Normally I’m not a New Years goal/resolution type person. If you’re sifting through this blog you can totally call bullshit on that -I’m pretty sure I say that every year and then post some anyway. So I guess I’m a New Years goal and resolution person who doesn’t like to admit it? Or maybe I just like a little year’s end reflection. Last week I was hanging out with my brother and describing my TMJ issues which tend to get worse with stress.
“What are you stressed about?” he said. And he didn’t mean it in a snarky way.
I laughed. “Nothing, everything. The state of our country, the changing climate, whether or not I got my kids the right gifts for a holiday I don’t even really believe in. Whether or not my purchasing of the right gifts will result in them living happy and fulfilling lives.” So you know, the usual.
But his comment stuck with me because truthfully, most everyday type stress is a direct result of our own reactions to the events of our lives. I recently read Man’s Search for Meaning which is part of the Holocaust literature canon written by psychologist and death camp survivor Victor Frankl. The book is unique because it’s not a traditional narrative but rather delves into the psychology of suffering using the concentration camps as background. Light stuff, I know. His main point about suffering is that there will be suffering, and while we cannot often control the source of that suffering, we do have some say in our own reaction to it. I couldn’t go too far with this theory. I’m not someone who would try to put a smiley face on painful experience, but it does help with smaller daily life type stressors. Do they need to be stressors? Do I need to react to them in a stressful way? I’m talking to you TMJ!
So beyond my personal goal to use less plastic in 2019, I’m also setting a goal around awareness. Awareness of the way I’m thinking and the patterns I can get into -just awareness. My goal isn’t to change, change will come or it won’t. I think change implies judgment and I’m not trying to judge myself. I’d like to be more kind to myself. So, awareness, presence and kindness. Bring it on.
On my summer vacation I read two books that turned out to be related for unforeseen reasons. The first is Amy Schumer’s Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo. The second was Roxane Gay’s Hunger. The two books strike remarkably different tones. Amy Schumer, as you might imagine, goes for hilarity in her essays, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much substance was mixed in with the laughs. Her words and life decry the rigid standards of beauty and “acceptable behavior” for women. Her writing is a celebration of her body; the pleasure and comedy it brings her through food, sex, and other random awkwardness.
Hunger; A Memoir of my Body by Roxane Gay is about a woman who is very much a prisoner of her body. It’s a beautifully written and deeply painful history of a body violated and then protected in flesh. Both authors write about the connections and interactions between our self perception, our corporeal selves, and society.
If you follow me on social media you might remember that as I was reading my second-hand copy of Schumer’s book I got a surprise bookmark. The previous owner had left her detailed and full color colonoscopy report in the back of the book- though I wouldn’t put it past Schumer to include one of these in each copy.
As I pored over this random woman’s report (and come on, who wouldn’t? ) I approached these pictures with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion. So that’s what a colon looks like. It’s kind of a weird mix of reds, pinks and fleshy yellows. It reminded me of the Sarlacc pit in Star Wars where the characters are trying to avoid being sucked in and digested for all eternity. (Yes, I had to look up what it was called, and yes it gave me nightmares as a kid.)
The colonoscopy report made me think about Gwyneth Paltrow, because, yes I read that looong New York times magazine article about her health and beauty empire devoted to things like 5,000 dollar yoga retreats, vaginal steaming and anal bleaching. The thing is her colon looks like a Sarlacc pit just as much as mine, or Roxane Gay’s or Amy Schumer’s. It also got me thinking about our bodies and how they are more similar than different and how a hole in your body is ultimately just that. All the other stuff we attach to it is mostly just a bunch of socially constructed hoo ha. So go ahead, cancel that anal bleaching you had planned and the next time you find yourself staring at someone and judging them for the size or attractiveness of their body, remember that your colon looks like a Sarlacc pit too.
I packed three books to go to my parents for the weekend – really it was more like a 30 hour trip. I went to help out after my dad had a series of small strokes that followed a severe stroke a couple years ago. My mom is his caretaker. Is is a lot.
Before I left I checked the fifth Harry Potter book on audio out of the library for my daughter. She’s seven and loves audio books. Since I introduced her to the literary crack that is Harry Potter she’s been flying through them. I knew she was worried about me. And I knew if she had an audio book she was into she could squirrel herself away in her room and get lost in a story.
My mom calls it defensive eating -when we eat not because we’re so hungry but to prevent being hungry later on. (Did I mention we’re Jewish?) Anyway, sometimes I practice defensive library use. I check books out to avoid being without one at my fingertips.
I brought the following books:
You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein -a re-read but one that is light and smart and makes me laugh.
American Street by Ibi Zoboi -my current YA fiction read. The story of Fabiola who emigrates to the US alone to live with her Aunt and cousins after her mom is detained.
Astrophysics for People In a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson – because I’ve never read anything by him and I heard him talk about it brilliantly on the radio. And because sometimes it’s good to get distracted by things that are a lot bigger than you are.
I didn’t pick up a single one -okay maybe a few pages of You’ll Grow Out of It before bed, but that was it. But I knew they were there. I knew if/when things got hard or painful that those books were there for me. I’m not a religious person but I imagine this is how it feels to have that kind of spiritual faith.
When I open the pages of a well loved book I know that the words will be in the same order they were before, that the plot will arc in the same direction. When I read something by a trusted and loved author I know I am investing myself in something that could show me the interconnectedness of all things, or a world wildly different from my own but that resonates with me emotionally.
“We read to know we’re not alone,” is a quote often attributed to C.S. Lewis but there’s some controversy around that. I’m not surprised I’m sure it’s one many people have said or thought. I know I have.
This, in my mind, is the difference between writing for and about teenagers.
There are problems and they are not resolved.
I have a book coming out this week and one of the things on my mind, besides the fact that I’m a teacher and I’m going back to school and my kid is starting first grade and I selectively forgot to do all the major cleaning projects I thought I might tackle over the summer, and the damn Subaru dealer won’t call me back about replacing my faulty airbags, yeah besides all that. I’ve been thinking about the fact that not everyone will like my book.
Art and literature is subjective. I accept that because if I didn’t I’d be an idiot/insane. In WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE there is a lot of (teenage) drinking and some drug use. I didn’t think that much about it when I wrote it because it was consistent with my high school experience. I did most of the things my characters did without any major related tragedies. This is not to say I condone those behaviors -whether I do or not is not the point -the point is they happen.
SOME PEOPLE think that if you write YA fiction, you should write books in which teens who have sex regret it, or get pregnant or a disease. If teens drink or do drugs they should regret it or get in car accidents or develop addictions. That way no actual teens will read the book and think these things are a good idea. As though teens (or any of us) might be more influenced by fiction than the trusted people around us. SOME PEOPLE like things tidy and morally unambiguous. That’s not the kind of fiction that interests me whether it’s written about teenagers or adults. It’s not what I’d choose to read so it’s not what I choose to write.
There are problems in WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE. Big problems about friendship and identity, about moving past life in high school and reconciling the future with the past. There will be some resolution because a story needs that. But life is messy and often times morally ambiguous and I think it’s okay for teenagers (and all of us) to know that too.
This morning I listened to a re-broadcast of an interview with David Denby on his book Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives. There were a few moments when I was white knuckling the steering wheel from annoyance. Here are two older white dudes hemming and hawing about kids on their smart phones and the fact that no one reads Huck Finn anymore. In the next breath they were totally dismissive of Twilight and The Hunger Games, which great or not, got thousands, if not millions of kids to read.
There is so much wonderful YA literature beyond the mega-franchises and the interviewer and his guest were acting like reading Dickens is the only way for teenagers to become readers. There was also an element of youth-shaming. As if it’s all well and good for adults to be on their devices 24-7 because they actually read Tom Sawyer (and not the Spark notes) when they were in high school.
Technology is not destroying culture. Stories will always be relevant to our society even if the form they take is something different than what we’ve seen before.
Here is MY list of “great” books to engage your teenage or old fuddy-duddy self in reading.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Winger by Andrew Smith
Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King
Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Gabi a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
I’ll Give You The Sky by Jandy Nelson
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Feed by MT Anderson (see this one for commentary on technology in society)
In Darkness by Nick Lake
A couple of months ago I read this story about about a woman who tells her two young children a sanitized version of the plot of Game of Thrones as a way to get through meals in restaurants and long car trips. When she tells them about the fate of the characters and the various plot twists, they forget to argue over the last breadstick or kick each other under the table. This is genius.
When my daughter was a little younger bath time was fraught with drama; mostly around washing and drying and combing the knots from her hair. To get through the fun times I found myself resorting to long Baby Squirrel stories or Anna Marie Bananacake stories. The Baby Squirrels are your archetypal mischief makers and Anna Marie Bananacake is a girl who never wants to wash her hair until birds and other wildlife begin nesting in it. You get the idea. The point of the stories was to hold her interest long enough to accomplish the task. Therefore they often dragged on interminably over the details. Eliana never minded. She loves a story. But pretty soon I minded. I would have rather poked my eyes out with a fork than tell another Baby Squirrel story. Luckily she developed more of a tolerance for bath time and does most of the hair washing herself. Also, we turned to audio books. I’m perfectly happy to listen to the same stories over and over as long as I don’t have to be the one inventing them on the spot.
But this recent article got me thinking about the power of stories, about their ability to soothe and transport us. Stories allow us to focus on the struggles and challenges facing others in the face of our own difficulties; whether that’s a huge sticky knot of hair or something worse. I also wondered what stories I know well enough to recount the way this woman clearly knew Game of Thrones. I could probably do parts of Harry Potter, and all of the Grapes of Wrath -though I’m not sure that would interest my five year old. I wish I knew Tolkien better; I think the adventures of Sam and Frodo would be ideal. Any ideas? What stories would you tell if it meant you could eat your dinner in relative peace?
As a YA author and a middle school teacher, I read a lot of YA. But even if I wasn’t either, I still would. Stories about adolescence and coming of age interest me. They always have. The line between what is considered YA and what is not gets fuzzier every day -especially with new categories like NA joining the party.
Now that Labor Day is past and we’re officially in the heady waters of a new school year, I thought I’d take a minute to talk about three books I read this summer. All three featured young adult characters, though only one is officially categorized as YA.
The first of the three was FATHER OF THE RAIN by Lily King. In the first third of this book the main character is 12-13 years old and if the book kept her there it might even qualify for a YA label. But soon we speed up to her future as an adult in her mid-twenties and the bulk of the book is told from there. Even without this, there is something dark and gritty that would prevent me from ever labeling this book as YA even though it is a coming of age story. Perhaps it’s that the coming of age doesn’t really take place until the character is in her twenties. Or perhaps it’s that the main character is unprotected and just barely shielded from her alcoholic and sexually explicit father by her own naivete. Regardless the book is tense and emotionally engrossing from beginning to end.
The second book I wanted to mention was BONE GAP by Laura Ruby. This YA novel featured incredible writing and original small town characters and layered on magical realist touches a la Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende. Magical realism is hard to do well and rarely done in YA -it’s all usually fantasy or realistic contemporary, but rarely are the two combined, and skillfully! Underneath the wonderful layers of disappearing girls, magical horseback rides and faces that can’t be seen is a story of self-acceptance and first love, both archetypal YA themes.
Lastly, I read the much lauded ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr. Okay, this one is a Pulitzer prize winner as well as being endorsed by yours truly! So what I would mention here is that the two main characters, who’s lives we follow through World War II are both little more than adolescents for the entirety of the book. But no one would every categorize this book as YA. Perhaps because its characters are not engaged in the typical tropes or plot lines of adolescence? I think if YA is to survive and thrive as a true genre it can’t define itself by what it is not. As in, it’s not deep or thematic. Or it’s not complex as this book certainly is. These are neither true nor useful in reading or defining YA.
So read anything good this summer? YA or otherwise?