map_of_the_world: (Reading: banned books)
I just got through looking for Alaska which I liked a lot, a whole lot more than I thought I would. It made me think about how adolescent literature is such a conceit, it is all written by adults who remember being teenagers, who aren't living it. In my experience adolescents are never as emotionally articulate as ad lit makes them out to be. I don't think this is a bad thing at all, they have those feelings they just don't know how to express or verbalise them so i think ad lit is a really important teaching tool so they can learn to express themselves emotionally.

I read a book called where did it all go right which wasn't particularly thrilling but this guy had taken sections of his diary from when he was a teenager and written about them and his analysis of the diary was so much more interesting than the diary itself.

also what is this?

There is nothing in that book that can remotely be described as porn, there are a few awkward adolescent fumbles, an extremely awkward unerotic blow job and some discussion of sex (which to be honest even if it had been full blown and graphic, so what? that's what teenagers do)
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So, there's a very specific sub genre of adolescent literature that goes

  • Once a long time a go there was a worldwide disaster in which almost everyone dies

  • A handful of people survive and create a closed community in a valley/underground/in a person made bubble

  • a mythology/religion/very strict set of rules become an intrinsic part of the community

  • out of this arises an edict to not go outside, outside is dangerous in someway, wasteland, unsurvivably cold, poisonous, full of unimaginably fearsome animals

  • Most of the people in said community believe the rules absolutely and wouldn't dream of not following them

  • But hark! our protagonist enters the scene, said protagonist is always between 12 and 16 and restless, inquisitive and clearly more intelligent than the adults around

  • Protagonist decides they need to see what is outside for themselves despite it being taboo/being punished for it/forecasts of death and destruction.

  • Protagonist escapes community and find they were lied to, outside is survivable and there are other people there

  • ectetera

When this is done well it is absolutely my favorite type of ad lit (except for the nuclear holocaust stuff which doesn't get written any more and I think I've pretty much read all of) when it is done badly it is unutterably boring, but I was thinking someone should totally fuck with the conventions and follow it till the end when the protagonist finds that the stories/rules are all true and they die of whatever it is on the outside and possibly also bring down death and destruction on their community. That would fuck with a few heads.

Also in other ad lit news Tommorow, when the war began has been made into a film

Trailer looks good, I hope it is because I loved the book
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I liked this book a whole lot, it's thoughtful, complex and has well drawn characters. I wrote in a recent post that within the Rapunzel story was a retelling dying to get out here about a narcissistic overprotective over entitled adoptive parent, and this is pretty much it. It tells the story of a woman (who is just known as "Mother") who was barren and became bitter with it and would do anything to have a child including sell her soul. She is so desperate for this child and so selfish that she doesn't care about the grief and anguish she has caused to the child's mother:

the crying woman would have other children. Of course she would. she was a breeder; one look told you that. but for the running woman, the escaping woman, the child was unique

It's a really interesting critique of how being infertile in a world that says women are broken if they can't or don't have children affects women. After all this woman is extremely talented in all sorts of ways, she's musical, she's a talented seamstress and embroiderer, she has a knack with other peoples children and yet she feels broken, unfinished if she can't have her own. It also explores how some women feel so entitled to a child, any child, that they ignore the grief of the women the child comes from. When Mother discovers Zel is pregnant it is this more than the knowledge of the prince or the fact zel has kept something from her that causes her to banish Zel, her jealousy that Zel is able to have so easily something that she yearned for so long leaves her furious.

This story is also a beautiful study in mother daughter ambivalence. The narcissistic obsessive love of the mother turns itself into something abusive and controlling, convinces itself that locking Zel up in the tower is "for her own good".

Mother is desperate to keep Zel by her side easily and although she convinces herself that she wants zel to want the same out of her own free will, out of love, she also has high bargaining chips that she knows are more likely to keep Zel by her side:

I work hard too keep my arms from becoming iron like my teeth. As much as i would want to i must not shackle Zel to me. I love her. That love must be returned freely. I cannot bear anything less.And I have a ready means of persuasion p61

Zel loves her mother, deeply, as a child would if their mother was the only person they had ever really known but mixed in that love is increasing resentment and fear at the constrictions Mother places on Zels life:

Then stay with me Mother. Oh stay
I must search for the enemy
"Someday you will tire of looking for this enemy. You seem near exhaustion when you come"
"I will never tire of it Zel. I will protect you forever."
The words chill Zel more than the fall winds, more than anything else mother could have said.

Zel knows that keeping her mother happy is vitally important and in a way she wants to but she is also angry so she resorts to passive aggressive defiance:

Zels only reliable company is mother. the one slim daily hour with mother is zels best treasure. She must be obedient and good, so mother will come without fail. She calms herself...Zel feels the tension in mothers hands on her hair, Mother is always tense when zel talks of the goose. Other things make Mother Tense, also. Zel can't resist exercising her power to make mother anxious. She is almost giddy as she speaks.

Napoli has a really coherent understanding of an adolescent in mental distress. After zell has been locked up for a good amount of time her sanity starts to fracture

Zel shakes her head harder and harder...Each time her ears hit the floor they ring. Her Chest rises in pain...Pain is lovely. It stands out from a vast sea of monotony

Zel would take that sharp stone and dig trenches up the lengths of both arms, She would fill her room with blood. She would do many things. But for Mother, dear Mother

But she does not stand a second too long in the light. The suns seduction has to be planned against. The sun tries to make her believe in colours

These passages along with Zells repetitive, obsessive thought patterns and her hallucination of friendly animals depict excellently the inner workings of a trapped, emotionally abused and virtually abandoned adolescent.

One of the things I especially liked was that Napoli explained things that in the original story don't make a whole lot of sense. It never made sense to me why Rapunzel's father would agree to give his unborn child away so easily. In this retelling Mother makes thorns grow up around him that cut into his flesh and threaten him with blindness until he agrees.

I have to say though I didn't really like the prince, he seemed as obsessive and controlling as Mother, he also seemed like a scary stalker. But I suppose there is only so much you can do with fairy tale princes,

Something I didn't think about while reading the book but that strikes me now is how well the settings are described, how real and easily imaginable they are. i don't have a big imagination for places but I could see these all vividly, almost smell and feel them.

cross posted to [ profile] other_tales
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I thought I was going to hate this book, the first couple of meetings with the protagonist put him in a horrible, horrible light and leave the reader with no empathy for him. He thinks it's hilarious to put rat guts and blood in his sisters towel so she gets covered in it after a shower, and he doesn't understand why no one else in his family finds it funny. I think the author expects the reader to find it funny as well but I personally was just thinking "psychopath". The book is aimed at adolescent boys but to be honest if any of the adolescent boys I work with found that sort of thing funny I would be pointing them in the direction of the nearest mental health unit.

Anyway the book got better while never being brilliant or particularly believable (I mean its about demons and werewolves its not supposed to be believable in the real sense but I don't think the author ever captured adolescent boy psychology sufficiently.

I had thought I knew what was going to happen though, that it was going to be really formulaic but there were quite a few twists and turns I wasn't expecting that took the story to quite interesting places, however I think the fact the protagonist was so horrible in the beginning of the book meant that I really lacked empathy for his grief over his family dying so didn't really connect with his character till really late in the book.

Nothing about this book really jumped out at me, it wasn't terrible and it passed the time, but it wasn't really original either (lycanthropy being passed down through genetics and playing chess with demons for peoples souls, ho hum)

I did like the idea of a demon that fed off peoples grief and despair though, I think a lot more could have been made of that. I think it could have been used as an exploration of the nature of grief which would have been a really useful teaching tool for adolescents. In fact there are all sorts of things in this book that could have been explored better such as the psychiatric hospital he ends up in (which is nothing like any psych unit I've ever been in or heard of.)

The demons seemed too caricatured to be scary and there was nowhere near enough suspense or creepiness in the book. I don't think i'll bother reading anything eles by this authout to be honest.
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The writing in this book was not as bad as I’d been led to believe it was going to be but the book itself was teeth grindingly awful all the same, I only picked it up because ~I wanted to judge it for myself rather than believing all the hype surrounding it. It horrified me in a way that had nothing to do with vampires,

Firstly as soon as Bella moves in with her father she turns into a surrogate housewife pretty much, doing the cooking and laundry even though he’s been feeding himself and doing his own laundry for years.

I don’t understand how the relationship between Bella and Edward is supposed to be romantic and seductive and all those other things it’s been touted as. Edward comes across as a scary controlling sadistic stalker that Bella should run far away from at the soonest possible opportunity

Someone breaking in to your room to watch you sleep every night, or taking you places you don’t want to go because they are physically stronger than you, or repetitively telling you that they are so much stronger than you and could easily kill you if they wanted to, or telling you it’s your fault the other vampire wanted to drink you because you smelled so nice, (rape apoligism much?) is really disturbing and adds up to the kind of relationship where the woman eventually ends up getting killed rather than true love.

I think the issue of abusive relationships is something that should be discussed in adolescent literature, very much so, but the problems with this book is that firstly this isn’t presented as an abusive relationship and secondly there are no healthy romantic relationships in the book, Bella’s best friend, who is clearly only a foil to move the story on, there is no depth of connection between the characters, is obsessed with her boyfriend, Bella’s mother, who is drawn as flaky and dependant seems to be following her partner round the country like a devoted sheep dog.

There was an article in the womans literary journal Mslexia about the author Stephanie Meyer that I found really problematic. Apparently the twilight series is Buffy the Vampire slayer without its smart arsed humour - and its sex drugs and rock and roll so Buffy without some of the bits people really, really liked, but it’s also Buffy without well drawn characters or deep rich female friendships/relationships or opposing viewpoints or any healthy relationships. Buffys relationship with Angel, especially after he came back from Angelus was somewhat problematic but firstly there was discussions amongst Buffy’s friends about that but also Willow and Oz had a loving non abusive relationship and even Xander and Cordelia, while being a really bizarre pairing, weren’t’t abusive to each other.

Also apparently Meyer wrote the book partly because she wanted to show teens that abstinence was possible and a good thing. If I had a teenage daughter I would rather she was having sex in a consensual loving non abusive relationship than practicing abstinence while in an abusive one.

According to Mslexia in the next book in the series Edward’s lust for his new wife causes her such physical injury that he dare not make love to her again until she becomes a vampire herself. Because clearly men can’t control themselves, they just get caught up in the heat of the moment, and women should give up everything they are so their partners are sexually satisfied. Also who the hell would define damaging someone like that as making love

One of the things that disturbs me most about this though is that it’s a best seller and teenage girls love it! How do we still live in a society that teaches teenage girls, that scary obsessive stalkers are romantic? How do we live in a society that doesn’t teach teenage girls that equality is sexy, that covert threats are still threats, that the phrase “he’s controlling because he loves me” is contradictory.
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I really, really liked this book. The writing wasn't brilliant, in fact not remarkable at all and in places it was quite stodgy but the ideas carried it through. At its baseline its another book about difference and otherness, about how do we treat people who are different from us and how should we treat people who are different from us. the basic premise is that teenagers who die are coming back to life and how they and the larger society deals with that. The author draws parallels with lots of groups of oppressed people but he doesn't do it clumsily or in an overly didactic way.

There were a lot of really interesting almost sidelines wrapped up in the main plot, the ones that stood out to me were that we live in a world that moves really fast and is full of junk chemicals and that maybe changing us physically and so changing what it means to be human,

Also there is an awesome critique of how we live in a society that sees the road to social change is through conspicuous consumerism

But mostly although the main protagonist is not of the group of people in the book being Othered the author really seems to get under the skin of those being othered, and really understands the subtleties and complexities of being part of an oppressed group. There are some really interesting discussions in the book over language and naming, who gets to use what language and weather oppressed groups using language that the oppressor group used against them is a reclamation or a capitualtion. There's also a really interesting dialogue sequence about passing, and the politics of passing and weather the dead teens want to pass and the assumption by alive people that they should want to pass.

While this book could have come off as clumsy and heavy and preachy it didn't because apart from the obvious conceit of the dead coming back to life, the characters and situations are believable and well drawn. All of the characters including the main antagonist are complex and have sympathetic, if not particularly, likable reasons for their actions and prejudices
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The Daily Mail in its usual foretelling of doom and societal breakdown mode has decided that teenage fiction is bad for its intended audience, only in usual Daily Mail style it conflates tenuously connected things and then comes to ridiculous conclusions. The article starts with:

Children's books are becoming so violent and sexualised they should be accompanied by explicit content warnings, it has been claimed

then goes on to say of the two books featured in the article that they:

had 'knife' in the title - Patrick Ness's winning effort The Knife Of Never Letting Go, and Anthony McGowan's The Knife That Killed Me. Both books were aimed at the 12-plus market.

Books aimed at the 12 plus market are not children’s books, and they need to be tackling issues that both effect young people and that young people are interested in, which these books are doing.

The Mail quotes Dr Tutt as saying

'The level of violence and adult themes in children's books is a worrying trend.

People didn't used to write for young children in this vein”

I think it isn’t true that these books are more violent than they used to be, its just as society had become more individualised so has literature, when I was reading teen books there was a lot of violence, it was just structural, holocaust, apocalypse, plague, war Brother in the land, children of the dust, tomorrow when the war began, Plague99 and the books weren't any less disturbing for it.

While as a genre I prefer apocalyptic/post apocalyptic adolescent literature I like that there are more adolescent books dealing with interpersonal violence, We live in a violent society, we shouldn’t but we do, and what else is adolescent literature for if not equipping adolescents with tools to deal with life? If they have learnt through fiction what violence looks like and what causes it then they will be better able to avoid it. Adolescent literature doesn’t create the society we live in it reacts to it.

Also if we are talking about the dangers of telling “very young children” (actual very young children, not twelve year olds) stories with violence in have we forgotten that we tell them fairy stories, that we tell them of children being, stolen, abandoned eaten? Why are fairy stories okay and teenage fiction not?

I know this is the Daily Mail and usually I would just roll my eyes and sigh in exasperation, but the whole article reminds me far too much of the Education for Leisure debacle, in which one of Carol Ann Duffy's poems was pulled from the GCSE syllabus because it was seen to be celebrating knife crime. (My favorite exploration of the issue is here.)

While I’m really pleased that Carol Ann Duffy is being taught in school, I'm also really frustrated that people who are, presumably, in charge of what gets taught and how, are so poetry illiterate that they read this poem in a diametrically opposite way to how it is intended. While there are many ways of reading poems this reading of it makes no sense at all, Duffy’s agent said:

"It's a pro-education, anti-violence poem written in the mid-1980s when Thatcher was in power and there were rising social problems and crime. It was written as a plea for education. How, 20 years later, it had been turned on itself and presented to mean the opposite I don't know. You can't say that it celebrates knife crime. What it does is the opposite."

But also what if any of these pieces of literature were celebrating knife crime? Would that be a reason to condemn them? To stop teenagers reading them? I don’t think so. They would still create a space to have discussions around why violence happens and what can be done about it. Are we supposed to shield teenagers from the world at the very point when they are psychologically and socially most equipped to learn how it works, and then what do we do? Once they hit eighteen we just let them loose into a society that they are unprepared for? Also what is very often forgotten or deliberately eclipsed in these moral crusades is that teenagers are, statistically, much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

But if we did want to stop teenagers accessing violence in literature, (which is not a goal I would aim for anyway) why are we picking on these genres, why are we up in arms about adolescent literature and modern poetry, is it because we don’t take them seriously as literature, as art?

If parents and educators complained about the sex and violence in Shakespeare I somehow doubt that would be take of the syllabus or if there were complaints about Browning's My Last Duchess celebrating the murder of non compliant women Even though violence against women is much more prevalent in this society than knife crime

It seems we can, as a culture, talk this way about adolescent literature and modern poetry because we don’t see it as real literature, on the same syllabus as Education for Leisure are Lord of the Flies and Of Mice and Men, both of which deal with violence, but it seems they get a pass because they are really literature.

xposted to my other blog


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October 2010

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