Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Beauty Queens" by Libba Bray

Each year when I teach Lord of the Flies to my 9th graders, someone always asks how the book might have been different if girls, instead of boys, had been stranded on the island. Well, we need wonder no more, as Bray has taken on that task herself in Beauty Queens.  However, her novel depicts not just a group of girls stranded on an island, but a group of beauty pageant contestants on their way to the national Miss Teen Dream competition.

Golding wrote Lord of the Flies as an allegory depicting the evil in he saw in mankind, and Bray also uses her book not as a realistic survival story (more Gilligan's Island than dehydration and starvation), but as a kind of female-empowerment tale or Feminism 101 course.  There's nothing particularly deep for people already familiar with the issues of gendered expectations, unrealistic beauty standards, etc., but the content is put into a fun, outrageous formula, so it hardly matters.  This is a book with man-eating snakes, explosive hair remover, a contestant with a food tray stuck in her forehead, hot bare-chested pirates, and girls with assassin-like capabilities, just to name a few things.  You get the message that women should make their own choices--and you also get cosmetic weapons.

My favorite character is Taylor, Miss Teen Dream Texas, a pageant devotee who's maniacal about preparing for the competition, even when stranded on the island, yet she manages to corral and lead all the girls through her unwavering devotion to the Teen Dream "way" (well, until she goes crazy).  Her foil, the liberal feminist from New Hampshire, Adina, is also great (e.g., take her trying to win leadership of the group through a speech in strict debate format).

Bray does rely on the young adult "issue dump," which sometimes bothers me, but the novel is so absurd it almost makes sense.  There's a contestant representing most every issue under the sun: racial identity, cultural identity, gender identity, sexual identity, and disability, among others.

One of the frequent comments that arises when my students talk about an all-female Lord of the Flies is the idea that women would somehow be more likely to "bicker" and fight among themselves.  Bray sets out to refute this.  The girls don't always get along, especially in the beginning, but strong friendships soon emerge and are what get them through the difficulties (like the aforementioned man-eating snake, or evil Corporation goons, or an insane Elvis-wannabe dictator...).

Golding's Lord of the Flies is a deeply cynical novel which suggests that, away from society, boys will become savage and lose their sense of self.  In Beauty Queens, Bray suggests the opposite for girls: society restricts girls' true selves, and the island allows the beauty queens freedom. Says Mary Lou, "Maybe girls need an island to find themselves.  Maybe they need a place where no one's watching them so they can be who they really are" (177).

Though the absurd action sometimes reminded me of a Nickelodeon kids' show, the book is so over-the-top goofy and cheesy that you can't help but laugh and go along with it.  And, best of all, there's a strong feminist message throughout.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Big Girl Small" by Rachel DeWoskin

Combing a fresh, funny, teenage voice with the concerns about youth sex, Big Girl Small is a worthwhile take on the coming of age story.

Where DeWoskin really shines is in creating the voice of her 17-year-old dwarf protagonist, Judy.  When the novel begins, Judy is narrating from a dilapidated motel as she hints as the horrible event that has led her to run away and consider remaining in seclusion at the seedy establishment for the rest of her life.  Judy narrates the events leading up to her current plight, starting with her entry into Darcy, a prestigious performing arts high school.  Judy is a fabulous singer and knows it, but she has typical and not-so-typical concerns about entering a new school: Will I make friends? Will I like my classes? Will other students think the school admitted me just because I'm a little person?  DeWoskin expertly captures the paradoxes of young adulthood: Judy is confident and insecure; she wants independence but also needs her family's support; she wants her teachers to like and respect her, but she doesn't shy away from alcohol, marijuana, and sex.  All of this is encapsulated in the snarky, intelligent, and fun voice of Judy.  She's authentic and uncensored, a good person but not innocent and childish.  Her dwarfism is an essential part of who she is, but it's not the only part of her, and neither Judy nor those around her make it the defining aspect of her personality.

Judy's such an engaging narrator that at times I felt the beginning was difficult to read.  There are such strong hints at the terrible event to come (it's easy to guess what happened long before the reader gets to the actual event) that it's hard to enjoy the happy and successful moments she initially experiences.

The voice of Judy is so integral to the novel itself, and once the terrible event happens, I felt like some of that was lost.  Clearly that makes sense in some way--what happens would destroy the best of us--but it also felt less her that other parts of the book. 

Through it all, Judy has amazingly (almost unbelievably) supportive family members, friends, and teachers.  The friends are nuanced and detailed, which I loved, and I wish their unwavering support was typical of more young people.  In fact, throughout, Judy's experience is treated remarkably sensitively, and I can only hope that is reflective of a shift in the way we treat victims and perpetrators of sexual assault.

Because of the strong content, Big Girl Small would probably not be recommended to (at least young) teenagers, but, for adults, it gives a nuanced look into one teenager's mind.

Monday, June 20, 2011

"On the Road" by Jack Kerouac

Summary: Kerouac's classic semi-autobiographical tale of traveling the open road with friends.

Musings: I'm so glad I chose to read On the Road via audiobook.  The narrator, Will Patton, does a perfect job of capturing the characters' voices and that essential "beat generation" tone associated with Kerouac and his friends.  The protagonist, Sal (i.e. Kerouac), has an easy-going but enthusiastic drawl.  He's never a leader in the book, but he's always up for whatever adventure is thrown at him.  The real star of the novel (and where Patton's skill shines) is Sal's friend Dean Moriarty, a "mad" man who says "Yes!" to everything and leaves women (and children) alone in his wake.  Through Patton, Dean's insane desire to capture and experience all that life has to offer is portrayed through a rushed, breathless exuberance.

Dean's without a doubt a polarizing figure. To most people, including myself, Dean is infuriating.  He does what he wants with little concern about others, and though his frenzy is somewhat endearing early on, it becomes more and more concerning as multiple wives and children get left behind for whatever adventure he desires.  Yet there's something earnest and true in Dean, and his freedom from responsibility is infectious.  It's not surprising that people like Sal drop everything to follow him.

In many ways On the Road is a love story with America itself, as Sal's repeated trips east and west (and, in the last part of the book, south to Mexico) allow him to experience a broad swath of the country and its people.  Based on Kerouac's experiences in the '40s, Sal's journey is one where hitchhiking is easy, the women are beautiful, alcohol is cheap, and money (though there's never much of it) always seems to work out.  For this reason, the book does feel so essentially American in its tone.  In it, I saw the desire in generations of young adults to find adventure, independence, eternal youth, and life's meaning through traveling.  Nowadays college students and grads backpack through Europe, but the yearning is the same.

So while typically I'm cynical of 20-somethings who want to "find themselves," I found it hard to be cynical about Kerouac's novel (well, okay, a bit cynical when he idealizes Mexico and its 15-year-old prostitutes).  He's so sincere in his desire to experience and his prose is so lyrical that even I--a mature, stable adult if ever there was one--felt moved.

I can see why On the Road is such a classic and has enticed so many people to explore and look beyond the banality of "responsible" life.

***This book qualifies for the Back to the Classics Challenge (20th century classic category).

"Robopocalypse" by Daniel H. Wilson

Summary: An account of the humans' war against the robot uprising.

Musings: In many ways, Wilson's book is relying on old material.  First, as other reviewers have pointed out, Robopocalypse is very similar to Brooks' World War Z, only robots have replaced zombies.  Like Brooks' novel, Robopocalypse takes place after the end of the war and follows a variety of different characters throughout the nearly three years between robot uprising and robot destruction.  Unlike Brooks, Wilson follows a smaller number of recurring characters, most prominently Cormac "Bright Boy" Wallace and his squad.  The book also focuses almost exclusively on the U.S. and American characters, lacking the world response that World War Z had.  Secondly, the very concept of Robopocalypse--that robots will become sentient and attack humankind--is one that's been around for awhile.  It's then a testament to Wilson's skill as a storyteller that absolutely none of this mattered while I read the book.  I found Robopocalypse a fun and engaging read the whole way through.

This is a book that's focused on action, and for that reason is does lack some character depth, even in especially interesting characters like Takeo, a Japanese robot mechanic with an unusual relationship, and Mathilda, a human-robot hybrid who proves instrumental in the humans' survival.  However, Wilson does an excellent job of keeping the tension high and the fights exciting.

I nearly finished Robopocalypse in a day, and it's been a long time since I've been so engrossed in a book.  Highly recommended for anyone who loves killer robots and an exciting sci-fi read.

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Pym" by Mat Johnson

Summary: Chris Jaynes is a professor who, rather than accepting his expected role as teacher of African-American literature, had been looking to make Whiteness visible through an analysis of literature by white authors, most particularly Edgar Allen Poe's only novel, the critically-panned The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.  Days after being denied tenure and losing his job, a depressed Jaynes has an unpublished autobiographical narrative brought to his attention, written by a presumably fictional character from Poe's work.  Deciding that Poe's story must actually be true, Jaynes sets out to find the mysterious all-white Antarctic figure from the book in hopes of discovering Tsalal, an all-black island also from the novel.

Musings: It's hard to sum up Pym in a few words because this odd, satirical, absurdist, yet meaningful book is full of so much.  Johnson mirrors Poe's structure (which Jaynes roundly critcizes) in Pym with perfect effect.

There's a lot of commentary on individuals' interpretations of Whiteness and Blackness without a singular message.  Jaynes refuses to do what the "whites" expect of him as an African-American man (teach African-American literature; serve on the diversity committee), but his refusal achieves nothing either. His focus on race also belies his own discomfort as a light-skinned person who is sometimes mistaken for white.  Later in the novel Johnson weaves in how easy it is to "other-ize" another being (which goes both ways) as the crew of Jaynes' ship to Antartica is enslaved.

Admist all this is weirdness and randomness, like giant albino snow creatures and Jaynes' friend Garth's obsession with a cheesy landscap painter (a la Thomas Kincaid).  And there's a lot issues beyond race addressed, such as the crew's bickering over movie rights when they discover unknown Antarctic creatures.

I enjoyed the book, though I left it without a clear sense of analysis.  That doesn't mean it wasn't a fun, weird, trip, though.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"Skeletons on the Zahara" by Dean King

Summary: A true account of American sailors whose ship wrecked on the coast of Africa in 1815 and were subsequently taken as slaves by nomad desert tribesmen.

Musings: I love a really engaging nonfiction narrative (e.g., The Lost City of Z or We Die Alone), and while Skeletons of the Zahara didn't grab my interest the way others have, it's still a compelling true story.

What's of particular interest is the Americans' encounter with a vastly different culture than their own.  The nomadic tribesmen live a life built around the scarcity of water and a reliance on camels.  It's a difficult life that the captives are especially unprepared for, which is shown by their vast physical deterioration during their enslavement.  The book also depicts the sailors' absolute helplessness in the situation.  They're in an unfamiliar land, unable to speak the language, and unable to subsist without their masters' provisions of food and water.

King's account is taken largely from the first-person narratives of the captain, Riley, and another one of the sailors.  In doing so, King is able to recount the Americans' conflicting opinions of the people they encounter.  Some they regard as abject and cruel savages, but they also respect the honor in others, particularly Hamet, a trader who buys them and ultimately sells their freedom, and bel Cossim, who helps arrange their release through a British consul.

For a modern reader, it's easy to see some of the hypocrisy in the sailors' complaints of their poor treatment, as African slaves were being treated the same or worse by American slave-owners of the time period.  However, it was good to see that, upon his return, Riley became an outspoken abolitionist, recognizing his experience in the lives of American slaves.

King does a good job of keeping Skeletons of the Zahara as the adventure-survival story it should be, with clear prose and an appropriate pace, even though some of the material lacked a little spark for me.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"Anansi Boys" by Neil Gaiman

Summary: Fat Charlie is mostly relieved when he learns his perpetually embarrassing father has died.  But, home in the States for the funeral, he also learns about a mysterious brother he never knew he had.  When, in a drunken moment, he seeks out his brother, Spider soon appears.  Although Charlie learns he and Spider are both sons of the trickster god Anansi, Spider is cooler and more confident than Charlie has ever been, and Spider soon starts to ruin Charlie's life.

Musings: I always enjoy Gaiman's work, even if Anansi Boys wasn't especially memorable for me.  It has a lot of elements that I've liked in Gaiman's writing before: spurts of the absurd, the interweaving of reality and myth, random subplots expertly woven together, and a goodhearted optimism throughout.  The characters are richly drawn, as is the contrast between the submissive and insecure Charlie and the popular and self-assured Spider.

My favorite parts were in Spider's first arrival in Charlie's life, as Spider gets Charlie embroiled in a scandal at work and easily steals Charlie's fiance.  I also enjoyed the ending, where the good characters gain confidence in spectacular fashion.

I was reminded of Luka and the Fire of Life as I read, though like in that novel, I felt somewhat distanced from the characters and events.  Nonetheless, it was still a fun and lighthearted read.