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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The internet has me thinking...

There is a series of recent articles swirling around in my head right now (not the least of which is this one - no more Oxford comma? I'm a fan of all commas!). I know how they all fit together in my head; I'm just looking for a way to connect them to yours. You know, without the convenience of The Matrix.

The first is a recent discussion on NPR's Talk of the Nation regarding our limitations in media input called "You Can't Possibly Read It All, So Stop Trying." The title basically says it all and I don't know if I can possibly explain to you how this made me feel. As a means of understanding I'll share an anecdote from my childhood, when I was a kid I once asked my mom how long she thought it would take me to read every book in the world. She told me that I couldn't possibly, ever. This hit me pretty hard. Frankly, I'm still getting over it. And I'm still trying to read every book ever, which is probably why I have over 1,000 books at home. But back to the show, one of NPR's culture critics, Linda Holmes, suggests that you must either cull or surrender when it comes to imbibing books (or culture or mass media at large). To cull is to make a broad swipe and say this is not good/relevant/worth my time/whatever and ignore whole sections of artistic output while surrendering is to say this may be great, but I've already got all this other great stuff going on over here so I can't possibly get to it.

I'll call myself an approaching surrenderer (yeah, I just made that up). I'm not a cultural elitist, so I wouldn't say that I judge wide swaths of culture as beneath me and thus cull them. That being said, I can tell the difference between art and entertainment and I think that's a really important distinction that often gets lost in the shuffle. So, what I mean when I say that I am an approaching surrenderer would be that I try to balance the art with the entertainment (perhaps what my more highbrow peers would cull). I don't think being well-read means that you've read all of the Russians or Milton or whatever; it seems to me that being well-read means being widely read. I've read Milton and I've read Christopher Moore, for that I consider myself rather well-read. There's a cultural playing field when it comes to literature that I feel comfortable stepping out on. I know that there are holes in my literary background but I'm striving to fill them. That's just gotta be enough for me because, as my mother told me years ago and Linda Holmes reminded me Monday, I can't read everything.

Now, why am I sharing this with you? Before I go there, let me share the next article. Author Ann Patchett will be opening a bookstore in her hometown, Nashville. Apparently, Nashville doesn't have a bookstore anymore. The indie that had been in town for 30 years has closed, the chains have fled, and Nashville is left with nothing but the internet (and here's hoping a thriving library system but somehow I doubt it; are "thriving library systems" even allowed exist anymore?). I'm hoping you are starting to catch my drift here. This is going to be one of those "bookstores are important!" posts. I heard Patchett's news and I immediately thought of Holmes' discussion.

When you know that the number of books out in the world is really too much to fathom, how do you deal with the question of what to read? For some the answer is simply the recommendations of friends, for others it's the NYT Bestseller's List, but one that I think is really important is the community bookstore (as well as the library; I'm a huge library fan). Sure, a website can tell me what books customers purchased together, but is that all the information I want? What if I want a recommendation that's geared to me and my immediate literary community? That's not going to happen without a conversation. Then there's the limitless possibility. Not all limitations are a bad thing; in her interview Patchett says "I think we’ve got to get back to a 3000-square-foot store and not 30,000." The word typically used for stocking a small bookstore is "curating," as though it were a collection. When you have such a small amount of space a great deal of care goes into how you fill it, trust me on this one. When I consider whether or not to put a book in my store I am taking into consideration whether or not I would recommend it to someone. I don't have enough space (or funds) to dedicate it to books I don't believe in.

That is how I'm helping you to surrender to the vastness of the literary world. I spend most of my time reading books or reading about books because that's my job. I do it so that I can act as a guide through this vastness and in that way you can still have time to, you know, do your job.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: Middle School by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts

I have finally read my first James Patterson novel. I know you're thinking "Patterson? With your delicate sensibilities?" Okay, so maybe you aren't thinking that, but I will tell you that I shy away from Patterson and his ilk. I find detective fiction (as riveting and pageturning as it gets) to be far too violent for my tastes. So now you really are asking, "why Patterson?" It all started with a book in my mailbox.

Little, Brown and Company sent me a copy of a book called "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life," I flipped through it, read a little, and decided to take it home with me. It looked cute and funny enough to pass the evening with. I did not expect to enjoy this middle grade novel as much as I did, nor did I expect it to come from the man I later found to be its author, you guessed it - James Patterson.

"Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life" is Rafe's story, he's an average kid with an average disdain for middle school. Plus he's got a friend who's kind of a bad influence, but you can't help but enjoy him. Rafe and Leo are the kinds of kids whose lives at home are sometimes difficult and they remain mostly obscure in school until they come up with a plan. The plan is to break every rule in the Hills Village Middle School Code of Conduct. Rafe and Leo make a game of breaking all the rules, assigning point values (the more dangerous the rule breaking the higher the points) and lives (only three, which can be lost by neglecting an opportunity to break a rule or not acting swiftly enough). Rafe immediately endears himself to the reader by making a rule of his own: no one is to be hurt by consequence of his rule breaking.

This is a great story with a lot of sweetness, heart, and humor. I would definitely recommend it to reluctant middle grade readers, especially those who like the Wimpy Kid books as it shares with that series the journal-like first person narration with plenty of humor and illustrations. "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life" is a good story with a great character. Rafe is a perfect blend of fragile kindness and young rebellion.

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Friday, June 24, 2011

Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I've started writing this review several times now and the words that come to mind as I begin every intro are "surprising" and "complex." I feel that I can really sum up the whole of Ishiguro's novel with those two words. "Never Let Me Go" opens with the first person narration of Kathy H which is creepy enough since we are told that the setting is "England, late 1990s" and I know no one in England is simply named H. Then Ishiguro begins to drop terms that the reader is unfamiliar with noting that Kathy is a "carer" and she takes care of those who have made "donations." The opening of the novel is not exactly confusing but it is disconcerting, especially for those familiar with Ishiguro's prose. He's famous for being a good writer, and I mean that in the beautiful language sense. So the odd references and the incredibly simplistic language set the reader up for what is going to be a very different reading experience in only the first paragraph.

The novel opens with Kathy reflecting on her life thus far as she prepares to make a big change and step down from the carer position she has held for eleven years. She explains that she wants to talk about her childhood as she has recently reconnected with two close friends from the past. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were incredibly lucky kids. They were students at the elite Hailsham school. While most of the donors Kathy cares for had horrible childhoods in schools they'd rather not discuss, Kathy and her friends lived in a basically care-free world throughout their early lives. Kathy is curious about her memories. She is constantly questioned about them by individuals who did not attend Hailsham and it is as though her reflections have begun to weigh on her.

And that's the thing, as a reader you are following along as Kathy describes life in Hailsham. The Guardians, the Gallery for creative works, the Collections of student possessions ... you hear about all of these things and Kathy describes their importance, but all the while you keep thinking that something else is going on here. There are hints and clues that allude to the fact that not all is right with the world, even in the idyllic Hailsham. This just doesn't sound like 90s England. Then all is illuminated to Kathy and the reader. It makes sense of the entire experience of reading the novel. Everything has been slightly off-kilter for a reason and we learn why when we find out just what it was that was special about Kathy, her friends, and the others like them. But I'm not going to tell you what that is ... I'll let Kazuo Ishiguro tell you in his own time as you read the novel.

So, there's the surprising. Here's the complex - this novel is not really even about that surprise. It's not really about the moral and ethical questions Ishiguro is posing through his characters. "Never Let Me Go" is a coming of age novel. It's the story of Kathy's journey away from and then back to Ruth and Tommy. Following these three very different characters as they navigate similar situations and relate (or fail to relate) to one another is the true goal of the novel. The three of them are close friends but I couldn't help but think that their ties seem to be more along the sibling lines. There was a need for one another that grade school friends don't typically feel. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are like the three sides of a triangle - they can be objects on their own but without the other two they will never be whole. Even with two all they will ever be is intersecting lines, it's the third that makes them who they are as a unit. Finding out what was going on in this world was what kept the pages turning, but reading about the characters relationships with one another was what made the whole book worth it. It's difficult for me to say whether or not I liked "Never Let Me Go." I enjoyed reading it, but I enjoyed thinking about it moreso and sometimes found myself setting the book down to think in depth about a passage.

I haven't had any time to read lately, and I was so far behind that I actually neglected to finish (or really start) "Never Let Me Go" before our bookclub met to discuss it. I was disappointed about it then, but now having read the novel I am so sad about it! I wish I could have really participated in this discussion instead of fielding the questions and making a weird reference to a side character in True Blood. Having read the novel, I can no longer even see how I fit that reference comfortably into the conversation; though thinking about it now I have a feeling we had gone off on a tangent about living forever and I was all "Godrick was such an awesome vampire you guys!" (don't judge me, readers - that show is TV's version of crack). What I'm trying to say here is that I want you to read Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" and then I want you to come talk to me about it.

Friday, June 17, 2011


For those not familiar with Twitter lingo the # before a word or phrase tags it and is called a hashtag. Using a hashtag makes searching for a subject easier. After the publication of Meghan Cox Gurdon's WSJ article someone, I've heard it was YA author Maureen Johnson, created the hashtag #YAsaves. The entirety of the YA community caught on to the tag and twitter was ablaze with stories of the good that comes from YA. This isn't love, kittens, and sparkly vampires good; this is actual "this book saved my life" good. Today, I'm not even going to talk about how all YA is not dark. I covered that earlier. There's plenty of love and kittens and those sparkly Cullens. All that is well and good but today I've got an answer to this question: "Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?"

Darkness in YA literature (darkness in any literature, in any art) is a response to the darkness in society. Let's face it, the daily news is a whole lot more grim than many of the books that Gurdon calls out in her article. She calls these dark and violent books smut (she uses that word - without irony. Who does that?). If it's called smut when it is fiction what are we to call the nonfiction? Lauren Myracle's "Shine" is one of the dark and violent books Gurdon specifically calls out, noting that it opens with a gay teenager being "savagely beaten." So, what are we to call Judy Shepard's book "The Meaning of Matthew" about her life (and the world) after the murder of her son? Or, is it okay for Shepard's book to deal with darkness because it was not aimed at a young audience? Are we to assume that teenagers are so oblivious to the world that they don't know hate crimes happen? I should hope not. Then, isn't it right that they should be able to read a book about it? A book that may help them to understand the world even if it's in response to a completely non-understandable situation.

This is the problem with challenging the acceptance of dark subject matter: if you are not interested in it then it is not meant for you. Maybe your life has been relatively free of darkness; you haven't experienced it and you don't want to read about it so why should you? You don't have to. That's a perfectly valid option. But don't judge those who do. As Sherman Alexie pointed out in his response to Gurdon's article:
When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.
No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.
Life is difficult for just about everyone, especially teenagers. To combat that some people escape into "hyper-violent" dystopias like "The Hunger Games" or maybe they relate to the damaged characters in "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian". That's why I think "abuse, violence and depravity" are a good idea in young adult literature. Not only is it a good idea, but it is absolutely necessary. These books are needed; they are doing actual good. These books are saving lives. And really, do I have to say this, are we actually complaining about kids reading?

I know I stated that I don't really read YA, but one of the YA books that I have read is Laurie Halse Anderson's "Speak". "Speak" is a genuinely good book and an important book, and Laurie Halse Anderson is awesome. For the tenth anniversary of the publication of "Speak" she wrote a poem in honor of the feedback she received from the book, which is about a girl who was raped. The poem is called "Listen" and you can watch her read it below. After you hear this poem you will fully understand just how #YAsaves.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Who is YA?

By now, everyone's heard of the Wall Street Journal article about YA literature with the byline "Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?" At first, I wasn't even going to respond to this article. I am neither a reader nor writer of YA literature. I've started reading more of it since we opened the store two years ago and since I made a friend who blogs about YA books (and forces the best of them into my TBR pile), but I'm not connected to this genre in the way that others are. Now I'm gonna talk about it anyway.

In my opinion, YA literature is for young adults. Isn't that what those two letters, Y.A., stand for? Meghan Cox Gurdon's article refers to a 13 year old girl. As a bookseller, I would not point the mother of a 13 year old kid to the Young Adult section. 13 to me means kid ... it doesn't mean Beverly Cleary kid but it doesn't mean House of Night teen either. It's somewhere in the middle, and where appropriate reading material for one 13 year old kid falls may not be appropriate for another 13 year old kid. In her article Gurdon writes, "kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18." She admits that the genre is broad. So broad that maybe we shouldn't be calling it a genre anymore; YA literature has become literature in which the main characters are younger than 20. It's got as many genres within as Adult literature and is read by 13, 16, 18, 20, 30, and 60 year olds. That opens up a lot of doors.

Guess who's here to help you navigate that multitude of doors: booksellers! librarians! teachers! These are people who live to help young people find not only age appropriate titles but titles that are appropriate to the specific person in question. Personally, I focus on middle grade literature. Send me any kid, give me a few specifics as far as likes and dislikes and I can recommend a book they will love. Parents of reluctant readers have told me that I work some sort of magic. It's not magic - it's my job. I read a lot and I research even more so that I can recommend the right books to the right people. I love creating that perfect coupling; that's why I'm in this business. It's not a fancy algorithm, it's just me being a passionate reader and someone who likes to share my passion. I can guarantee that every good bookseller, librarian, and teacher feels the same way. All the ones I know do.

And let's talk about censorship for a moment. Gurdon claims that those she calls "gatekeepers" operate in contrast to the publishing industry. The publishing industry exists to sell books and "smut" (her word) is what sells best to teens, so her gatekeepers (the same teachers and librarians I was just talking about) must operate to keep that smut out of the hands of precious, corruptible children. Gurdon even includes a colorful quote from an unnamed editor about the sacrifices publishers have to make to satisfy these gatekeepers. I'm sorry, but that's just not the way it works. Yes, eliminating some of the bad language from a book aimed at teens may get a wider acceptance in the school curriculum. But not every book is meant for the school curriculum. Publishers know that. That's why when I have a discussion with my publishing sales rep she says "this is a great title for you to bring into book fairs!" She's read the books; she knows what's best for the diversity of a school and a bookfair where there's less hands-on bookselling. That's not censorship. A class has anywhere between 20 to 30 students. A teacher may have 7 classes. That's over 200 possible students. Of those 200 students some will be comfortable with bad language (or dark subject matter) but many (and their parents) will not. I think it is just as bad to censor a book as it is to force a child or young adult to read something that they are not ready for.

I don't consider teachers or librarians (or booksellers!) to be gatekeepers. That sounds like a negative term. I prefer to think of us as individuals who open doors, not those who seek to keep them closed. My favorite teachers were the ones who taught me on my level. They recommended outside reading. They exposed me to books and authors I wouldn't have found and ideas that challenged me. I was ready for that, but not every kid is and good teachers know it. A friend recently told me that she borrowed a copy of "The Stand" from me in middle school and it terrified her. I loved Stephen King at that age; she didn't. We are different people with different ideas. There's nothing wrong with that. Stephen King shouldn't be published just because I liked him and he shouldn't be banned just because she didn't. King's novels are published because there is a market for them. The market wasn't created. No one forced me to buy that copy of The Stand - I wanted to read it. As long as teens want to read dark books there will be dark books because the market demands it.

I wish that the mom described in Gurdon's article had come to my store instead of the chain she went to. I would have talked to her about her kid. Learned about her interests and recommended a stack of appropriate books that I was enthusiastic about. She wouldn't have been overwhelmed by the amount of darkness in YA literature because once she told me she wasn't interested in dark books I wouldn't have recommended them and she wouldn't have even noticed them.

I had originally wanted to talk about this article and #YAsaves but sometimes my brain goes otherwheres. Maybe tomorrow I'll write about my ideas as to why the market demands such dark subject matter.


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