1.08.2017

what i'm reading: four realistic youth novels

Young-adult publishers' mania for series, with the emphasis on fantasy, has finally ebbed. There are still plenty of fantasy series to go around, but the new crop of youth novels is chock full of individual titles in the realistic mode. (In YA land, "realistic" means the opposite of fantasy: set in the existing world with real humans only.)

I've recently read four such novels. I chose three of them because the titles and covers intrigued me, and one based on the author's previous novel. Here are my impressions.

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
On the ever-expanding LGBTQ youth bookshelf, Girl Mans Up appears to be the first book to feature a butch lesbian, and I must say it's a welcome addition. All the other female gay protagonists I'm aware of are written in the "just like everyone else, but gay" vein, people whose orientation would not be guessed if not already known. Not so for Pen.

Pen is butch and a little bit genderqueer. Her old-world European parents don't understand her. Her guy friends accept her -- as long as she conforms to their expectations. Her brother is her rock of strength and unconditional love. But in order to be fully herself, she'll have to "man up".

The best thing about Pen is that she's comfortable in her own skin. She has no doubts about her identity or gender. Her problems arise from other people's expectations or intolerance. Her problems also stem from her best friend -- who is a jerk, if only Pen can see him clearly.

One could say this is a book where nothing much happens. Life happens. Regular, ordinary, everyday life, as lived by a teen in the process of finding her place in the world. For some readers, this is enough. For me, it's a welcome change from the conveniently placed life-tragedy that yields wisdom, a staple of youth fiction. For many readers, though, it will not be enough, especially clocking in at 384 pages. One thing is certain, you will love Pen.

The Great American Whatever, by Tim Federle
Quinn, the main character of Tim Federle's first youth novel, is coping with the aftermath of his sister's death, and his mother's subsequent depression. He's also gay, and that's not a problem.

Up to now, Quinn has been hiding in his room, wrapped in his love of old movies. When his best friend Geoff convinces him to take a step forward, Quinn meets a hot guy and falls for him.

Quinn is a fun narrator, and his friendship with Geoff is more important to the story than his new crush. Not a lot happens, but enough happens to make it interesting. Things play out realistically, which I appreciate.

If you're well-versed in contemporary youth fiction, the plot, the themes, and even the voice of The Great American Whatever may seem cliched and derivative. The dead older sibling. The parent with serious depression. The parent who walked out. The wise-cracking male narrator. We know them all. But if you're new to realistic youth novels, or just can't get enough of this type of book, TGAW may seem fresh, breezy, fun, and meaningful.

What Light by Jay Asher
Jay Asher is the author of the 2007 blockbuster youth novel 13 Reasons Why, which explores a teen suicide -- its causes and its aftermath. The book, widely promoted and popular at the time of publication, is now seeing a second life with the current interest in bullying. The publisher has released a 10th anniversary edition, a rare honour in the YA world.

It would be a lot to expect Asher to live up to the promise of this earlier, but I did expect a book with some weight and significance. I was very disappointed. What Light is a sweet, fluffy Christmas romance. The characters are flat and lifeless. Thoughts, feelings, and actions are described in excruciating detail. Girls think about boys, shopping, and who gets to own the title of Best Friend.

Of course, many readers love Christmas romances, and there's no harm in that. But there is harm hiding in this snowflake of a book. Sierra falls for Caleb; Caleb has a big secret, something shocking from his past that he is afraid to share with Sierra. The secret turns out to be a violent episode, in which Caleb was completely out of control. Only because of someone else's quick thinking, the episode did not end in tragedy.

The reader is repeatedly told that this incident was a one-time event, that Caleb is a good person who only needs a second chance. I thought Caleb might be dangerous. But apparently with the love and understanding of a nice girl, the past can be left behind and everything can be forgiven.

The audience for this book is almost exclusively female, and I am concerned about what messages they will take away. No matter what's in a guy's past, if he's charming enough and really sorry, you can overlook it. Warnings from parents and friends can be ignored. And if a guy has a problem, a smart girl can fix it. Sierra is a bland, blank character brought to life by her desire to fix Caleb, throwing herself into the project almost immediately after meeting him. It disturbs me that anyone writing for youth in the 21st century thinks this is appropriate.

The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
I've saved the best for last. The Female of the Species is searingly honest, powerfully frank, disturbing in all the right ways, yet ultimately hopeful in a realistic way.

Alex Craft's older sister was abducted, raped, and murdered. (Dead sister, absent father, depressed mother.) In response, Alex has locked herself in mental and emotional armour. Also in response -- this will sound like a spoiler, but isn't -- she has murdered her sister's assailant.

In addition to Alex, trying not to feel, there is Peekay, trying not to be perfect, and trying to get over a broken heart. Good-looking and gifted Jack is trying to create a life with more meaning. Jack simultaneously pursues sex with the classically beautiful Branley and is ashamed of his shallowness. He craves something more lasting and authentic, and finds himself drawn to Alex. The gorgeous Branley, envy of all girls and object of desire of all boys, is collapsing under a self-worth based entirely on beauty and sexual availability. Adam, Peekay's ex, is sleeping with Branley. All are haunted by the memory of Anna, Alex's sister, but rape is not only a memory. Rape is an ever-present possibility.

The Female of the Species is about violence -- the violence and the threat of violence that hangs over every female in our society -- and the coping strategies we employ to deal with it. The violence runs the gamut from washroom graffiti and street harassment to roofies, rape, and murder. Many reviewers have noted that the book is about rape culture, which is true. But Alex and Peekay's volunteer work in an animal shelter show that the violence is not limited to women and girls. It is perpetrated, every day, on the powerless, the very creatures it is our responsibility to protect.

I had two problems with this book, but I'm guessing teen readers won't be bothered by either of them. First, the story is told from three different perspectives -- Alex, Peekay, and Jack -- but they all sound exactly the same. It's a challenge to write in different voices, but as an author, if you're giving three different first-person perspectives, you've accepted that challenge.

My second, more significant problem was that I found Alex's abilities hard to believe. As a revenge fantasy, it totally works. But as reality -- a teenage girl who literally gets away with murder, in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else's business -- it strains credulity. None of the reviewers on Goodreads mention this, so I might be the odd reader for whom Alex's revenge didn't seem real.

Despite this reservation, I can say this is an excellent, hard-hitting, honest and gripping story. It's one of the few youth novels to bring an unflinching eye to violence and the society that has more than enough of it to go around.

1.07.2017

update from the land of the missing white dog

We miss Tala a lot. Of course. Need it even be said.

Somehow I have gone from abject grief to poignant acceptance quicker than I expected. I have no idea why this is. With each dog we have said goodbye to, eventually I get to a place where, thinking of them, I feel sad but at peace -- fortunate to have had their love, assured that we did everything we could for them, and a kind of happy-sadness at their memories. My heart still aches for Tala, but somehow I'm at peace with it.

Everyone is asking about Diego. He is doing really well. He seemed "off" for a couple of days -- he seemed to be waiting for Tala to come home. For all we know, he still is. But he has quickly adapted to a new routine, and seems almost like his usual happy self.

I miss the howling, and the rough-housing. I wonder if Diego misses it, too.

I'm grateful that I was home for almost a full week before we suddenly had to say goodbye to Tala. If I had been out of the house at work and union meetings, I would have missed precious time with her. I'm also grateful that the decision was completely obvious. As soon as we saw the chest x-rays, we knew.

I'm having trouble reconciling myself to why we didn't help her sooner. She was having some symptoms, but we attributed them to her chronic spine condition and to age, never imagining something else was going on. She was struggling for a few weeks. But was she suffering? The thought of one of my animals suffering is unbearable for me. My brain tells me we did everything we could, and even if we didn't, we can't go back and re-do it. But my heart is not fully on board.

Tala's death has made me think about all love and all mortality. I'd say this is a sign of age, but in fact each time I lose someone I love, I feel this way. Our ability to love is infinite, but the creatures we love are always finite. And since we human animals are aware of our own mortality, we know that our love will lead to loss. But love we must.

I envy those people who believe in an eternal afterlife. When I say goodbye to someone I love, I realize what a beautiful fiction that is.

1.06.2017

the lost comments of wmtc

I was randomly clicking around, and for absolutely no reason, clicked on Blogger's spam comment folder. And in that folder, I found a bunch of spam comments -- and several real comments from wmtc readers! There were comments from M@, James, deang, and Amy. This was quite a surprise.

I put all the comments through. They are all on very old threads. Strangely, I have not received them by email, as I normally do. Weird.

The lost comments have now been recovered. We can all breathe a sigh of relief.

12.29.2016

tala

We must say goodbye to our sweet Tala today. At the vet yesterday, we got the worst possible news, and we know we must do this right away. I'm grateful that it's a clear decision.

Tala, Tala Bobala, Talabo, T-bo, T. Skinny Face. Princess Tala. My Little Girl.

She started life in a puppy mill in Tennessee. She was rescued to Ohio, then to Husky Savers in Western New York State. Then finally to Canada -- on the underground railroad to freedom. We fell in love with her on Petfinder and have been that way ever since, now one month shy of 10 years.

Talabo. Spinning wildly in circles, a white blur. Patroling the perimeter of her yard to keep us safe from the evil squirrels. Barking and spinning in the car, nonstop. Barking until someone would finally spray her with a hose, hopefully until she was soaked. Staring at the hose, waiting for someone to spray her, or perhaps trying to will the hose to spray her.

At the sound of the word "upstairs," even in casual conversation not directed at her, getting up and walking upstairs to go in her crate. Eating bees. Live bees, buzzing around in her mouth before she swallowed and caught another.

In her younger days, picking on small dogs at the dog park. If they would turn around and give her what-for, she was happy to let them chase her. If they cowered, she bullied them until we could finally distract her.

Mostly nice to other dogs, always sweet to humans, especially children. When we first brought Tala home, Cody hated her, but Tala didn't care, she kept trying to get Cody to play with her, until Cody finally gave in. Tala, best friend to Diego from the moment they met.

Degenerative disc disease or cauda equina syndrome forced us to change her life. She adapted without complaint. Not once, but two or three times, when we had to re-boot her rehab from the beginning. In May 2016 she had a soft tissue sarcoma. We had it removed and she was quickly back to herself.

White, soft, fluffy, with magic self-cleaning fur that repelled water and never looked dirty. ("How do you keep her so clean?" People would ask me all the time.)

Goodbye, my little girl. We will love you forever.








After diagnosis

Rehab



Cherry Beach

Waiting... hoping...

Waiting for a neighbour to spray her.






After one of the wmtc parties.

After her surgery this past May.


This will always be my favourite picture of her.

The picture on Petfinder.
L: "Where is Churchville, New York?"
A: "I don't know, but wherever it is, we're going."






Gypsy, November 28, 1987 - November 12, 1998
Clyde, October 21, 1989 - August 4, 1999
Cody, April 19, 1999 - August 24, 2010
Buster, December 14, 1999 - November 16, 2005
Tala, January 29, 2007 - December 29, 2016
Diego, April 26, 2011

12.27.2016

down these mean streets: raymond chandler's "the simple art of murder"

Netflix has added many older movies to its library, including several classics and modern classics. Among them I noticed "Mean Streets," the 1973 film that put both Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro on the map. I always thought Scorsese took the film's name from Piri Thomas' autobiography, Down These Mean Streets. Thomas' work is a landmark of urban and prison literature, and was highly influential. What I didn't know was that both Thomas and Scorsese borrowed their titles from a common source: an essay by Raymond Chandler, published in 1950, called "The Simple Art of Murder".

The essay is a gem. Chandler analyzes and critiques the murder mystery novel -- its formula, its artifice, its unreality. He refutes the idea that the murder mystery or detective novel cannot also be well crafted piece of art -- and he goes one step further, dismissing the false division between "quality" literature and "escapist" fiction. I loved this part, and agree with it entirely.
In her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, Dorothy Sayers wrote: "It (the detective story) does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement." And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a "literature of escape" and not "a literature of expression." I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is: neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does Miss Sayers. Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. It is part of the process of life among thinking beings. It is one of the things that distinguish them from the three-toed sloth; he apparently -- one can never be quite sure -- is perfectly content hanging upside down on a branch, and not even reading Walter Lippmann. I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.
Chandler then goes on to explain what he thinks Sayers was really poking at, which leads him to extol one detective writer above all: Dashiell Hammett.

It's a brilliant essay, so beautifully crafted. It shares a certain voice with the George Orwell essays that I love so much -- authoritative, but generous and warm; erudite but easy to follow, with just a hint of wry humour. Reading this essay reminded me that I know Chandler's work only from the film adaptations of his novels; I've never read any of his books. Sadly, the same is true about Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, although I love both film noir and hard-boiled detective films and series. Time to remedy that. I'm going to read at least a couple of books by each.

The penultimate paragraph of "The Simple Art of Murder" brings us the mean streets of both titles, and a soaring ode to the hard-boiled detective himself.
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.
A Farewell to Piri Thomas, One-time Criminal Who Became A Youth and Peace Advocate, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (2011)

Roger Ebert on Scorsese's "Mean Streets" (2003)

Writers in Hollywood: Raymond Chandler, The Atlantic (1945)


12.26.2016

travel safety in egypt vs anywhere else in the world

When I tell people I'm going to Egypt, they are happy and excited for me. Then, almost everyone asks me if it's safe there, and says, "Be careful." The recent incident in Berlin has caused me to reflect on why this is.

First: I am not complaining about friends expressing concern for my safety. I know that they are coming from a place of care and concern.

But they are also coming from a place of fear. The media has conditioned us to think of the Middle East as inherently unstable and unsafe. Add to that the violence during and after the 2011 Egyptian revolution, and western fears that US-backed dictator Mubarak would be replaced with a fundamentalist theocracy.

In Canada, there's also another layer: what I observe as a prevalent Canadian attitude about travel safety. To my mind, many Canadians are inordinately worried about safety when travelling. They are often timid about the world, risk-averse, people who value safety over adventure, and the known world over exploration. The majority of Canadians like their travel pre-packaged, predictable, and tame. As with all generalizations, exceptions abound, but I observe this on a regular basis.

The Canadian media stokes fears of travel, with sensational reporting on crime against vacationing Canadians, especially in Mexico. From what I can glean from news stories, some of this violence seems to be directed at tourists in heavily touristed areas. This CBC story sought to put the incidents in perspective, but CBC is among the worst offenders of sensationalist scare-stories about Mexico.

When my friends urge me to "be careful" in Egypt, I think there must be some measure of Islamophobia involved. I don't think it's conscious -- but I really don't know. We're traveling to "the Muslim world" or "the Arab world," as people say. To many people, that equates with danger.

When I traveled to Europe, no one expressed concerns for my safety, despite bombings in Paris, Madrid, and London in the not-distant past -- to say nothing of the murder rate in the United States. Yet Egypt is the only destination that has earned all the "be careful"s.

It's not that I haven't thought about the risk of going to Egypt and Jordan. I've been looking into the relative safety of this trip, off and on, for a few years. I came to the conclusion that for tourism, Egypt is safe enough. I assessed the risk as best I could -- and also assessed our age, financial situation, and the timing of this trip in our lives -- and decided now was the time. (I'm also hoping that we'll take advantage of tourism to Egypt still being depressed, encountering smaller crowds and better ease of travel.)

We flew to Ireland exactly two months after September 11, 2001, and just hours after a flight leaving from the same airport crashed and burned just after take-off. We could see the lights of the emergency crews from the runway. That felt a lot riskier than the trip we're planning now. And of course, the worst thing that ever happened to me happened while I was home, sleeping in my own bed.

In terms of specific trip planning, we did make a few concessions to safety. We've ruled out a few sites that seem too far off the beaten track, which in another place and time we might have trekked to. We were considering the Siwa Oasis, but it entails a long bus ride through the desert, and the oasis itself is right near the border with Libya. We're skipping things like that.

The way I look at it, there are risks everywhere. Life is risk. We risk life every day. The most important thing is to try to live life as fully and as meaningfully as possible.

12.08.2016

librarians: celebrate human rights at your library #Write4Rights

December 10 is International Human Rights Day. The date commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the first global human rights document.

Every year on December 10, Amnesty International Canada holds Write For Rights. All over the country, Canadians use our own human rights to support people who don’t have them. We write letters in support of prisoners of conscience, and letters to prisoners to let them know they have not been forgotten. It’s a powerful experience, and very easy to do.

This year I will be writing letters, and I've invited our library system to join me. Library staff are always looking for display ideas. I compiled a list of materials, sent it out to all staff, and suggested a human rights themed display. Several people were interested, and I sent them each a poster template and Write For Rights bookmarks that I got from Amnesty.

If you create library displays, I invite you to try this! You can share photos of your displays on social media with the hashtag #Write4Rights. Here's my display, and my list.






Nonfiction
Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacob
A Woman Among Warlords, Malala Joya
Chasing the Flame, Samantha Power
Dead Man Walking, Helen Prejean
Infamy, Richard Reeves
Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
I Shall Not Hate, Izzeldin Abuelaish
A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah
Shake Hands with the Devil, Romeo Dallaire
Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown
An Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King
The Dark Side, Jane Mayer

Fiction
The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden
Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Little Bee, Chris Cleave
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, Gil Courtemanche
Room, Emma Donoghue
Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Ford, Jamie Ford
Secret Daughter, Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson
The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill
The Illegal, Lawrence Hill
A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
The Known World, Edward Jones
The Cellist of Sarajevo, Annette Keen
The Afterlife of Stars, Joseph Kertes
The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
Prairie Ostrich, Tamai Kobayashi
To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Fall on Your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels
A Mercy, Toni Morrison
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Lives of Girls and Women, Alice Munroe
Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
Ru, Kim Thúy
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
Mosquito, Roma Terme
Dogs at the Perimeter, Madeleine Thien
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese
Native Son, Richard Wright
The Book Thief, Marcus Zusack
The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card

Youth Fiction
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Little Brother, Cory Doctorow
The Giver, Lois Lowry

Documentary films
Devil's Knot
The Central Park Five
Waltz with Bashir

Movies
Amistad
The Book Thief
The Giver
Hotel Rwanda
Made In Dagenham
Pride
Selma
12 Years a Slave

Graphic Nonfiction
War Is Boring, David Axe
Martin Luther King, Michael Teitelbaum
Army of God, David Axe
Snowden, Ted Rall
Woman Rebel, Peter Bagge
The Imitation Game, Jim Ottaviani
Anne Frank, Sidney Jacobson
Maus, Art Spiegelman
Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, Harvey Pekar
Louis Riel, Chester Brown

I'm sure everyone reading this can think of more titles. My list was limited to what can be found in our library system. I hope it inspires you to add some of your own. And to Write For Rights on December 10.