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, 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 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 **


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


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.