Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Fourth Grad School Reading List of Fourth Semester

Only one more reading list after this. It's kind of surreal to think that after this month, I won't have any more packet deadlines. But hopefully I'll be ready to move on to publishing deadlines at that point.

Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall: This is one of the better early readers I’ve read this semester. The vocabulary is age-appropriate while the usage is still unique and creative. But the characters are a little bland for my taste. Everyone is white and stereotypical of the personality they represent—I read this while babysitting my friend’s biracial baby, so I kept thinking about how absent he is from this book. The chapter breaks were also underwhelming as they seemed to be based more on word count than driving a page-turn. For me, chapter breaks should do one of two things: either heighten tension to keep me reading or conclude a plot-point while giving a teaser for what comes next. This book did neither. Overall, it’s a decent if slightly dull early reader.

And My Children Did Not Know Me: A History of the Polish-Americans by John J. Bukowczyk: This was a research book for my current work-in-progress. One of the issues with writing an ethnic historical fiction is getting the cultural context correct. A lot has changed for Polish Americans in the past 95 years, and their experience was also completely different than other immigrants who came to America around the turn of the 20th century. This book put their unique struggles into context and gave me a lot of new vocabulary to be able to express those struggles.

Something Real by Heather Demetrios: I finally read Heather's book! (Although I have read plenty of Heather's writing, so I don't exactly feel guilty for taking awhile to get around to this one.) Heather understands how to get readers inside a character’s head, and she makes you fall in love with her many diverse characters—even the ones you hate. You must watch Arden Rogow-Bales from the Bushwick Book Club perform his song "Dreamy Patrick Sheldon" from Heather's book launch party. (Yes, that is me laughing inappropriately hard while trying to hold the camera steady.)

Once by Morris Gleitzman: The narrative frame of this book is really good and makes it stand out from a lot of other Holocaust books—a little boy tells other children stories to help them deal with the horrible things happening around and to them. I also love that it starts at a rather unexpected moment in history—a Jewish boy from Poland whose parents have hidden him in a remove Catholic orphanage. (If you have ever seen the French movie Au Revoir Les Enfants, you will know this wasn't an uncommon practice during WWII.) Unfortunately, I had some major issues with the narrative voice of this book that the great concept couldn't distract me from. First of all, opening each chapter with "Once" (as in "Once upon a time") implies something that happened in the past, but the story is told in first person. Secondly, the narrator constantly makes incorrect assumptions about the world around him, and while it's understandable that a kid wouldn't understand why the Nazis burn books, I got incredibly annoyed when Felix assumes they are librarians. What nine-year-old boy doesn't know the difference between a soldier and a librarian? But the biggest issue I had with the book was how the action sequences are narrated—it’s like reading a transcript of bad play-by-play commentary on a football game.

"We Need Bigger Megaphones for Diversity in Kid Lit" by Kelly Jensen: I read a lot of articles and blog posts about kidlit, but I usually don't include them on my reading lists. This one, however, not only deserves to be included, but I encourage you to read all of the articles Jensen links to. One of the many problems with the diversity of kid lit is that people who do not feel like they reflect diversity (a.k.a. me) tend to feel like they don’t have a right to address it. And often times, when we think we are filling kid lit with color, we make our divers characters too white. Matt de la Peña addressed this in a CNN article saying, “I get worried about people who just make the character black on the outside, but not on the inside.” At least we’re talking about it, which means that if writers, publishers, book pushers and readers actually make an effort, things really will change.

Homespun Sarah by Verla Kay, illustrated by Ted Rand: I know that I’ve read a few of Kay's books before, but I couldn’t remember much about them other than that they were historical fiction about Colonial America. I love how she subverts sentence structure, often switching the predicate and subject, and that though fragmented, each sentence has distinct meaning. She also almost always flips the tag by putting the speaker tag before the dialogue (something I wrote an essay on my first semester because Karen Hesse often does the same thing in Out of the Dust). She breaks every rule, but she does it so well you don't even notice unless you're looking for it.

Hornbooks and Inkwells by Verla Kay, illustrated by S.D. Schindler: There is an impressive amount of research that went into this a 250-word book—just look at Kay’s bibliography. Her author’s note is just as long as the book itself.

Tattered Sails by Verla Kay, illustrated by Dan Andreasen: The rhythm and rhyme of Kay’s books are impeccable—she never misses a beat. It begs to be read aloud.

A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier: Another historical fiction author who showed her research more than she wrote a compelling novel. Only Lucier took it a step further and wrote a love story to the city of Portland with long passages that read more like a tourist brochure than actual descriptions of the city through Cleo’s eyes. The best descriptions do double-duty by grounding us in place as well as saying something either about character or plot. Why is it important that we see the red leather chairs in Public Auditorium theater-turned Red Cross hospital? Is it the contrast of watching the plays that once came to life on the stage to the death that Cleo now sees there every day? Is it because Cleo longs to go back to the way things uses to be but will forever see blood on those chairs? There are also a lot of promises that this novel never fulfills. For example, there’s a great and humorous scene where Cleo accidentally drops a contraception brochure in front of a medical student she has a crush on, but the med student laughs it off and we never find out if Cleo is actually thinking about having sex and what that might mean for her social standing. Instead, it is just used to highlight an interesting piece of history about women’s rights without giving us any real insight into any of the characters.

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen, narrated by Charlie McWade: A few semesters ago, I attended a lecture that praised this book for its use of and "inevitable surprise," and I have to say that I couldn’t disagree more. This book purposefully misleads readers—and not in a good unreliable narrator way—though we are inside the narrators head in extremely close first-person. While it’s good to use “felicitous confusion” to either heighten tension by withholding information or so that the reader isn’t bombarded with backstory right at the beginning, having a narrator lie inside his own head makes him seem schizophrenic, which is only okay if the narrator really is unstable (e.g. Humbert Humbert) or wants us to believe he’s mentally unbalanced (e.g. Hamlet).

The Poles in America: 1608-1972 edited by Frank Renkiewicz: I will probably be going back to this book as reference as it includes an incredibly detailed timeline of events for Poles in America. It also includes long passages of primary source materials from 1910-1920, which I also found helpful.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, narrated by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra: I enjoyed this book, mostly because Eleanor is an incredibly complex character whom I can relate to on so many levels that it’s kinda scary. I also loved that this book is full of color, and the adult characters are just as complex and well-rounded as the teens. I swear the breakfast table eyeliner scene came straight out of my family playbook, and I still remember going through my dad's vinyl collection like it was a spiritual experience. What I don’t love about this book is Park. I'm getting tired of the self-aware, sexually evolved, hipster love interest who puts up with a girl who treat him like crap because she doesn't want to be loved. Park is just a little too perfect, his only fault being that he loves Eleanor a little too much (their desperate need for each other is at times rather creepy, as in Bella/Edward creepy). What teenage boy loves only the music and comics that will eventually turned into cultural icons? Watchmen, Vans and The Smiths? I know that people like to read books that push the boundaries of reality, because really, who wants to read a book about a guy who leaves a girl because he gets bullies for liking her and it's too hard to get past her emotional walls. And no child of the 80's wants to admit they loved Rick Springfield more than Elvis Costello. We all want to read about characters who manage to say the right things at all the right moments, but there needs to be some balance. I want to know how Eleanor changes Park, why she's a good match for him, and not some cop-out sudden realization a third of the way through the book that he needs to stop worrying so much about what his less-evolved peers think. Maybe I’ve lost my romantic streak in my old age, but I didn’t drink the Park Kool-Aid.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: What can I possibly say about the book that had the single biggest impact on me in high school? (Even the title of this blog comes from this book.) This book defined me, and to go back to it, not as an impressionable teenager about to leave for college but as an adult writer was a little challenging. Smith is so amazing at creating complex relationships with such vibrant and unique characters. And the images she chooses are so incredibly perfect at establishing time and place. Her descriptive instinct is pretty much pitch-perfect, and her sense of order along a nonlinear plot is unparalleled.

Geography of Girlhood by Kirsten Smith: This is a novel filled with missed opportunities. One of the most powerful things about verse is that it’s image driven—that it gives us the opportunity to see the world from someone else’s perfective, and by doing that, we can see the beauty of some else’s mind. But from the first stanza, Smith allows that imagery to slump into bland description: “everything is trees and water and rain / and smoky stink from the paper mill / and small town, small town.” And just when you think you’ve come upon another opportunity for imagery that says something deeper than the picture it’s painting, you get “the three men watching their fourth / fall to the damp ground, / platter of leaves and shoes, / watching as their boy falls upon it, / his body a heave of light.” And then she ends with the same bland image she opens with: “everything is still trees and water and rain / and small town, small town, / but no matter how you slice it, / it is my life / and I am floating right out here / in the middle of it.” It’s all images that never become tangible.

Almost Invisible by Mark Strand: This collection of proses pieces lacked an emotional punch—the book flap calls it “an exquisitely witty and poignant series of prose pieces,” but I didn’t feel especially amused nor moved by these pieces. It was interesting to see how Strand uses dialogue (of which there is a surprising amount)—he kind of runs it all together with the narrative, and often with running dialogue it is kind of fun to guess who is saying what and why each of them might say it. There is also a kind of tender relationship between a man and a woman that ran through the pieces that I enjoyed, especially in the piece “Provisional Eternity.”

Max Counts His Chickens by Rosemary Wells: It’s amazing how such a little picture book can speak to childhood experiences so clearly…with bunnies. This book uses dialogue and illustrations so well to portray what it’s like to be a younger sibling of a competitive older sibling.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day, Then and Now

She holds me just as tightly and loves me just as much now as she did back then. She instilled in me my love of books and stories, and it's thanks to her sacrifices and encouragement that I've been able to do so many amazing things. I'm lucky to have this woman as my mother.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Third Grad School Reading List of Fourth Semester

After five years, I was kind of sick of my old header, so this week I designed something new. I'm kind of in love with it.

I know this is shocking, but I have once again fallen way behind in posting on my blog. With summer coming closer and grand school coming to an end, I have a lot to share. Over the next few days, I'll catch up on my reading list, and then I can post about my summer adventures.

Baseball ABC edited by A. Grobani: I thought I’d go through some of the digital children’s book collection at the Library of Congress, and I have to say, this book is kind of delicious in its horribleness—forced rhymes, lost rhythm, strange word choice. I'm so glad children’s publishing has changed so drastically in the past 130 years.

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt, narrated by Rosalyn Landor: I read a great review of this book by Publisher’s Weekly that effectively boiled down this complex book to one sentence: "Buried somewhere in here is a fine novel." I know Byatt from her novel Possession, so when I heard such a prolific historical fiction writer who understands poetry had written a book about WWI, I was excited to read it. In reality, the beauty of this novel gets completely lost in the details, a prime example of showing your research in historical fiction—specifically the extensive descriptions of the Paris World’s Fair that has very little to do with setting the scene for character development. The author also had a tendency to use pet phrases that would appear multiple times and make me wonder if I had accidentally hit rewind and was re-reading a passage, and while this can sometimes be done for literary purposes, these instances felt more like mistakes than purposeful echoes.

Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins: While I’m very familiar with Collin’s work—as a poet, performer and teacher—it was rather fun to read a collection of work by him. I was struck by his humor, which for some reason became much more obvious when observed against his other poems of more serious tones. As I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetic voice of a novel in verse, I loved the poem “Workshop” in general and the fourth stanza in particular where he explores words and sounds in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way: “his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging— / a hook in the slow industrial canal below. / I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s.” It made what you’ve been saying about evocative words and the feel of a sound make a little more sense. The words themselves don’t have to be complicated or even unique, but how they are used together and to invoke feeling gives them their power.

London Town by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton: This is kind of a poorly written love poem to Victorian London. While A Walk in London by Salvatore Rubbino is a far superior children’s tour of London, this book has a sweet and nostalgic view of 1883 London. The illustrations are surprisingly fabulous.

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman, et al.: While the concept of this book is incredibly complicated, I felt the dialogue was overly simplified—something I didn’t notice when I first read this series in middle school. There are kind of three elements that make up a comic book (or graphic novel or manga, whatever you prefer): the storyboard, the illustrations and the dialogue/text. So the storyboard carries the plot, the illustrations carry the description and action, and the dialogue carries the character development, although all three elements can trade roles. This is something I’m going to have to think more about.

Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill: What a bleak look at the life of such a talented writer. It was almost painful to read this book, not because I think that I’m even close to the skill level of Plath, but because I can understand those manic swings, self-destructive behavior and deep need to be loved yet not feeling that love is deserved. Feeling a kinship to a woman who was obviously suffering from mental illness is quite frightening. The form of this creative biography in verse is ingenious. To use Plath’s own poetry as a structure and telling her story through the eyes of those closest to her echoes Plath’s life of voluntary solitude and emotional remoteness. Most of the time I didn’t even realize I was reading a sonnet or a villanelle until I was half-way through the poem.

The Children’s Object Book by G. Loewensohn: This book makes me realize how much more accessible books may be to children of today but how out of touch publishers still are of the class disparage in our society. This is basically a board book of common objects and portrays the life of the upper class as if it is the every-day experience of all children. At least now we portray the middle class in children’s books. The pretty Victorian illustrations keep this book from being a complete waste. (I am not so naive about the business world that I don’t realize that consumers drive a product more than altruistic values do. At the turn of the century, only the wealthy could afford to buy books—especially books with color illustrations. And now, the majority of books are purchased by middle-class women. So it makes sense that publishers look for books that reflect this demographic, even when it’s a picture book.)

Heaven Looks a Lot Like a Mall by Wendy Mass: This is a novel in verse that has no purpose in being a novel in verse, and writing issues can be found in abundance. First of all, there’s no arc to the narrative voice. That might seem like a strange statement, but this book starts with a teenage narrator who then reverts back to childhood in a near-death experience. While it is all told in present tense, there is no difference in the narrative voice from before her accident at 17 to when she is a toddler to when she is again 17 after her enlightenment. There is also an issue with completely unlikeable characters. Seriously, this narrator treats others—especially those she refers to as friends—horribly, and any glimmer of hope you see for character growth is completely lost from one verse to the next. Her mother is image-obsessed, her father is a doormat and her brother is an egomaniac. Even the kid she shares a hospital room with pulls the plug on her ventilator! There’s also the issue with the ending telling rather than showing what Tessa has learned about her relationship with her mother—“I know that by trying to fix me, / she us really trying to fix herself” (247)—and her father—“my dad might not be the greatest / dad of all time… / but he never stopped / trying to protect me / and trying to make me feel special” (247). What makes this even worse is that Mass doesn’t even lead up to this enlightenment through the rest of the novel—so without her spelling it out in the ending, readers would have no clue how Tessa has grown. As it stands, I’m not sure I buy into this realization even with it being spelled out. But none of those are this books most egregious sin.

Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Rabb: This is perhaps the most introspective book I have read in a long time—a true grief novel about what it’s like, not to get over loss, but to learn not to let it consume you. Each memory is presented almost as a vignette, a brief image of what happened to make Mia who she becomes. It is interesting to see how Rabb chose to open and close each vignette, and while there is almost a complete lack of transition between each passage and no discernible timeline, there is a distinct emotional arc that carries readers through.

Roland Wright: Future Knight by Tony Davis, illustrated by Gregory Rogers: This was a much better early reader than most. It uses reading-level-appropriate language, uses humor and history (kind of) effectively, and for the most part manages to stay away from cliché phrases and stereotypical characters. It also uses a secondary character—Roland’s pet mouse—as a rather unexpected foil to Roland’s boyish fearlessness.