Thursday, December 11, 2014

Installing Joomla on NearlyFreeSpeech.net

NearlyFreeSpeech.net is a web hosting service popular with more technically minded folks because of its pricing structure and its anti-censorship attitude. It lacks training-wheels features, so setting up a content management system like Joomla is trickier than usual. This post details what I did to get going.

Prerequisites

I already had an account, DNS hosting, and a SQL process set up. I will assume you are to the point where you can create a /home/public/phpinfo.php file, bring up http://somedomain.org/phpinfo.php, and confirm you have a working environment. Then I'll assume you emptied out your /home/public/ directory, including hidden files. (Of course, this also means I assume you're familiar with using an SSH and SCP client to manage things. You can leave FTP turned off, as NearlyFreeSpeech recommends.)

Create Database

In the NFS member console (I'll call this "NFS console" from now on), go to the "mysql" tab then click the DSN you created (let's assume "somedomain.db"). Command line fans can use the info here to connect over the SSH connection and make an empty database. Alternatively, click "Create a database" on this page. I'll assume the new database is called "joombase".

Acquire Joomla

In whichever way you prefer, put the contents of the Joomla download into /home/public/.

Note: You may want to check the requirements of the version of Joomla you download against the Server Type and CGI/SSH Realm as listed on the "sites" tab in NFS console. I used the most recent stable version of Joomla and the current general purpose recommendations on NFS:

Joomla version: 3.3.6
Server Type: [Production] Apache 2.4, PHP 5.5, CGI (Stochastic)
CGI/SSH Realm: Blue

Command Line Stuff

From /home/public/:

> mv htaccess.txt .htaccess
> touch configuration.php

> chgrp -R web *
> find . -type f -exec chmod 664 {} \;
> find . -type d -exec chmod 775 {} \;

At this point, your /home/public/ directory should look similar to this:


Install Time!

Open a web browser to http://somedomain.org/installation

(1) Configuration page: make up your own values here.

(2) Database page:

Database Type: MySQLi
Host Name: somedomain.db (or whatever you named your DSN; don't use 'localhost'!)
Username/Password: (see the same page in NFS console that lists the DSN for MySQL credentials)
Database Name: joombase (or whatever you created earlier)
Table Prefix: (leave it as it is)
Old Database Process: Remove

(3) Overview page: pick your preferred sample data and take a gander at the information below, then proceed.

Hopefully, "Congratulations! Joomla! is now installed." will be showing. Click "Remove installation folder." If you need to remove it manually, go to /home/public/ and run:

> rm -R installation/

Administration Console

Go to http://somedomain.org/administrator/ and use the credentials you created on the Configuration page of the installer.

Click System -> System Information -> Directory Permissions, then confirm that all of the directories have a "Writable" status.

Click System -> Global Configuration -> Server, then confirm that "Enable FTP" is set to "off." I had trouble with installing extensions when this was enabled, even if I wasn't trying to use FTP to install extensions.

Click System -> Control Panel -> Install Extensions, then click "Add 'Install from Web' tab".

Do things with your new site!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Quote of the Day: Conan Doyle on the American West

"In the central portion of the great North American Continent there lies an arid and repulsive desert, which for many a long year served as a barrier against the advance of civilization. From the Sierra Nevada to Nebraska, and from the Yellowstone River in the north to the Colorado upon the south, is a region of desolation and silence. Nor is Nature always in one mood throughout this grim district. It comprises snow-capped and lofty mountains, and dark and gloomy valleys. There are swift-flowing rivers which dash through jagged cañons; and there are enormous plains, which in winter are white with snow, and in summer are grey with the saline alkali dust. They all present however, the common characteristics of barenness, inhospitality, and misery.

There are no inhabitants of this land of despair. A band of Pawnees or of Blackfeet may occasionally traverse it in order to reach other hunting-grounds, but the hardiest of the braves are glad to lose sight of those awsome plains, and to find themselves once more upon the prairies. The coyote skulks among the scrub, the buzzard flaps heavily through the air, and the clumsy grizzly bear lumbers through the dark ravines, and picks up such sustenance as it can amongst the rocks. These are the sole dwellers in the wilderness.

In the whole world there can be no more dreary view than that from the northern slope of the Sierra Blanco. As far as the eye can reach stretches the great flat plainland, all dusted over with patches of alkali, and intersected by clumps of the dwarfish chapparal bushes. On the extreme verge of the horizon lie a long chain of mountain peaks, with their rugged summits flecked with snow. In this great stretch of country there is no sign of life, nor of anything appertaining to life. There is no bird in the steel-blue heaven, no movement upon the dull, grey earth—above all, there is absolute silence. Listen as one may, there is no shadow of a sound in all that mighty wilderness; nothing but silence—complete and heart-subduing silence.

It has been said there is nothing appertaining to life upon the broad plain. That is hardly true. Looking down from the Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathway traced out across the desert, which winds away and is lost in the extreme distance. It is rutted with wheels and trodden down by the feet of many adventurers. Here and there there are scattered white objects which glisten in the sun, and stand out against the dull deposit of alkali. Approach and examine them! They are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and more delicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter to men. For fifteen hundred miles one may trace this ghastly caravan route by these scattered remains of those who had fallen by the wayside.

Looking down on this very scene, there stood upon the fourth of May, eighteen hundred and forty-seven, a solitary traveller[....]"

— from A Study in Scarlet (Part 2, Chapter 1), by Arthur Conan Doyle

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

On Living Life and Accepting Death

  photo by Lari Huttunen (cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

I don’t believe in an afterlife, which means I do believe in death. It shouldn’t be such a strange thing to believe life ends in death, but most people believe or at least hope for more. Death denial is an understandable impulse; sometimes it even extends to family pets, but less often to other animals. We want ourselves and those we care about to carry on. We won’t. They won’t.

Does the reality of death mean life doesn’t matter? No, it means life is the only thing that matters. You get once chance to exist and it’s happening now. Now is the time to love, the time to learn, the time to create, the time to enjoy yourself and choose to either bring comfort or suffering to others.

What about jerks who prosper in life and kind people who live hard lives? Doesn’t the reality of death mean the world is unjust? Yes. That may sound harsh, but how kind is it to tell people that the suffering and deaths of their loved ones is for the best? It can be disheartening to know we can’t make everything better, but what we can do matters all the more because there’s no other help on the way.

Besides, popular alternatives tend to be worse. At least suffering and injustice end along with life. Mainstream Christian and Muslim beliefs promise unending joy for a select few and unending suffering for most people. That’s solving a house fire with an atom bomb.

Why not just have as much pleasure in life as possible and forget about other people? Well, there’s nothing wrong with pleasure. Pleasure is great and it comes in many satisfying forms! As a loved one says: “No time enjoyed is entirely wasted.” As for ignoring the suffering of other people, moral philosophers have tried in vain to find a reason for completely selfish people to care about others. You have to start with caring a little. Thankfully, most of us do. We don’t have to solve whole categories of suffering on our own; we can cooperate with others, working within the limits of our imperfect empathy and our incomplete understanding to make our lives a little better.


“If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.”

— Emily Dickinson

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Quote of the Day: Chomsky on Technology and Power

"As to the idea [...] that there is some technological imperative, some property of advanced technological society that requires centralized power and decision making [...] as far as I can see it's perfect nonsense; I've never seen any argument in favor of it.

It seems to me that modern technology, like the technology of data-processing, or communication, and so on, has precisely the opposite implications. It implies that relevant information and relevant understanding can be brought to everyone quickly. It doesn't have to be concentrated in the hands of a small group of managers who control all knowledge, all information, and all decision-making. So technology, I think, can be liberating, it has the property of being possibly liberating; it's converted, like everything else, like the system of justice, into an instrument of oppression because of the fact that power is badly distributed. I don't think there is anything in modern technology or modern technological society that leads away from decentralization of power, quite the opposite."

— Noam Chomsky, The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature, p. 64

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Quote of the Day: Dewey on the Ideal Librarian

"In our state library school I give each year a course of five lectures on the qualifications of a librarian, and point out under a half-hundred different heads the things we should demand in an ideal librarian; but when we have covered the whole field of scholarship and technical knowledge and training, we must confess that overshadowing all are the qualities of the man. To my thinking, a great librarian must have a clear head, a strong hand, and, above all, a great heart. He must have a head as clear as the master in diplomacy; a hand as strong as he who quells the raging mob or leads great armies on to victory; and a heart as great as he who, to save others, will, if need be, lay down his life. Such will be greatest among librarians; and, when I look into the future, I am inclined to think that most of the men who will achieve this greatness will be women."

- Melvil Dewey's brief article "The Ideal Librarian" quoted in full, The Library Journal 24(1), January 1899, p. 14. [Google Books scan]

Friday, May 16, 2014

Quote of the Day: Jensen on Library Neutrality

"Take a simple example involving the common assumption in the United States that the capitalist economic system is the only rational and morally defensible way to organize an economy. There can be, and often is, much debate about how to structure and administer a capitalist economy, but the system itself is rarely contested, despite centuries of resistance to capitalism around the world and considerable intellectual work underlying that resistance. Now, imagine that a librarian wants to produce a display of the libraryʼs resources on economics to encourage patrons to think about the subject. In many libraries such a display would include no critiques of capitalism, but simply literature that takes capitalism as a given. Such a display that ignores critical material likely would produce no controversy (except perhaps a few complaints from anti-capitalists about the absence of critique, who could easily be dismissed as cranks). It is unlikely that school boards or city councils would take up the issue of the obvious bias against socialism and other non-capitalist economic systems. Consider what might happen if a librarian charged with this task actually produced a display that carefully balanced the amount of material from as many different perspectives as s/he could identify. In many places, that display would be denounced for its 'obvious' socialist politics. Now, imagine that a librarian, observing the way in which Americans are systematically kept from being exposed to anti-capitalist ideas in the schools and mass media, decides to organize materials that compensate for that societal failure by emphasizing critiques of capitalism. That librarian could be guaranteed not only criticism and charges of political bias, but likely disciplinary action.

My point is simply that all of those decisions have a political dimension, which is unavoidable. My concern here is not which one is the right decision, but that the librarian whose display is in line with the conventional wisdom likely will escape criticism while any other choices will raise questions about 'politicizing' what should be a professional decision. Unfortunately, this neutrality game will derail rather than foster serious discussion of the issues."

- from "The Myth of the Neutral Professional" by Robert Jensen in Progressive Librarian Issue #24.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Quote of the Day: Chomsky on Past Thinking

"I approach classical rationalism not really as a historian of science or a historian of philosophy, bur rather from a different point of view of someone who has a certain range of scientific notions and is interested in seeing how at an earlier stage people may have been groping towards these notions, possibly without even realizing what they were groping towards.

So one might say that I'm looking at history not as an antiquarian, who is interested in finding out and giving a precisely accurate account of what the thinking of the seventeenth century wasI don't mean to demean that activity, it's just not minebut rather from the point of view of, let's say, an art lover, who wants to look at the seventeenth century to find in it things that are of particular value, and that obtain part of their value in part because of the perspective with which he approaches them.

And I think that, without objecting to the other approach, my approach is legitimate; that is, I think it is perfectly possible to go back to earlier stages of scientific thinking on the basis of our present understanding, and to perceive how great thinkers were, within the limitations of their time, groping toward concepts and ideas and insights that they themselves could not be clearly aware of."

— Noam Chomsky, The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature, p. 10

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Quote of the Day: Willa Cather on Preferable Legends

"All the years that have passed have not dimmed my memory of that first glorious autumn. The new country lay open before me: there were no fences in those days, and I could choose my own way over the grass uplands, trusting the pony to get me home again. Sometimes I followed the sunflower-bordered roads. Fuchs told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that country by the Mormons; that at the time of the persecution, when they left Missouri and struck out into the wilderness to find a place where they could worship God in their own way, the members of the first exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seed as they went. The next summer, when the long trains of wagons came through with all the women and children, they had the sunflower trail to follow. I believe that botanists do not confirm Jake's story, but insist that the sunflower was native to those plains. Nevertheless, that legend has stuck in my mind, and sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom."

- from My Ántonia, Chapter 4

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Book Trailer for The Scorpio Races

Another school assignment. I used Audacity for sound mixing and VideoMeld for the melding of the videos.

 
Book Trailer for The Scorpio Races from Garren on Vimeo.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Reader Response: Boxers & Saints

Reader response to the Boxers and Saints pair of graphic novels, for my Teen Materials class.

I was excited about the concept of Boxers & Saints: two sides of a conflict told in companion graphic novels. I'm also on a bit of a Chinese history and religion kick lately. What I saw early on in Boxers was great: folk religion shown as a natural part of a young boy's life in his village. I loved Bao's love for the opera and the way he saw the gods in all different aspects of his life. Big laugh out of his encounter with Four-Girl. I was even fine with the introduction of the jerk priest because there have been plenty of those in history. Symbols for non-Chinese speech that Bao found incomprehensible was a fantastic way of seeing things from his viewpoint.

Where things started to turn sour for me as a reader was when the hilltop master revealed his belly "FILLED WITH MYSTIC VISION." Earlier, the gods were explainable in a way similar to the gods in The Illiad: present in the narrative, but it could easily be imagined that they weren't really present in battle. This edge of possibility continues later, but the way the hilltop master imbues Bao with top-notch fighting skill by opening his robe is both a little creepy and unexplainable in mundane terms. I like many genres, but I don't like genre shifts. Still, I could have dealt with a slipping in this aspect of Boxers without much trouble.

Then the train. As I recall, this is where it became clear that Bao was carrying out a holocaust of foreigners and foreign-influenced Chinese. Bao does question this in a weak way at first. That's what the conflict between Bao and the black robed god is supposed to represent, but Bao doesn't really fight it. The "secondary devils" disgust him and he orders all of the men slain, though he spares the women and children at first. The black-robed god lectures him for showing misplaced mercy, and I was reminded of the Jewish God's command to kill all of the Amalekite men, women, and children. Bao's response? Does he tell off this god? Not really. At Bao's next major test of faith, he asks the slanderer, Lu Pai, to recite lies about the Christians so that he can psych himself up to burn a church full of them alive. Which Bao does. Later, he doesn't need any help to murder Four-Girl.

Boxers bothered me so much that I didn't want to continue with Saints. It bothered me because the style of storytelling celebrated the holocaust. Bao rebelled against his god, but only to become his own new god of fire and death. It's left completely up to the reader to be disgusted by everything that happens here, and I certainly was.

When I did pick up Saints, it didn't help my impression. I did enjoy the raccoon spirit bits, but after that Four-Girl is pretty much useless as a second protagonist in the main story. Her ultimate purpose in life was to teach Bao fragments of the prayer she gave before he murdered her in the ally. Bao's story continues with him waking up in a more-or-less literal Gehenna, which he escapes by passing himself off as a Christian convert with the prayer fragments. The end.

There are flickers of opposition to the main thread of intolerance and murder. Four-Girl's latter story can be seen as a yielding Yin to Bao's fiery Yang. Then there's Mei-wen and the story she tells in the library of the goddess of compassion. In that story, the burning of a place of worship is averted by the goddess. She is slain and travels to the underworld, but is sent back to bring healing and compassion to the world with "one thousand eyes to look for suffering and one thousand hands to relieve it." The same symbolism, incidentally, is shown in the illustrations of Jesus in Saints. Mei-wen is a devotee of this goddess, and even puts the goddess's sign on her own hands while she heals nationalists and Chinese Christians alike in her clinic. Bao breaks his promise and burns down the library, resulting in Mei-wen's own death. But it's not Mei-wen or Four-Girl who come back from a fiery underworld: Bao is the one who comes back from the ditch of burning bodies and there's no indication that these women he killed have redeemed him. He simply goes home in defeat.

So my basic complaint is that the route of balanced strength and compassion shown by Mei-wen in her roles as fighter and healer are portrayed as a nice story, but something with no real effect in a world ruled by the likes of Bao's unbridled violence.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Reader Response: The House of the Scorpion

Reader response to The House of the Scorpion for my Teen Lit class.

*spoilers below*

The House of the Scorpion was refreshing after a string of eight(!) books and graphic novels in the last three weeks that I didn't enjoy. (Yes, I'm doing a lot more than assigned reading lately.)

I'm reminded of The Giver in the positive sense that Matt comes into a world that seems wonderful and loving at first, but really is a generations-long horror. Coming of age is coming to see this reality. In both stories, a part of future North America has been set aside from the larger world and is living in its own well-ordered bubble, at great human cost. It's much easier to see the route from here to Matt's world than Jonas' world, because it comes from a devilish solution to the concerns about drugs and illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States. I greatly appreciated the timing of the information dump for the backstory: far enough along for me to care about this information and full enough not to leave me feeling teased.

The Hispanic cultural setting was also a refreshing change from science fiction that is too often limited to non-Hispanic whites speaking English in spaaaaace...or other future scenarios. Catholic religion and regional superstitions (e.g. el chupacabra and la llorona) are blended in the realistic way of today and not suddenly missing just because some antigrav tech is available. I was quite happy to see St. Francis winning yet another convert in Maria. I don't know if Farmer is trying to evangelize in this book, but if she is she certainly picked one of the most appealing, positive ways to do it. If she's not, then she did a good job of showing the power of inspiration anyway.

I also appreciated the approach to cloning. I want today's youth to realize that clones are nothing but identical twins born out of time. They aren't "the same person" or even all that identical. There will be similarities and tendencies, but twins can go in trajectories as different as those of El Patrón and Matteo. What made the difference? The kindness he was shown by Celia, Tam Lin, and Maria. And, perhaps, seeing how empty life had become for El Patrón. 

Tam Lin was an especially engaging character because he showed that someone can be barely literate, but wise...and guilty but compassionate. 

My only complaint is that the last fifth of the book felt rushed. When Matt collapsed next to the river, it's almost like he died from the fumes and in his last moments hallucinated things going so easily right until the end of the book. Suddenly someone shows up with an inhaler? And medical help for his friend? And a ride directly to the convent? And Maria's mother walks in and pulls off a triumphant "gotcha" to take down the orphan abusers with the full weight of civil government? And Matt returns to find no opposition at all to becoming the internationally-recognized ruler of a sovereign nation? Are you KIDDING ME? It's more likely that Nancy Farmer rushed the rest of the story and meant it to be taken literally, especially since there is a sequel that picks up from here. But it's such a downshift in literary quality that I would almost prefer it were fake, even though I despise those kinds of endings too. 

I'm still recommending this to friends on the strength of everything up to the bone pit at least. I'm tempted to say it would have been better to end the story when Matt emerged, but I like the way Matt was victorious in that segment of the story by inspiring other boys to stand up for themselves and break out of their imprisonment on their own initiative.

I look forward to reading more from Nancy Farmer!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Reader Response: Thirteen Reasons Why (Pt. 2)

Continued reader response to Thirteen Reasons Why for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers ** 

Cassette 3: Side A

Courtney is the girl who posed with Hannah for the hidden photographer. Courtney's tape is next and she's, um, too nice? Well, seemingly nice. And Hannah just knew something was wrong between them when Courtney didn't say "good-bye" after a brief chat at school the next day.
"Did you say good-bye on any other day? No, not often. But after the previous night, this time it felt intentional."
Someone acts normally. How suspicious!
"Your smile, your teeth...flawless. [...] Every time our eyes caught each other in a crowded hall and I watched your gaze jump to someone else, I lost a little more respect for you. And sometimes I wondered how many people in that one hallway felt the same."
Does Hannah expect Courtney to share bouts of shared admiration every time they happen to see each other at school? These are creepy, obsessive expectations. Courtney does invite Hannah to a party and Hannah is suspicious of that.
"I asked why you wanted to hang out after ignoring me for so long. But of course, you denied ignoring me at all. You said I must have misread things."
Going to have to agree with Courtney over the paranoid narrator here. And it keeps going. Courtney has the audacity to say "good-bye" at another time, and this is deeply meaningful! The only thing Courtney supposedly does is say something about Hannah having "things" in her dresser drawers, which an unnamed boy supposedly overhears and uses as an excuse to come over and hit on Hannah. Nevermind the possibility that the unnamed boy could have been the photographer or someone who heard rumors from the photographer. Or even that it was a coincidence based on earlier rumors.

Cassette 3: Side B

Hannah freaks out about people thinking she and Courtney are friends because of the photo Hannah insisted she and Courtney take together at the party. The picture where Hannah pretended she was having the time of her life. But now people don't understand the real Hannah. Whose fault is that?
"I wanted people to trust me, despite anything they'd heard. And more than that, I wanted them to know me. Not the stuff they thought they knew about me. No, the real me. I wanted them to get past the rumors. To see beyond the relationships I once had, or maybe still had but that they didn't agree with."
This is probably the core expression in this book of what Hannah wanted out of life that she didn't feel she was ever going to get. I can understand wanting to be understood. I just don't think Hannah's expectations are reasonable, considering how she pretends to be what she's not, fails to communicate with people who might have genuinely trying to be friends, and doesn't do anything substantial to show her authentic self. People should just know the same way she just knows things. Even this tape project leaves me with very little idea who she is beneath the social anxiety. I feel bad for her on account of the sexual harassment from boys who have labeled her a "slut" and think they are entitled to touch her and photograph her without permission (as happens again in this chapter), but being a victim is not who a person is.

I can't tell if Jay Asher intended for Hannah to be such a hollow character or if he failed to create the character he wanted.

Cassette 4: Side A

This side was about a boy who stole the anonymous encouragement notes out of Hannah's container in the Peer Communication classroom. Why? It's unclear. Hannah shouted "Why?" at him across a crowded hallway and didn't ask again. Certainly this boy is going to feel awful about someone committing suicide after he was literally stealing her encouragements, but my suspension of disbelief is stretched thin by this. It makes more sense to me that Jay Asher thought it would be nicely symbolic to have someone "literally stealing her encouragements" and built this part of the story around achieving that goal without show how the the characters' motivations could take the plot there in a natural way.

Also in this chapter: Hannah blames the teaching staff for failing to notice her "sudden change in appearance" as a sign of suicide even though they knew someone had written an anonymous note that they were considering suicide. What was the change? A new haircut three weeks prior. At least Hannah is consistent in her expectation that everyone be able to see subtle signs and understand precise truths.

Cassette 4: Side B

A student editor of an anonymized, found notes publication prints Hannah's poem about not being noticed by a boy, her mother not understanding her, and no one seeing her soul. It ends up being discussed in English class and no one understands it. I find this hard to believe because it's one of the most clear-in-meaning poems I've seen. But, in this book's world, no one gets it and that's fitting because it's a poem about people not getting it.

It reminded me of what a friend said about how a very personal song getting put out on the Internet and not being understood could be an exposed, demeaning situation. The same friend wants very much to be understood, so I wonder if she would make better sense of Hannah's character than I've been able to manage.

Cassette 5: Side A

Narrator Clay's tape, finally. What did he do wrong? Nothing. He was as kind and genuine and interested in getting to know the real Hannah as she ever wanted. But she didn't feel worthy of him so she pushed him away.

Hannah had internalized the devaluing others placed on her. I have (had?) another friend with depression who told me frequently that I was too good for her and pushed me away. She hated it when I worried and couldn't stand it when I was kind. I can identify with Clay in this chapter, especially since I still worry about this friend's health. How can a person get through to someone who pushes away even when she doesn't have to?

Cassette 5: Side B

After Clay leaves the party, Hannah overhears two boys talking uncertainly about raping a blacked-out girl on the bed, then continues to stay quiet just out of sight while one of them does it:
"That my mind was in a meltdown is no excuse. I have no excuse. I could have stopped itend of story. But to stop it, I felt like I'd have to stop the entire world from spinning. Like things had been out of control for so long that whatever I did hardly mattered anymore.
And I couldn't stand all the emotions anymore. I wanted the world to stop . . . to end."
How would Hannah judge anyone else who literally sat by and said nothing?

Cassette 6: Side A

Some narrative book-ending here as I find that Hannah was with the drunk girl who knocked over the stop sign that led to the traffic accident that Clay encountered and did his best to help with (and has been flashing back to this entire book, unmentioned by me in these notes).

Hannah blames herself for not immediately calling the police to report the downed sign, despite not having a cell phone or the time to get to another phone (she wisely got out of the car with the drunk driver). Nor was there time for the police to do something about the sign before the accident. The only thing she could have realistically done to stop the accident would have been to hold the Stop sign up herself and wait for someone else to come along and then alert the authorities. So why be consumed with guilt over failing to stop a low probability traffic accident, but not about failing to say anything reveal her presence in the room as would have been sufficient to prevent a rape?

Cassette 6: Side B

Hannah accepts an invitation to share a hot tub with a particularly vile snake, so that he'll touch her and she'll feel like she deserves her slutty reputation, and so it will be easier to kill herself.

I don't like this book.

Cassette 7: Side B to the End

Hannah claims she is giving herself one last chance at life by seeing a school counselor, but it's clear she already had her mind made up as she refuses to elaborate and then runs out, certain no one cares. That's pretty much the end of this book, though there's a bit about Clay feeling sad at school with Hannah gone.

I feel like the best this book can achieve is to help someone who is thinking about suicide to be critical of Hannah's way of dealing with everything. To realize it might just feel like no one cares even though they do, or they would.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Reader Response: Thirteen Reasons Why (Pt. 1)

A free-form reader response to Thirteen Reasons Why for my Teen Materials class. This is for "censored novels" week.

** Spoilers ** 

Untitled Intro

Strong opening scene showing the effect of Hannah's chain mailed (old style, not email) package on one unnamed boy somewhere in the middle of the list as he sends it off to the next person. This premise doesn't seem all that realistic because of the need for twelve people to comply. I can only assume they all feel guilty enough to do it but not guilty enough to be thrown into uselessness in following directions?

One thing I'm seriously digging about this book is that it's not speculative or travel fiction, but...it has a map! And the post office + school mentioned in the intro are on the map! Since it's a town map and the postal service figures strongly into this story, I had a flashback to an old Infocom text adventure game which had a town map: Wishbringer (that was one vicious poodle).

Yesterday: One Hour After School

Story-by-cassette-tape reminds me of the video game Gone Home, which is about an older teen coming home to her parents' new house, finding it apparently empty, and gathering the story by listening to her little sister's recordings found scattered around in the atmospheric setting. That was set in the 80s, but Clay's thoughts about tapes being obsolete these days hints that it may be a contemporary story using the old tech.

Cassette 1: Side A

Agh! The "chapters" are named in the format above: Cassettes 1-7, sides A and B. But here is how the tapes are described:
"Each tape has a dark blue number painted in the upper right-hand corner, possibly with nail polish. Each side has its own number. One and two on the first tape, three and four on the next, five and six, and so on. The last tape has a thirteen on one side, but nothing on the back."
This is going to bother me. It would have been so easy to have the text description and the chapter divisions line up. On the bright side, having the old style tape player controls appear as center-aligned section breaks in the text when pressed in the narrative is visually neat-o.

Less impressed with the internal monologue in response to hearing the first part of the first tape. "What? No!" is so bland it hurts. "Hitting Play that first time was easy. A piece of cake. [...] But this time, it's one of the most frightening things I've ever done." Yes, we readers know it was easy. We saw that. Now would be a good time to show us the difficulty. Asher did such a good job of depicting difficulty in the intro. Where did that author go?

Oh. Interesting. There's a threat that if the instructions aren't followed by all of the recipients, the recordings will be released publicly. That takes care of my psychological realism quibble. Well done.

I'm finding Hannah annoying. Not in a specific way. Just in the way that she's probably a very accurate portrayal of a teen girl. She's so very oriented toward "signs" that she and the first boy she kissed were meant to be.

So...will this book be about slut shaming then? Hannah's first story is about kissing Justin twice in a not-very-sexual way, but later hearing rumors that they had done a lot more in the park that night? Is she even sure he's the one who expanded the rumors beyond the kiss?

I didn't expect the consequence of tape listeners not being sure who else has heard the tapes until they find out (presumably at the end of the last tape) who is next on the list. I appreciated the apprehension Clay felt around Tony for this reason.

Cassette 1: Side B
"So to back up a bit, this tape isn't about why you did what you did, Alex. It's about the repercussions to me. It's about those things you didn't plan--things you couldn't plan."
I'm thinking that, more generally, this book is going to be about how small inconsiderations can be a part of a larger pattern of social exclusion. I'm not on Hannah's side when it comes to thinking it's justified for her to put these people through as much anxiety as she is inflicting. The tapes are an order of magnitude worse than the things she's complaining about so far, even if those are legitimate complaints in themselves.

There's a nice, explicit lesson on how bad it is for men to touch women without permission and then assert control by making her feel like she's being rude for responding negatively. Glad to have teens read that.

Cassette 2: Side A

Hannah's sort-of friend, Jessica, believes rumors about Hannah having a relationship with a guy. Hannah denies it, but she seemed much more upset about Jessica thinking it could possibly be true than being clear about it not being true. I can understand how Jessica in her state of mind might have heard ambiguity or even a guarded admission before hitting Hannah.

I don't get why it was such a crime for Jessica to not be sure Hannah wouldn't be sneaking around with a boy. These things happen. It wouldn't be a vile insult unless Hannah herself buys into the notion that teen girls who go past chaste kisses are terrible human beings. Maybe she does. Maybe that's why she kills herself when such rumors develop.

Cassette 2: Side B

Hannah figured out that someone is taking pictures of her from outside of her bedroom window. To "catch" the photographer, she asks another girl to come over. They talk as if Hannah is out having regular sexcapades, and put on a sexy show themselves...to the sound of audible shutter clicks. When they throw back the curtains, neither of them identifies the boy, but Hannah "knows" who it is because the next day she went around asking everyone where they were last night and one of them answered "Nowhere" and she just felt certain.

Remember, this is the Hannah who is pissed off at false rumors of her promiscuity...doing everything she could to increase those rumors. She probably misidentified the photographer too, which would mean she sent the tape and their accompanying threat to the wrong boy.

It's becoming hard not to read this as a sympathetic villain's origin story.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Reader Response: Airborn

A free-form reader response to Airborn by Kenneth Oppel for my Teen Materials class. This was the secondary Fantasy title, which I picked from a small list.

** spoilers **

Pre-Reading

I picked this because I liked the cover art and because of the Printz Honor label. Hadn't heard of the author previously.

Post-Reading

Like everyone else in my class, I question categorizing this as "fantasy" as opposed to "science fiction." There are three major speculative elements:

* The creatures. These are explained as possible results of regular ol' biological evolution on Earth. Between real life bats and (once) pterodactyls, it sounds like a reasonable enough possibility given our current understanding of science.

* The gas. Hydrium is supposedly lighter than Hydrogen and doesn't go boom, and it's naturally occurring! Convenient, but it's such an egregious error Chemistry-wise. Hydrogen is as simple and light as it gets in our universe. This called "science fantasy" where something is given a sciency-sounding explanation that doesn't work, but that's also any faster than light travel conceit in plenty of other stories. Science Fiction isn't limited to Hard SF.

* The alternative history. This is a result of the discovery of Hydrium, supposedly. I kept thinking the timeline divergence had to come earlier than that because of place names and such, but why be so picky?

Overall, I would label this Science Fiction, not Fantasy. I suspect my teacher's evil plan was to get us to think about the distinction for a bit.

As for the story itself, I had the hardest time getting into it. There were wonderful passages here and there: the food, the airship architecture, the wildlife (jumpy snake!), and some pleasant romantic crush stuff. I had to put the book down, laugh, pick it back up, and copy out this line for my Facebook feed:

"I liked watching her hands as she wrote, the way her fingers held the pencil. She had lovely long fingers, but they looked strong too. Probably got lots of exercise turning the pages of books." 

Maybe it's just me, but well-toned reader's fingers are a plus. 

The problem is that this book is such a corners-rounded perfect example of How Adventure Stories Work. Every strength and every item and every character focused on becomes relevant later on when the heightened action kicks in. The upper-class scholar and lower-class workman relationship. The moral black and white. The climactic fight on top of the airship. The creature just happening to show up to help with that fight despite Matt only threatening it previously. 

It was so sappy and simple. A perfectly fresh specimen for young readers. Shallow juvenile-only stuff for readers like me. I'm sure it would make a great movie because of the visual opportunities and because most adventure movie plots are precisely this (non)detailed anyway.

I don't understand how it was a Printz Honor book since that award is for "literary excellence" for young adults. It has polish for younger teens, and it might count as literary excellence for middle grade, but something doesn't seem matched up quite right here. 

In short: I'll be recommending this to kids, but won't be reading the sequels myself.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Reader Response: The Graveyard Book

A free-form reader response to The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman for my Teen Materials class. This was the Fantasy title required for the whole class. I'm writing this response a day after finishing the whole book, instead of during the read.

** spoilers **

Pre-Reading

I hadn't heard about this title before seeing the list of required reading for the semester, but I had read his Sandman comic series, his novels American Gods and Good Omens, watched the film versions of Coraline and MirrorMask, and I could swear there was at least one more thing I can't recall. Would recognize the art if I saw it.

Post-Pre-Reading

As usual with Gaiman, it's a pleasure to read/view but never quite to the point of a personal favorite. (Please don't stone me, Gaiman fanatic friends!)

I enjoyed the illustrations at the beginning of chapters more than I should admit in public. Not the specific illustrator's style, but just having something more than text is, wow! I really need to demand more from my adult reading. I had to show everyone around me the first two-page spread dedicated to the first line.

I also enjoyed the mix of historical appreciation and modernity. I laughed quite a lot at Scarlett's question, "If you wanted to find out about a  murder, where would you look? I already tried the Internet." Especially when it was followed up by a strong pitch for using public libraries for research. Gaiman is such an effective library advocate.

But the one thing that really stood out go me about The Graveyard Book is subtle. Readers know right away when characters are ghosts, but there are several other characters which are not standard humans and they're not ghosts. The remarkable thing is that Gaiman introduces them as individual people long before he introduces them as a this or as a that. It's a wonderful, subliminal way of showing young readers that who someone is is more important than what someone is. And not-a-shocking-spoiler: the character described as "the man Jack" is an interesting subversion of this trend. This character who seems to be explicitly identified by what he is, is not actually what's advertised.

Of secondary interest for me, Bod's journey from childhood to becoming a man was satisfying. Almost. I felt let down by the climax of the story. If I had been Gaiman's editor, I would have asked him to throw out that chapter and try something totally different. Your mileage may vary.

** You may want to stop here and finish reading after finishing the book yourself. **

The last thing I want to mention is that the book doesn't wrap up everything neatly. At one point in Bod's hero's journey, he is told to find his name. This never explicitly happens. But if you think about it, what's important is the not the name Bod's parents gave him but the name he earns as a toddler and by his coming of age heroism: The Man Nobody Owens. Say it out loud.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Reader Response: Eleanor & Park Pt. 5

Continued free-form reader response to Eleanor & Park for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

*shrug* Nice stuff.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Lubby dubby stuff.

Chapter Thirty

"But he kept finding new pockets of shallow inside himself." It happens.

Chapter Thirty-One

It's hard to apologize when someone won't talk to you. I can't tell if Park realizes all of what he did.

Chapter Thirty-Two

Park's mother just gained some depth as a character. When she saw Eleanor with her siblings, she was able to sympathize with someone in a large, poor family and is finally able to apologize honestly.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Christmas contrasts.

Chapter Thirty-Four

Sorry, less to say in this part of the book.

Chapter Thirty-Five

How dare Eleanor not wear make-up! How dare Park wear make-up! This book is pretty much Feminism 101 by example. Park's parents are definitely complex characters that I'm liking and disliking in rapid succession. Realistic!

Chapter Thirty-Six

Oh, Park wasn't wearing make-up just to show solidarity with Eleanor. This is one of those things he wanted to do but felt he couldn't do. Eleanor's disregard for social rules was the big thing that captured Park's attention in the first place.

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Park's mom is enjoying having a teen girl around to experiment on, hah!

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Stasis.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Along with Park, I didn't realize Eleanor fell over because she was so self-conscious about her weight when Park touched her, as if he might like the way she looks but wouldn't like the way she feels.

Chapter Forty

When an adult at the school finally notices the bullying, "You've got to stop letting them get to you, you know. [...] You just encourage them."

This is known as: blaming the victim. It's one thing for Eleanor's mom to be psychologically trapped by her husband. Kids can't even leave the situation, whether it's at home or at school.

Chapter Forty-One

Well, that's an okay reaction for Park to have to Eleanor in fewer clothes.

Chapter Forty-Two
"When he heard the doorbell, he jerked up to answer it before he was awake. [...]
He was sure it was Eleanor. He opened the door without checking."
I'm so worried!

*continues*

Oh. Whew. "Tina would be so pissed." Indeed! (Though I doubt she's the secret bully.)

Chapter Forty-Three

A chapter of two mothers. I'm more sympathetic with both by the end. I would still only want to be around Park's mom.

Chapter Forty-Four

I would be okay not hearing that "Down, Down, Baby" song in my head again, thanks.

Chapter Forty-Five

Still strange for me to read about a book taking place in Omaha. This isn't allowed!

Smiled at Eleanor's thought about "an Erica Jong novel." Been thinking of reading one. Too much syncronicity: guess I'd better now.

Chapter Forty-Six

Oh. I saw the storm coming, but I didn't see that coming.

I'm glad Eleanor and Park didn't have intercourse immediately before this, because then it would feel too much like every movie where "going all the way" is followed by narrative punishment. Here, traveling all around downtown Omaha and being seen at some point is what triggered it.

Chapter Forty-Seven to Forty-Nine

Is the coping-with-bullying message of this book: kids can be awful, but adults can be much, much worse? That is was brought all of the teens together. And, so far, without including any adults despite how effective it would be legally-or-otherwise to tell Park's parents.

Chapter Fifty

Well of course Park had better do the driving rather than let her hitchhike. Eleanor is still too shy about demanding safe conditions for herself.

Chapter Fifty-One

I know. I know. Novel conventions. But did Park really have to demonstrate that he knew how to drive stick when it was important for Eleanor? I'm sure the other car was needed by Park's family while he was gone, so that's a decent in-story explanation. Park's dad treating him like an adult was probably why Park didn't have trouble this time, which is a decent thematic explanation. Ok, nevermind, it's slightly cheesy but fine.

Chapter Fifty-Two to the End

I've tried, but I can't sympathize with Eleanor cutting off communication because she didn't want her relationship to be less with Park than it was at the running-away climax. That's just the sort of valuing of "being in love" over caring about someone concrete that Eleanor is supposed to detest.

There was no resolution with the abusive home. Eleanor ran off because some adults (including Richie, probably) allowed it. But what about her siblings? What about her mother? Park deciding not to beat Richie to death is still letting him continue.

There were also no answers to bullying, except coming together against adults. In fact, with all of the Watchmen references, I have to wonder if that is the intended answer: that the only way to resolve conflict is to unite against an external foe.

Eleanor & Park is a great book in terms of depicting bad, common situations, but I feel like the solutions aren't commonly applicable. The best I can hope for is that teens read it and have more compassion for their peers.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Reader Response: Eleanor & Park Pt. 4

Continued free-form reader response to Eleanor & Park for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Chapter Twenty-One

Park is anxious about his mother meeting Eleanor. Besides her mother placing great importance on finely-tuned femme clothes, hair, and nails, which Eleanor doesn't fit...
"And it wasn't just the clothes. It was her.
Eleanor wasn't..nice.
She was good. She was honorable. She was honest. She would definitely help an old lady across the street. But nobodynot even the old ladywould ever say, Have you met that Eleanor Douglas? What a nice girl.
Park's mom liked nice. She loved nice. She liked smiling and small talk and eye contact...All things Eleanor sucked at.
When Park's mom is about to walk in, he asks Eleanor to smile. Which she does, and it's unnatural. Instead of telling her that it's because of his mother's expectations, Park says she looks nice when she smiles and Eleanor responds that it would be better if he thought she looked nice when she wasn't smiling.

Meanwhile, of course, Park gets by at home and at school precisely because he isn't "nice" and he doesn't smile. He's cool and intimidating and properly manly because of it. This chapter raises awareness of several expectations put on girls and not boys. I was reminded of Catherine Newman's New York Times article: I Do Not Want My Daughters to Be 'Nice'. It would be a perfect pairing for classroom discussion. I'll be using it, anyway.

Kudos to Eleanor for realizing she wasn't being welcomed properly, even by Park, and refusing to put up with that.

Chapter Twenty-Two

More challenging of gender codes with Eleanor telling Park she didn't want him to fight bullies for her if it was really about her, and not about him. The bully backs off, not from the fight, but from Park performing what Steve recognizes as a claim on Eleanor as Park's possession. At least Park doesn't think of it that way. He tells Steve that it shouldn't matter if Eleanor is his girlfriend or not, that no one deserves to be bullied like that.

More depressing things about Eleanor's mom having to quietly steal money from her husband to pay for necessities for her children, risking a beating and still not being able to provide enough. There's no explicit link except juxtaposition, but I wonder if it was an intentional pairing. Both themes of this chapter were about society respecting the space of male ownership. Whether it's about abusing one's woman (negative but tolerated) or shielding one's woman from outside abuse (seemingly positive), it's a situation that makes women vulnerable to "acceptable" abuse whether single or not.

Chapter Twenty-Three

I like Park's dad. I think I have him figured out: he doesn't understand kids, but he's good at adults. When Park is failing to drive stick, his dad is clueless that his own frustration is bad for Park's ability to learn from him. When Park is standing up to his peers and his mother for liking a "weird" girl, Park's dad respects him for that and gives him space. Rowell explains this indirectly in a great way: Park visits his grandparents and is looking at pictures of his parents from the Korean War and hearing about their relationship at the same time his dad is talking his mom down in private. The reader doesn't realize this until the next scene, and even then it might not be put together consciously. Rowell is pretty good at this writing thing.

Chapter Twenty-Four

I'm becoming curious whether this book will offer any practical advice to kids in abusive homes like Eleanor's. Or on bullying, for that matter.

I feel like there's nothing in our society between allowing abusers to walk all over everyone, and our action movie portrayals of extreme physical violence. Those were the options shown earlier in this book when it was either walk away or use years of martial arts training...which, by the way, was shown to be an effective way of gaining respect. Can you now guess why I don't attribute school shootings to video games or the removal of compulsory religious rites from public schools?

Chapter Twenty-Five

Halfway through the book, and I finally know Eleanor's mom is named "Sabrina." I also know what got Eleanor thrown out of the house. No, Eleanor, you weren't asking for it. You just forgot to be a slave for a few minutes.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Good use of chapter divisions.

Chapter Twenty-Seven
"He almost told her all the things his mom had said about her.
It seemed like it was wrong to keep secrets from Eleanor.
But it seemed like it would be more wrong to share that kind of secret."
Park is a faster learner than I am.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Reader Response: Eleanor & Park Pt. 3

Continued free-form reader response to Eleanor & Park for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Chapter Thirteen

Now that they're noticing each other as people, they're starting to notice each other as people with attractive elements. Eleanor is right about Cyclops being a boring X-Man.

I appreciated the way Rowell is continuing to show, not tell, e.g. Park emptying batteries from everything he can and asking for batteries for Christmas to make sure Eleanor can keep listening to his tapes.

Chapter Fourteen

I'm okay with feminist critiques of the X-Men in my teen romance novels.

Chapter Fifteen

This is the most exciting and emotionally complex hand holding I've read in a book.

Chapter Sixteen

I'm starting to think that one of the most valuable things about young adult literature is the opportunity to see other parenting styles, or maybe even a parenting style a reader has seen in person but might be able to understand better from a step back. In this chapter, Park talks more about always feeling like a failure around his dad. He can't learn any new skills when his dad is trying to teach him. And, as readers, we see why: Park's dad thinks he's being helpful, but he becomes frustrated to the point of pounding things with his fist when his son isn't doing something right. Of course he can't learn like that.

Chapter Seventeen

Hoping the obvious thing where Park does something that makes it look like he's interested in someone else, and Eleanor notices and feels crushed, but finally finds out Park really does like her after...doesn't happen.

Chapter Eighteen

I appreciate how Park is affected by considerations of his own social status going down from associating with Eleanor, and how he feels bad about worrying.

Chapter Nineteen

Before there was email to have close conversations that are easier to have with some distance, there were land line phones! This was a satisfying chapter because I don't enjoy lengthy suspense of people not telling each other how they feel out loud.

Chapter Twenty

A major theme in this book is that kids either don't know when they're in an abusive and neglectful situation, or don't feel like they can say a single thing about it to outside authorities out of fear of making it worse. In this chapter, Eleanor's stepfather is driving kids around in his half-broken convertible, drunk, and no one is wearing seat-belts. But he's the "head of the household" so everything is about what he wants.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Reader Response: Eleanor & Park Pt. 2

Continued free-form reader response to Eleanor & Park for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Chapter Three

Eleanor is neither shy nor social. She's distant, like she's been through something and no longer gives a crap about others.

Chapter Four

I re-read the first couple of pages about five times. I'm still confused. I mean, it's nice that Eleanor didn't conveniently think her family's history for the reader, but this is too much dropped-in-the-middle unless Rowell's goal was to make readers confused. I think the implication is that Eleanor ran away from home for a year or two when her mother started dating Richie and the previous night was her first night back home, to a much smaller home than she was used to.

Chapter Five

Was the English teacher really commenting on Eleanor's absence with his overbearing mention that she could pick "A Dream Deferred" as her poem to memorize? Feeling so in medias res here.

Chapter Six

No, this is a new school for Eleanor. Eleanor didn't run away, she was kicked out by her mom's boyfriend, as a minor. I don't know why yet, but now I know why she hates Richie: he beats her mom. By the time she came back, the other kids are calling him "dad." No wonder she's angry.

Chapter Seven

In a John Green book, the protagonists would be waxing poetic to show off how clever they are. In this book, the protagonists come off as clever without saying clever things, just because their peers are astonishingly dimwitted. No wonder the kids in the back of the bus consider Park to be an authority of some kind.

Chapter Eight

It's interesting how Eleanor develops an interest in the comics Park reads on the bus, even though she's obviously been reading high-brow adult lit for a while. I liked how Park's only response to noticing this was holding them open a little wider and slowing down. He's nicer than he thinks, or maybe nicer than he's had an opportunity to be.

Eleanor's backstory is filling in. She went to stay with friends of her mom's for a few days and that turned into months then over a year. More details about Richie are making me very disgusted at how he can abuse this woman and turn her into someone frantic to please him, then convince all of her kids to think of him as their father because, well, they saw how defying him led to banishment.

Chapter Nine

Adorable. They haven't spoken to each other since the first minute they met, but they're both paying attention. Park is fascinated at her social defiance and Eleanor is surprised someone is showing her a little consideration. Just a little, but it's not something she's had for a while.

Chapter Ten and Eleven

Kids should never have to listen to their mother being beaten in the next room. There's a hint that Richie raped Eleanor's mother afterward. Dark. The detail about Eleanor taking a bath the next morning by washing her top half first then her bottom half so she wouldn't ever be fully naked in this tiny house missing a bathroom door was, well, memorable.

Chapter Twelve

Bam, lost it at Park being decent when Eleanor came onto the bus an obvious mess. And he's not the only decent one in this chapter. One thing I'm liking about this book is that it's not a bunch of crush thinking and grand romantic gestures. It's little things. It's spur of the moment actions coming out of their natures before they realize it. Things they had suppressed to survive around other people who take every opportunity to do damage. They're starting to trust each other.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reader Response: Eleanor & Park Pt. 1

A free-form reader response to Eleanor & Park for my Teen Materials class. This is the Historical Fiction title our whole class is reading.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Pre-Reading

I knew three things before picking this up:
  1. The author is from Omaha which is where I take Library Science grad classes.
  2. E&P was voted 2013's best YA fiction by GoodReads users.
  3. It is also a Printz Honor book, which is the American Library Association's critical award for YA lit.
Sounds promising!

Chapter One

The brief flash-forward before Chapter One is a good hook. Park is going to become obsessed and then lose track of her.

"August 1986" is Historical Fiction? I suppose anything before the Internet revolution is a past age at this point. In my own library, I've been counting Historical Fiction as post-WWII, unless it's heavily focused on a large-scale historical event like the Civil Rights Movement.

The opening lines showing Park trying to ignore the "morons at the back of the bus" by listening to cassette tapes reinforces the time period, which is good (never thought I'd see Skinny Puppy referenced in a novel!), but I'm personally very turned off by school bus drama. Maybe that's because I saw so much and don't even want to think about it.

The dialog kicks off jarringly for me because of the language of the "morons" on the first three pages: fucking, fucking, shit, shit, dicklick, fucking, fuck, retarded, fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking. While this does a great job of reinforcing the characterization of the morons as morons, and I'm not morally offended, I un-enjoy reading or hearing unnecessary amounts for the situation. One or two "fucks" would have gotten the point across without making me quite so desperate to put on headphones myself. Maybe Rowell is just doing a really good job of making me identify with Park.

I didn't mind the awful racism from the morons so much because, again, it helped me sympathize with Park and it also gave me the back-story on his ethnicity without Park having to think about it himself.

Eleanor walking in was a relief. As excluded as Park was, there was a certain level of respect he had earned from the morons. Now here comes someone lacking even that, and Park has no intention to help her out. Park is kind of a jerk himself, but more in a sin of omission style. He's unwelcoming but not aggressively offensive. Now he has to be a dynamic character to go from this to his mindset in the flash-forward. I liked the first description of Eleanor as she struggles to find a seat:
"The girl just looked like exactly the sort of person this would happen to.

Not just new—but big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like...like she wanted people to look at her. Or  maybe she didn't get what a mess she was. She had on a plaid shirt, a man's shirt, with half a dozen weird necklaces hanging around her neck and scarves wrapped around her wrists. She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser. Like something that wouldn't survive in the wild."
After reading a few chapters, I told a friend that I probably would have stopped reading this book after the first chapter if it weren't assigned, butgoing backI was remembering the first few pages as the contents of the first chapter. Eleanor is interesting. Interesting enough that I would have kept on if I hadn't stopped earlier. For me, those first three pages are vital in my voluntary reading (not "pleasure reading" because I choose unpleasant reads on purpose sometimes). I've actually gone through a couple of shelves at Barnes & Noble, reading the first three pages of every novel to get a taste of what's there. Literary agents probably do something similar.

Chapter Two

I like lists. Eleanor is a list thinker. I like Eleanor already.

This like increased when it became obvious she's well read. There's some serious dysfunction going on in her family life, but it's not clear exactly what's going on. She doesn't conveniently have thoughts explaining it to the readers, which is more realistic.

Back-and-forth perspectives can be nice if both characters have a distinct voice. So far, these two do.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Reader Response: Code Name Verity Pt. 2

A free-form reader response to Code Name Verity for my Teen Materials class. This is the Historical Fiction title I picked from a list, as opposed to the one everyone in the class had to read.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Pages 91ish to 332

My "response" to this book went from what I wrote last time:
"Needling the guard who has to translate the account into German for her superior officer is mildly amusing, but I could use a change in tone soon. A lot of this early stuff is sketching WW2 history as it relates to the air force, which is mildly interesting."
to reading it on my exercise bike because I was more desperate to know what would happen next than I was to watch a film I've been wanting to see for a while. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I can't say much without ruining how amazing it is to experience this book without spoilers.

But to address a few of my own concerns from the opening pages of this book: none of my guesses were accurate, and my trouble accepting the way the narrator writes about handling the torture went away with a satisfying in-story explanation for what was going on.

I still think the first half of the book could have used something more than it did to keep readers hooked. I shouldn't have to advise people to stick with it, but: stick with it!

If you're wavering, check out Maggie Stiefvator's non-spoiler review.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Reader Response: Code Name Verity Pt. 1

A free-form reader response to Code Name Verity for my Teen Materials class. This is the Historical Fiction title I picked from a list, as opposed to the one everyone in the class had to read.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Chapter One

Nevermind about chapters. I flipped through just enough to see that there are chapter-ish entries by date at first, but by the end there aren't. Or I just missed them. I'm too worried about automatically reading a phrase in the text to look again. Since there's about 330 pages in the softcover edition with the cover art on the right, I'm going to break this down into whichever natural breaks are near multiples of 30 pages.

Pages 1-30ish

Despite the first line, I'm not buying into the protagonist being a coward if she's young enough to call herself a "girl" and has finally broken after days of torture. Convenient enough framing that she has agreed to write down her story for German intelligence...and for us, of course. The first impression I had was that she was nude before breaking. Elizabeth Wein lets most of another paragraph go by before qualifying that this girl is at least in her underwear. It's intended to be both cold and invasive for her, so it's not much of a mercy. We learn that she's British and a specialist in radio ("wireless") cryptography. Possibly a civilian expert sent to open a secure channel with the French resistance, considering there's a boy fitting that description being tortured nearby. Possibly, just possibly, this account is total bullshit and her capture is part of a disinformation plan. Three reasons I'm suspicious by the third page:
  1. The short quote before the first page is: "Passive resisters must understand that they are as important as saboteurs." Maybe she's an intellectual saboteur, intending (or intended by others) to break or mostly break.
  2. I'm reading what she wrote for her captors, not what she's thinking outside of that context. So far, anyway.
  3. The name of the book. Too opposite to be irrelevant!
This went from creepy torture suggestions to contemporary snark so fast. What? False note for me. Let's not have this please. Please?
"I am in the Special Operations Executive unit because I can speak French and German and am good at making up stories [....]"
a page later...
"I don't think I'll ever know how I ended up carrying her National Registration card and pilot's license instead of my own ID when you picked me up, but if I tell you about Maddie you'll understand why we flew here together."
Please, author Goddess, please intend for readers to assume this girl is Maddie and the surprise is that she really isn't and she really doesn't know how the IDs got swapped. If this is Maddie, I'm docking a star from my final rating.

Pages 31-60ish

Needling the guard who has to translate the account into German for her superior officer is mildly amusing, but I could use a change in tone soon. A lot of this early stuff is sketching WW2 history as it relates to the air force, which is mildly interesting.

Pages 61-90ish

Oh. Page 84-85 made it too obvious by having two underlined sentences in quick succession. I would have noticed fine with just one because the underlined sentence on page 62 was also intelligence on where the narrator is being held. One page before that, the circle around the note that "RED is Engel's color" is probably the real first note to whomever else is reading these things, or it's a RED herring.

I like the cover I have on this edition of the book. Heavy red bicycles leaning against a stone wall is a nice reference to the bike ride of the two friends seen in this part of the book.

I finally figured out what's bugging me so much from the start. There's a lot of torture talk, yet the protagonist is only selling me on the idea that she's afraid of the promised execution of having kerosine poured down her throat and lit on fire. She's not selling me on the horror of hearing, and watching, and feeling all of the other torture going on. I could get defiantly trying to make light of it, but she's doing a little too good of a job. I would rather see the torture stuff toned down. I suppose the other fix would be to see her agony and fear turned up, but that's not my preference.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Reader Response: The Miseducation of Cameron Post Pt. 4

Continued reader response to The Miseducation of Cameron Post for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! **

Chapters The-Rest-Of-The-Book

Well, wow. I finished reading Miseducation in bed late last night and immediately booted something out of my top ten favorite books to make room for it. My GoodReads review went as follows:
"While reading this book about a teen lesbian in VHS-era Montana, I kept wondering what I could possibly say to explain the experience. I can't just ask other people to read it because even if they did, it wouldn't capture what it was like for me. I had my answer about a minute after finishing, while I skimmed the Acknowledgements for mentions of people or places here in Lincoln, Nebraska:

This is the closest reading experience to my life experience that I've encountered.

I don't mean the specifics of Cameron Post's personality or what happens in this novel. I mean that for all the worlds I've visited in books of every genre, this is the only time I felt like I didn't leave my own world." [5 of 5 stars]
It's not unusual for me to start out with lots of passion for a book, hope it doesn't let me down...and then be let down. Not so with Miseducation, a feat made all the more impressive by its length. What kinds of elements are making me so glowy about it?
  • Gorgeous, sensual writing, especially when it comes to Montana's natural summer beauty and food. I noticed that one GoodReads reviewer put it on her "food-porn" shelf. Ha!
  • Not all adults are stupid or evil, a pet peeve of mine in YA lit.
  • The adults who are somewhat stupid or evil aren't just that. They're also wise and caring in their own ways. One of my favorite characters, Rick, would be a flat-out villain in a lesser book. Here, he's someone I would want as a friend despite huge disagreements. Ok, there's one woman, Lydia, who is smart and evil and almost completely out of place, except Cameron finally spots the human vulnerability making her that way. There are no monsters in this book, even though monstrous things happen. Emphasis on young adult.
  • ...and no saints. Scratch that. There is one saint, but I'm not revealing that here no matter how many times I warned about spoilers. In all other cases, the characters we're supposed to sympathize with are also shitty in their own ways.
  • The sex scenes are better handled than any sex scenes I've read in a book that lets the reader know what happened. There's just enough information to know what's going on, without the detail that turns me off in most erotica and steamy romances. I'm not the least bit prudish. I'm saying this is the superior aesthetic choice.
  • Culture of the late 80s/early 90s is spot on from my memory of neighboring North Dakota only a couple of years younger than Cameron was at that time. Miseducation has an effortless level of detail that would make historical fiction researchers swoon.
  • The dialogue is realistic, not John Green style. Usually, the most clever responses happen in Cameron's head...too late to use them.
  • Sexual orientation is not presented as a simple thing. The 'Q' in LGBTQ is strongly present.
  • Its overall narrative structure is satisfying. In the places where it's common, there's always something subverting the common trope. I went in knowing how it would start and what would happen in the middle, but I was very pleasantly surprised at the path to that middle, and where things went from there.
One more excerpt to show off the feel of the writing. From a sex scene enough out of context to avoid spoiling much until it happens:
"I stopped at the waistband and silver button on those tiny khaki shorts. I slipped just one finger beneath the band, not far, just against the place where her hipbone pushed out, and I felt her tremble, just barely, but still.
'You tell me when to stop,' I said.
She breathed in big, blew it out, and said, 'Not now.'
And her saying that, just that, not now, made my want of her flutter up inside me again and again like tiny explosions from Black Cat firecrackers, one after another: just her saying that."
A highly satisfying book.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Reader Response: The Miseducation of Cameron Post Pt. 3

Continued reader response to The Miseducation of Cameron Post for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! **

Chapters Seven and Eight and Nine and Ten

This is not a Hollywood movie plot. No mainstream film would spend so long on a protagonist's development before reaching a crisis (besides the one revealed in the first line). If Miseducation were any less of a pleasure on each page, I would be regretting my choice of second LGBTQ book for this class.

I would read a ten volume set of books on this character's whole life at this pace. She isn't even a very interesting character from the outside. It's easy to be Cameron when I'm reading Danforth's prose and what I want is to keep experiencing that.

Hrm, I really only want to say two things about these four chapters: (1) no important characters are allowed to be simple characters, and (2) Emily Danforth can wrote Forebodings in a way that somehow doesn't annoy me. They're not like "Little did I know this would be our last date." They're always more ambiguous that, and sometimes used as part of a larger narrative structure, like the one starting on page 150 of the first edition hardcover:

"[paragraph] But this wasn't the prom moment that got me.

Other moments that didn't get me include [...]

[paragraph]

[paragraph]

And it wasn't [...]. And it wasn't [...] And it wasn't even [...]

[paragraph]

The moment that did get me was [...]"

It worked. So. Well.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Reader Response: The Miseducation of Cameron Post Pt. 2

Continued reader response to The Miseducation of Cameron Post for my Teen Materials class.

** Spoilers everywhere! **

Chapters Four and Five and Six

A major theme in these chapters is the complexity of Aunt Ruth. This is a woman who gave up her job as a stewardess immediately to take responsibility for her orphaned niece. She's always made up neatly and always polite, even if that politeness takes on a "hard edge" when she's struggling to maintain it. She does listen to others. She tried to maintain Cameron's family traditions, even outdoing Cameron's mother in terms of making everything perfect. But it's this very striving for perfection that vaguely bothers Cameron and bothers me as a reader. Margot was also neat, stylish, and polite but there was a strong sense that Margot was comfortable with herself and honest. I feel like Ruth my be a wreck underneath, like she needs to be as nice as she is to avoid coming apart.

Ruth is also an evangelical who takes Cameron out of her family's mainline church.
'"[...] It might also be nice for Cammie to hang out with some Christian teens."

As far as I knew, everybody I "hung out with" was a Christian teen, and even if some of them maybe weren't so convinced, not a one of them was talking about their doubts. I knew was Ruth was getting at, though; she wanted me to hang around with the kids who carried their Bibles class to class. She wanted me to wear the T-shirts of Christian rock bands and go to the summer camps, the rallies, to talk the talk and walk the walk.'
There, Cameron is given an Extreme Teen Bible like everyone else. This is the sort of target-demographic Bible with marginal notes and appendices which give answers to all sorts of contemporary questions, like how Christian teens should be handling TV watching or acne. Later on, of course, Cameron uses it to find out what Christian teens should think about same-sex attraction. I liked how Emily Danforth is subtly pointing out that lesbian relationships are covered in the written-in margins, not the Biblical text, but that the attitude of stoning two men to death is discomforting for lesbians all the same. Until attending Gates of Praise (abbreviated GOP, which I smirked at appropriately), Cameron only felt she needed to hide her attraction to girls because mass culture of the late 80s had shown her men and women together, not same sex couples, except for a few VHS movies that the video store clerk would make creepy comments about.

Gates of Praise and Ruth are elements I know well from my own childhood. For me, they represent a type of religiosity that covers over individual struggles with a group separatism. I'm sure it's very comforting for the right personality types. I doubt Cameron would give in even if her feelings weren't being demonized from the pulpit.

I'm not a fan of secret-based-suspense. That's what I expected to happen in these chapters: "When will Ruth find out?!" And, yes, that suspense is happening, but it's not a foreground concern. Cameron develops another relationship that is sweet, and interesting, and an opportunity for her to understand herself better individually and in a cultural context (the other girl is politically aware so we get to see Cameron react to lingo that touches on but isn't a perfect match for her natural feelings).

This book is being everything for lesbian teens that I wish Luna had been for transgender teens.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Reader Response: The Miseducation of Cameron Post Pt. 1

A free-form reader response to The Miseducation of Cameron Post for my Teen Materials class. This is the LGBTQ title I picked from a list, as opposed to the one everyone in the class had to read.

** Spoilers everywhere! ** 

Chapters One and Two and Three

This time, I read the first two chapters in bed, not taking notes as I went. Danforth's prose is longer, more expansive, more detailed, etc. than the other Young Adult novels I've read recently. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (which I'll call Miseducation from now on) is almost 500 pages long and has adult novel font size, line spacing, and margins. To avoid taking forever, I have decided to be more lax in my notes for this book (unless I feel the need to do otherwise!).

What struck me more than anything else in these two chapters is the sensuality of Emily Danforth's writing. I'm not using "sensuality" as a euphemism for sexual content. I mean that her descriptions of taste, touch, and sound are very evocative. I can't judge visual descriptions because of my mental handicap in that area, but I had more-than-abstract experiences of these other senses while I read. A scene that covers a couple of those senses:
"Grandma put on a Murder, She Wrote rerun after lunch, but she always dozed during those, and Irene and I had seen it, so we quietly left her asleep in the recliner. She made tiny whistling noises as she breathed, like the last seconds of a Screaming Jenny firecracker.
Outside we climbed the cottonwood tree next to the garage and then swung over to its roof, something my parents had told me over and over not to do. The surface was black tar and it was sticky and melted; our flip-flops sank in as we stepped. At one point Irene couldn't pull her foot out and she fell forward, the melted roof burning her hands."
As far as pacing goes, I'm almost annoyed by the slowness and the back-and-forth timeline. But I'm not. And by the time I reached the end of Chapter Two, I realized that I wanted to experience everything in that first 40 pages before seeing Cameron as orphan.

The most uncomfortable thing has been the shoplifting, but it fit the characters so well and I could almost feel the stolen gum hidden under my own clothing as I read it. Emily Danforth is turning out to be an extraordinarily pleasing writer, as I adjust to her pace. It's hard not to want to be this protagonist having this golden childhood, except for the dying parents part of course.

I liked Cameron's choice of escapism: movies, movies, movies. It's something many people do without recognizing it so explicitly. I also see a rationale being demonstrated here for carrying films in public libraries. In contexts where privacy is less emphasized, it can be oppressive to constantly have to worry about what the person handling checkouts thinks of selections...and how they feel entitled to interact because of those judgments.

Margot, a world-traveling, confident childhood friend of Cameron's mom, came to visit Cameron in particular when Margot was back in the States, months after her parents' funerals. Their dinner together was handled so well. Emily Danforth could have overdone or underdone the implications of Margot's relationship with Cameron's mother easily, but she didn't. It was the perfect amount of understanding for Cameron and for readers:
"She smiled a tight smile at me and said, 'I'm going to level with you here, Cameron, because you seem adult enough to handle it. Grief is not my strong suit, but I did want to see you and tell you that if you need anything from me, you can always ask and I'll do my best.' She seemed like she was done, but then she added, 'I loved your mom since I met her.'
Margot wasn't crying and I couldn't read on her face the potential for it, but I knew that if I looked at her long enough, I could definitely get weepy, and maybe even eventually tell her about me and Irene and what we had done, what I had wanted to do and still did want to do. And I knew, somehow, that she would make me feel better about it. I could just tell that Margot would assure me that what I had done hadn't caused the accident, and that while I wouldn't believe anybody else telling me the exact same thing, I might actually believe her. But I didn't want to believe her right then, so I didn't keep looking at her face but instead drained the rest of my Shirley Temple, which took several swallows; but I finished every last sweet pink-red carbonated drop until the ice clacked against my teeth."
The end of Chapter Three was about Irene's changing social class, which led her to leave Cameron behind. But since Irene was much less affected by kissing Cameron, it's likely this mismatch would have led her away in a more painful way if she had stayed.