Thursday, November 12, 2020

Scout's Return: My Top 5 Books of the Semester!

Hey book lovers, I'm baaaaaaaaaack!

Ah, Covid. There's so much that could be said about the events that have elapsed since I last posted on this blog, both in my personal life and in the world at large, but I find myself most preoccupied by the pandemic that has completely overhauled the way I live. I find most of these compulsory lifestyle changes disconcerting and unwelcome, but the greatest joy of quarantine has been, without a doubt, having more time to read. I'm sure I'm not alone in my feeling that Covid-19 has brought the opportunity to get off the metaphorical treadmill and given me more quiet moments throughout my day that can be spent in the company of a good book. And oh how many good books there are! Here, straight from my reading list, are the 5 books I've read this semester that I'm the most thrilled to recommend to you today. 

5. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. I got this one from the library (ever heard of it?) at my university after seeing Ann Patchett (my queen) rave about Kingsolver's work. A middle-class family navigating Trump-era problems (a lack of health care, a housing crisis, general disillusionment with America) shares space in this novel with a 19th-century science teacher confronting anti-evolution and other regressive thinking in his would-be utopian town. Sound like a lot for one book? It was, but I loved how Kingsolver used the two storylines to trace the plight of late-stage capitalism back to the empty promises of early capitalism. 

4. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Much has been made about our need to "understand" the working-class white voters who are said to have put Trump in office, and I don't know that this book explains as much about those mythical people as people have hyped it up to, but I loved the honesty and straightforwardness of Hillbilly Elegy. Vance pulls no punches as he describes his Appalachian upbringing, confiding the details of his mother's drug addiction, his relationship with his foul-mouthed, fiercely loving Mamaw, and finally how he ended up at Yale law school. I heard the new movie's bad, which is all the more reason to read the book!

3. Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin. This is just a fun book that put a smile on my face, partly because my mom gave it to me and it brought back fond memories of times we've spend connecting in the kitchen, but also because Colwin has a winning personality and a hilarious approach to the cookbook-cum-novel. I'm sure she was a fantastic chef, and the recipes she includes look delightful, but the best parts of the novel are Colwin's stories of her most explosive cooking fails. I actually laughed out loud as I read. 

2. Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany Jackson. This one brings me back to my blogging roots--yes, believe it or not, it's a YA novel! And wow, this one's a good one. Jackson tells the story of three teenagers in 1990s Brooklyn who, reeling from their friend's mysterious death in a gang-related shooting, make a plan to honor his memory by turning him into a famous rapper--without telling anyone he's dead. Sounds fascinating already, and I didn't even scratch the surface of the twists and turns contained within this novel. Tiffany Jackson is number one on my list of authors to read more from, and I'm excited to share her work with my middle school students this summer (more on that in a post to come, hopefully!). 

1. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Taking the coveted top spot on my list is just the most recent of the accolades that Whitehead's 2016 novel has received, which include a little nod called the Pulitzer Prize. I was absolutely captivated by this novel and read it cover to cover in just a few days, which is always a great sign. Whitehead is a genius writer who imagines each Southern slave state as a different world, each one its own horrific trial for our heroine Cora as she flees slavery. This was the novel that stayed on my mind for the longest time after putting it down, and, for that reason, it has to be number one. 

So there you have it, folks--my top 5 books of the semester. Get them from your local library or your favorite independent bookstore, and comment the best books you've read recently below! 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sorry Stereotypes in YA Fiction

Hi all! This is a column I wrote last month for my school's newspaper. I hope it makes you think!

A beautiful teenage girl is looking off into the distance.  She might be floating in water or wearing a ballgown. Her eyes are bright and her cheekbones prominent.  Remind you of anything?  Maybe just about every Young Adult book cover ever?  Wait.  Let me amend that.  The cover of every YA book written by a woman.  
When I was in elementary school, checking out every sci-fi book in the library, I used to ask the librarian about “the creepy girls on the covers.”  I couldn’t understand why there had to be basically the same image on every book.  Lately I’ve been thinking again about the role gender plays in books and their covers.  Books written by women, or with female main characters, tend to be deemed “girl books” or “chick lit.”  Books written by men, with male main characters, are less likely to be so easily labeled, but if they’re violent or especially adventuresome, these too become “boy books.”  

Are there really such things as books that can only be enjoyed by one gender?  Of course not.  Anyone can read a “boy book” or “girl book” and love it, regardless of whether they’re the gender of the main character.  Most books don’t have much in them that’s inherently geared towards one type of person.  Why would they?  Author want their ideas to be accessible to all readers.  So where does this sense of books specifically for certain genders come from?  The covers.  Especially in the science fiction or supernatural genres, YA book covers rarely seem to break out of the mold of gender stereotyping and tired cover design that publishers often slap on books.  Covers of books with female authors inevitably feature the aforementioned ethereal girl and a cute, feminine font.  Books authored by a man tend to escape stereotypical covers and receive a more simplistic design, often involving a nature scene or some kind of slicing, dramatic lettering.  An experiment proposed by author Maureen Johnson on her Twitter involved “coverflipping” popular teen books–imagining that the book’s author was the opposite gender or genderqueer, and changing the covers accordingly.  As expected, the now-female authors covers are more “girly” and less intelligent, while covers of male authored books become more simplified and graphic.  The thing is, book covers don’t always mirror the theme of a book (although maybe they should).  Gendered book covers don’t mean much about the actual plot– just a reflection of the insulting way publishers view teenage demographics and a sorry example of stereotypes that are still perpetuated today.  
*Check out a few coverflipping examples, above, or google "coverflip challenge" to find out more.*
Covers are the main way that we get an impression of a book, whether we’re buying it or just checking it out of the library.  And oftentimes book covers decide for the prospective reader whether they can read the book–whether their gender is “supposed to” or not.  But we know male and female authors to be capable of writing books that are beloved by all genders–it’s happened before (TFIOS, anyone?)–so why aren’t book covers more inclusive to all readers?  We deserve books that don’t exclude certain people from enjoying them.  Gender varies from person to person, but books should be for everyone.  

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Trying New Things--Plays

I've posted before about the importance of trying new things when reading.  Everyone has their comfort zone, that reading niche that they feel safe in, but branching out is a key way to escape a reading rut.  How can you knock something if you haven't tried it?  I'm guilty here as well.  I love realistic fiction, and often I don't want to give other genres a try.  But when I read some science fiction, there was stuff there that I really liked, and I can now add a few good ol' sci-fi reads to my favorites list.  Lately I've been reading a few plays that I want to talk about.  A whole different form of writing to be enjoyed!  The chances for exciting dialogue (which, of course, is a huge part of almost all plays) are many.  Here are a few recent plays that I've read and love:
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard.  This play is hilarious, subversive and very, very clever.  It focuses on the exploits of two minor characters found in Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Although I didn't always understand what was happening--the play's genre is, after all, absurdist--I could laugh at the improbably weird events and appreciate the well-written dialogue.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde:  Another comedy, this one in typical Wilde form as a trivial satire of marriage and Victorian society.  Hilarity ensues when two friends, both leading an alternate life under the name of Ernest, have their lies catch up to them as they discover that the women they love only like them because of their attraction to their names.  The comic exchanges between characters in this play were laugh out loud funny.  Plays, even older ones (this one was first performed in 1895), can be still be completely modern and comical if they're written well (and Earnest definitely is).
Our Town by Thornton Wilder:  I read this play to prepare for my position on the production staff of my school's performance of it, and it is incredibly well written.  More of a tragedy, the play is told in three parts:  Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death and Dying.  It focuses on the events of George and Emily as they grow up and fall in love in the small New Hampshire town of Grover's Corners.  Our Town is cruel--called "metatheatrical", it constantly reminds you that you're watching/reading a play, often just as you become invested in part of the storyline.  But despite the heartbreak, it's an incredibly detailed and intelligent work with seriously lovable characters.  I can't wait to see it performed!
A note:  I haven't seen any of these plays performed, so I'm interested to hear the thoughts of those who have.  How does seeing a play on a stage compare to simply reading it?  Tell me in the comments below!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Best New Books--Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho

Hi guys! I know I normally review classics and less recent YA books, but today I'm doing a newer one--Cristina Moracho's amazing realistic fiction novel, Althea & Oliver. I wrote a shorter review that was published in the kid's newsletter put out by The Corner Bookstore (great book selections and a favorite hangout of mine, check it out on 93rd and Madison!). This is the slightly longer version. Althea is tough, impulsive and eager for change. Oliver is pragmatic, sensitive and hoping for things to stay as they always have been. They've known each other since they were six, and improbably, they’re best friends in their junior year of high school. When Oliver starts to succumb to a confusing, nameless illness, change is on the horizon. The lines between healthy and sick and between friendship and romance begin to blur. 
Althea and Oliver is set in the 1990s, running from rural North Carolina to gritty New York City and more. The plot is pulse-elevating and tear-jerking, and so intensely detailed that it feels as though you’re sitting with Althea or Oliver as they try to deal with their latest crisis. The characters are true to life and lovable, making you want to reach into the book to help and protect them. The dialogue is witty and realistic. 
In all honesty, I cried at least twice while reading this book.  Actually, I may have spent the last third of the book in a very teary state.  It wasn't all that tragic, but there was something about the way Moracho's writing made me love the characters that made their sadnesses all the more poignant to me.  It encouraged me to care deeply about the book, which I think is really important in a good YA novel--or any novel, for that matter.  Althea and Oliver is sad–but it’s also funny, suspenseful, heart-warming and true. The book is, overall, impossible to put down.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book of the Month--September

It wasn't love at first read for The Perks of Being a Wallflower and I.  In fact, when I first read it a few years ago, I didn't like it at all.  I kept my copy of it buried in the back of my bookshelf, and forgot about it.  It was only recently, when I cleaned out my shelves for the first time in awhile, that I remembered this book.  I thought that I should probably try it again.  And this time, I liked it!
The Perks of Being a Wallflower chronicles 15-year-old Charlie's first year of high school.  He makes new friends, comes into his own as a teenager beginning to be independent, and deals with many tough experiences along the way.  What sets this book apart from your typical coming of age novel is that Charlie isn't what one might describe as a "regular kid".  He's extremely sensitive and gifted, and the issues that him and his friends grapple with are scary and all too true to life, including suicide, sexual abuse and trauma.
It's not an easy book, and a prospective reader should be prepared to be confused and frightened by some of the events of the story.  Part of what makes the book so difficult is that we don't want to believe that the issues that these high schoolers are dealing with are a reality, but in fact, many of them are, even for teenagers.  The characters are relatable, and lovable despite their faults.  Charlie makes a good point when he says that "sometimes, I read a book, and I think I am the people in the book."  I can understand where he's coming from, although I'm not sure if I thought that I was the book's characters.  Rather, the book's realism allowed me to feel that I was a friend, sitting silently by the characters and watching the story unfold.   Wallflower is also beautifully written.  Chbosky has a gift for language and for story, making this book a rare hybrid of a can't-put-downer and a serious novel.  It reads like a poem--I love that.
Ultimately, Wallflower is scary and sad.  But the writing is wonderful, and it's one of the best novels I've read in a long time.  Just add this experience to the long list of reasons to give books a second chance.  If I hadn't, I would definitely have missed out.
A note:  I have not seen the movie.  If anyone has, let me know how it stacks up in the comments--I'm curious!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Definition of Literary

Sorry for the gap in posting!  School's start has been busy for me, but I did have a very interesting question posed to me in English class, which I wanted to share.  Imagine you've been assigned by Merriam-Webster to write a few definitions.  Your first assignment?  Define "literature."
At first, it seems easy.  Written word--but what about Us Weekly magazine, Twilight, even stop signs?  Did those count? So it needs amending.  But then you get too personal and too opinionated.   I thought about "written word that is meaningful to someone," and for a time was confident that I had found the answer.  Then my teacher asked if his email to his mom--"Mom, you're the best!"--counted as literature.  The class agreed that it didn't.  But it was still meaningful to his mother, he said.  Then I had to start over.
Who would have thought that such a simple word, one that I use, or reference, in almost every blog post, could have proved so inscrutable?  The problem lay in the fact that everyone has their own opinion of what counts as literature.  Some people stand by the classics, others argue that fandom-inspiring novels such as Twilight and the Harry Potter series can count as well, while some exhausted students just said written word and left the definition in its broadest form.  What do you think?   Is there a limit to what we can and cannot call literature?
For the record, Merriam-Webster's website has several definitions for the word, but I think the most fitting to this post is: "writings in prose or verse, especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest."  A clever definition in that it still leaves room for opinion.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Summer Reading Report

Hi all!  I'm back from camp and now ready to give a tell-all of my summer reads.  I was not able to read all of the Original Eighteen books that my friend and I brought, which was probably fortuitous (I had to eat, after all).  However, of the New Twenty (adding two books that were delivered to us during camp), I read twelve, and adding the two extra books that I borrowed from friends, that makes fourteen books in seven weeks.  Not too bad, I think!  And they were good books, books that made me laugh, shake my head, furrow my brow and even tear up a little.  So here's the report, in the order that I read them.
1. The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories by Simon Rich.
2. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.  As my first foray into the beat genre, I liked how the characteristic detachment of the Beats worked to tell an urban murder story that was chilling, not terrifying.
3. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.  This book, along with #12, took me forever to read.  I struggled to fully understand it, and while it was a bit over my head, I'm glad I took the time because I feel that I got more out of this amazing book (one of my favorites of the summer).  To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee names it as "the only war novel [she'd] ever read that makes any sense" and I have to agree with her.  There's no praising of the war.  Rather, the book shows the ironic parallels in each character's wartime actions in ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes scary and sometimes sad (I can name this book as the occasional tearjerker of the bunch for me).
4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.
5. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
6. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  I have to say that the half Russian, half gibberish slang through which the book is told threw me for a loop at first, but once I got into it it wasn't too hard to keep up with.  There were some interesting points about the evils of government and the problems that extremely advanced science can bring upon society, but I most enjoyed getting absorbed in the harsh yet beautiful language of the book.
7. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.  Another favorite!  I loved the way that Morrison wove family, community and the plight of a race to create this beautiful novel, while also adding suspense and one hell of a storyline throughout history-laden sidebars and fascinating clashes of the unique and engaging characters.
8. Attachments by Rainbow Rowell.
9. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.
10. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.  Yet another favorite (there are some pretty great books  in this bunch!).  One of the only books I've read that ties the narrative itself back to the main character, I really enjoyed the way this book was told.  The book read like one of Kilgore Trout's science fiction stories, a sort of "guide to earth", and also featured the narrator as a crucial character (the book was told in third person and first person).  It was occasionally inscrutable, always intelligent and ultimately felt really fresh and interesting.
11. Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.  I think this is the only book of this bunch that could be comfortably classified as a YA read, though it could also be great for adults.  This book was about relationships--sister to brother, sister to sister, niece to uncle and friend to friend.  Not all of the relationships were "correct", and some could be brutal, but Brunt told the story without pointing fingers or condemning a single character.  Rather, she showed that there was well-meaning and good in every person.  There was a great moral tone to the book, and I definitely benefitted from reading it.
12. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X (told to Alex Haley).
13. On the Road by Jack Kerouac.  Another awesome Beat book!  I found it amazing that, despite there being no dramatic plot twists and, really, not too much plot at all, this book was still really interesting.  I loved Kerouac's language and his involved characters.
14. Beloved by Toni Morrison.
School starts in two days!  I'm ready to read some new books and get to doing some new posting.  A note:  no Book of the Month for June, July or August (although several of the above books more than pass muster), but there will be one this September and then hopefully uninterrupted for the rest of the year.