Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Guest Post - The Lightning Thief

This post is written by Lily, my 11-year-old daughter:

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a great series and I would recommend these books to everyone. In the first book Percy finds out that he is no normal mortal. He also finds his best friend isn’t human. Grover and Percy’s mother, Sally Jackson, lead Percy to a camp that is safe for him. At camp he meets his soon-to-be friend, Annabeth Chase. Soon after meeting her he gets a quest from the Oracle. In his quest he meets two gods, Ares and Hades. Read the book if you would like a story of friendship, fighting, mythology, and Grover.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Shakespeare Is Wasted on the Young

That's not really what I think, but it made a catchy title. Well, maybe I did mean it a little, because I've been reading Hamlet recently and I'm finding that it is so much more enjoyable now than it was when I was reading it for my Shakespeare class in college.  I seem to remember back then that I had to consult the footnotes every other line or so just to understand what was being said. That makes it a little difficult to follow the flow of the action - especially when one might be a little distracted by his/her own Hamlet, ha ha.

Now it's much easier to grasp the meaning, even if I'm reading the Elizabethean phrases. (I do still occasionally have to consult the footnotes.) I'm also able to maintain a sense of the flow from night to night, and I'm finding I really enjoy it, even those philosophical flights of poetry that annoyed me back in the day. That Hamlet - what a witty scoundrel! I love his word plays. And I can sympathize with his feelings of frustration with himself when he can't seem to bring himself to do what he needs to do (although what he wants to do is a LOT darker than anything I ever want to do!).

I'm not advocating that high school English teachers should abandon their efforts to teach Shakespeare to teens. I do hope that those efforts are positive enough that the kids will be willing to do as I've done and revisit the Bard when they're older. I really hope teens' experiences won't turn them off Shakespeare forever.

One more thing I've appreciated now is the difference between reading one of Shakespeare's plays and seeing it performed. There's so much meaning that is conveyed in the acting rather than just the words. This may motivate me to seek out a film version of the play; any suggestions as to which would be best? I've seen the Mel Gibson version long ago, but Mel has a little taint on him right now, and there might be better versions, anyway.   

Friday, August 13, 2010

Yeah, I Read YA Fiction...and apparently a lot of other adults do, too

One of the most (slightly) embarrassing moments of my life was when I was interviewing for a teaching assistantship for my master's degree program. I was sitting in the office of one of the professors, surrounded by high-level academic books. He leaned back in his chair, made one of those little tents with his hands, and asked, "What do you read?" 

At that point, it would have been nice to be able to pull out the title of some high-level academic book or even one of the classic novels from my literature classes, but instead, I was honest and said, "Mainly children's books."

That answer didn't keep me from getting the assistantship, but I've always felt a little apologetic whenever I admit to my preference for young people's books.  But I guess I have nothing to be ashamed of, according to a recent article in the New York Times. The article says 47% of women aged 18-24 and 20% of women aged 35-44 buy and read YA books.  The article goes on to explain some of the appeal YA books have for older readers:

There’s a freshness there; it’s engaging.

Another of the experts quoted in the article says we middle-aged readers of YA books may be drawn to the "big type and short, plot-driven chapters" that make YA literature easier to read, since we are tired.

Ok, I'll admit it. I do like the fact that most YA books have shorter chapters and more focused plots and move along quickly. But I've decided that's not a sign of being intellectually shallow on my part. If I were reading Nancy Drew exclusively, maybe so.  But one thing I have really enjoyed about YA (and children's) novels are the deep ideas that lurk beneath the seemingly simple surface. I've read about gender issues and race issues and death and love and rebellion, among other things. I agree that maybe it is intellectually shallow of me to want to avoid some of the issues in adult novels, like child molestation and psychological torture (although there are YA novels that also deal with these issues, and I generally avoid those, as well - why make myself miserable?).

I suppose that's another reason I prefer YA literature - there's a sort of an innocent hopefulness to YA stories, or maybe it's a hopeful innocence. Either way, I like it. I like coming away from something I've read with a feeling that there is hope for the world, even if things don't work out the way I hoped they would.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Kindle - Week One

You may recall that I've been debating for over a year about whether I want to buy a Kindle. Well, the debate was resolved last week when my husband got me one as a combination birthday present/payment for picking so many blueberries (his idea, not mine - I don't need to be paid).  After a week of owning one, I'm still debating the advantages of e-books.

Don't get me wrong; I can see a long-term love affair developing. It is so light! Forget the "experience" of holding a book. Holding the Kindle is so much more comfortable and natural. I like the notion of being able to have an entire library at my disposal in one neat little package. Reading off the screen is better than reading from a computer screen, and seems to be truly comparable to reading from a book. Of course, I haven't yet had the luxury of being able to spend hours at one sitting reading, so I can't say if I might get tired of reading from a screen.

One thing I love that I hadn't anticipated is the ability to upload personal documents. My boss sent a couple of articles faculty are supposed to read before our opening workshop in a week or two.  One was a pdf - I just plugged the Kindle in to the computer and dragged the file over like I would for any flash drive. The other article was a Word document, so I had to email it to Amazon for conversion, but I used the free service to email back to my Yahoo account, then dragged the file over. Done within 10 minutes.  Now, instead of being chained to my computer while reading these no-doubt thrilling documents or having to kill some trees to print them out, I can carry the documents with me and read bits of them while waiting for my daughter's orthodontic appointment or the Band Booster meeting. I'm wondering if this might be a tool I can use for grading papers.

Just as with any relationship, though, there are some little things that bother me. The first book I bought was the Bible, and I took the Kindle, not the physical Bible, to church this Sunday. Maybe it's just because I'm not yet used to the navigation of the Kindle, but I was so slow finding verses! In the book Bible, I could find a passage in seconds. With the Kindle, I miss being able to flip from passage to passage to inform what I'm reading at the time.  The second problem is that the battery ran out during church Wednesday night, and I was stuck without a Bible.  I guess I'm going to have to remember to treat the Kindle like my car - when the battery is down to a quarter-tank, refuel.

Another thing that nags at the back of my mind is how "selfish" Kindle is. If I buy a book on Kindle, it's available to only me, unless I am willing to share my sweet device, and I fear what would happen if I let my kids borrow it - I have found it to be very true that "You can't have anything nice if you have kids."  The plus side of all those books on the shelf is that they are there, visible, inviting. Just yesterday, my daughter was loitering in the room where I was working on stuff for school, and she suddenly said, "Anne of Green Gables! We saw that movie at school. It was good! I think I'll read this when I'm finished with The Red Pyramid." How can that happen if my library is hidden on a Kindle?

Finally, something that is bothersome but has nothing, really, to do with Kindle is that their Whispernet service is sort of iffy where I live. I've been able to connect to the store, but a couple of times the download of a book was interrupted because of loss of signal, I guess. I finally had to download the book on the computer and transfer it over.  One of the drawbacks of living in the boondocks.

Overall, I'm really pleased that my husband knocked me off the fence by getting me this gift. But I still haven't quite worked out how ebooks and paper books will interact in my world. I'm re-reading Hamlet to prepare me to read Ophelia by Lisa Klein, and rather than get a Kindle version of the play, I went to the shelf and pulled down my Complete Works of William Shakespeare from college days. You know, why buy a book I already have, blah, blah.  The first night, I propped open the 3-inch spine of the Complete Works so I could read in bed. Bits of a dead flower that must have commemorated something in college fell onto my face. My elbows and biceps gradually sagged as I made my way through the first scene.  Three nights in, my resolve is wavering. Does it really matter if I duplicate something in my library? For $.99, I can have Hamlet on my Kindle....

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Mixed Reaction

(Sorry, this will have lots of spoilers.)

Somewhere along the way, A Northern Light and I parted ways. At first, I loved it. The main character, Mattie, reminded me in many ways of my teen self. She loved words and writing, but her day-to-day life made it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to see how she could follow her dreams of studying literature and writing her stories. I liked the dilemma she was facing (and wrote about it in an earlier post). I liked the supporting characters of Weaver and Royal and Miss Willcox and Mattie's family.  I liked the slice-of-life glimpse into early 20th-century upstate New York, where the rich came to vacation in the mountains and the poor made a living by serving them.

But toward the end of the book, Jennifer Donnelly made several choices as a writer that I disagreed with and that left me with a bad taste in my mouth as far as this book is concerned. First, I think the turnaround of Emmie Hubbard was just too darn convenient. Emmie has been a -- well, I don't know what she has been. A victim? Royal's father has definitely been taking advantage of her for years. A prostitute? She's been accepting his "gifts" of the first, freshest milk, etc. for all those years. Whatever she is, she's definitely weak. I think Donnelly wants us to view her as a victim, but I can't see it entirely that way.  But, I digress - her turnaround.  At the end of the book, Weaver's mother has moved in with Emmie and, in the space of a week or so, has completely reformed Emmie, so that she is clean and respectable and able to provide for her children. I don't buy it. For one thing, if Weaver's mother has been living across the road from Emmie all these years (and it came as sort of a surprise to me when that was revealed at the end of the book), and if she's such a good influence, and if everyone in the area knew what was going on with Emmie and Royal's father, and if she thought Emmie was being wronged - then why didn't she do anything about it before???? I think it's because it ties in to something else that bothered me about the book - the way Donnelly wanted us to feel about Royal.

I'll admit I've changed my mind about having Mattie get together with Royal since my previous post. I really don't think they would be compatible. She is attracted to him because he's good-looking and because she thinks he is attracted to her, despite her plain and bookish self. She doesn't really care for him or have anything in common with him and isn't really interested in the things he cares about, so for them to marry would definitely be a mistake.

However, I think Donnelly wants to push all the blame for this failed relationship onto Royal. The reason he wants to marry Mattie is because he sees the opportunity to build a farm "empire." He doesn't love her or care about her interest in books. The two things that eventually make Mattie decide to dump him are that he is going to pay the back taxes on Emmie's land so he can have it (which means Emmie will be homeless) and that he brings Mattie a used cookbook for a birthday present. Although she doesn't say so, I imagine that Donnelly wants us to say, "The nerve of the guy!" and write him off as a jerk. Well, I refuse to do that.

What's wrong with Royal wanting to get Emmie's land? She hasn't been meeting her responsibilities for years, either for paying her taxes or for taking care of her kids (they regularly come to Mattie's family's house to eat). He wants to take the land and make it productive. Then add to that the fact that his father has been having a long-standing affair with Emmie, and Royal sees his chance to get her out of their lives. I totally understand his motivation, and don't see it as being particularly ignoble. Yet Donnelly wants us to see him as selfish and grasping, willing to turn a mother out on the streets. And she even has Weaver's mama step in and straighten Emmie out so Emmie's not a bad mother anymore. I just didn't like that whole bit.

Another thing I didn't like was making Royal into a jerk for giving Mattie the used cookbook for her birthday. When she sees the gift and knows it is a book, she gets her hopes up, only to have them dashed. The way it comes across in the story, that's the worst thing a guy can do - be so insensitive to his girl's feelings and so unaware of her desires. Like the "right" guy for a girl is going to be perfectly in tune with her and understand exactly what she wants. Come on. I bet most women out there have had a gift like the used cookbook. Maybe it's something you open and you think, "Why did he think I would like this??"  Or maybe it is a useful and totally impersonal household appliance. Yet the husband or boyfriend who gave the lame gift has enough other, good qualities that you'll let it pass. At least Royal thought about Mattie enough to remember her birthday.  He should get some points for that, instead of being turned into an insensitive lout. Let's face it - he's not the only problem in that relationship. Mattie didn't care about his dreams, either. She was thinking about Emily Dickinson instead of concentrating while he was talking about a new kind of corn.

As I said earlier, I don't have a problem with Mattie deciding she doesn't want to marry Royal, after all. That's actually a pretty good message for young women - don't marry the first guy who says you're pretty if you know you have nothing in common. What I didn't like was having Royal be villified for being that guy.

Finally, I didn't like having Mattie just leave at the end. All through the book, she's been so concerned about keeping the promise she made to her dying mother; at the end, she doesn't even think about that. She doesn't seem to care at all what will happen to her family, especially to Lou, the sister who seems to me to have some emotional problems following their mother's death.  Mattie's teacher once told her, "You are many things, Mattie Gokey, but selfish is not one of them." I disagree.