Saturday, December 22, 2012

YALit: the rest of the semester

So I reviewed the first half of the semester of Young Adult Literature in this post and this one.  Here are the rest of them.  I almost scheduled this to post next week after Christmas, then thought I might as well go ahead and post it now.  We survived the end of the world, after all.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers.  Steve Harmon gets involved in a convenience store robbery that ends up in a shooting (not by him).  When the story opens, Steve has been denied bail and is in jail waiting for his trial.  He's seventeen, but he's in an adult prison.  Our class was divided about whether or not he knew what was happening when the robbery began--it's not exactly clear.  So it's hard to know if he's just a completely innocent bystander getting the classic raw deal, or if he made a stupid mistake and will be a wiser man after the experience (I thought the latter).  It's very absorbing, but I have to tell you, I hated it.  I hate reading about kids in prison.  Must be the Mom thing. It makes me sick to my stomach. The thing that makes Monster so fascinating and gets it a partial reprieve is that it is written as a screenplay.  Steven is a budding film director, and he writes the events of his life as if they are a film.  It's fascinating what he is able to do with point-of-view and juxtaposing different events.  Recommended if you're not a mom.

Gifts by Ursula LeGuin.  LeGuin and I go way back.  I read the Earthsea Trilogy when I was in sixth or seventh grade, and then in high school I read the Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.  All of which were excellent, and highly recommended.  This one, not so much.  For one thing, it takes a very long time to get started.  If I hadn't been required to read it for class, I would have given up after about 15-20 pages--it didn't get really interesting until somewhere around p. 75.  

Orrec and Gry are childhood friends who live in the typical pre-industrial psuedo-medieval world of all fantasy novels.  Their families have hereditary gifts that are sometimes passed to their children, sometimes not.  Orrec is supposed to get the gift of destruction, but it is so long in coming that by the time he thinks he receives it, he is old enough to know he doesn't want it.  Gry has the gift of being able to influence animals, which her mother uses to great effect by helping the local clans to hunt-- in their subsistence culture, an important role.  But Gry is so sensitive that she refuses to help anyone hunt down an animal.  Both of them face interesting challenges as they try to figure out their gifts and how to use them, and the relationship between Orrec and his father is fascinating.  But LeGuin really disappointed me by not seeming to recognize an obvious use for the contrary-side of Orrec's gift, which I can't say anything more about without major spoilers.  If you like fantasy and you like YA lit, this is definitely worth reading, but otherwise, probably not.

ShipBreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi - Another fascinating one.  This one is set in a post-global-warming-meltdown world.  Nailer, the main character, lives with his alcoholic, abusive father on a beach where the local economy is run by gangs who make their living by stripping resources from the foundered oil tankers resting off-shore.  After a huge storm, Nailer and a friend come across a fully-loaded yacht that has nearly infinite possibilities for salvage-- one room has enough stuff in it to keep them fed for years.

The only problem is that there is a young woman, barely alive, in one of the staterooms.  Do they let her live?  (spoiler: yes, they do.) and then what do they do with her?  This is a fascinating study of what happens to human beings when the normal societal pressures to act ethically have fallen apart.  Nailer is a really interesting protagonist--Bacigalupi doesn't take the easy answers.  So in spite of my antipathy toward another post-apocalyptic novel, I have to say this one is worth reading.  There is a sequel, but from the reviews I've read of it, it doesn't sound nearly as good.

Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin.  This is one weird book.  I mean that in the nicest possible way.  It's about a young woman who spends four (five?) days out of every month as a boy.  I enjoyed the thought-experiment aspect of it, but I didn't think it was particularly thoughtfully done.  McLaughlin went for the easy ending (and the ending that could be stretched out into a series, which sure enough, has happened) rather than the thoughtful ending.  How much truly mind-bending stuff about gender could you do with a plot like this?

But she seems content to let the opportunity go by and just go for humor and a love triangle (quadrangle? do you count the four days per month as a separate person?).  I thought of a better ending, and one of my classmates thought up a much better ending.  If we can do it, why couldn't she?  Interesting and entertaining, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it.  And by the way, you could never get away with teaching this book in the classroom in our conservative town.  Even if it weren't for all the gender stuff, there is an actual sex scene toward the end (not particularly detailed, but still).  Not happening.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.  American Born Chinese is a graphic novel.  I've read a couple of others (Bone, Persepolis, Contract with God), and I enjoy them.  But I'm not a particularly visual person, so much of the drawing is lost on me.  I'm too busy reading the words to look at the pictures.  Some of my classmates were more attuned to the visual aspects of this book, and they were able to point out some great stuff that you don't get if you're not looking.

Anyway.  It's three inter-twining stories:  the Monkey King of Chinese legend, who is kicked out of heaven because he's not wearing shoes and wants some revenge; Jin Wang, a young Chinese boy who deals with what unfortunately is probably typical treatment at a school where he is the only Asian American; and Danny, a Caucasian kid who has a crazy Chinese cousin who comes to visit just often enough to drive him crazy.  The stories seem completely unrelated until about two-thirds of the way through, when suddenly the collide in a way that is surprising and satisfying.  Really enjoyed this one, although I suspect it would be treated with suspicion by someone who is native Chinese; it's a pretty thoroughly westernized story.

Into the Wild- by Jon Krakauer.  This one will get its own post in a week or two.  It's a non-fiction story about Chris McCandless, who decides to put his ideals in action by spending a summer living off the land in Alaska and dies in the process.  It's not quite the story I was expecting.  I read the original article Krakauer wrote for Outside magazine way back when (he died in 1992), and I was fascinated then.  This version, which is both more complete and fixes a misconception written into the earlier article, is even more interesting.  One of the things that interested me the most was the discussion in our classroom.  There were three or four students who had ideals similar to McCandless, several more complete cynics, and then the professor and me-- who considered ourselves to be older and wiser, but maybe we're just older and more cynical.  Highly recommended, and like I said, another post is coming, although it will be more about idealism and compromise than about the book.

There you have it.  It was a great class, one of my favorites out of my two and a half years of graduate school.


  1. It sounds like an interesting group of books. Did you spend much time discussing what makes a YA book a YA book as opposed to general fiction? Girl child and I were talking about that today and I think she was trying to say that calling a book YA seems to marginalize it. I'm also wondering if the purpose of the class, at all, was for these books to be then taught in middle or high school, because I don't think many of them would be chosen by the usual school systems.

    Happy Christmas to you and yours!!

    1. Straight from my class notes, and of course few YA books have all these qualities:

      Characteristics of YA Lit
      =Teenage protagonist
      =Difficulties with parent/guardian: parents who are absent, immature or irresponsible
      =quest for independence
      =protagonists rises above expectations
      =Some sort of crisis that propels the action and requires the protag to act in new ways
      =First kiss/First love
      =importance of friends/difficulties with friends/peer pressure
      =running away and/or search for home
      =development of identity
      =the need to answer the question: who am I? and it's secondary, what am I going to do about it?
      =also, the question, is there something wrong with me? how do I fit in?
      =other common themes: bullying, drugs, racism, depression/suicide, money/class issues, self-mutilation

      I see the point about marginalizing it by the label, but the same could be said about romance, mystery, horror, etc. Interesting topic. Wish you and girl child were here so we could discuss. :-)

    2. oh, and about teaching them in school-- I raised this question with the professor on the very last day of class. He agreed that not many of these would be chosen for in-class reading. They are more the kind of thing that a teacher might recommend to a student who was looking for something to read. His point was that books that are read in class are usually mandated by the curriculum and not up to the teacher to choose anyway.

    3. Yeah, we three could have a really good discussion. And that's what I said about genre in general - it has both good and bad points. It makes it easier to find books you like, it makes it easier to market books, but then it can be restrictive or marginalizing. BTW, she's pretty excited by one of her gifts - a boxed set of all of John Green's books, signed! I'm going to send her the link to here and see what she says.

  2. Mygawd you do this so well!