Thursday, May 31, 2012


I finally got around to reading Swamplandia!* by Karen Russell. It. Was. Amazing.  I really loved it.  Why did I wait so long to read it????

What's really amazing about this book is that the whole story is really Gothic and strange, but what could have been a gimmicky story  is instead imaginative and exciting - it feels modern and beautiful.  I wanted to take a few days off work so I could just stay home and read it from front to back in one sitting (alas...)

The plot sounds bizarre: It's about this family who lives in a swamp in Florida and they have an alligator amusement park.  The father has created this entire mythos for the family - they call him the Chief and their family history is part of the lore of their "tribe" - the Bigtrees - a faux-native american history of warriors and alligator wrestlers.  Ava is the youngest, the heroine, she's an utterly charming pre-teen that fully believes her family's mythology - trained as an alligator wrestler herself, she's cunning, thoughtful and brave.  Following the death of the mother, the powerful matriarch whose show-stopping act in the Bigtree carnival is to jump into a pit of alligators and outswim them (that's not how she dies, by the way), the family comes unhinged.  Ava's older sister, Osceola, starts doing seances and becoming possessed by ghosts?  And her brother, Kiwi, in an effort to save their land, departs to the mainland where he starts working for a huge, conglomerate amusement park called The World of Darkness, which people enter through a giant Leviathan and travel (merrily?) through the various levels of hell (sound familiar?). 
This is not forever, Kiwi would think as he held his breath and plunged one of the World of Darkness latrines with the clown-nose suction cup. You are still a genius. You are just a temporary worker. That was the rank that Kiwi had been hired at - full-time staffers all had their high school diplomas. The HR lady had flicked her dry eyeballs over Kiwi's body and shouted (Why so loud, madam?), "Women's size medium!" into an intercom.  "And get me a temporary ID badge."
When Osceola leaves Swamplandia to travel to the land of the dead, Ava sets out to find her with the help of the "Bird Man" - a bizarre local character who wears a long coat covered in feathers who talks to birds and influences their migratory patterns.  Here the book turns into kind of a mystery - whether there really is a Land of the Dead and what expertise or motivations the Bird Man might have leaves the reader constantly wondering whether the story is honestly a gothic fairy tale or whether some reality lays below the surface of these fantastical events. 
Each house had a shadow beneath it, a sort of liquid basement. Small waves rose midway up the platform supports and collapsed into a thin foam. The temperature dropped tens of degrees whenever we poled beneath a house. Above us, the rotten planks and greenish white crossboards looked like they'd been nailed shut by some lunatic carpenter - I saw the glint of what seemed at a distance to be hundreds and hundreds of nailheads. Barnacles. Not nails but shells, dark red horns spiraling out of every surface.
Like any good Florida novelist, Russell's book includes more than a little information about Florida's amazing ecosystem and the detrimental influences that have effected it over the years.  The Ten Thousand Islands area, in the Everglades, sounds like America's last nearly-untouched territory - a wild place, history fraught with unthinkable events and characters (especially to a relative northerner like myself). 

Russell's writing is fresh and often hilarious, underlaid with a consistent, sophisticated prose by turns hyperbolic and gorgeously metaphorical without ever venturing into the domain of overworked language (how she does it I wish I knew!)

*PS, this is the second book I've read this year with an exclamation point in the title.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

YA books

Ooo - Goodreads has posted a list of supposedly all the YA books of 2011, which you can organize by average ratings.  Hey, how come I haven't heard of so many of those top 10?   (Except, notably, Divergent, of which I have been a big fan since its publication.)


Monday, May 28, 2012

Cover Girl

Kate Hart has an interesting blog where she posts her infographics of YA books - she studies the covers, amongst other things, and makes these amazing graphs with her findings.  Here's an example:

Ah, the ol' "no head" technique - classic technique (literally!) in the history of representing women.  


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How fast do you read?

Here's a little app that tells you how fast you read, along with a few basic questions about comprehension.  I got the following results:

I do read kind of slow, but I'm not uptight about it.  I sort of enjoy reading slowly.  Also, frankly, who gives an ef how fast anyone reads?   Although, at the same time, I have a feeling I will spend the rest of the day taking this test compulsively.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Reading about the Hunger Games

There's a great article in Salon, The making of a blockbuster (March 2012) by Laura Miller and another in
the NYT, Fresh Hell: What’s behind the boom in dystopian fiction for young readers? (June 2010) .  The  Salon article is really interesting because she gives a lot of behind-the-scenes/insider info about publishing houses, and how they begin the marketing process and push books out into the world.  The older NYT article is more of an examination of the popularity of dystopian YA novels in general.  One of her claims is that dystopian fiction is so appealing to teenagers is because high school is a dystopia:
Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake. Adults don’t seem to understand how high the stakes are; your whole life could be over, and they act like it’s just some “phase”! 
Although, I really think Miller's inquiry into why teenagers like the book is extraneous.  Teenagers, if you ask me, are not necessarily critical readers, full of thoughtful introspection (at least I wasn't).  If a book is ostensibly written and marketed for young adult readers, it's not out of the question that young adult readers will enjoy them.    The question is why adults like them so much.  For one thing, some people think it's embarrassing to read a book that's written for teenagers.  *I* don't feel that way, but I do get a fair amount of raised eyebrows for my reading choices.  Personally, I don't give two fucks about what other people think about what I'm reading.  My attitude is, "I'm reading a BOOK - my mind is an explosion of language and thought - what are you doing? Being judgmental?"  But, I do know that a lot of people suffer from the embarrassment of book covers in public spaces.  So, first of all, you have to find a person brave enough to defy public scrutiny, or else a book that is socially acceptable for adults to read (ie Harry Potter was, Twilight really wasn't.)

What I find most appealing about teenage heroines is the escapist idea that they, despite apparently lack of opportunity, strength, means or support, nevertheless upset social or policial hierarchy.  Characters like Katniss or Cassie in the Matched Trilogy or whatshername in Divergent (I assume, the 2nd and 3rd books are forthcoming).  These young characters generally have little to lose, and encountering their parents' inability to change their situation, it's left to them to challenge the norms.  Older readers, like myself, are in reality more like the parents of these characters - they have a lot to lose.  They have children, careers, homes, and partners that would be in jeopardy if they rocked the boat.  Identifying with the teenage characters gives the adult the opportunity to imagine what it would be like to effect massive change without sacrificing any of the relationships or possessions they've gained.  Without judgement, the adult reader of the YA dystopian novel can embrace the actions of the heroine, not only because it's easy to support her, but she would like to image that she would do the same thing.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was our book club selection for this month - it was also, coincidentally, the book selection of the year at the college where I work.  So there have been a lot of lectures and whatnot about the book in town recently (not that I like, went to any of them...)  I'd heard all this stuff about the book like how remarkable it is and so on, but I was quite disappointed.  The story of Henrietta Lacks eternally dividing cells and the impact they've had on scientific research is pretty remarkable, but the story that Rebecca Skloot has told is problematic, to say the least.

Henrietta Lacks was a woman who had cervical cancer and died in 1951.  Her cells, it was discovered, are "immortal" - they reproduce easily and have been widely utilized in scientific experiments around the world (they're called HeLa cells).  Lacks or her family was never notified that her cells were being used in this way.  She was an impoverished, uneducated, southern African-American woman and her family, even today, continues to suffer in poverty, ill-health and under-education today.  (As a side-note, it was interesting to read this book in conjunction with the national conversation about wealth and bootstraps - the Lacks family is a perfect example of how the poor stay poor.)

Skloot is very much a part of her own narrative - the journey to learning more about the life involved trying to talk to her family.  Henrietta's family, by 1999, had been burned many times by reporters and members of the medical community - Henrietta's surviving children and husband were never informed about their mother's place in scientific importance, and, being very poorly educated, they did not seem to understand exactly what had happened to her, before or after her death.  Skloot describes the process of talking with the family, particularly Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, an erratic women that vacillated between eagerness to talk about her mother and learn more, and sudden skittishness and privacy about her family matters.

What really comes across in this book is the extreme irony that the family of this woman who made such an important contribution (without her knowledge) toward medical science continues to live in poverty and, for example, has no health insurance.
"Hopkins say they gave them cells away," Lawrence yelled, "but they made millions!  It's not fiar! She's the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?"
However, what bothered me more and more was how this book was less about Henrietta's history and cells, and more about what a completely ignorant and superstitious family she had.  While so much of the book was devoted to how Henrietta, as a poor, black woman was considered fair game for medical experimentation without her knowledge or consent, I found it rather alarming how much of the family's bizarre, idiotic statements were included in what felt like the further advantage-taking of this family for someone else's gain.
"Daddy," Lawrence yelled, "did you know mam's cells gonna make Stevie Wonder see?" [...] Then there was a thump on the ceiling and the rustling of someone walking around, and Lawrence jumped from the table and ran into the kitchen. "My wife is a fire dragon without morning coffee," He said. "I better make some." It was two in the afternoon.
Skloot also describes the surviving family members' appearances, skin tone and texture with obsessive detail:
Deborah was a substantial woman - about five feet tall and two hundred pounds. her tight curls were less than an inch long and jet black, except for a thing streak of natural gray framing her face like a headband. She was fifty, but seemed both a decade older and younger at the same time. Her smooth light brown skin was dotted with big freckles and dimples, her eyes light and mischievous.  She wore capri pants and Keds sneakers and moved slowly, leaning most of her weight on an aluminum cane. 
Historically, the assumed character for white writers are white, while any non-white characters are the "other" and "require" description.  This started to drive me nuts after a while in this book because the players were either medical professionals or Lack's family.  The Lacks' skin tone, eye-brightness, and obesity was almost always immediately and indulgently described while those characteristics were not mentioned for the scientists unless they were not white.

I don't think that's uncommon, but just illustrates how unconsciously white writers (and readers) carry their own (even unknown or unrecognized) prejudices.  However deeply problematic I found The Immortal Life, it seems to have sparked a conversation for an ethical and legal issue that will most likely become more and more prevalent to our society.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Little Brother

I encourage everyone to read this great YA book by Cory Doctorow called Little Brother.  It's a about this kid (16 or 17) in San Francisco in the not-so-distant-future.  Marcus's world has a bit more surveillance than our world - in school, all students are issued computers that track their keystrokes and look for specified keywords.  The walls are lined with "gait recognition" cameras that try to match up gaits to people and track movement.  Everyone is tracked by arphids too.  Marcus is a hacker, and knows his civil rights really well too - when the principal calls him into his office to grill him about a recent campus hack, he plays it cool, asks the principal if he has an evidence and encourages him to call the police and his parents.

When Marcus and his friends are running around town playing a game, there is a terrorist attack on San Francisco and they are gathered up as suspicious characters.  (I'm not telling you anything that's not on the back of the book).  Marcus's cool responses don't work with the Department of Homeland Security - using post-9/11 legislation, they don't have to follow the same procedures as the principal.  Marcus is tortured, certainly never gets a call to his lawyer, or is ever charged with anything.  When he finally is released, he decides he'll do what he can to take the DHS down himself.

What's interesting is that, in a manner of speaking, Marcus becomes a terrorist after being released from the DHS, even though what he's doing is ostensibly for the good.  What I found endlessly fascinating is that (almost?) all the technology Doctorow mentions in the book is either existing today or not a far stretch.  I frequently found myself asking my guy, "Is TOR a real thing?"  It is.  "You ever heard of Thomas Bayes?" Yep.  "How does DNS work?" It's complicated.

Little Brother has a great story, but the didactic side is what I loved.  This book challenges the reader to consider how they feel about privacy and how far they would be willing to go to protect it.  It encourages readers to become more savvy - and it's really empowering:
If you've never programmed a computer, you should.  There's nothing like it in the whole world.  When you program a computer, it does exactly what you tell it to do. It's like designing a  machine - any machine, like a car, like a faucet, like a gas hinge for a door - using math and instructions. It's awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe.
It's so fun to read a book about a city you know well - I used to live in SF, and a lot of the action takes place in my old neighborhood (affectionately known as the Tender-knob).  Marcus is a cool kid - he's a nerd, but this accessible book would appeal to both nerds and non-nerds (that term is also affectionate, by the way) - I would think this book would really inspire young people to start some interesting web searches - it definitely did for me!

Doctorow is a real revolutionary and an anti-DRM, liberal copywrite activist.  His wikipedia entry is a great place to learn more about him.  As a proponent of Creative Commons, Little Brother is available as a free download here.  Wow!  Why does he provide his books for free?  Read this.