Saturday, September 29, 2012

My Best Week: Not the Books, but the Readers

My Best Week number TWO!

What do you know—it's about books. I'm liking this trend.

So LAST last week there was a glut of fantastic YA book events in DC, starting with Libba Bray's Politics and Prose event for the release of THE DIVINERS
…and continuing through the weekend's National Book Festival on the mall with JOHN GREEN and LOIS LOWRY and MAGGIE STIEFVATER (and a dozen others).

I don't bring my camera to these things; I apologize.

But really, pictures aren't the point! The point is, I had the opportunity to listen to intelligent, witty authors whose work I admire, in the company of intelligent, witty FYA@DC book club friends (and on Sunday, a long-abroad, just-moved-to-DC, dear teen-hood friend).

Not to mention, I got to see Nerdfighteria nuclear-grade meltdowns at the mere APPEARANCE of John Green*. Not since I saw BSB in their hey-day have I seen so many teen-girl-tears—although this time the tears weren't, thank goodness, mine.

[nostalgia for sale here, if you were so inclined]
Despite John Green's nerdstar status, however, the highlight of my NBF experience has to be watching this pattern unfold in the teen tent on Saturday, in the questions&comments period following each author's talk:
Commenter 1 (to Walter Dean Myers, Library of Congress Children's Literature Ambassador, author of 105 published novels, beloved by many generations): I just loved [insert book title here], and how you wrote the characters, and how…and how… [breaks down into tears]…and I just wanted to thank you, and…
WDM: [serious, gracious, patient] Thank you. 
 Commenter 2 (to Lois Lowry, author of the award winning hard-hitters THE GIVER and NUMBER THE STARS, venerable and beloved by many, etc. etc.): The experience of reading your books, and the heart you put into them, and…[voice breaks with emotion]…I just wanted to thank you so much
LL: [serious, gracious, patient] Thank you.
Commenter 3 (to Maggie Stiefvater, current YA star and author of many beloved books, including the very moving Printz honor winner, THE SCORPIO RACES): I…[pause]…
Maggie: [incredulous] Are you CRYING?!?**
Maggie Stiefvater, ladies and gentlemen. Classic.

Annnnd then we all went for pizza. FYA girls, not Maggie (we wish).

And there's My Best Week, numero dos! See you allllll later.

* srsly: check out the NBF Tumblr tag for proof.
** though I will hasten to point out, while abrupt, this was not mocking or negative—whatever the commenter WAS doing (I couldn't see over there), Maggie's response broke the ice in a GOOD way. I promise.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ghosting…erm, GUESTING at The Adventures of Cecilia Bedelia

Me writing words for blogs, TWICE in one week? Clutch your pearls, folks!

It's all steampunk all the time at The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia this week, and I have a guest post up today, in which I wax erratic (and maybe MAYBE a bit poetic) on the inimitable talents of Kelly Link and Libba Bray and the beauty of writing genre stories in which the genre is incidental.

Go read about it!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My Best Week: Laughter in the Dark

New layout! New feature! New…erm, season!

It's fall. L'automne. No more heinous heat and humidity. No more tornado…oh, what? There's a tornado watch over DC/MD today? …Oh.

Well. No more heinous heat and humidity, at least. And look! Here I am! With a shiny new blog feature I think I really can keep up with!

I'm calling it the very imprecise-yet-snappy MY BEST WEEK, and the idea is, when a week or so has gone by since my last post, I'll come back to tell all about the best thing that I was in some way a part of in the seven-ish days prior.

Today I have TWO things, because I am an over-achiever.

Best Thing 1:

PITCH PERFECT screening with FYA@DC book club friends last Wednesday, graciously set up by the lovely ladies at Forever Young Adult.

Guys. Guys. GUYS. PITCH PERFECT is so.very.crazy.good. SO GOOD. And SURPRISING, which is always the best part of a good funny story. Surprisingly good singing/vocal arrangements; surprising cameos; surprising abstention from formulaic plot points. Surprising…erm, projections. (I'll let those moments themselves spoil you when you OBVIOUSLY EVENTUALLY SEE IT)

Thank you again, ye goddesses at FYA HQ, for showering big book club cities with PITCH PERFECT screening love.

And you're welcome, Universal Pictures, for ALL OF THE MONEY I will be spending to see the movie again and again and again once it's released for real.

Best Thing 2:

So I read a lot of middle grade, and love a lot of middle grade, and recognize the technical wizardry of a lot of middle grade, but I forget how easy it is to forget what it's like to be ten and find the perfect book that just worms its way into your brain from page one and is THE BEST THING EVER.

Well, no longer.

I've been feeding one of my fifth grade tutoring students lists of potential "fun" books she might like to pick up whenever she finishes with THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, and even though it wasn't even released when I first told her about it, and therefore couldn't offer an informed opinion of any sort, this bright, off-the-walls energetic ten-year-old girl was figuratively DYING to get her hands on a copy of Ellis Weiner's THE TEMPLETON TWINS HAVE AN IDEA:

Holy BELLS did Weiner and Chronicle Books hit the nail square in the middle with this one. Every paragraph, every irritated narratorial aside, every satiric beat of the questions for review at the end of the four not-actually-prologue Prologues…perfect. My student was literally rolling off her chair laughing.

It was incredible. I mean, INCREDIBLE. I have all these dreams about kids getting their hands on wonderful books and really GETTING them and LOVING them, but it's been so long since I've seen it first hand, I'd forgotten how viscerally moving it is.

So I left my (library!) copy with her. I mean, even if she loves it to destruction (which I think she is far too excited about taking care of it to do), I'm willing to pay the replacement fees to engender that kind of enthusiasm for reading.

So. There it is. Entry one in MY BEST WEEK.

See you all for the next one.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Road Trip Wednesday! A return! A (Whitman) reference!

This! Week's! RTW! Topic!
What movie have you seen that actually (gasp!) improved on the book?
I am on tenterhooks, here, waiting to see what everyone else comes up with. Because, while the drive behind this question SHOULD be inherently positive—let's congratulate Hollywood on something awesome, people!—the answer that popped immediately into my head had less to do with Hollywood's rare good work than it did with source material that I found so abysmally abysmal that I basically threw it into the dusty corner of a rarely attended study abroad office in Moscow and never looked back.

The hilarity, folks, of following up on my "haters gonna hate" call to kindness after SEVEN MONTHS of radio silence with an RTW post on a book I couldn't run fast enough away from, I hated it so much…well, it's not lost on me. Not one bit. Especially given the pedigree of the book in question.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then: I contradict myself. Blah blah large, blah blah multitudes. And a big round of applause for good ol' Walt.

Anyhow, the book/film pair I'm talking about here is Neil Gaiman's STARDUST.

[via Goodreads]
[via Tumblr, of course]
And the fact that anyone could see through the dull dull dullness that was the entire story in the book to any kind of golden kernel that might even be turned into a passable film, well. To say I was "impressed" would be putting it mildly.

And here's the thing: I love almost EVERYTHING Neil Gaiman writes! Really, really love it. He's all clever and chatty and thorough and odd. But his STARDUST was just so FLAT, with characters that seemed hardly to speak to one another at all, let alone enough to constitute a burgeoning affection and eternal love—I just could NOT get into it. Rather, I did the opposite of get into it, whatever that might be.

Look: I'm absolutely willing to entertain the idea that I was somehow standing in my own way with this one. I'd seen the film first, at a random outdoor mall on the highway LITERALLY on my way from my home in Wyoming to the airport in Denver, where I was getting on the plane to go to Russia for half a year.

Obviously I didn't just walk out of the theater loving it, but also having formed an abnormal attachment to it as the nucleus of the final home-y experience I'd have for months. And then I bought the paperback at a bigboxbookstore to have on the plane, hoping, I guess, for a way to продолжать, to draw out the original experience. And we all know how THOSE plans typically go.

But look, too: I'm a good reader. I know what I like and what I don't and I can usually pinpoint exactly why. And I did NOT like the book.

But I love love love the film. So, Hollywood? Thanks a million. And, you know what, thanks Neil Gaiman, for writing a book that better people than me could see the cinematic promise in.

As for all you Gaiman-fans, don't hate me.

No accounting for taste, right?

Monday, January 9, 2012

From an optimist, a bit of negativity. Followed by optimism.

Negativity—especially of the churlish variety—is not my scene. After a brilliant eureka moment in my early undergraduate life, I put away the majority of my haughty, ironic, suspicious-of-optimism, Judgy McJudgerson teenage legacy and moved on to a much happier existence. The idea of Bronies (which I just read about today) tickles my heart; the sheer joy and exuberance exploding from Jimmy Fallon at every turn on his late late show is my bread and butter.

Not for its cynicism did I spend six years studying Russian lit, nor do I inhabit the young adult and kidlit world in order to have a ready supply of lesser-than things to make fun of. Rather, I did both for the wit and humanism and fantastic use of language so often employed therein. Sincerity and optimism, that's my game.

So you can understand why I have mixed emotions taking time to write about a series of things I've come across thus far in 2012 that, well, I am feeling really negative and judgy about. Even though—or maybe especially because—the negativity comes from a place of optimism. But these things are so tied to what I hold near and dear to my heart that, well, I just want to say something. So I will say my something, and then I will move on. And we will make Mondays days of love and sincerity from here on out.

The first thing that rankled me I saw last week, and was the bizarrely visceral lit-snob reaction to the appointment of Walter Dean Myers as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. I didn't take the editorial very seriously—I think it was intentionally incendiary (and willfully self-serving), and anyone even a bit clever can understand that the argument doesn't even correspond with the meaning of the actual appointment (an ambassador is not a laureate, or an instructor, or a mirror, for example).

However, I do dislike it when anyone claims that a) literature's only goal is to elevate, and b) that "to entertain, to problematize, or to instruct" cannot simultaneously elevate. I am not claiming that all —hell, I'm not even claiming that literature's only goal should be to elevate. But I do think that anytime a person chooses to read something for their own edification, they are doing themselves a service. All exercises in reading are transformative:
Psychologists from Washington University used brain scans to see what happens inside our heads when we read stories. They found that "readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative". The brain weaves these situations together with experiences from its own life to create a new mental synthesis. Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways. (Washington Univ. in St. Louis, via The Guardian)
…so even if Myers' work is "insipid" (which, whatever. Opinions are opinions.), the act of reading his work can do good just as well as Homer (or any number of increasingly ill-judged bawdy Old English bits) can. Either/or paradigms are harmful, especially if the result is keeping kids from actively engaging, on their own time, with literature, whatever that may be.

In any case, the guy is zany, which comes a dime a dozen, and Myers is still the one with the prestigious appointment, so, again, whatever. Also, I recognize that cultural snobbery is the Achilles Heel that brings out my cynicism. Okay. Water under the bridge.

However, today I came across two more things, in quick succession, that bit at me, and a series of three is always stronger, so. Here we are.

TEDtalks! Why are you doing me wrong?

For some reason, an economist got on stage to talk about his suspicion of stories. Yes, stories. That video is sixteen long minutes of your life, and I don't necessarily recommend anyone watch it, but there it is for those interested.

The takeaway is, humankind's tendency to frame everything—memories, lives, advertising—into stories is somehow…reductive? Constricting? Bad? Honestly, I'm a clever person, able to read literary criticism in Russian, but I could barely follow his argument. It was very…personal, I think. And yes, maybe I was feeling a bit ornery, my very avocation being called to task, but. Please.

Stories are used because framing the chaos and mess (which Cowen wants us to instead embrace, yet somehow not try to frame for better understanding) is how we make sense of life, how we can find meaning and move forward from the things that happen to us. I can understand the desire to be suspicious of stories people tell when selling something—obviously. Sales is a game, and you should always look outside the pitch's box. But just being human and telling stories? Being suspicious of that just promises exhaustion.

Being (and using) awesome.

This was highlighted in today's Shelf Talker, and it totally caught me off-guard. A bookselling dude in California has made it his mission to cull the word "awesome" from everyday English, citing its ubiquity and utter lack of real meaning as a source of physical pain.
"Saying the word in my presence is like waving a crucifix in a vampire's face," Tottenham says. "It's boiled down to one catchall superlative that's completely meaningless."
I am all for linguistic flexibility and creative oral latitude, but MAN OH MAN can you be a bigger Grinch? Hating people who use and believe in the word awesome is like hating puppies for tugging on each other's ears. Nerdfighteria's DFTBA mantra is the precise opposite of a cliché, and the precise example of people loving language and creativity and intelligence to BE BETTER. Or, as Tottenham would hate to hear it, more awesome.

This guy is a bookseller. I don't even. I hope he learns to spend more of his time enjoying things.

There ends my wind of negativity. I just didn't like seeing 2012 get off to such a cynical start. Because 2012 is going to be a year of AWESOME. STORIES. And optimism.

You know how I know? Because today, right after being bombarded by cases the second and the third, I opened a birthday package from a dear college friend, and found THIS:

Yes, that IS Minnesota running at you with HUGS.

So. 2012. Be awesome. Tell stories. Hug people. Be optimistic.


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