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June 6, 2011

The YA fiction of my youth: bulldozing coarseness, misery and a whole lot of sex

I haven’t read much YA fiction since coming of age, and though I do raise eyebrows at adults who read it exclusively (what? I’m just passing judgment…), I’ve got no case to make against the genre itself. Because YA made me into the reader I am, one that reads voraciously, and I am sure that’s because my YA books were packed with subject matter that was no less than fascinating: namely the “kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings” for which this bizarre piece maligns modern YA–not to mention a whole lot of sex. Here, I highlight the best of the sordid:

Forever by Judy Blume: This book is infamous, it has teenage sex (on a rug!) and a penis with a name. Also, a grandmother who disseminates Planned Parenthood paraphernalia. Is probably the main reason any teenager ever got pregnant. Or used birth control and didn’t.

Sunshine by Norma Klein: Norma’s books were always a bit sexy, but this one in particular. Also, it was based on a true story, but what YA novel wasn’t? The story of Jill who is a divorced, teenage single mother who is not only having an affair with a hippie on a mountain top, but is dying of cancer.

Looking On by Betty Miles: This book sat on our toilet cistern, so everyone in my family has read it a lot. It’s the story of Rosalie, who becomes infatuated with a young couple from the community college who rent a trailer in her backyard. No blatant sex, but Rosalie is totally miserable, and spends a lot of time fantasizing about the young man’s thighs beneath his cut-offs.

Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan: A militant feminist manifesto about a group of female students bent on vengeance for the inequality in their everyday lives. Incredibly violent. There is also, naturally, sex. (Do see all of Lois Duncan’s other books if you think that modern YA fiction is disturbing).

Hey, Dollface by Deborah Hautzig: This book is about two miserable teenage girls who explore lesbian relations together. I read it over and over, in particularly the part about breast fondling.

Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume: Misery galore: Murdered dad, broken dreams, the atomic bomb, and an annoying aunt called Bitsy. Though I was mostly drawn to the part where she gets it on with her boyfriend under the boardwalk.

Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews: The sex was incestuous, but that was all right with me!

Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume: And boys can be miserable too! Here, we’re dealing with a brother dead in Vietnam, class struggles, and a boy who uses his binoculars for “bird watching” if you know what I’m saying. Because the teenage girl next store never closes her drapes.

Sweet Valley High by Francine Pascal: Don’t hate me, but I didn’t love these books. Mostly because there wasn’t enough explicit sex. But there were enough boyfriends, misery, backseats and post-game parties that I could read what was going on between the lines.

Face on a Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney: Just wanted to point out that my generation liked to read about kidnappings too, and that we turned out all right!

January 11, 2011

Making Light of Tragedy gets made over

Seriously, there is nothing the Vicious Circle can’t do. We decide we don’t like the cover of Jessica Grant’s Making Light of Tragedy? Fine. Our Patricia makes another one. And we love it.

December 20, 2010

I am going to blame my current lack of focus on

I am going to blame my current lack of focus on David Shields, who thinks that focus is boring, and narrative is boring, and who cares about people or fiction, and that popular music stopped being worthwhile at about the same time he ceased to be young. I just finished reading Shields’ Reality Hunger, which I kept screaming at (“You motherfucking, self-hating book…”), but which I’m glad I read it, because his thoughts about fiction, non-fiction, and memoir gave me a lot to think about. However exasperating, the book is interesting and worthwhile, a collage of various sources intermingled with Shields’ own thoughts and ideas, each numbered paragraph disjunct from what came before it. That there is no whole, just fragments we construct in various ways, but I was left longing for a bit of synthesis. However, that’s just me, the status-quo rally-er cited in the book’s jacket copy. Unlike Shields, who writes books, I really love them, but I just read them so what do I know? I do know that it’s strange that Shields is bored by everything so thinks the entire world should change, rather than just working to improve his pathetic attention span. Also, as an effect of reading his book, my attention span is just a little shot too, and I can’t wait to open up a real book and read it and get my mind back, now that I’m finished with this stomping tantrum of a text. (Which, actually, I didn’t finish at all, but I had had enough of by page 180 and so I decided to put it down, which might be the most David Shieldsian thing I’ve done ever.)

November 9, 2010

Soap and Water

CBC Metro Morning was so delightfully bookish this morning, with pieces including an interview with Giller juror Michael Enright who had nearly read himself to death these last few months. And an interview with Dr. Alison McGeer about the decision to take magazines out of waiting rooms at Women’s College Hospital. Which was shocking for a few reasons, including 1) They still have waiting rooms at Women’s College Hospital? 2) But who will subscribe to Highlights for Children? 3) Who cares!? Doesn’t everybody have a novel in their purse already??

Since Harriet was born (which was nearly 1.5 years ago!), waiting rooms have offered me more uninterrupted reading opportunity than anywhere else. When she was about two months old, I waited for over two hours at a Passport Canada office while she slept in her stroller and I read (oddly enough), Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood (which was about thirty times more truth than I needed at that moment, by the way. Reading it was totally exhausting).

I had to go to the dermatologists early this summer and Harriet stayed home with my Aunt, while I got an entire subway journey there and back AND an extended waiting room round with Sarah Selecky’s marvelous This Cake is For the Party. There was a large screen TV in the waiting room too, which was blasting an episode of The View which made me very depressed about the state of the world, but Selecky’s stories really helped.

And then the legendary night this summer after Harriet poked me in the eye, and I waited in the walk-in clinic for six amazing hours reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It was also the middle of a heat wave, and the clinic was far more air-conditioned than my house was. I was almost disappointed when the doctor could see me then, though relieved to discover that I would not go blind.

All of this to say that I will not miss the old copies of Macleans then, or Shape, or Women’s Day, but then maybe I should have read them more, if only to absorb the diseases they’re apparently crawling with, so I’d get sick, go back to the doctor’s, then get to read some more.

October 27, 2010

That's what I call bad novels.

“To make a long story short, let’s imagine something called “industrial literature.” It’s job is to reproduce, ad infinitum, the same types of stories, to grind out assembly-line stereotypes, to retail noble sentiments and trembling emotions, to seize every opportunity to turn current events into docu-dramas, to conduct market studies in order to manufacture, according to demographic profile, products designed to tease the imaginations of specific categories of consumers.

That’s what I call bad novels.

Why? Because they’re not creations. Because they reproduce pre-established forms. Their enterprise is one of simplification (lies, in other words), whereas the novel is the art of truth (complexity, in other words). Because by provoking knee-jerk reactions, they lull our curiosity. Because the author is absent, and so is the reality he or she claims to describe.” –Daniel Pennac, Better Than Life

August 9, 2010

Adventures in the land of (almost) no bookshops

So we made a major error when we went away on vacation, assuming that the second half of The News Where You Are, a magazine, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo would be books enough to tide Stuart over. It distinctly wasn’t, and though he came to the end wanting to find that girl who played with fire, he said he’d be content with any book, and so we went searching. We spent a couple of hours in Bobcaygeon on Tuesday, where Stuart was generally irritable because The Tragically Hip had got his hopes up. In amongst many stores gone out of business, there was one bookshop, but it was so crap that my one purchase there was a wind chime. Not knowing then quite how much desperate times would call for desparate measures, we’d had the nerve to turn our noses up. (I had also been promised $30 Birkenstocks at Bigleys. We really did leave Bobcaygeon terribly disappointed).

The next day we went to Fenelon Falls, which had been pretty central to my childhood summers, and I was sad to see the main strip had become a bit bleak, with Canadian Tire and the grocery store moving into bigger stores on the outskirts, leaving a few (very) poor man’s Bargain Harolds in their midsts. We thought maybe the grocery store might stock a novel or two, but they didn’t, and they didn’t even have good magazines. I kept driving up and down the one street in Fenelon Falls, willing a bookshop to appear, but one didn’t and I was so sad. “What kind of town doesn’t have a bookshop?” I kept railing, slapping the dashboard. “What does this say about us as a people?” Fed up with my melodrama, Stuart asked a passer-by if there was a bookshop. The woman shook her head, said we could try the library, but it was closed by now. Which made us even more depressed, because it was only 3:00.

“Maybe Coboconk has a bookshop?” I wondered, which is when you know you’re really desperate. At the very least, we thought it might have a Shopper’s Drug Mart, which does stock mass-market paperbacks. So we drove into town, and noted they had a Rona AND a Home Hardware, but no bookshop. So we turned around to go back where we’d come, when Stuart noticed a dilapidated warehouse with a sign that said, “BOOKS!”. It was one of those places that sold liquidation stock, with other signs including, “WINDOWS!”, “TIRES!” and “FIREWORKS!”. Not holding out a great deal of hope, we stopped and went in. They had a toilet seat section. The books section was totally bizarre though, comprising mainly horrid romance novels and study guides for 19th century classic novels. There was a massive stack of a book about Grace Paley’s short stories. There were three copies of the Louise Fitzhugh biography for $2 each. Of the lot, we found one novel which Stuart might have contemplated reading not under duress (or even reading for pleasure) and it was Watchman by Ian Rankin, so we bought it for a grand six bucks.

That night, back at the cottage, I was recounting our adventures, and somebody said to me, “Why didn’t you just go to Bob’s?” Which, apparently, is Fenelon Falls’ great used bookshop, across the road from the library even. A few blocks off the main strip, around the corner from the LCBO, and Fenelon Falls grew eight sizes bigger in my estimation at that moment. The world was a less bleak place, where the crap books aren’t always on sale with the toilet seats. (We also phoned my mom, and asked her to bring up the next Steig Larsson when she came).

We went to Bob’s on Friday, which is actually Bob Burns’ Books, and it was everything I’d been promised. Big and bustling, stocked with cottagey tomes, yellow paperbacks in alpha-order, but also a wonderful selection of literature, and children’s books, and plays and poetry, and coffee. I wanted to kiss the ground it stood on, or at the very least its floor, but I didn’t. Instead, I bought The Guy Not Taken by Jennifer Weiner, because I am enamoured of commercial fiction short story collections, and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, because I’d heard him on the CBC the week before and it sounded interesting. Though I read now that the book might be misogynistic, and that India Knight hates it, so it’s probably not my usual thing, but should make for something interesting.

April 4, 2010

A Moral Dilemma

This morning whilst out on a quest for hot-cross buns, my husband brought me home a moral dilemma. He’d found Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children’s Literature by Alison Lurie in a box on the sidewalk, and he thought (quite correctly) that I’d like it. The only trouble was that it’s a Toronto Public Library book and it hasn’t even been discharged.

So, what to do? The book is stolen property, but I feel removed enough from the scene of the crime that I could let myself get away from profiting from it. But what kind of scoundrel allows a theft from the public library to go unrighted? Though would returning it cause undue paperwork for overworked librarians? I’ve looked this book up in the system, and there are eleven other copies– which don’t seem to include this one. Perhaps they’ve accepted that it’s gone for good, and so who am I to challenge that? If I decided to take it back anyway, where exactly would I take it? This book is from the Toronto Library’s “Travelling Branch”, which (I think) means I’d have to go chasing after the bookmobile…

March 3, 2010

Dogs and Waynes: My literary prejudices

As a reader, I must say that item seven of Lynn Coady’s fiction writing tips was spot on: “Actually, never write about dogs.” Or at least don’t, if you ever want me to read your book. I’ve written before about some of my literary prejudices (many of which lie behind my refusal to ever read The Secret River), and dogs are another. Books I’ve never read because of canine content include Where the Red Fern Grows, that book that came out last year called Apologize, Apologize!, Cujo, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, anything by Jack London (because my prejudice extends to wolves), and many more I’m not even aware I’ve missed. (Oddly enough, I was able to handle The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, but that was probably only because the dog was dead.)

I’m not crazy about dogs in real life, but I don’t think that’s the reason I shy from them in fiction. The prejudice probably finds its root in the fact that dogs on book covers screamed BOY’S BOOK whenI was a young reader. Because the dog always dies, and then I end up feeling like I’ve been toyed with. And also because I hate when a female dog is fake-casually referred to as “the bitch”, as though this expression has no other connotations. And then the bitch is always grossly birthing puppies, and one of those always dies too…

And speaking of literary prejudices, I must mention another, which is that I refuse to read anything written by anyone called Wayne. Really, this is completely irrational, but it’s deep seated, because I don’t know if there’s a more unliterary name out there (as opposed to, say, Judith, which pretty much guarantees you’ll write a book at some point). Wayne Booth notwithstanding, by the way, only because the notion of a literary theorist called Wayne is so absurd to me that it scarcely registers as being true.

January 27, 2010

Guh-gung

I have this terrible habit of finding certain things terribly funny in theory, but not considering the long-term consequences of following through on my actions. For example, when I was #143 on the holds list for Patrick Swayze’s posthumous autobiography Time of My Life, it was a funny story. But that hold was going to come in sometime, and that sometime is today, and now, with all the books in my life to be read, I’ve got to add Time of My Life to the teetering stack. A book with such lines as, “It felt like an electric charge suddenly coursed through my body. I looked into Lisa’s eyes, and it was as if I was seeing her for the first time. We moved together as one, and I felt a stirring deep in my soul.” And then a few pages on, he woos her to the sounds of Bread’s “Baby I’m-a Want You.” When they finally have sex on page 46, “it was like a dam had broken and the flood came rushing in.”

This is either going to be the best book ever, or the worst.

December 21, 2009

On The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Though I suspect my aversion to all things science-fiction/ fantasy might be genetic, I can also trace it to having to watch a cartoon version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe during one rainy indoor recess back in grade one. That witch, the way one character spoke about “strangers in these woods”, what a strangely terrifying thing is whatever is “turkish delight”, and then when they cut the lion’s mane off! I remember it all vividly, and with such a frisson of horror (and don’t even get me started on the indoor recess where we watched The Neverending Story and the horse drowning in the quicksand).

I’ve had a copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe sitting on my shelf for a while now, and this weekend I finally got around to reading it. Because it’s a children’s classic, and you can’t judge a book based upon a cartoon adaptation you watched when you were six (as the adage goes). And I can see why I was creeped out all those years ago, but I did enjoy it and will pass it along to Harriet to read when she is bigger. Christian allegory or not, it was an absorbing story, I loved the role of the Professor who confirms that Narnia is not just the children’s fantasy, the obtrusive narrator, the complicating nature of Edmund’s treachery, connections to Lewis Carroll and Wonderland, and idea of a world where it is always winter and never Christmas (which sounds a little like February).

It was an absorbing story indeed. If I were ever to give advice on how to start a novel, I’d advise a writer to have a character discover a secret world (“ok, I’m intrigued), explore it, and very quickly return back and then discover the world’s portal has shut (“ok, I’m reading this book to the end now just to figure out what this is all about”). It’s a double-bait, and it’s excellent.

I’m also now thinking much about book titles that are itemized lists of what the book contains. There are plenty with one item, many with two, but how many others with three items? (Off the top of my head, I can only think of an old YA book called Maudie, Me and the Dirty Book.) Such a title would hardly be inspired, would it? Though alliteration certainly works in its favour here.

I don’t imagine I’ll be reading further chronicles of Narnia, because not being a small child, I’ve come to these books much too late. But I’m glad I finally read this one, particularly in order to discover that (SPOILER ALERT) Aslan doesn’t die!! Or he is reincarnated, or… something. I don’t know how I missed that during Indoor Recess. Perhaps I was so traumatized by him being shorn of his mane that I missed the rest of the film? Nevertheless, I was much relieved by this happy ending.

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