Thursday, June 23, 2011

In Praise of "Dark" Literature

I just read two great books. One is an advanced review copy (won’t be out until Sept, so make a note of it) by a first time author. The other is at least the tenth book out by one of my favorite young adult writers, Lauren Myracle. Before I share, I want to get something off my chest, though, that’s been nagging at me. Several weeks ago Meghan Cox Gurdon, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, published a piece called "Darkness Too Visible: Contemporary Fiction for Teens is Rife with Explicit Abuse, Violence and Depravity. Why Is This Considered a Good Idea?"

The gist of the article is that young adult fiction delves into topics no parent in her right mind would want her kid to read about.

It’s true that you can stroll into the young adult fiction section of any bookstore and find an array of “dark” books. (Literally, they are dark. This is one of the results of the Twilight phenomenon. That book had a black cover so many books now have black covers. I heard an art director at a conference call this trend “the wall of black.”) But I digress. As a writer and extensive reader of young adult fiction, I’m here to tell you that there is much more out there than black books and more importantly, there is much more TO those black books than Meghan Cox Gurdon is leading her WSJ readers to believe. I suspect that she was simply trying to be provocative, specifically choosing books that have disturbing premises and using those to make her point. I haven’t read or heard of any of the books she mentioned (gruesome-sounding things that she sums up by saying, do not have happy endings) except one. And that is Lauren Myracle’s new book Shine.

And note, to Meghan Cox Gurdon: It has a happy ending. Shine is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Period. I’ve read nearly all of Lauren Myracle’s books and if you haven’t heard of her, let me give you a quick run down. She’s a rare author who writes both middle grade and young adult fiction. Which is where she may run into trouble. Her books for younger readers—the series beginning with Eleven—is one of the sweetest, most real and honest depictions of preteen life I’ve ever read. If you have a daughter about to start middle school, run out and buy these books, and read them yourself too. You’ll be thrown back to your own middle school years and you’ll have a new understanding of what your daughter will be going through. Bonus: they're funny.

Girls who love the Eleven series, though, may drift over to the YA section and pick up some of Myracle’s books for older teens. Some of these are dark, but not all. A very good one is Peace, Love and Baby Ducks. It's a portrayal of a sister relationship—with all the highs and lows that go along with that. I don’t have a sister, but after reading this book, I knew what it would be like to have one, and it made me envious. It’s meant for older teens though. So there is some drinking (with negative consequences) and complicated, dysfunctional parental interactions and a close encounter with a member of the opposite sex (also with negative consequences, meaning it doesn’t glorify it).

Here’s the thing: I don’t see young middle school girls reading this book (or the other YA books) until they’re emotionally ready to read them. Kids tend to “read up.” They like to try on the next step before they get there. So a ten year old will read books about twelve year olds. A young teen will be drawn to books about older teens. But this is a safe way to explore issues they’re not dealing with yet in real-life. At the same time, I think kids will put a book down or gloss over the stuff that doesn’t make sense to them. You can do that with a book. You can close it. You can drift over passages that bore you or disturb you. My daughter read the Harry Potter books long before she saw the movies and when she did see the movies, there were parts she had to shut her eyes to. Images in movies stay in your head forever. If you really want to get on a high horse about brutality and violence, Meghan Cox Gurdon, turn your sights on movies. (And words of advice for parents who are stressing about what their kids are reading: 1. Your kids ARE READING. Congratulations; pat yourself on the back. 2. Read with them. You might get a nice conversation going. I said this once to someone and she scoffed and said, I don’t have time for that. Well, lady, then your kid’s got bigger problems than what kinds of books she’s reading.)

But I’m digressing again. Gurdon mentions Shine by Lauren Myracle as a perfect example of her thesis about dark literature, and this is where she loses me because I know she didn’t read it. It’s true that it starts out with a disturbing scene. A boy is beaten and left for dead, a victim of a vicious hate crime. The main character, Cat, was once best friends with the boy, and the book is about her attempt to make amends for that loss of friendship by trying to figure out who was responsible for the attack. On a simple level the novel is a detective story. Cat goes around the small, economically depressed town in the North Carolina mountains “interviewing” suspects—who happen to be her friends and former friends. But on a deeper level we’re learning about the complexities in relationships, the reality of small town Southern life, the real and disturbing consequences of prejudice. I closed the book feeling hopeful about humanity and I would not hesitate to give it to my thirteen going on fourteen year old daughter.

Maybe what’s bugging me is the implied disrespect some adults have for teens. That teens can’t “handle” certain topics in literature. That teens will copy or be influenced by what they read. That their fragile innocence will be forever shattered. This reminds me of that proposed Tennessee law that would outlaw teachers saying the word gay. As if not saying something makes it disappear. Teens mock that kind of stuff. They see the inherent hypocrisy and idiocy of it and it makes THEM lose respect for adults. The reality is some kids are dealing with what Gurdon calls “dark” issues and reading about these issues makes them feel less alone in the world. Other kids are fairly sheltered. But here’s a news flash: kids are human. They’re going to die. Some day they’re going to have…gasp….sex (hopefully when they’re married and over thirty but…) Reading young adult fiction is the safest way to delve into these topics and go through stuff without actually going through it. Catharsis, Aristotle called it. Or maybe that was Plato.

Which brings me to my review of The Beginning of After by debut author Jennifer Castle (pub co. Harper Teen; release date Sept, 2011) The main character is a typical suburban teen whose family dies in a car crash. BAM and she enters the world of After. How do you cope when something like this happens? How do people treat you? What does the future hold for you? Now hopefully a typical teen reader doesn’t have to deal with this issue, but I’d bet that many of them in a moment of fury might wish for a split second that their family would disappear. I loved this book because there were no gimmicks. The writing wasn’t purposefully lyrical. It was straightforward, only there to tell the story. The characters weren’t cleverly quirky or wise-cracky. They were complex and normal and real. Every single reaction and interaction the main character has is spot on realistic. There’s nothing didactic or preachy. It’s simply this girl’s story of the year after her family's deaths. By the end you feel like you’ve spent the year with her and wish you could keep following her along. Great book. And I have high hopes that this is the beginning of many more great books for teens by Jennifer Castle.

PS. It has a hopeful ending and the cover is not black.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bad Books

Lately I am on a bad book reading roll. In my younger more vulnerable years I felt obligated to finish every book I started. I made it to my college graduation having put down only one book, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. In case you’re curious, Clarissa is what they call an epistolary novel, meaning it’s written entirely in letters. From what I can remember, Clarissa is kidnapped? And her morals are compromised? I guess, she’s date-raped? I don’t know. I stopped reading when I got to Clarissa’s letter where this horrifying moment supposedly occurred. This is how boring the book was: I had to be told by my professor what happened. (I ended up writing my final paper about the other 18th century novels on the class list. Strangely, I don’t remember what those books were. All I remember is that I didn’t read the second half of Clarissa. And truth be told, I felt guilty for years about quitting this book. But apparently not guilty enough to go back and finish it.)

Well, I am here to say that I vow never to feel guilty again.

The past few weeks I’ve given up on several bad books. Some I have literally thrown across the room in disgust. I’ve also plowed through a few borderline bad ones out of sheer morbid curiosity, wondering if they could get any better and feeling despair when they didn’t. I should’ve quit on those too. It’s depressing and terrifying to me (as a would-be writer) that there are so many ways a book can go bad. I heard an editor say once that in order for her to want to publish a book, she has to LOVE it. This stands to reason because she will likely read a manuscript at least a half dozen times (or I suppose, more) before the book is out in the stores. If she’s not head over heels nuts about it at the first reading, why bother?

So when I read a few pages into what’s turning into a bad book, my first thought is: Who the heck LOVED this?

I used to be in a book club with a bunch of writers. They were merciless in their criticism, picking apart things in a book that I hadn’t even noticed. They didn’t seem to enjoy many books, which I thought was a shame. I think of myself as a reader first. Every time I pick up a book I want it to be good. I’m looking for reasons to like it. So I can forgive a lot of things.

Take bad writing. I just put a book down that had the writing maturity level of a Scooby Doo episode. Pretend example: “Thanks so much,” she said, thankfully. There were whole paragraphs devoted to meals eaten, lists of descriptive features of an airplane, and cataloguing of the contents of a bedroom closet. In two paragraphs the author used the word “creamy” three times. Okay. Not good. But I can forgive bad writing if the book is a page-turner. Not to go off on a Twilight tangent, but I liked that series because I couldn’t put it down. I’d never knock that writer because she did something that few writers can do, she hooked the reader (well, millions and millions of readers) from the first page. I don’t know how you do this exactly. Believe me, I wish I did.

“Bad” characters. No matter how cool or interesting or original a plot is, if I don’t care about the main character, then I have a hard time reading on. This doesn’t mean the main character has to be good or even 100 percent likable, but she/he has to have some quality that makes me care. Case in point: I recently quit on a book that had dozens of characters thrown into a potentially tense plot, but I had no reason to turn the pages. I didn’t care about any of them (and there were too many) so I didn’t care what happened.

Forced/overly-planned/false premise. I don’t know if I’ve just read too much, but lately I’m seeing retreads of retreads. Knock-offs of knock-offs. For the love of God, why are there so many books with a girl main character torn between two handsome tortured boys? (Okay, I know the answer: Twilight) But I keep reading this love triangle over and over and I have to wonder: is THIS a real issue for most girls? For ANY girls? Sadly, I never faced this dilemma when I was a teen. Maybe I missed out on that very common problem of two gorgeous boys fighting each other over me. Sigh. At least authors can mix this cliché up a little. A boy with two girls? (okay, no girl wants to read about that) A girl with THREE boys? How about just a girl and a boy who’s more than a one-dimensional tortured stalker with pale skin and a chiseled chest?

Here’s another thing I’m seeing a lot: absurdist, over the top, satirical stories in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy/Monty Python category. Usually a group of one- dimensional characters are caught up in some ridiculous situation. For this to work, at the very least the book has to be funny. But I’ve read several of these books lately that just make me roll my eyes.

And a note to publishers: please stop publishing books about vampires and fallen angels. Also, tread carefully around post-apocalyptic novels. I'm despairing enough about the precarious state of our world.

Okay. I’m getting off my soapbox. Here’s my new philosophy of reading: No more suffering through crappy books. There are too many good books out there and my time, damn it, is precious.

(Here are a few of my favorite books just to remind myself that there is lots of good writing out there:
1. Anything by John Green but especially An Abundance of Katherines. Funny and brilliant and real
2. Anything by Laurie Halse Anderson. The last one I read was called Prom. Don’t judge this book by its cover. Rare book that features working class kids and doesn’t pity/judge them.
3. Anything by Sara Zarr. Best: Sweethearts. Makes me wish there was real YA literature when I was a teen and yearned to know I wasn’t alone.

If anyone has another good title/author to share, I would love to hear it. Please!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Virtual Book Club Time

One of the good things about being in a book club is that you end up reading books you wouldn’t necessarily read if it was your decision. Or you stick with books you might otherwise put down. The funny thing about this virtual book club experiment is that I chose all the books and I still felt some sort of obligation to read them. That’s me, I guess, the good student who must turn in my homework on time even though I’m the one who gave myself the assignment.

My favorite book of the bunch was The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett. I’ve read other books by this author (my favorite is Bel Canto) and I just like her style. From the first page I was hooked. The main character Sabine, who is the assistant from the title, finds out that the magician Parsifal (love those names, by the way) she’s known and loved for years has a secret past. Both characters are more than what they seem at the beginning. Parsifal (with his rough family life) and Sabine, because she is stronger and smarter and more important than she realized. She ends up being an integral part of Parsifal’s family—a catalyst in a way who holds them together much like Parsifal did. The ending was strange, though, and didn’t quite feel like the end. It seemed that Sabine had real feelings for Parsifal’s sister, that maybe they would be lovers. Maybe she’d pull the whole family out of Nebraska and change all their lives, but it ended without a real resolution. Maybe it was meant to read that way—with this sense that anything could happen next, they just had to want it and take it. Since I’m trying to feel hopeful lately, I’m going to assume that the best did happen for those characters and they’re out of cold Nebraska now and lounging somewhere by a pool in California sipping cocktails.

Reading the next two books On Beauty by Zadie Smith and Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins, took a little more work. I think I’ve become spoiled by all of my reading of young adult books. Books for kids get to the point faster; they introduce the characters and conflicts right away. They build toward something and you have a reason to turn the pages. Books for adults take their time. They assume you’re going to stick around while they digress for four pages with a description of a river or the intricacies of college faculty politics. Nothing wrong with this. I’m just not used to it anymore. If the writing is good, if the characters are interesting, I’ll follow along, hoping there’ll be a bigger payoff at the end. Sometimes there is. Other times, well….

On Beauty reminded me of a writing assignment I had once. You come up with a bunch of very different characters and you trap them in a broken down elevator and see what happens. If you set it up right, you’re going to get some great squirm-worthy conflict. The main character in On Beauty is this very liberal art history professor at a small college. He’s presented as kind of a pathetic guy, struggling in his interactions with his African American wife and wildly different kids. His main professional rival is another art history professor with the opposite political views. There’s instant conflict when that guy and his family move into town and everyone in our main character’s family ends up having some kind of relationship with the arrivals. All of the characters have good intentions but it’s just not quite clicking for them. You sympathize with them, though, and really want them to be better than they are. I think the author was trying to make a statement about how we have these deep interior lives and yet can’t help responding to each other superficially. Liked the book, in the end, but it did take a while to get going.

Evidence of Things Unseen was an interesting read for me because I kept coming upon notes scrawled in the margins. (Things like “Who Cares?” and “WHY????” and “UGH!!!” written by my son who had to read the book for a summer reading assignment last year and hated it. Here’s his summation of the book written in helpfully on the last page: “Evidence of Things Unseen: the story of two ordinary, not very likable people whose lives are, on the whole, not interesting and without conflict.”)

Okay, it’s true the book didn’t have much of a central conflict, but I did find the characters likable. This is one of those sweeping books that covers thirty or forty years and is set against the backdrop of a particular historical time, in this case, the beginning of the Atomic Age. The main characters Fos and Opal meet and fall in love after World War I and basically live out their lives together. Other characters come and go. Things happen to them. We get to learn about Knoxville between the wars and how the TVA displaced people to build dams and what it was like to live and work at Oak Ridge before we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Lots of beautiful writing and insights about people and life, but not much of a page turner. I don’t know how you can make a book like this a page turner.

Well, I take that back. I read a sweeping historical novel a few months ago that I couldn’t put down. That one, Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, was about a family of Jewish Hungarian students in the 1930’s. It took a long time to develop the characters and setting too, but there’s an impending sense of doom hanging over everything—because we as readers know what’s going to happen soon to these poor souls. By the time it does, you’re so caught up in their lives and feeling like you really know them that you’re at the edge of your seat, flipping pages and praying everyone makes it through alive.

Well, there you have it. My take on three books I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up and made myself read without a reason. If anyone has a thought about any of these books, I’d love to chat more. One nice ending to this virtual book club experiment is that it got a few people in my town talking about starting a not-virtual one. We meet in August at the local cool wine bistro. Our first book is The Other Boleyn Girl.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


Some of you may be relieved to know that my latest existential—what’s the point? why am I doing this? blah-bi-di-blah-blah—crisis has passed. I didn’t necessarily answer any of these questions, of course. I think the problem just played itself out and/or I got bored with it. Now I’m back to my normal life where I don’t over analyze and instead simply plug along and get things done.

The funny thing is that I have been getting things done even while I was freaking out over said existential crisis. I’ve been reading a lot. I’ve been writing a ton. And I’ve been dealing with the normal details of day to day life—going grocery shopping, cooking meals, doing laundry, carpooling, and coping (alone, because my husband is out of town) with the nasty aftermath of a raccoon infestation in our chimney.

Here’s a brief recap:

On the reading front, I’ve read two of the books from the virtual book club I proposed back in April. The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett and On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Enjoyed both, with a few reservations, but will say no more until June 15th, when any of my fellow virtual book clubbers may want to chime in. It’s not too late to join us. The third book is Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins, which for the record is the book my 17 year old son hated with every fiber of his being. I’m majorly curious to see if our reading tastes coincide. I’ve also read a handful of young adult and middle grade books. Best of the lot: The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, funny and sometimes sad story of a seventh grade boy convinced his teacher is out to get him, set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Check it out.

As far as writing goes, a few months ago I started in on another first draft. For what it’s worth, I’m way past 50,000 words and still not quite sure what the story is. This used to disturb me. Okay, it still does. But I’ve learned over the years that my own curiosity about how a book will turn out is what keeps me writing it. Strange, but true.

And now the fun story about the raccoons. It starts with my cheapskate decision to not buy a chimney cap. The middle part of the story is that a raccoon gave birth to three babies in the chimney. When I realized they were in there, I tried to blast them out by playing rock music (see some Central American dictator?), but the raccoons couldn’t climb up the chimney walls. Enter concerned and daring next-door neighbor, who in another life was likely a wild game hunter. He pulled the baby raccoons out from the fireplace, INSIDE MY HOUSE, one by one, by the tails, and ran them past me, both of us screaming. Okay, I was screaming. He was laughing like a lunatic. The end of the story is that most of our neighborhood ended up on our front lawn watching the drama unfold with cameras and drinks in hand (neighbor used to be a bartender in this life and helpfully served cosmos to everyone). The epilogue of the story is that I had to clean up the mess left behind (too gruesome to really go into here. You’re welcome) and monitor my son scampering across the roof to install a new chimney cap while dodging raccoon….uh…refuse.

Moral of the story: for the love of God, please please please do yourself a favor and fork over the thirty bucks or so for a damn chimney cap. The end.