Thursday, December 27, 2012

Top 5 Books of 2012

These are what I published in Newcity... I have some other top 5s there that *I* think are amusing.

Top 5 Books (published in 2012)
NW” by Zadie Smith
A Hologram for the King” by Dave Eggers
The Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker
HHhH” by Laurent Binet
Treasure Island!!!” by Sara Levine

I read Junot Diaz's This is how you Lose Her after I wrote that.... I really it belongs on the list.  I suppose I might bump Treasure Island!!! to get it on there.

But, my Top 5 Books I Read (Not necessarily published in 2012) were:
The ColonyJillian Weise
Swamplandia, Karen Russell
A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers
The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

Top 5 YAs I Read (Not necessarily published in 2012):
SpeakLaurie Halse Anderson
Why We Broke Up, Daniel Handler
Beauty QueensLibba Bray
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
Little Brother, Cory Doctorow

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars

I've read nothing but great things about The Fault in Our Stars all year long, so I finally read it!  Hazel is a teenager that has had thyroid cancer for most of her life.  Her lungs don't work well and she always has an oxygen tank with her. She meets Augustus Waters at a young person's cancer support group and they fall in love.  Well, they fall in love carefully, because Hazel doesn't want to break the heart of Gus if she dies.  Mortality is a constant companion in this book - Hazel will not likely live very long.  Gus is also a cancer survivor - he had cancer in his leg, which was amputated.

One of the most influential books I read this year was The Colony, so I've been extra-attentive to narratives that feature people with disabilities, and when authors choose to include these narratives in their books.  I think it must be a difficult decision to make, because, obviously they would want to avoid any mere tokenism - I think books like The Fault in Our Stars and Beauty Queens did a great job of including differently abled characters who are much much more than their disabilities.  

Hazel loves a novel called An Imperial Affliction, which ends in the middle of a sentence.  She loves the novel, but really wonders what happened to the characters - Gus helps her in an adventure to meet the author.  Probably shouldn't say much else with out dropping some major spoilers.  Although... I did spend a lot of time dreading the idea that the novel would end in the middle of a sentence and I would tear out my hair and catch something on fire.  I'll spare you the agony and tell you (spoiler): it doesn't.  

Like the other Green novel I read, these characters are idealized - they're smarter, wittier, more thoughtful teenagers than you or I were (even though you and I like to think we were that smart and witty).  Hazel says, without irony, that her parents are her best friends, and spends a fair amount of time worrying what will happen to them if she dies.  She says something like, "The only thing worse than being a kid with cancer is having a kid with cancer."  Lines like that kind of take me out of the story a little bit, maybe because I'm a cynical a-hole, but I just can't see many 16 years olds with that type of actualization.  I mean... I just don't think kids can or should be best friends with their parents.

If you read any reviews of The Fault in Our Stars, what you'll find is a breakdown of how many tears were shed throughout the book.  I did, I'll admit, shed one or two tears.  Here, for your reading enjoyment, are some quotes:
This book made my eyes insanely puffy for days because THE CRYING. SO. MUCH. CRYING. via 
The Fault in Our Stars had me laughing and crying, then laughing more and crying more. via 
The ending. Oh, wow, that got me going. DANG IT, I WILL NOT CRY AGAIN. via 
This has, hands-down been my favorite book of the year and was three and half hours of crying, laughing and coming to grips with the ubiquitous fact of life: we all face oblivion all the time and one of these days, we will have to embrace it.  (via That one's from a dude.)
Of course, I need the obligatory cried-my-eyes-out line.  Because I totally did.  It got really messy, and I snotted a little on my sweater sleeves because I couldn’t bring myself to get up and get a tissue.  I couldn’t pull myself away. via

Aside from making you cry like a little girl, you'll probably laugh a little too.  Green is legitimately funny, and it's hard to write funny.  Gus and Hazel poke fun at stereotypes of kids with cancer, like this:
"Like, are you familiar with the trope of the stoic and determined cancer victim who heroically fights
cancer her with inhuman strength and never complains or stops smiling even at the very end, et cetera?" 
"Indeed," I said "They are kindhearted and generous souls whose every breath is an Inspiration to Us All.  They're so strong! We admire them so!"
That's funny. And, he writes from a GIRL'S point of view and didn't make me want to GAG????  Unprecedented.  


Well, I guess I've done my part to perpetuate the idea that this book ends in tears, tear, tears!  But, seriously, you probably will cry.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens (2011) by Libba Bray is a hilarious novel about a bunch of beauty queens on their way to a pageant, whose plane crashes on a desert island.  I liked it so much that I don't really want to say that much about it.... it's a fun, feminist, romp, wherein the beauty queens transform from stereotypes of themselves to independent survivors thriving on an island against all odds.  I'll tell ya, I love nothing more than a survival story, it really captures my imagination to picture people (me?!?) getting by in the wild.  

Each surviving queen has a bit of a backstory - if I remember correctly, none of them was independently interested in becoming a beauty queen, most of them were doing it to satisfy a parent.  Not surprisingly, Bray includes a reality tv element (something tells me this woman is well schooled in ANTM and Honey Boo Boo and also I would like to meet her and become best friends) in the form of these guys who... I don't want to drop any spoilers because it really IS a fun read ... let's just say that some male characters are introduced, and the beauty queens are in danger, but one of the things I loved (tiny spoiler) is that the beauty queens never sit back and wait for a dude to get them out of a jam.

I guess this book is officially YA... I suppose it would be a fine book for YA readers, but categorizing it never entered my mind as I was reading.

Bray's cast of characters includes a couple of gay beauty queens, a beauty queen who used to be a boy, a deaf beauty queen and several beauty queens of color.  I loved that her book incorporated such a wide cast, putting all these women on equal footing and as equal contributors to the community they create on the island.  There's also a very strong anti-capitalism line, with repeated gags about commercialization and how the sale of so many products hinges on making women feel bad about their bodies or selves.
In school, they would tell you that life wouldn't come to you; you had to go out and make it your own.  But when it came to love, the message for girls seemed to be this: Don't. Don't go after what you want. Wait. Wait to be chosen, as if only in the eye of another could one truly find value. The message was confusing and infuriating. It was a shell game with no actual pea under the rapidly moving cups.
At book club, one of my friends picked up my copy of Beauty Queens, and thrust it in my face, saying, "Throw this out, immediately," (*gasp*) "and get the audio version, it's hilarious."  So, I have it on good authority that the audio copy is great, and read by Libba Bray herself.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Paper Towns

John Green has been getting crazy buzz this year - every YA blog that I read gushes about The Fault in Our Stars (the TEARS!  Oh, the sobbing that was recounted...)  So... I've been missing the boat on this Green fellow.

I snatched up a copy of Paper Towns (2008) at my local library to see what all the fuss was about.

In Paper Towns, Quentin (Q), is woken up in the middle of the night by his beautiful, slightly older neighbor, Margo, who he has naturally had a crush on his entire life.  Margo needs his help on this all-night adventure trip to exact revenge on her popular friends that have sort of double-crossed her.  Margo is a meticulous planner and has a great imagination, so the reader might get a little crush on her as well.  She gives Q a list that includes catfish, VEET, Vaseline, & Mountain Dew - and the mystery of their night unfolds for the reader just as it does for Q - what are they going to do with this bizarre list?  This all-night adventure, which is about the first 1/3 of the book, is really fun to read, and clips along at basically an "unputdownable" rate.

The next morning, Margo's gone - run away.  But, she's left a handful of clues that Q and his friends unravel and attempt to find this poor, lost girl.

I quite enjoyed reading Paper Towns.  Green crafts a good story, and includes some sophisticated themes that appeal to older readers like me, and, I'd imagine, gives younger readers access to some larger ideas to ponder.  "Paper Towns", for example, refers to non-existant towns that are put on maps as a kind of copyright test - if the false town shows up on another map, there's proof that someone just  plagiarized a map.  Margo sees people living paper lives - inconsequential and unimportant. She and Q live in Florida, not far from Disney World - in the created environment of that strange land, you can understand how a bright, existential kid could get the itch for something "real".  And Q learns some big-boy lessons about the impossibility of knowing someone - that his idealized girl-next-door is mere mortal with the breadth of human tragedy and triumph wound up in her teenage form:
The fundamental mistake I had always made-was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.
Despite Q's little lesson about not idealizing his neighbor, Green's teens are hyper-idealized.  (I did finally read The Fault in our Stars, more on that later...) Green writes teenagers that have great relationships with the parents, are smart and witty, thoughtful and kind.  Q and his best boy pals are considerate, brilliant and helpful (do you know a lot of 17 year olds boys like that?)   I've heard tell that it's not that unusual for today's teenager to claim, with utter sincerity, that their parents ARE their best friends... I concede that the modern teenager might be a bit more sensitive than I and my friends were when I was a kid... but  I did find Green's teenagers eye-rollingly mature and witty.  His characters remind me of Daniel Handler's.  (Not surprisingly, Handler told me he liked Green's work when I interviewed him earlier this year.)  The alternative to my cynical criticism is that Green's teenager serves as a Guide to Good Teenaging to actual teenagers, as well as a romanticized image that teenagers and adults can "relate to".  In other words, I think his charming young people allow the reader to see their best selves as they inevitably relate to the characters.  I think if I had read this book when I was 16, I would have thought, "Yeah, I'm a lot like this kid..."  (even though I probably wasn't.)  So, in the end, I love that how his books have the power to inspire the reader to be a better person.
   "I just want to find her," I say, because I do. I want her to be safe, alive, found. The string played out. The rest is secondary.    
"Yeah, but--I don't know," Ben says. I can feel him looking over at me, being Serious Ben. "Just--Just remember that sometimes, the way you think about a person isn't the way they actually are. Like, I always thought Lacey was so hot and so awesome and so cool, but now when it comes to being with her it's not the exact same. People are different when you can smell them and see them up close, you know?" 
"I know that," I say. I know how long, and how badly, I wrongly imagined her.  
"I'm just saying that is was easy for me to like Lacey before. It's easy to like someone from a distance. But when she stopped being this amazing unattainable thing or whatever, and started being, like, just a regular girl with a weird relationship with food and frequent crankiness who's kinda bossy - then I had to basically start liking a whole different person."

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Supplemento al dizionario italiano

When we were in Rome, I bought a very useful little book called Supplemento al dizionario italiano by Bruno Munari.  It's a dictionary all about hand signals, and what they mean in Italian.  There's a picture of a hand making the symbol, and then translations in Italian, Englis, French and German.

For example, they do OK just like we do - by making a circle with their thumb and forefinger tips together.  Then there's a short description and info.  Like, "This gesture is a recent import from America, and is not yet very widely used in Italy. The forward movement is sharp and short, then the hand is held motionless."

We went through the entire book with our Italian friends, who taught us some of the finer points of some of the signals.  It was fun, because we were able to communicate with each other on this whole different level!  Sometimes I would challenge M with a long sentence and ask him to say the whole thing in hand signals.  He was really good at it.

Here are some of my favorites... This one means "Rage" you pretend like you're biting your finger.

and this one is like, "Who's with me?"  You put your hand out, and everyone who's "In" puts their finger in your palm.  Cute, right?