Sometimes a Book Slump = Daydreaming About Reading

by REBECCA, January 28, 2013

I’ve been in a bit of a book slump lately—starting books and never finishing them, not feeling super excited about the books I’ve been been getting from inter-library loan . . . just a little mid-winter lag, I hope. Still, for some perverse reason, being in a reading slump just makes me doubly excited to daydream about the next books I’m going to read. I dunno why; just one of those things.

So, here are five of the books I’m most excited about reading . . . as soon as I de-slump. All plot descriptions are from Goodreads.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen Lucy Knisley

1. Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley (forthcoming April, 2013)

I like Lucy Knisley a lot, especially her Parisian food/art/angst memoir, French Milk (review HERE). So, when I heard that Knisley has written a whole graphic memoir about food, I got excited!

“A vibrant, food-themed memoir from beloved indie cartoonist Lucy Knisley. Lucy Knisley loves food. The daughter of a chef and a gourmet, this talented young cartoonist comes by her obsession honestly. In her forthright, thoughtful, and funny memoir, Lucy traces key episodes in her life thus far, framed by what she was eating at the time and lessons learned about food, cooking, and life. Each chapter is bookended with an illustrated recipe—many of them treasured family dishes, and a few of them Lucy’s original inventions.”

A Face Like Glass Frances Hardinge

2. A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge (2012)

This book sounds crazy-magical! I want to read it out loud with my sister!:

“In the underground city of Caverna the world’s most skilled craftsmen toil in the darkness to create delicacies beyond compare — wines that can remove memories, cheeses that can make you hallucinate and perfumes that convince you to trust the wearer, even as they slit your throat. The people of Caverna are more ordinary, but for one thing: their faces are as blank as untouched snow. Expressions must be learned, and only the famous Facesmiths can teach a person to show (or fake) joy, despair or fear — at a price. Into this dark and distrustful world comes Neverfell, a little girl with no memory of her past and a face so terrifying to those around her that she must wear a mask at all times. For Neverfell’s emotions are as obvious on her face as those of the most skilled Facesmiths, though entirely genuine. And that makes her very dangerous indeed.”

Openly Straight Bill Konigsberg

3. Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg (forthcoming June, 2013)

Contemporary YA that promises a compelling story about sexuality and identity.

“Rafe is a normal teenager from Boulder, Colorado. He plays soccer. He’s won skiing prizes. He likes to write. And, oh yeah, he’s gay. He’s been out since 8th grade, and he isn’t teased, and he goes to other high schools and talks about tolerance and stuff. And while that’s important, all Rafe really wants is to just be a regular guy. Not that GAY guy. To have it be a part of who he is, but not the headline, every single time. So when he transfers to an all-boys’ boarding school in New England, he decides to keep his sexuality a secret — not so much going back in the closet as starting over with a clean slate. But then he sees a classmate breaking down. He meets a teacher who challenges him to write his story. And most of all, he falls in love with Ben . . . who doesn’t even know that love is possible.”

Frost Marianna Baer

4. Frost by Marianna Baer (2011)

I have three things to say to you: frost, boarding school, and bizarre!:

“Leena Thomas’s senior year at boarding school starts with a cruel shock: Frost House, the cozy Victorian dorm where she and her best friends live, has been assigned an unexpected roommate—eccentric Celeste Lazar. As classes get under way, strange happenings begin to bedevil Frost House: frames falling off walls, doors locking themselves, furniture toppling over. Celeste blames the housemates, convinced they want to scare her into leaving. And although Leena strives to be the peacekeeper, soon the eerie happenings in the dorm, an intense romance between Leena and Celeste’s brother, David, and the reawakening of childhood fears all push Leena to take increasingly desperate measures to feel safe. But does the threat lie with her new roommate, within Leena’s own mind . . . or in Frost House itself?”

Kelley York Suicide Watch

5. Suicide Watch by Kelley York (2012)

You may remember that last month we did a cover reveal for the lovely Kelley York’s new novel, Suicide Watch! I loved Kelley’s first novel, Hushed (review HERE), and am super excited to read Suicide Watch. Check it out:

“18-year-old Vincent Hazelwood has spent his entire life being shuffled from one foster home to the next. His grades sucked. Making friends? Out of the question thanks to his nervous breakdowns and unpredictable moods. Still, Vince thought when Maggie Atkins took him in, he might’ve finally found a place to get his life—and his issues—in order. But then Maggie keels over from a heart attack. Vince is homeless, alone, and the inheritance money isn’t going to last long. A year ago, Vince watched a girl leap to her death off a bridge, and now he’s starting to think she had the right idea. Vince stumbles across a website forum geared toward people considering suicide. There, he meets others with the same debate regarding the pros and cons of death: Casper, battling cancer, would rather off herself than slowly waste away. And there’s quiet, withdrawn Adam, who suspects if he died, his mom wouldn’t even notice. As they gravitate toward each other, Vince searches for a reason to live while coping without Maggie’s guidance, coming to terms with Casper’s imminent death, and falling in love with a boy who doesn’t plan on sticking around.”

Do you ever have reading slumps? What do you do to get out of them? Any magical books I should add to my to-read list once the slump de-slumpeth? Tell all in the comments.

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On Sexist and Misogynistic Language in YA Lit

Why the Way We Write About Gender In YA Lit Matters. A Lot.

Man Up to End Misogyny

by Jon Dorn

by REBECCA, January 23, 2013

words matter.

This is not a post about sexism and misogyny. This is a post about sexist and misogynistic language. Why? Because I, along with many other awesome YA reviewers and authors, write about sexism and misogyny when we review books that demonstrate them. But sexist and misogynistic language often go undiscussed even though they can have, I would argue, even more impact on a reader’s sense of how gender functions in the world of the book. The other day, I reviewed the first book in Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series, Sloppy Firsts, and was pretty grossed out at the (seemingly out of character) sexist and misogynist words that McCafferty puts in Jessica’s mouth. It’s bad enough if authors write sexist books, I commented, but  it’s worse, in my opinion, when authors sneak misogyny into characters who are otherwise pretty righteous. By having Jessica, a smart, strong character, denigrate being “a girl” McCafferty teaches a whole new generation to equate “girl” with “over-sensitive,” “hyper-reactive,” “obsessive,” and “irrational.” Great. Thanks.

And, so, this is a post about how and why words matter a whole heck of a lot, especially in YA lit, when we know that they are being consumed by readers whose identities and views about the world are in the process of forming. I don’t say this in an attempt to leverage any kind of hand-wringing save-the-children defense! Rather, I say it because YA lit is essentially about identity-formation and, therefore, any of us who read it go through similar identity-formations. I think that many of us (who aren’t young adults ourselves) who love YA lit so much love it in part because it gives us the opportunity to explore our own identities in what are, perhaps, more fluid ways than are possible in books about forty-somethings stuck in unhappy marriages and working monotonous jobs to pay off their mortgages. That is, YA lit is often about all the different ways there are to be ourselves. YA lit features characters who (due to their age and their situation) have options, who have the potential to do or be almost anything, and, as such, the villain of any YA story is always someone or something that stands in the way of those options. It might be a strict parent who won’t let the protag be who she truly is; it might be a bully who makes the protag feel that he can’t express himself without being punished for it; it might be a lack of resources due to class or region, or a lack of options due to race; it might be a monster who wants to bring about the apocalypse, that essential potential-killer. Or, it might be sexism, misogyny, and gender policing that stand in the way of our protag’s options.

Why, you may ask, are sexist and misogynistic language just as much of a problem as outright sexism and misogyny? Because sexist and misogynistic language are comparatively invisible and, therefore, rarely talked about. Sexist and misogynistic language are so commonplace that we can sometimes soak it up like we would song lyrics on the radio—that is, without any critical interrogation of it. Phrases like “man up,” “she’s such a girl,” “you throw like a girl,” “pretty strong for a girl,” “crying like a little girl,” etc. are so common that I read them all the time . . . even in books that are not otherwise sexist or misogynistic. And that’s when I feel particularly nervous. Because it suggests that even those who would likely fight against gender inequality have internalized certain gender essentialisms to such a degree that phrases like “she’s such a girl” actually communicate something specific for them, as opposed to describing 51% of the youth population.

It is easy (and tempting) to vilify authors who use sexist and misogynistic language; easy to say, “oh, well, she’s sexist” or “he just doesn’t care about women.” To the contrary, however, there are a lot of amazing, smart, and talented people who believe that equality is important but seem not to consider language as the important political tool of equality that it is. And, oh, it is!

why “misogynistic”?

To clarify the difference between sexism and misogyny, sexism refers to “behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex,” and misogyny describes “hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women.” Sexism, that is, is about perceived differences based on whether you were born with male or female sex organs, whereas misogyny is about the denigration of women. I clarify because most language that is sexist is also misogynistic. When I say that someone “throws like a girl” we all know that I mean they throw badly or weakly. When I say that a female friend of mine was being “such a girl” we all know that I mean to emphasize negative stereotypes of femininity, such as weakness, melodrama, or oversensitivity. When a man describes his daughter with pride, saying, “she really manned up this weekend,” we all know that he is trying to pay her the ultimate compliment: imbuing her with masculinity. These comments are all sexist, sure, because they ascribe certain traits to males and others to females. But, more importantly, they are all also misogynistic because they imply that everyone agrees that being described in feminine terms, even if you are female, is negative.

In a post I wrote for Banned Books Week, “On the Pleasures and Necessities of Conversations About Difficult Books,” I discussed how troubling I find it when strong female characters that I like and admire describe their strength as being masculine and their weakness as being feminine. I cited, as an example of this, the wonderful Perry Palomino, protagonist of Karina Halle‘s totally awesome Experiment in Terror books. Perry hunts ghosts like a total badass, deals with the threat of mental illness, unfulfilled love, and did I mention GHOSTS that try to kill her. Yet, time and time again, Perry describes her crying or being scared or desiring intimacy as being “girly” or “acting like a girl.” Now, it’s troubling enough when craptastic or sexist characters imply and reinforce sexist notions about emotion or fear being feminine. It sucks, but it’s expected. But it’s far more troubling to me when female characters do this—and especially awesome female characters who are brave and strong.

The thing is, I understand this impulse. I feel like there was absolutely a moment in my life (early high school) when I wanted to be strong and self-sufficient and was encouraged (by my boyfriend at the time; by well-meaning guy friends) to think of my strength (and tastes—in music, movies, humor) as being in spite of being female rather than a natural part of it. It is such an insidious form of sexism because, of course, it’s praising women who are strong and brave, right? But, to the contrary, every time we reinforce the notion that bravery, strength, etc. are masculine characteristics that some women sometimes have, we imply that the standard for all those other women all the rest of the time is weakness or neediness; that embracing characteristics associated with femininity might mitigate that strength, that bravery, that self-sufficiency. And we imply that the only way to be strong or brave is in the way we typically associate with masculine behavior.

repetition matters. 

In addition to YA lit being the wonderful purveyor of the many different ways to live, it also models many possible ways of talking, thinking, and problem-solving. That means that YA authors are in the incredible position of having the potential to present readers with ways to think and talk about strength that aren’t simply masculine, or about sensitivity that aren’t simply feminine. The more times we read a YA novel where a smart, seemingly savvy character thinks in terms of gender essentialism or makes misogynistic comments, the more likely it is that we are going to internalize those ways of thinking. Whereas, the more books we read that provide more complicated (and, frankly, thus more interesting) ways to think about ourselves, the more potential we have to find identities that suit us as opposed to trying to force ourselves into ill-fitting ones (and police others into them as well). Gender essentialism is harmful because it limits the possibilities that we think we have—and that makes it the enemy in YA lit (as in life)!

so . . .

Do I want to police the way people write? Of course not. Do I believe that art and entertainment should be expected to serve purely didactic purposes? Absolutely not. Indeed, if authors want to choose to use sexist and misogynistic language, I would never question their right to do so. Maybe I don’t want to read those books, but I would defend the authors’ rights to write them. But my suspicion is that these words often make their way onto the page as knee-jerk shorthands rather than intentional declarations of sexism or misogyny.

And, so, my hope is that we can challenge ourselves to be on the side of expansion and possibility rather than simplification and limitation. Let’s not assume that we can generalize about huge groups of people. Let’s not make it harder for people to see all the ways to imagine of themselves. And let’s talk to each other if we find ourselves defaulting to harmful and limiting language because we aren’t sure what the other options might be. Let’s keep talking about all the wonderful, interesting, and creative ways to write about identity, because maybe if we can then others will too.

Favorite New Show? White Collar!

5 Reasons Why You Should Be Watching White Collar!

White Collar

by REBECCA, January 21, 2013

For a few years, Netflix has been recommending White Collar to me and for a few years I’ve summarily dismissed the recommendation. My logic: “You know what’s boring? White collar crime.” But, through a series of (frankly uninteresting to anyone but me) circumstances, I found myself deciding I’d give the pilot a whirl, just to prove to Netflix that they were wrong. That, while, sure, I love me some Law and Order SVU and some Bones and some Lie To Me does not mean that I’m a sucker for any procedural show with a unique premise and a set of codependent partners.

Boy howdy, was I wrong. Turns out, I am a sucker for a smart and unique show with codependent partners, which White Collar definitely is. So, to save you from making the same mistake that I did and, thus, depriving yourself of a true joy, I present to you: 5 Reasons Why You Should Be Watching White Collar!

1. Expertise & Monomania! Holy hell, is there anything that delights me more than people who know a shitload of super-specific information about a lot of things and a single-minded drive to pursue those things? No! (Or, at least, nothing that’s any of your business.) So, the premise of White Collar is that Neal Caffrey (played by the delightful Moby Dick final chaseMatt Bomer)—expert art forger, counterfeiter, thief, confidence man, and all around freaking charmer—cuts a deal with the FBI to be released from prison (he’s already escaped once, NBD) as an expert consultant in the white collar department. He’s partnered with agent Peter Burke, who put him in prison in the first place. The point? Neal is an expert in all things associated with forging, art, counterfeiting, breaking in places, stealing things, puzzles, and math. He can forge the Mona Lisa, signatures, and any piece of identification you can imagine.

But, just as interestingly, Neal is an expert at reading people. He is immensely charming and can tell what people want and what their weaknesses are. It doesn’t hurt that he is distractingly handsome and dresses really well. (Seriously, though, he’s the kind of handsome—not so model beautiful that it’s ridiculous and smiley enough to be super engaging—that I can’t imagine having to deal with it on a daily basis. Like, I wonder if Matt Bomer’s boyfriend is ever trying to tell him that, like, he put too much chili powder in the stew and instead finds that he’s just been staring at Matt Bomer’s face, not having noticed that forty-five seconds have gone by?) As the show continues, Neal’s many and varied expertises keep revealing themselves. Seriously, it’s goddamned beautiful to watch (just make sure you’re not feeling like a failure when you start watching).

2. A Married Couple Without Kids! Peter Burke and his wife Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen, aka Kelly Kapowski from Saved By the Bell in a charming turn) have been married for ten years and have no kids. Why does that matter? Because it’s one of the few portrayals on tv (at least that I’ve seen) of a couple who have a great relationship where they actually care about the details of each other’s lives as opposed to being bored with each other, cheating on each other, or only caring about their kids’ lives. They’re pretty cute together, and not in a gross, schmoopy way. Elizabeth runs her own party planning business but she’s also super into hearing about FBI stuff; she often gives Peter insights and likes to talk through cases, and she’s smart, so it’s charming. Anyway, I didn’t notice for the whole first season how rare (and refreshing) it is to see a couple that is crazy about each other (and their super cute dog!).


white collar 3. Odd Couple In Love!
Speaking of couples in love, Peter and Neal totally adore each other and the show delights in how much they respect, admire, and infuriate each other. Peter (played by Tim DeKay, who I loved in Carnivàle) was the agent who pursued Neal for years and eventually put him in jail, and it’s clear that he respected the hell out of Neal as a brilliant criminal. When Neal was in prison, he sent Peter birthday cards and other such cheeky things. From the moment they start working together, it’s obvious that Peter is absolutely delighted by Neal, both professionally and kind of like a little brother. Neal clearly feels genuine affection and respect for Peter. Peter admires Neal’s charm, intelligence, and ability to always land on his feel; Neal admires Peter’s honesty, principles, and dependability. They are the perfect odd couple and goddammit it is delightful to watch their relationship develop. This is the definition of a buddy-buddy homosocial partnership (think Supernatural, but without that whole . . . brothers thing).

White Collar Mozzie4. Nerd Power! White Collar is definitely a show that celebrates the nerdy, from science to obscure historical factoids. Sure, many of the nerds in question are overly attractive, but not my favorite nerd. Enter, Mozzie (Willie Garson)! He’s Neal’s oldest friend and is brilliant, well-read, and nerdy! He has a penchant for wine, cravats, hanging out at Neal’s house, and clever turns of phrase. In combination with Neal, he’s devastating in a number of areas. Like, I think between the two of them they could probably topple governments or steal the entire contents of the Louvre.

When I first started watching White Collar, I thought it was a superficially fun show that kept me intrigued because of all the above. However, after a few episodes, I started thinking that it was a really smart show, in terms of writing. In each episode, there is a crime/scheme that Neal and Peter need to solve (that’s the procedural part). As such, each one is a little mini-mystery, like most procedurals, but unlike many shows of the whodunnit variety, White Collar‘s crimes are often much more complicated and smarter. These are elaborate schemes by criminals of Neal’s ilk, so it’s often as delightful to see the criminals’ intelligence as it is Neal’s. But it isn’t just the plots that are smart, it’s also the writing. One of my pet peeves in television writing is when characters don’t have properly differentiated voices (vocabularies, knowledge sets, syntaxes), but White Collar definitely delivers. Mozzie, in particular, has an awesome voice and backstory. You know a show’s writing is good when you don’t even notice it for a few episodes.

5. A Conflict Of Interests! One surefire way to create persistent and natural dramatic tension is to have characters who share one goal or interest, but have essentially conflicting interests in another area. The reason Neal wanted to be let out of prison (and treasureescaped in the first place, as we learn in the first five minutes of the pilot, so I’m not spoiling anything) is because his ex-girlfriend left town and he wants to find her. So, alongside the cases that he works with Peter, Neal is also trying to solve the mystery of where she went. Then, in later seasons, he has even bigger personal . . . pursuits. This makes for a really awesome dynamic: Peter trusts Neal intrinsically as it concerns his expertise, and adores him as a person, but knows that very expertise could allow Neal to try and escape or perpetrate schemes under his nose. Neal, on the other hand, has obligations and desires that force him, again and again, to choose between them and his loyalty to Peter. It’s all very dramatic!

White Collar seasons 1-3 are available on Netflix now.

Hello, Jessica Darling!: Sloppy Firsts

A review of Sloppy Firsts (Jessica Darling #1) by Megan McCafferty

Broadway Books (Random House) 2001

Sloppy Firsts Jessica Darling #1 Megan McCafferty

by REBECCA, January 16, 2013

characters

Jessica Darling: our protag whose bestie Hope just tragically abandoned her when her family moved away

Marcus Flutie: a guy at school who seems to see the Jessica Darling who isn’t so darling

Bridget: Jessica’s childhood bestie who turned boring

Manda & Sara: the other 2/3 of the “Clueless Crew” (with Bridget), they’re Jessica’s superficial default friends

Hy: a newcomer to Pineville from New York, Hy seems like she could be a real friend, until she becomes queen bee of the Clueless Crew

Scotty: one of Jessica’s oldest friends, he has a crush on her but she couldn’t care less

Jessica’s mom: sensitive basket case who seems to think Jessica should be a totally different person

Jessica’s dad: obsesses over Jessica’s running because he has no other way to connect with her

Paul Parlipiano: Jessica’s dream boy, he is a senior who she has never spoken to but worships completely

hook

When your best friend—the only person in the whole world who understands you, the only person in the whole world that you can stand to be around—moves away, leaving you at the mercy of parents who don’t get you, faux-friends who you hate, a crush so massive and unrealistic that you have no control over it, and a strange boy who seems to see you in a way that only your best friend ever has, what the hell do you do? Well, you can’t do anything, obviously, except keep a journal for the rest of us to read and send desperate missives to your absent bestie.

worldview

Holy realism, Batman. I hadn’t realized how long it’d been since I’d read a good old-fashioned first person realist high school fiction, but Sloppy Firsts is absolutely that. So, I originally bought this book for my sister for Chanukah one year (it was one of eight books that I can no longer differentiate among, but they were all in this vein) and never read any of them. But then a few weeks ago I was visiting my parents and had finished the books I brought with me, so I ransacked the bookshelves that are now an orphanage of all the books that my family has left behind over the years, and I found Sloppy Firsts (such mixtures of liquid leftovers were called Jungle Juice in my day; no idea what the kids today are calling it).

I kind of feel like the Jessica Darling books are one of those series that everyone who loves YA lit has read except for me (although I’d never heard of it when I bought it for my sis, or I’d surely have read it before I gave it to her). So, I think it’s long overdue that I check out the series containing the mysterious loner guy that Forever Young Adult compares every mysterious loner guy to. However, I’ll admit that I didn’t expect to be particularly interested in Sloppy Firsts. It just it isn’t the kind of book that I usually gravitate toward; still, I enjoy one every now and again and, luckily for me, I was at my parents’ house and was therefore in the mood for it because at my parents’ house I am fifteen again.

Sloppy Firsts is written in the form of a daily play-by-play of Jessica Darling’s life, interspersed with the occasional letters and emails to her best friend, Hope. Jessica’s voice is really wonderful, and that was the strongest element of the book for me. It was truly a joy to get inside Jessica’s head: she’s funny and self-deprecating and harsh and embarrassing. Most of the fun (for me) of a narrative like this one is the small revelations that the characters have in the course of their daily lives:

‘Regardless of who you invite,’ Bethany said, breaking the silence, ‘You should be more concerned about the part in your hair than you are about wearing it up.’

‘What do you mean? My part is just fine,’ I said, immediately looking in the mirror for a confirmation. My hair was tucked back, curling just under my earlobes, with a silver barrette clipped to the right side of my head to keep my bangs from falling into my eyes. Same as always.

‘Well, sure, it looks fine in the mirror.’

‘And that’s fine because that’s what I look like.’

‘No it isn’t,’ she laughed.

Then she sprung the bit of big sister torture she’s probably been saving for years.’

I knew that numbers and letters were backward in the mirror, but I never thought the same principle could apply to faces. I never realized that what I see in the mirror is my reverse image. Bethany positioned me in from of a set of mirrors that bounced off each other in a way that let me see the reverse of my reverse image—which is what I really look like.

What a shock. Bethany was right. I do part my hair on the wrong side. . . . I always thought that I didn’t photograph well, but it turns out that’s how I appear to others. I tried holding my hand mirror up to the bathroom mirror so I can get ready for school with my real face in mind. There’s nothing I can do about my nostrils. But I’ve been trying to use styling goop, a paddle brush, and a hair-dryer to train my part to hang a left instead of a right, but it’s just not working. The part is already sixteen years in the making” (34).

Sloppy Firsts Megan McCaffertyThere is interpersonal drama, sure, but as you’d expect, Sloppy Firsts is mostly friendships, crushes, fights, and self-discoveries. What sets it apart from so many of the other contemporary realistic YA novels that I’ve read is that Jessica’s main friendship takes place off-screen, so most of the portrayals of friendship that we get are of Jessica with the Clueless Crew, who are truly heinous in their intense and boring superficiality, and with Scotty, the cause of which I never did figure out, since he seems mostly to just play video games and be boring. And Jessica seems to think the same because he just kind of fades out of the book. In short, this is mostly a book about anti-friendships (Jessica is too apathetic about the Clueless Crew for me to even designate them as frenemies; plus, they don’t know that she hates them).

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

As such, I think one of Sloppy Firsts’ main intentions is to show the importance of a best friend/partner in crime. We never get to see Hope’s responses to Jessica, but we really don’t need to. It’s clear that they have that kind of enviable best friend relationship where they worship each other and their differences perfectly compliment one another. Really, the book is sort of a love letter to Hope, only in the negative. Throughout the course of the novel, Jessica grows more and more depressed and dissatisfied and lonely without Hope. That’s a dynamic that I think most of us can relate to. Moments of the description of their friendship are so right-on that it made me really miss all of you lovelies who live far away from me:

Hope,

Exactly one year ago today, I sprinted the last 100 yards to win a cross-country meet against Eastland . . . I was feeling proud and happy. I rented Heathers at Blockbuster and was looking forward to what new insights/analysis we would come up with in our tenth VCR viewing. I got ready to make bowls of Chubby Hubby—mine topped with Cap’n Crunch, yours without—when you arrived for our Friday Night Food and Flick Fest. . . . You didn’t burst through the kitchen door cracking a joke about the Clueless Crew or doing a dead-on imitation of one of Christina Aguilera’s white-girl soul riffs or bearing a construction-paper-and-glitter gold medal that you’d insist I wear on my chest all evening. Your face was sad and serious in a way I hadn’t seen since Heath died. I knew something was wrong. Then you said it.

‘We’re moving to Tennessee.’

As horrible and impossible and all-other-ibles as the news was, I knew it was true. You put the ice cream back in the freezer so it wouldn’t melt, and I cried for hours.

Today I dug past layer upon layer of dinners and foil-covered leftovers in the freezer. I found that pint of Chubby Hubby covered in flowery frost, unopened, uneaten. And I cried all over again.

I still miss you.” (188)

As Jessica’s dissatisfaction with her life increases, she notices that the mysterious stoner at school, Marcus Flutie, seems to see her for who she is, unlike the Clueless Crew (and all her teachers)—that is, as “Notso” (as in “not so darling,” according to her father). Her burgeoning relationship with Marcus is the one thing that Jessica feels she can’t tell Hope, because Marcus did drugs with Hope’s brother, who overdosed (catalyzing her family’s move). Marcus is a solid character, but I must admit that I didn’t find him swoony the way a lot of other reviewers seem to. He just seems like an actually cool, smart person who doesn’t play games. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I know they’re not thick on the ground in high school, but still. Most important, he makes Jessica face some hard truths about herself so that she can (hopefully) be a little more self-possessed in the next book (which I’ll definitely read).

Just Listen Sarah DessenLike I said, I wasn’t expecting to care for Sloppy Firsts much, but I ended up definitely enjoying it. I think my main causes for dissatisfaction with the book are things that are simply not to my taste. I was pretty uninterested in everything that happened in the book (except one thing, which I won’t spoil) because they seem detached and a bit arbitrary. In Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen (review HERE), for example, the narrative is concerned with the similarly everyday happenings of a high school girl. In Just Listen, though, all these happenings are tied together by overarching themes (music, the difference between appearance and depth, honesty, the fallout of an event we don’t know about, etc.), which make them seem completely necessary to the heart of the story. This is just taste, though; I imagine some people will really enjoy the journal-esque style of Sloppy Firsts.

I also didn’t care about Jessica much. I didn’t dislike her or anything, and at times I was definitely interested in her thoughts. But, while she’s clearly smart and observant, her particular brand of insight feels canned. It’s like she gives the smart version of banal observations: “Brides are evil. They are so hell-bent on looking better than everyone else that they pick out bridesmaids’ dresses that no one could possibly look good in” (31); “What always pissed me off about her whole perspective spiel was that she was writing off my feelings at that moment” (181). So, yeah, I wasn’t head over heels about her.

My main complaint is that McCafferty had the opportunity with Jessica to avoid common misogynistic and sexist tropes (since Jessica is, after all, supposed to be smart and considers herself separate from the Clueless Crew), but she absolutely doesn’t. There is a moment when Sara expresses relief over Jessica’s hopeless crush because “I’m just happy you’re not a lesbo” (156), and Jessica is affronted at the idea (“I mean, me? A vagitarian?”). Also, McCafferty attributes totally misogynistic thoughts to Jessica in what is, perhaps, the way that infuriates me most: the essentialization of “female” qualities and the collapse of being female with being overly sensitive in an intrinsically negative way. More than once. Which is a huge strike against the book for me. “I’m being such a girl right now. I have no right to be jealous” (142). “Then I could stop being such a girl and just move on already” (185). It’s bad enough when authors are sexist; it’s worse, in my opinion, when authors sneak misogyny into characters who are otherwise pretty righteous. By having Jessica, a smart, strong character, denigrate being “a girl” McCafferty teaches a whole new generation to equate “girl” with “over-sensitive,” “hyper-reactive,” “obsessive,” and “irrational.” Great. Thanks.

So, all in all, Sloppy Firsts was a well-written drama that I enjoyed, but wouldn’t stand behind in terms of its inherent politics. I’m intrigued enough by Jessica’s voice that I want to read the next one (and because Tessa liked it better), but it’s not the kind of thing I’d necessarily recommend to everyone. It’s a breezy, sincere portrait of the troubles of teendom, better written than many, but without any gravitas.

Oh, and for fans: Sloppy Firsts is, apparently, being adapted into a movie.

procured from: found at my parents’ house and stolen for the plane ride home

So, what did you think of the Jessica Darling series? Tell me in the comments!

Oceanic Gothic: Teeth, by Hannah Moskowitz

A review of Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz

Simon Pulse, 2013

Teeth Hannah Moskowitz

by REBECCA, January 14, 2013

characters

Rudy: a lonely, thoughtful guy who is torn between loyalty to his family and the companionship of a mysterious fishboy . . .

Teeth (Fishboy): a sad but strong loner (by necessity), Teeth doesn’t know his own story until Rudy shows up.

Dylan: Rudy’s little brother who is sweet, weird, and dying.

Diana: A strange shut-in, she lends Rudy books, and occasionally more.

Ms. Delaney: Diana’s mother, her family discovered the island’s magic fish, and her history is complicated.

Rudy & Dylan’s parents: they mean well, but are totally consumed by Dylan’s health problems.

hook

When Rudy leaves everything he knows to move to an island whose magic fish might be able to cure his brother’s cystic fibrosis he knows things will never be the same. What he can’t know is that he’ll meet someone who changes everything he knows about himself . . . and presents him with a life and death dilemma. How will Rudy choose between two people he loves?

worldview

Emblazoned on the (absolutely gorgeous and apt) cover of Teeth is “miracles always come at a price,” and for once that isn’t just a dramatic tagline. For Rudy’s family, the miracle is an island where the local Enki fish have magical healing properties when ingested by the ill. The price? Well, that’s part of the complexity of Teeth‘s mystery. Rudy’s five-year-old brother is dying from cystic fibrosis and moving to the island is his last hope, but even if people are healed by the Enki fish, they mustn’t stop eating them or their powers will wear off. And, so, sixteen-year-old Rudy finds himself in a cold, eerie house on the edge of the ocean, every iota of his family’s energy and resources bent toward keeping his baby brother alive. Rudy draws and runs and reads, but he has no contact with the outside world, no future with his family since he’ll leave the island to go to college and they’ll stay with his brother, and, until he meets Fishboy, not even anyone to talk to.

When he first sees Fishboy (who, he learns later, goes by Teeth), Rudy is coming home from the market.

I turn away from Ms. Delaney’s mansion and that’s when I see him, sitting on a rock with a piece of seaweed hanging out of his mouth. . . . And before I notice anything else about him, I realized he’s about my age. And then the rest of him hits me: webbed fingers, the scrawny torso patched with silver scales, and a twisted fish tail starting where his hips should be, curling into a dirty fin. A fish. A boy. The ugliest thing I have ever seen. Can’t be real. . . . He gives me a funny smile and a small wave. And then he pushes off the rock and dives into the water. I find him with my eyes a few seconds later. He’s swimming out past the surf, hard. I see his fin hitting the water behind him with each stroke, setting up waves that push him farther and farther away from the shore.

He can’t be a mermaid, because he has to come up to breathe. He’s stopping to pant. He’s tired. Mermaids sing underwater. Mermaids can’t get tired. Because mermaids aren’t real. And then he’s gone.”

Merman skeletonTeeth lives in the ocean around the island and doesn’t even know how old he is or where he came from. He learned English by listening to the fishermen and the islanders talking, so there are many things he doesn’t know the words for and replaces with “whatever,” which is a really charming character trait, because it both frustrates Teeth that he can’t fully express himself and also allows him to seem uncaring about things that hurt him. And a lot of things hurt him. He was abandoned in the sea as a very young child and had to learn to survive; he is the only one of his kind, so he’s been very lonely; and the fisherman who sell the Enki fish routinely rape and abuse him.

Goodreads describes Teeth as “a gritty, romantic modern fairy tale,” and I can see why they do: Teeth is a moody, elliptical book with a toe each in the oceans of magical realism and fantasy. But “fairy tale” does justice to neither the complexity of Hannah Moskowitz‘s characters nor the ethical ambiguity of its murky waters. Rudy loves his brother, but resents the loneliness of the island; he wants to save his brother by procuring the Enki fish for him, but doesn’t want to harm Teeth once he learns of that procurement’s effect on him; he’s only ever been attracted to girls, but finds that he is drawn to Teeth in a powerful way that he doesn’t fully understand.

dark oceanIn a blog post I wrote over the summer about YA books that feature the ocean, I mentioned that I wished there were enough dark YA books about the ocean to facilitate me naming the sub-genre “oceanic gothic.” Well, I submit that Teeth is precisely the kind of book that belongs in that category. Awful things happen in this book, but the mood is so dreamy and, well, oceanic, that it seems as if Rudy and Teeth are experiencing them from underwater. I am a huge obsessoid about the ocean (hi, Pisces here) and I definitely think there is an aesthetic and a mood that seem to fit with the darkness of the ocean. This is a tidal, salt-rimed, shivery, rusty fishhook of a book that I couldn’t help but be pulled under by. And I loved every minute of it. It’s heartbreaking and creepy and sad, but  all its feelings issue from a kind of exhausted or cold-numbed place, so it’s all a little detached in a way that dulls what might otherwise have been a rather melodramatic edge.

I won’t say much more about the plot because it’s a beautifully crafted mystery that unfolds slowly, but Moskowitz’s prose is simply lovely, by turns lyrical, cutting, and funny. Here is how Teeth opens:

At night the ocean is so loud and so close that I lie awake, sure it’s going to beat against the house’s supports until we all crumble onto the rocks and break into pieces. Our house is creaky, gray, weather stained. It’s probably held a dozen desperate families who found their cure and left before we’d even heard about this island. We are a groan away from a watery death, and we’ll all drown without even waking up, because we’re so used to sleeping through unrelenting noise. Sometimes I draw. Usually I keep as still as I can. I worry any movement from me will push us over the edge. I don’t even want to blink. I feel the crashing building up. I always do. I lie in bed with my eyes open and focus on a peak in my uneven ceiling and pretend I know how to meditate. You are not moving. You are not drowning. It’s just the rain. It’s your imagination. Go to sleep.

That pounding noise is just pavement under your feet, is sex, is your mother’s hands on your brother’s chest, is something that is not water. It’s not working tonight. I sit up and grab my pad and pen to sketch myself, standing. Dry. Sometimes the waves hit the shore so hard that I can’t even hear the screaming. But usually I can. Tonight I can, and it hits me too hard for me to draw. I need to learn how to draw a scream.”

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

fishTeeth asks important and compelling questions: “How much could you hurt one person you love to save another?” “When is weakness unforgivable?” “How long should you sacrifice your own needs for someone else?” “Is living a long life really the most important thing?” These questions are, in general, subtly posed, but Teeth isn’t an overly polished book, and that’s a good thing, I think. It’s raw, it’s desperate, it’s desirous, and those are its strengths. Hannah Moskowitz has written a top-rate story with complex characters and an intriguing mystery, but the real star of Teeth for me was its mood.

There are elements I wasn’t crazy about: Diana Delaney, the girl Rudy meets and begins quasi-canoodling with, is undeveloped (whether intentionally or unintentionally) and therefore functioned mostly like a plot device for me—although of what I shall not say. Relatedly, Diana and Rudy’s discussions of books felt realistic, especially in the context of bored teens trapped on an island, but the books they discuss felt, in some moments, jarringly contemporary enough to wrench me out of the murky anywhere of the island (“This isn’t Looking for Alaska,” Diana says). In other moments, iconic books they discuss hang unpleasantly heavily over the rest of the narrative, overemphasizing themes that would have been quite clear enough without them. These were the only false notes for me, however.

Anatomy of a fishhookOne of the things that I most appreciated about Teeth was the slow and subtle build of Teeth and Rudy’s relationship. There is nothing overtly sexual or romantic about how Rudy sees Teeth, mostly because he’s never thought of guys in that context. But, little by little, as Teeth becomes more and more important to Rudy he begins to feel passionately for him. Teeth’s fishboyness could have easily been turned into a clunky and over-played metaphor for feelings of isolation by queer teens, but it is so much more interesting that he is actually half fish.

All in all, a captivating and thoroughly original read. Vive la Oceanic Gothic!

procured from: I received an Advanced Reading Copy from the publisher (thanks!) with no compensation on either side. Teeth is now available.

Tender Morsels Margo Lanaganreadalikes

I can’t honestly think of anything that I’ve read that is actually that similar to Teeth. In terms of other oceanic gothics that I want to read, there is Night Beach by Kirsty Eagar; as for other merpeople books that look interesting, there is Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama . . .  But, really, the only thing that comes to mind as being somewhat similar in mood is Margo Lanagan’s very excellent Tender Morsels.

Any thoughts about readalikes? Tell me in the comments!

Sharing Our Snacks: Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

Welcome to another edition of Sharing Our Snacks, in which Rebecca and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching!

Sharing our Snacks

Five Flavors of Dumb

Antony John

Dial Books, 2010

dumb_215

review by Tessa

Rebecca tacked this title onto her email of Sharing Our Snacks ideas, saying it was “a book I really, really wanted to like but just didn’t.”  If she hadn’t suggested it I may not have picked it up – not for any reason, but just because… just because. But I’m glad that I did. Now I can more enthusiastically booktalk it to people who are looking for music-related realistic fiction.  I even made this collage last night in its honor, using only models from the Crate & Barrel Catalog, foil from Trader Joe’s honey-mint patties, fine-point Sharpies, and my interesting magazine picture backlog (which honestly needs replenishing). Oh, and a phrase from a rad Nikki McClure calendar.:

5flavorsofdumb_001

Accordingly, my review will also be collage-y.

BASIC PLOT (courtesy of Antony John’s author site):

“Piper has one month to get a paying gig for Dumb—the hottest new rock band in school.

If she does it, she’ll become manager of the band and get her share of the profits, which she desperately needs since her parents raided her college fund.

Managing one egomaniacal pretty boy, one talentless piece of eye candy, one crush, one silent rocker, and one angry girl who is ready to beat her up. And doing it all when she’s deaf. With growing self-confidence, an unexpected romance, and a new understanding of her family’s decision to buy a cochlear implant for her deaf baby sister, Piper just may discover her own inner rock star.”

I’ll get the CONS out of the way first:

Rebecca, I feel you. Five Flavors of Dumb is uneven. It tackles many issues – deafness, Deaf culture, feeling like an outsider among outsiders, navigation of cool, taking on job responsibilities, figuring out who in your band is undermining everything, understanding music history, tough sibling relationships, tough parent relationships, estranged friendships, uhh… I think those are the main ones.

So, to cover those things requires a lot of plot, and the plot gets lost sometimes. There’s a whole mystery involving an anonymous internet commenter sending Piper and Dumb around Seattle to learn about the deep, dark side of being a famous musician, and while the trips are intriguing, the mystery itself gets dropped for so long I found myself wondering if it had been forgotten.   Time shrinks and expands in weird ways throughout the story (I should’ve taken notes on this so I could back my assertion up, but I didn’t and I apologize).

Finally, one must brace oneself to suspend their disbelief when reading Five Flavors of Dumb, because the premise of trying to become a band manager to make money for college is a thin one. However, a book about applying to scholarships and making a budget would not be as interesting or dynamic. So. I understand.

So we can get to the PROS:

The good news is that John gets the emotions down, and the ins and outs of familial, friendly, and romantic relationships were more than enough to keep me reading.  For me, the pros outweighed the cons and I enjoyed reading about Piper and even found her world believable (despite the exception mentioned above.)  In order of importance to me:

– PARENTAL PAIN

Piper’s dad has an emotional IQ of zero when it comes to his oldest spawn.  This guy! I wanted to invent a pinching machine to follow him and pinch him whenever he did or said something blockheaded or particularly carelessly hurtful, and believe you me he would be covered in tiny bruises after about 10 minutes.

It’s an achievement to portray very darkly abusive parents and caregivers, for sure, but I sort of think it’s an even bigger achievement to portray the everyday slights, the subtle emotional abuse, that can go on in a family. Is abuse too strong a word? I don’t think so. Piper is shut out from being appreciated as a person and she is made to feel lesser than because of her preference for using ASL and because her parents STOLE HER COLLEGE FUND WITHOUT CONSULTING HER.  But of course she still reaches out for love from her dad and mom, and it’s heartbreaking to see the ways it isn’t returned as her parents are caught up in providing for her baby sister.

– SIBLING LOVE

Piper does love her baby sister and she struggles with trying not to feel jealous of the cochlear implants and the attention that baby Grace is getting, in a realistic way. And she loves her brother, but they’re not over-the-top besties. They squabble but ultimately have each other’s backs in a way I find familiar, being a sister myself.

– TAKE-CHARGE-ITIVENESS

Piper tackles her problems practically and speaks up when she feels she’s being underestimated, despite also feeling like an outsider because of her hearing impairment and being without her moved-away best friend who can’t even bother to get on Skype once in a while. I like that about her and I like seeing how she tries to solve her problems without trying to become a tough chick stereotype.

– BAND DYNAMICS

There should be more portrayals of being in a band, and how much work it is to make a song and play together and deal with 2, 3, 4 or more personalities and ideas of how to make money. And how awesome it feels when it comes together.

– MUSIC HISTORY

The bits of the book where Piper investigates the history of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix are fascinating. I put down the book and did more research about Hendrix afterwards. (That’s why I tried to have her holding a record album in the collage, even though it’s impossible to tell that it is supposed to be a record – also to reference a very poignant scene with her dad.)

In Conclusion

Despite its uneven flow, Five Flavors of Dumb had emotional depth, brought out the history of its setting, and showed what it’s really like to try to work as a group. And so I’d recommend it to other readers wholeheartedly.  Does that speak to any of your feelings of meh, Rebecca? I’m curious to know if you remember more about why you weren’t into it.

Awesome As Awesome: Lament by Maggie Stiefvater

A review of Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception (Books of Faerie #1), by Maggie Stiefvater

Flux, 2008

Lament Maggie Stiefvater

by REBECCA, January 9, 2013

characters

Deirdre Monaghan: a shy and brilliant musician, when her eyes are suddenly opened to the world of Faerie she knows her life will never be the same again

Luke Dillon: fascinated by Deirdre, he appears just around the time things start getting weird . . .

James: Deirdre’s best friend, a piper who is always ready with a joke or late-night support, as the occasion requires

Granna: Deirdre’s grandmother, attuned to the world of Faerie

Sara: Deirdre’s superficial coworker who just might be an ally (and is definitely not good at ice cream scooping)

hook

At a local music competition, Deirdre meets Luke, a mysterious boy who seems to know just what buttons to push to get her to explore abilities she never knew she had. As Deirdre’s musical talents blossom and she falls for Luke she also finds that she is a cloverhand—someone who can see fairies—and that something about her has caused the Faerie Queen to feel threatened. Threatened enough to have her killed. But is her relationship with Luke more likely to save her life, or to get her killed?

worldview

Lament Maggie StiefvaterLament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception is Maggie Stiefvater’s first book, and I’m not at all surprised that the first book of such an awesome talent was published by the equally awesome Flux, one of my favorite publishers. Now, anyone who reads Crunchings and Munchings knows that I’m a big Maggie Stiefvater fan (check out a review of The Scorpio Races HERE and of The Raven Boys HERE)! The first Stiefvater book I ever read was Shiver, which I thought was beautiful, although the rest of the series wasn’t quite my cup of tea. Still, even though I wasn’t super taken by Linger, the second in the series, I remember thinking: this woman’s writing is gorgeous and I’m absolutely going to check out whatever she writes next. And I did. But somehow I managed never to get around to the Books of Faerie series. But never fear, fair readers, for I finally got my act together.

Lament is a totally charming take on what can happen when a human catches the eye of the fae. Deirdre is smart and quite likeable, and I loved that she played the harp. Her relationships with the other characters are well-drawn—her quippy and totally comfortable one with James, her exasperating one with her overprotective mother, and her close but mysterious one with her grandmother, and her avoidant and creepy one with her aunt. Most importantly, of course, is her relationship with Luke, which she doesn’t trust but can’t seem to give up on.

Lament Maggie StiefvaterLuke finds Dee in the bathroom where she is vomiting up her nerves before a music competition. When she turns to see him she recognizes him from her dream the night before. And things only get more confusing after that. Somehow, Luke knows of abilities that Dee hasn’t even discovered in herself yet: that she can compose gorgeous harp music on the spot, that she has mad guts, and that she can see fairies. After she meets Luke, Dee starts seeing . . . things . . . four-leaf clovers seem to appear everywhere, she is sure she sees a pack composed entirely of her own dog, and then, well, there is the little matter of a newly acquired case of telekinesis. And did I mention the mind-reading? Oh, yeah, and the fairies. What in the holy hell is going on? Only Luke seems to know for sure, and when Dee looks into Luke’s mind, what she sees is extremely disturbing. And why does she still crave his presence . . . if he’s a murderer?

Populated with a number of devious, beautiful, scary, and downright wacky fae, Lament is our world only better. It keeps its mundane where it belongs (Dee works at an ice cream shop and has the misfortune to own a mother-procured cardigan set) and introduces delightful bits of the otherworldly just when we want them. Best of all, unlike many recent entries into the paranormal romance genre that feature a supernatural boy who expresses his love by being a creepazoid, Luke is a complex but non-abusive fellow. I mean, yeah, he’s assassinated people and all that, but the Queen made him do it. After all, she does hold his soul captive.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie Maggie StiefvaterLament delights in a number of different mythologies and stories about faeries, and the combination creates a rich world that feels internally consistent but not imported from any recognizable stories. The throughline is music: faeries are musicians of otherworldly skill, so Deirdre’s talent shines their light on her. The scenes of music in the book are some of my favorites, and make me doubly excited to get to the sequel, Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, in which Dee goes to a music conservatory!

It is also the story of a first love. Dee never dated in high school (as Sara never forgets to remind her) and now that she is seeing Luke she realizes that people only ever noticed her for the things she was good at—never just for herself. Luke’s “fascination” with her vacillates between feeling gratifying and feeling yet again like someone who just appreciates her talents. Either way, their relationship, though vexed by the whole maybe-he’s-trying-to-assassinate-me issue isn’t nearly as angsty as it might have been which is, depending on your tastes, a huge relief or a bit of a let-down. For me, it worked because it highlights that Lament is not, first and foremost, a romance. Luke catalyzes Deirdre’s coming into her own but he doesn’t own her. At least not in this book. Thus, one of my biggest pet peeves is avoided: the heroine needn’t sacrifice her [life/passions/future/autonomy/options/family/etc.] for her first-ever relationship, which probably won’t last anyway. JUST SAYING!

The pacing here was mostly good, although the final scenes felt a tad rushed (and the character of the Faerie Queen a little flat). However, Lament didn’t fall victim to series-itis, in which an author doesn’t bother to give the book a real conclusion since she knows there will be sequels. It ended on a good note while still opening the story up for the sequel. Best of all, I think we’ll get more James in future books; I’m so glad that he, too, was not sacrificed on the alter of first love. All in all, I can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

readalikes

War For the Oaks Emma Bull

War For the Oaks by Emma Bull (1987). In this ass-kicking book by Emma Bull, Eddi McCandry finds herself in the middle of a war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts. All she wanted to do was put together the wickedest rock band this side of ever, and she accidentally made magic. Not a terrible turnout, Eddi. My full review is HERE.

Tithe Holly Black

Tithe (The Modern Faerie Tales #1) by Holly Black (2002). Kaye is used to living in crap motel rooms and dingy apartments, touring with her mom’s band. But when they end up back in New Jersey for a spell, Kaye rescues a mysterious stranger and finds herself in the middle of a power struggle between two Faerie kingdoms.

procured from: the library

There But Not Back Again . . . Yet: Movie Review of The Hobbit

A Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson (2012)

The Hobbit Peter Jackson

by REBECCA, January 7, 2012

My dad first read me Lord of the Rings when I was in kindergarten because I was constantly begging to be read to and he figured he might as well kill two birds with one stone: read me something really long so I’d stop asking for new books, and get to revisit a series he wanted to re-read. My theory: he kind of thought I’d think it was boring and let him off the hook. Either way, I loved it, and he loved re-reading it. And, later, of course, I read The Hobbit. I didn’t love it as much as Lord of the Rings—it didn’t have the same depth, the same epic quality that had so captivated me. Instead, it was a small story, a story about one person taking a chance and exceeding his expectations, about a gang with one seemingly modest goal: take back what was once stolen from them. Still, if Aragorn was my first literary crush, Thorin Oakenshield was my second (imagine my confusion when I saw the animated version in the late 1980s and they had animated Thorin to look like my grandfather; awkward).

The Silmarillion J.R.R. TolkienWhen I learned that Peter Jackson and the team were back in NZ on the Lord of the Rings’ old stamping ground to film The Hobbit I had mixed feelings. On one hand, why mess with a world that you’ve executed so beautifully ten years before? On the other, I’m a sucker for seeing geekdom come to life, so I took the path less traveled: excitement. But then I learned that Jackson was making another trilogy instead of one film and my heart sunk again. Why would you set a film version of a small story to the same scale as the film versions of an epic trilogy? (I wouldn’t.) But then I began to read articles explaining that Jackson was including material from The Silmarillion and some of Lord of the Rings’ Appendices and I got excited again—how great for some of that oft-lost stuff to see the light of a studio set! That’s all to say that when the lights dimmed the other day and I finally got to see The Hobbit, I was conflicted, and more than ready to know one way or the other.

And, predictably I suppose, it was a pretty mixed bag. I saw The Hobbit with my parents and my sister and their consensus was that the movie was definitely “entertaining” and “enjoyable.” I agree. But I mostly agree as someone thinking of The Hobbit as merely one more piece of what I’m increasingly beginning to think of as “The Jackson-Tolkien Complex”; that is, Tolkien’s novels and paratextual materials, the art of people like Alan Lee and John Howe, whose visions thrilled me as a kid and went on to greatly inform Jackson’s films, the Lord of the Rings movies, and, now, The Hobbit films.

That is to say: while entertaining and enjoyable,  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not a great film in its own right; removed from the Jackson-Tolkien Complex it doesn’t really stand on its own for what I think are pretty predictable reasons.

The Hobbit is a quest story, which means that it doesn’t break down into any kind of neat tripartite system that would lend itself to a trilogy. As my dad said, “I didn’t expect it to end where it did. I kind of forgot it was being made in three movies, so when it ended, I was still waiting to see what was going to happen with the dragon.” Without major restructuring of the plot, there would be no way to really signal what the three phases of the story are. Jackson ends the first film with the lyrical image of the thrush knocking a snail on the rock of the lonely mountain to forecast what will happen later, but there was no dramatic structure to the film.

Thorin Oakenshield The HobbitNow, don’t get me wrong—I have no problem with a movie that takes its time: I will watch Braveheart, Gladiator, or Last of the Mohicans any day of the week. But The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ended . . . well, unexpectedly. And, while Jackson has, indeed, added bits and bobs from The Silmarillion to flesh out the backstory, The Hobbit speeds through some scenes while lingering overlong on others. While the dinner scene that introduces the dwarves functions just like the scene in the book—to exaggerate the dwarves’ bufoonishness and Bilbo’s contrasting prudish domesticity—it is unnecessarily long and rather cartoonish. It does, however, create a nice contrast for the entrance of Thorin Oakenshield in all his long-maned glory (a perfectly proud Richard Armitage).

Jackson has shot The Hobbit using high-frame-rate projection (48 frames per second rather than the typical 24, for the first time ever). While this looks beautiful in many of the middle-ground and closeup scenes, for the sweeping and swooping extreme long-shots of Middle Earth that take up the first 20 minutes or so of The Hobbit, it results in the vertiginous effect of the foreground looking distractingly blurry (I didn’t see the film in 3-D because it makes me sick, so I can’t comment on what effect the higher speed had on that technology). The other problem, which I’m not sure whether to ascribe to projection speed or CGI effects, is that the new settings Jackson et al have developed for the film, while beautiful, take on the appearance of mere backdrops because we see so little of them. When the dwarves are captured by goblins, we see their home, a huge tent city in the hollow of a mountain, lined with tiers of lean-tos. While this setting is detailed and full of action, because we spend so little time there and see so little of it close up, it has the feeling of a video game background populated with a slew of CGIed goblins rather than, say, the fully brought-to-life Shire.

Bilbo Baggins the HobbitThe acting was typical of Peter Jackson’s casting in Middle Earth, I think. When played straight, everyone is pretty good; when going for laughs, they aren’t nearly as subtle as they should be, as if Jackson wants people to know that just because he’s making epic movies about battles of good and evil it doesn’t mean he’s lost his sense of humor (even if that humor is of the banal the-fat-dwarf-breaks-his-chair-hardy-har-har variety). Andy Serkis’ Gollum is even better than it was in Lord of the Rings, its briefness merely highlighting his marvelous range. And while he’s playing essentially the same role as Dr. Watson on Sherlock, Martin Freeman is absolutely pitch perfect as Bilbo and every time one of the dwarves made a stupid joke or there was yet another cut to the “pale orc” standing and looking evil I wished we could just go back to watching Bilbo be delightful. The award for the best (and most unexpected) character appearance goes to Sylvester McCoy’s wizard, Radagast the Brown, who speaks to animals, knows hedgehogs by name, and has a line of bird shit running down the side of his face from the birds he keeps in a hair-nest under his hat (huzzah!).

So, all in all, a mixed bag. A treat, I think, for those of us who know The Hobbit well and simply enjoy watching a beloved world come to life; but perhaps a miss for the uninitiated, the impatient, or the narratively-conscious. Final result: made me want to go back and watch all the special features from the Lord of the Rings dvds. See you in twenty-six hours!

The Hobbit

What about you? What are your thoughts about The Hobbit or the Jackson-Tolkien Complex?

5 Things I Learned From the Director’s Commentary Track of Valley Girl (1983)

by Tessa

I’ve been taking a wee break from reading YA, instead immersing myself in the marital concerns of a man in the late 1700s, a book about one woman’s journey within her own black feminism, and new theories of emotion as they apply to brain research. Also finishing reading this poem.

But I did watch a tale of young love on the first day of the year: Valley Girl, Nicolas Cage’s first role under the name Nicolas Cage. Cage is very young and looks like he’s stopmotion animated. He plays Randy, a devotee of punk-edged pop-rock from Hollywood, who falls for Julie, a pastel-ensconced Valley Girl.  They run up against the social prejudice of the suburban set. The whole thing felt like an Apatow precursor – it had almost-too-long scenes with Julie’s hippie parents and its comedy comes from that uncomfortable-realist perspective.  It seems improvised, but it isn’t (mostly).  It has more substance than one might expect, and a really great soundtrack – the big song “I Melt With You” got famous because of it, and costumes (partially designed by the teenage punk son of a costume designer).

valleygirl

I ended up watching Martha Coolidge (the director)’s commentary, and this is what I learned:

Things I Learned From the Director’s Commentary of Valley Girl
1. Nic Cage was asked to remove some chest hair so that he would look younger (though he was the youngest of the cast).  He came back the next day with a weird, distinctive chest hair triangle. Sort of looks like a swooping gull.
2. Nic Cage was in the casting reject pile and his photo was pulled out as an example of what the director wanted to see – “No more pretty boys”.

 

Nic Cage at the 38th Cannes Film Festival in 1985 (AP Images editorial license)

Nic Cage at the 38th Cannes Film Festival in 1985 (AP Images editorial license)

3. The club in Hollywood where they go the first night they meet was called the Central in real life. Now it is occupied by the Viper Room.
4. Coolidge asked X to be the house band before the Plimsouls, but X did not want to alienate their Valley-based fans, so they declined.


5. There’s a montage where Cage tries to win Julie back by infiltrating all aspects of her life, including getting jobs at all the places she frequents. He pops up as a disguised waiter in a chef hat at a drive-up joint, and when informed that he’s forgotten part of the order, exclaims “Well Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers, I guess I DID!” and his gum drops out of his mouth into the car.  The gum was an accident that they kept in the movie. (It was also Cage’s idea to wear a chef’s hat).

BONUS: Cage also improvised this line.

OTHER THING: Elizabeth Daily went on to voice Tommy Pickles of Rugrats among other things.

Here’s another blog post with more (unverified?) facts! FAXCXTZ.

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