience/lesson later. It's a rather painful example of delayed gratification, if you ask me. ie: You'll be so happy in 10 years that you hurt so bad! It'll all make sense then!


I mean, not that it isn't true, in my own little world everything eventually makes sense, and everything is something to learn from. It might not be exactly what you expect to learn from the situation, but all the same, something will be taken away from the experience. I'm just saying that... I have no idea what I'm saying. Is it that the quote is depressing but maybe just a little bit beautiful too? Let's go with that. I think that generally sums up how I feel about the book.

Cameron's typically an adult novelist, and to an extent, you can tell, in this, his first novel for teens. I'm not saying that it's dull or dense*, there's just a different sensibility. Perhaps less joie de vivre that really keeps teen books interesting to me. This said, Someday This Pain is quite wonderful; it's another title that pushes the boundaries of teen lit.

James is spending the summer before college (which he doesn't really want to attend) working in his mother's art gallery. She's engrossed in her new romance and doesn't pay him much attention. His job is boring and he's left to ruminate on all the annoyances of life and to get himself into the kind of trouble only a drifting, idol, too-smart-for-his-own-good teen can get into.

I think what kept me from hating this as much as some is that I can see this young man; parts of James remind me of people I've known. He's cynical, arrogant, overly intelligent, but largely aimless and maybe a little bit unloved and undermedicated. He over analyzes, coming up with answers that aren't positive, and just generally dislikes people. He's gay, but barely out to even himself, and maybe the repression of that, combined with his family and his depression lead to his rather despicable behavior. He his not your friend. He doesn't want to be your friend. You will not like James. But that isn't the point. It's a character-driven story. It's all about character, and maybe, just maybe, he'll gain a little empathy and understanding by the end of the book.

"The main problem was I don't like people in general and people my age in particular, and people my age are the ones who go to college. I would consider going to college if it were a college of older people. I'm not a sociopath or freak (although I don't suppose people who are sociopaths or freaks self-identify as such); I just don't enjoy being with people. People, at least in my experience, rarely say anything interesting to each other. They always talk about their lives and they don't have very interesting lives. So I get impatient. For some reason I think you should only say something if it's interesting or absolutely has to be said. I had never really been aware of how difficult these feelings made things for me until an experience I had this spring. A horrible experience" (p 39).

Another little bit that struck me, on page 192:

"I knew she wanted to help me. I knew she was my mother and loved me and I didn't want to be mean, or I didn't think I wanted to be mean, but there was something else inside me, something hard and stubborn that was mean. It just bugged me that she thought if I was gay she could do something to help, like give me a Band-Aid or something. And besides, being gay is perfectly cool these days, so why should I need help? And what help could my mother, whose third marriage only lasted a matter of days, be? I knew I was gay, but I had never done anything gay and I didn't know if I ever would. I couldn't imagine it, I couldn't imagine doing anything intimate and sexual with another person, I could barely talk to other people, so how was I supposed to have sex with them? So I was only theoretically, potentially homosexual."

There's a detachment James feels to the world, that you can't but help feeling as a reader. He sees the world in a sort of black and white that only teenagers can really embrace. What tips the scales in James' favor is his relationship with his grandmother. It is there that you see compasion, and it is there that you find that a lot of what James claims to feel is a facade. He just doesn't really know how to deal with real life, and covers it up with something just short of bravado. Of course, this being literature, you already know the fate of dear old grams, and the predictability of that is a little annoying. However, the strength of that relationship allows you to forgive it - simply because it is in her presence that James is redeemed.

Other Bloggers Say:
Bookshelves of Doom
Swarm of Beasts
Worth the Trip
Becky's Book Reviews

*Don't you just love that's what I equate adult novels to? Dull and dense? That's actually the tactful version. I'm aware they aren't all that way, but still...I'd rather read YA.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Secretly, we all want tiaras.

Ok, now that's out of the way, let's return to blogging BOOKS. What I know most of you are here for in the first place.

I kept hearing how funny Freak Show was. That's what all the buzz was about with this book. But, see, there's something you need to know about me. I don't cope well with embarrassment: not just MY embarrassment, but any embarrassment I see - embarrassment of others. That's why I couldn't really watch Arrested Development or The Office. People, even fake people, in those shows are constantly being placed in situations I consider mortifying in their degree of embarrassment. I don't know how to react - yes, clearly laughter is called for, but I can't get past the uncomfortable empathy I feel for them; I put myself in their place and can't help but feel what I would if I were in their place. This is why I tend to prefer snarky, ironic or sarcastic humor, rather than situational (which is partly why I'm ADORING Long May She Reign at the moment). ANYWAY. All of this leads me to feeling mildly uncomfortable for most of James St. James' novel - starting from the very beginning. If it hadn't been nominated for a Cybil Award, I never would have picked it back up, nor would I be sharing my pain with you now.

On top of that, I kept finding myself thinking that the best format for this story would have been a flamboyant off-Broadway musical. It's just so outrageous. When not painful, although ultimately, kind of sweet. Yes, what a contradiction. The writing's like that too.

What's it about, you say? Well. So, you've got Billy Bloom. He's become too much for his mother to handle after she found him trying on her cocktail dresses, so she's shipped him south to Florida and his mostly absent father. No longer in New England, he's shocked to find himself surrounded by conservatives and Bible-thumpers "Because when they're being hateful, they're being hateful for God" p36. This doesn't go well for the young man who thought attending his first day of school dressed in a "ruffled lace shirt,unbuttoned down to THERE. High-waisted blue pants, practically sprayed on....A thrift store military jacket...a crimson sash..." p 11-12 was a good idea. Because, "what's straighter than a pirate?" p11. It just gets worse for dear Billy.

He is an interesting character. A "reality is for everybody else" (p 4) attitude tips you off to the thought that dear Billy might not exactly be the world's most...reliable narrators. He makes his own reality. The conflict is that reality has suddenly become too harsh to hide from. Up to this point, Billy has been able to create his own world with his own rules, but now he must find the strength to deal with the real world, force himself to recognize how most of that world will respond to him - and then find the courage to continue being himself in the face of that recognition. It's not a small feat, nor it is an easy read. Terrible things happen to Billy.

However, no matter how thematically important this novel might be, future readers prepare yourselves for a narrative that is all over the place and that often descends into stream of consciousness. Also, an unbelievable number of lists.

Other bloggers say:
The Ya Ya Yas
Confessions of a Bibliovore
Worth the Trip

A Little Announcement

I've been a librarian for over two years now. I moved 2,000 miles west when I found a position I felt suited me. Now, I'm about to go 300 miles further for the job I've been waiting for since I figured out while in library school that I wanted to serve teens. I'm excited, to say the least. My official title is actually Teen Librarian, and that, well, that just makes me a little giddy. It's a bigger challenge, and it's a ton more responsibility, and I finally get to focus on my specialty rather than moonlighting for it like I am now.

This move isn't without it's downsides: I'm going to be homeless for awhile, while I live with a very kind friend and look for a non-scary apartment; oh, and I totally hate moving; but really, the thing that sucks the most is that, and yes, silly girl, I'll have to leave the boyfriend I've become rather fond of. But, we'll make it work. It's all good.

PS - If you happen to live in the greater Seattle area and I haven't already politely asked you to be my friend...um...If you have an opening for a new friend, I'd love to have a social life. Thanks.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Cybils Finalists Announced!

I really love that we announce the winners on Valentine's Day. Is it just me?

Press Release:

"Boy Toy" author Barry Lyga bests Sherman Alexie in teen category;Palestinian's childhood memoir also honored

Chicago, IL—-This was the year of troubled childhoods, with a wrenching story of a middle schooler's seduction by his teacher clinching a winning spot in the Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards, informally known as the Cybils.

Barry Lyga's Boy Toy was a surprise choice in the Young Adult category over heavily favored Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which won a National Book Award.

Judges cited Lyga's ability to reach "beyond sensationalism and straight into empathy, challenging expectations and assumptions on every page," according to the awards announcement at the Cybils website. "Lyga's prose is unflinching and the resultis heartbreaking and unforgettable."

The Cybils team hands out awards in eight genres of children'sliterature—both Graphic Novels and Fantasy & Science Fiction were also split by age group, for a total of ten awards. The other five categories were fiction and nonfiction picture books, middle grade novels, middle grade/YA nonfiction, and poetry.

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood, Ibtisam Barakat's haunting account of the Six Day War won for middle grade/YA nonfiction, with judges lauding how the author "conveys the fear, confusion and tumult of war." At the same, they said, "It's also an excellent memoir of childhood in any culture: the broad injustices, the importance of trivial things, the mysteries of the adult world."

Not all the winning titles were so serious. The True Meaning of Smekday, Adam Rex's spoof of science fiction novels, won that category in the younger age group. Janice N. Harrington's impish The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County took top honors in Fiction Picture Books.

Nearly 90 kidlit bloggers participated in two rounds of judging; the first group waded through 575 titles nominated by the public last autumn. Their short lists were announced on Jan. 1. The Cybils are the only online literary awards, said Boles Levy, andinsist on only two criteria: the books must combine both literarymerit and kid appeal.

"We're not about dictating kids' tastes," she said. "But we'reimpatient with formulaic garbage too."

For More Information:
Anne Boles Levy
Co-Founder and Editor, The Cybils Awards

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

10 More Questions for Sara Zarr

So I'm feeling uber lucky in welcoming National Book Award Finalist Sara Zarr back for a second interview here at Interactive Reader. Sweethearts, her new book, released in just this past week, is receiving just as much love as Story of a Girl got.

Eight years ago the only friend Jennifer had in this world disappeared. Cam was dead, and for all practical purposes, Jennifer moved on. She buried her unpopular self and slowly transformed into another person. But while her current friends have no idea of her history, the newly named Jenna isn't able to hide her past so easily from herself, and when Cam suddenly returns to her life she must face the Jennifer she's buried as well as the event that changed everything for two 9-year-old best friends so long ago.

1. How has Sweethearts so far been a different experience from Story of a Girl?

It has been so incredibly different! In terms of the writing process, I wrote Story of a Girl over three years while in a writing group while Sweethearts came about in more like one year with just me and my editor, mostly. Also, when Story came out I had nothing to lose...no one knew or cared who I was. Now that's not the case, so I'm acutely aware of attention and expectations in a way I wasn't before. The year of writing was rough because of that, but now that it's out I'm actually more relaxed than I was the first time around. I've got a contract for two more books, and hopefully a career beyond that ahead of me and I know I'll be through this at least several more times. My perspective now is not quite so narrow. And, I've already received fan mail from quite a few teen readers of Sweethearts, and if they are happy, I'm happy!

2. On page 20* "I buried my head in my hands and laughed because that's what you're supposed to do when you are being affectionately humiliated by friends - or so I'd observed in movies and TV." That's a pretty strong compulsion to conform. Do you think that because of her experience with bullying when she was younger Jenna has a stronger than average need to blend in and look and behave exactly how she thinks society expects her to? Do you think in general people's actions are based on society's expectations? Do you ever find yourself behaving against your instincts simply because certain behavior is expected? Do you feel you might need a degree in sociology to answer this apparently endless question?

Hah! Perhaps. Let's break it down: Yes, I think that for Jenna conformity is not about being popular or admired---it's a survival mechanism. And yes, we all act according to society's expectations in small ways and big ones. I mean, not constantly, but you obey laws and line up at the grocery store instead of barging to the front and you generally don't go up to people and tell them exactly what you think of them. More seriously, you might truly compromise your fundamental morality based on expectations or based on what other people are doing. (The documentary Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room is a great study of how this happens.) Lastly, I guess I sometimes do act against my instincts, though I'm a product of society so my instincts are at least partly formed by these expectations so...I don't know. Maybe I do need a degree to answer that one!

3. One lunch Jenna eats only 1/4 of a sandwich and a low-fat yogurt. She gives a small cookie away because she felt guilty about the cheese in her breakfast. This sounds like an eating disorder, but it wasn't acknowledged in the book as such. Can you tell us a little about whether Jenna's eating habits were brought on as an element of the above-mentioned conformity and/or as a coping mechanism?

She does have an eating disorder, or at least disordered compulsive eating/dieting patterns. I mean, frankly her lunch as described above is not that different from the "meals" of many women I know who are unhappy with their bodies. I think what she has, if it's not a contradiction, is the normal disordered eating that so many girls and women seem to constantly struggle with. Even if there aren't dramatic symptoms, there's constant evaluation and adding up and guilt and trying to redeem yourself when you've been "bad" by being "good." But...the book isn't about that, and she's not in physical jeopardy because of it, so I didn't choose to address it head on. To answer your question, I think she started off using food as a comfort and companion because that's what was there. When she decides she has to change her body for social survival she eats less, but the fundamental issue of using food inappropriately is still there.

4. What about her tendency to steal food, even though she was perfectly capable of buying her own? I think my exact note was, "What's with the shoplifting?"

That's one of those things I think will either seem totally crazy or totally believable depending on the reader's experience. For a lot of people who have been, at any time in their lives, singled out as "fat," there is tremendous shame around food: looking at it, talking about it, eating it, buying it. If you know you're about to binge, you feel like everyone around you knows it, too. You imagine the cashier being able to see right into your mind when you put that ice cream on the counter, and you just feel completely naked. You can either endure this and try to act normal with your pounding heart and sweaty palms, or avoid it entirely and bypass the cashier.

5. Family in both of your books play an important role - especially father figures. It's refreshing to see in Sweethearts a stepfather character who is loved as much as a biological father might be. I think, actually, that it is one of the strongest traits in your writing that I've been able to notice so far - your ability to create amazing, layered family units with realistic flaws. They are functionally dysfunctional and so damn REAL. Where is that coming from and how do you get there?

Thanks! That's a great phrase - "functionally dysfunctional." I think it describes my own family very well, so I guess that's where it comes from, innately. I definitely don't plan it and doubt I could tell anyone else how to do it. If I wrote out just the facts of my family history and my life with no narrative, one could read it and think, "There must be a trail of destruction a million miles long!" But there really isn't in the big picture. There is love and grace and reconciliation in the most unlikely places, thank God.

6. Sex in Sweethearts isn't something Jenna does out of love - she's avoiding things and doing it more because it's easier than not doing it: "When we sank into the warm, dark pile of blankets... I went even deeper into myself, far away, exactly where I wanted to be" p93. Again, like in Story of a Girl, your lead is having sex for the wrong reasons. This time to escape rather than to find acceptance. Can you tell us a little about your thoughts and intents with this aspect of the book? Will we see a healthy sexual relationship between teens in a future book? (Is there such a thing?)

To clarify (not that it matters that much) - Jenna does not have sex, though she is sexually active (to a nonspecific degree, I admit) in her relationship with Ethan. I don't know if I'm ready or qualified to tackle the question if there is such a thing as a healthy sexual relationship between teens. I just know the particular characters and story I'm writing at a given time, and work within that. Since Jenna is basically dating Ethan for the wrong reasons to begin with, it wouldn't make sense for them to have a whole and meaningful sex life. In future books, we shall see!

7. Lies pepper the novel and they affect relationships in ways that the players could never expect. One lie transforms the relationship between mother and daughter and has a consequence that might affect that relationship for the rest of their lives. "Everything between us for the past eight years could have been different if she'd simply told me the truth. And she had no idea" p. 99. Did you know about all those lies from the get-go, or did you discover them along the way?**

I discovered them along the way. At first, Jennifer's mom was just kind of clueless, but then I started think about her as a character and decided that her cluelessness was sometimes a bit of an act, that she knew more than she was letting on. Families can be very loyal to their secrets or to a particular version of events that has somehow become absolute truth.

8. Most of Jenna's friends are involved with the school play. What is your personal experience with theater? Were you on stage? What productions?

I've been performing my whole life, from children's ballet theater to junior high and high school drama to college and community theater where I met my husband. I've been in The Mousetrap, A Christmas Carol, Oliver! (don't forge the exclamation point), Look Homeward Angel, Alice in Wonderland, and a strange little play in verse called Judevine. I also ran lights for Godspell, and worked backstage on a lot of productions. I'd actually love to get back into community theater sometime. Last year I entered a ten-minute play into a local theater's contest and it was selected for production, which was fun. But I miss being part of the show!

9. For the most important question: Can you recite the Pledge of Allegiance backwards like Jenna can?

No! It took me forever to type that little snippet in the book and quadruple-check it for accuracy!

10. What's the last great book you read that you wish were getting more attention?

It's not YA, but "Now You See Him" by Eli Gottlieb was very affecting and unusual.
Thank you, Jackie!

Thank me? I'm just the little librarian. Thank you, Sara.

Previous & future Blog Tour Stops for Sweethearts:

Jan 28: Kate Messner
Feb 1st: Shelf Elf
Feb. 4th: The Well-Read Child
Feb 5th: Big A little a
Feb 7th: Becky's Book Reviews
Feb 8th: The Romance Reader's Connection
Feb 11th: Charlotte's Library
Feb 12th: My Readable Feast
Feb 13th: Debbi Michiko Florence
Feb 14th: Mr. Media (live, according to my source...and possibly a podcast)

*Page numbers and quotes come from the Advanced Reader's Copy and may change in the final version.
**Thank you Sarah Miller for helping me find the question in that mess.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Superfluous Letters

I owe you the tale of a gruesome read, don't I? Well, it's not due out until April, but you don't mind, right?

Anne Green wakes up in the dark. She can't move. She can't see and she can't cry out. Her last memory is that of being hanged for a crime she did not commit. As she relives the events that led to her execution, there are people gathering around her motionless body. These people aren't her loving family assembled for her funeral, but doctors and students preparing to dissect her for science...The best part? It's based on true events from 1650.

"Cromwell, they say, is short and stocky, with warts over his face, and I know I should be very frightened if I came face to face with him. But not as frightened as I am now" p 11.*

Mary Hooper's written a lot of books, but Newes From the Dead happens to be my first of hers. I've been meaning to read At the Sign of the Sugared Plum for over a year, as I've got a thing about books depicting plague events, but well, you know how that goes.

Ok, the gruesome bits: Mostly having to do with the detail in which they go into about the hanging - that her brothers rushed forward to her dangling, struggling body to pull on her legs in order to hasten her death and lessen her pain. There was the guy who brutally struck her in her chest with the butt of a gun to assure her death. And then there's the doctors talking about her potential dissection. And, if you haven't caught on by now, SHE LIVED. Like, no kidding. Real events. There was a pamphlet. The prison was pretty awful, too. It's definitely enough to make you glad you can't travel in time.

The story is told largely in the alternating viewpoints of Anne and Robert, the medical student who first sees her twitch. Anne seems very much a simple country maid, naive and uneducated. Robert is clever, but crippled by a speech impediment. It's enjoyable, quick and illuminating. The most irritating fact, as explained in the author note, is that with infanticide the mother was guilty until proven innocent. And since women had no voice themselves, unless the mother had wealthy relatives, she was most likely poor and doomed. Have I mentioned that the prison was frightfully disgusting yet? It was. Seriously, don't get thrown in jail in the 1600s. Anne on her imprisonment:

"Surely if she was a witch the devil would have seen to it that she had more comfortable surroundings?" p 74.*

I feel it necessary to point out that this is the second recent book to feature the wrongful accusation of infanticide of a stillborn baby. A Swift Pure Cry is the other. Both set in the UK. Both historical. Dude, the 1980's ARE SO historical.

Oh, and by the way? I still hate Puritans.

*Page numbers refer to the Advanced Reader's Edition. Pages and quotes may change.