What I Read in March

1. Dramarama, E. Lockhart–I picked this up thinking I might use it in the sample curriculum I was writing but decided to use just 2 YA novels instead of 4. Still, I really enjoyed it. it’s about this girl who goes away to theater camp with her flamboyant best friend who has to keep his queerness hidden in their Ohio school. Especially awesome for teenage theater geeks.

2.The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie–I did use this for the sample unit. It’s just utterly fantastic. Very funny, but also bracingly honest. 

3. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, emily danforth–a favorite YA novel of mine, also for the sample unit. I wrote about this in great detail on the blog previously. It’s amazing.

4. All of a Kind Family–ok, so I wanted some nostalgia and I found this at the library book sale. I love this book. I remember reading it so clearly as a kid. you guys remember it too right? that sweet potato at the market! the library lady! the paper dolls! eating crackers and chocolate babies in bed! sukkot! the button game! Charlie and the library lady getting it on! the beach! 

right, so. 

5. Running Blind, Lee Child–eh. he writes thrillers that take almost no time to get through and this is one of my favorites because it actually involves Reacher having friends, which is, you know, nice.

6. The Death and Life of Great American School System, Diane Ravitch–a really amazing exploration of how the nice sounding buzzwords “choice” and “accountability” are destroying our schools. Will post my annotation soon.

7. Lost in School, Ross Greene–I’ve read one of his previous books and really liked the different paradigm he presents for dealing with difficult kids. This basically takes that paradigm and applies it to schools. A good read. 

8. Shut your eyes tight, Verdon–a mystery that I enjoyed while reading and have since forgotten all about. Which is fine.

9. The Nightmare, Keplar–yet another Scandinavian mystery, this one written by a husband and wife team. the writing is…not great, though some of that might be translation, but I enjoyed the plot and it’s a quick read.

10. Outrage, indridason–one of my favorites of the Scandinavians

11. The Theban Mysteries, Amanda Cross–I don’t know that you could even exactly call what Cross does mystery writing since her mysteries are such low stakes-but I LOVE hanging out with Kate Fansler.

12. Trust me, Jeff Abbott–eh. an ok thriller, i guess, concept way better than execution. 

13. The Stranger, Camila Lackberg–I really love her. And I really liked this book. 

14. Next of Kin, Roger Fouts–a  longtime favorite that I re-read for a book annotation. If you like chimps, language acquisition, animal rights, sign language, or a story about a chimp that reads Playboy, mixes herself gins and tonics, and masturbates with a vacuum cleaner, go pick it up.

15. What’s the Matter with White People, Joan Walsh–the Salon writer presents an interesting argument about the two competing narratives for the vanishing middle class. She has some really fascinating ideas about how Democrats have screwed themselves, despite being much better for the country than the GOP. It’s a political memoir, too, which I enjoyed. 

15/16. Quentins/Nights of Rain and Stars, both Maeve Binchy–just lovely, quiet, cozy novels. 

17. On Detective Fiction, P.D. James–insights from a master.

18. A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver–god, I love her poetry so so much. one thing i noticed, in addition to all of the trademark nature imagery, is what a great sense of humor she has. there’s one poem where she presents two contradictory ideas and then ends with “are you following me?” hehe. 

The Fault in Our Stars

The idea of a book about children with cancer sounds horrible: so easy to slip into stereotypical and boring cliches, to be overly sentimental and maudlin. But John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is nothing less than extraordinary for its utter avoidance of these tropes.

Stars is the story of one Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenage girl who has cancer. She begins the book by telling us that her mother thinks she is depressed; Hazel says that in everything she has read about cancer, depression is listed as a side effect of the disease. But Hazel, in the first of many themes, disagrees. “Depression,” she says, “is a side effect of dying” (Green, 2012 p. 3).

Hazel attends a Kids with Cancer Support Group in a church, where, she says everybody wants “to beat not only cancer itself, but the other people in the room” (Green, 2012 p. 5). It’s here that she first meets Augustus Waters, there are the invitation of a boy named Isaac. Augustus catches her eye and then becomes more attractive when he starts making puns about Isaac, who is about to have surgery that will leave him blind. This sense of humor—dark and tremendously witty—is part of the heart of this book.

Augustus had “a touch of osteosarcoma” and lost a leg, but as the book starts he is in remission (Green 2012 p11). After he notes in that first group that he worries about oblivion, Hazel tells him that nothing will survive, that everything that humans do will vanish and no one will remember any of it, and if it worries him, she says, she suggests he ignore it. This pulls Augustus up short, and after that he and Hazel become friends.

According to Hazel, Cancer Kids—as she calls them—have a shorthand. What’s your story, they ask each other, and then they tell one another their diagnoses, their history with the disease. In Hazel’s case, she explains, she had a near lethal bout with thyroid cancer. In the first of many (many, many) heartbreaking passages she describes her mother asking if she was ready, and then thinking she was about to die; but then they managed to clear some fluid from her lungs and gave her an experimental drug that worked. Hazel is clear that it is not a cure; she is still terminal. But she is also in the strange netherworld of knowing she will die way too early and not knowing when that will be.

Into this netherworld walks Augustus Waters. The two become closer and closer, bonding over bad jokes and deep talks. Hazel introduces Augustus to her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, which—appropriately enough—is about a girl dying of cancer. The book ends in the middle of a sentence, to replicate death, since life ends that way too: in the middle of a sentence. Hazel wants to know what happens, of course, and Augustus uses his Wish (as in the Make A Wish foundation) to take her to Holland to meet the author.

The author ends up being a complete jerk. Although Hazel and Augustus enjoy parts of their trip anyway—having sex for the first time, visiting a very fancy restaurant with delicious champagne—they are both surprised and disturbed by the author’s refusal to tell them anything about the book and to treat them civilly.

After a visit to the Anne Frank museum, the two return to the hotel, where Green throws a giant curveball. Augustus—who has what is usually a fairly curable kind of cancer—is dying.

After he tells Hazel, he grimaces, and she asks him if it hurts. No, he says, but “I like this world. I like drinking champagne. I like not smoking…and now I don’t even get a battle. I don’t get a fight.” When Hazel tries to reassure him that he can battle his cancer, he is dismissive: “What am I doing battle with? My cancer. And what is my cancer? My cancer is me. The tumors are made of me. They’re made of me as surely as my brain and my heart are made of me. It’s a civil war, Hazel Grace, with a predetermined winner” (Green, 2012 p. 216).

The two return to the US. Augustus gets sicker and sicker, and at some point he summons Hazel and their friends Isaac to the church so that they can eulogize him while he is still there to see it. Both deliver eulogies that will crack your heart wide open.

Hazel thinks it is unbearable, to have her best friend and her first love die, and she gives a tremendously eloquent description of pure, unadulterated grief:

“When you go into the ER, one of the first things they ask you to do is to rate your pain on a scale of one to ten….once…it felt like my chest was on fire, flames licking the insides of my ribs fighting for a way to burn out of my body…the nurse asked about the pain…and I held up nine fingers….Later, the nurse…said ‘you know how I know you’re a fighter? You called a ten a nine.’ But that wasn’t quite right. I called it a nine because I was saving my ten. And here it was, the great and terrible ten, slamming me again and again as I lay still and alone in my bed staring at the ceiling, the waves tossing me against the rocks then pulling me back out to sea so they could launch me again into the jagged face of the cliff, leaving me floating faceup on the water, undrowned (Green, 2012 p. 263)”.

Green’s novel doesn’t have a happy ending, particularly. How could it? Augustus is dead and Hazel is dying. In the end, she finds a letter Augustus wrote to Afflictions’ author, which closes with “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she does too” (Green, 2012 p. 313).

And Hazel does.

There are some recurring themes in Stars. One is side effects of dying; Hazel informs us that most things are. Nostalgia, among them. Another is the idea that kids with cancer are grenades: Hazel is constantly worried that she will destroy her parents, and the people that she loves. She worries about letting Augustus love her—as much as she can control that anyway—because then when she dies he will be gutted. She is terrified for her parents, the loss they will feel when she dies. Another oft-repeated theme in the novel: “pain demands to be felt.” It does no good to bottle it up. The title comes from Shakespeare, when Cassius says “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/but in ourselves”—but, as the novel notes, “there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars” (Green, 2012 p. 112). There is, indeed, a whole lot of fault in Hazel’s stars, and in Augustus’.

Stars is unique in how utterly matter-of-fact it is. I chose novels about death that were not, on the whole, terribly maudlin; but Green least of all. His characters scorn the idea of battling cancer. Instead, they are refreshingly pragmatic about the disease. Cancer, after all, is only trying to survive: they are merely victims of mutating cells.

Green captures the gallows humor, the exhilaration of first love, the ways in which teenagers might take on different affects to see what fits, perfectly. He is not concerned with playing to the reader’s emotions. He is concerned with giving us a glimpse into what it is like to be a teenager, in love for the first time, and to have to balance that with the horrible knowledge that you are going to die—and then to find that it was your love that was the grenade, all along.

YA Spotlight- the Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

SPOILERS WITHIN (though even if you read this you will still enjoy the novel!)

First time novelist Emily Danforth’s book is a coming of age tale set in rural Montana in the 1990s. The titular character, Cameron Post, is twelve when the book begins; in short order, her best friend Irene dares her to kiss her, and she does, in a hay loft. She liked it; they both liked it, really. But not long afterwards, when she is sleeping over at Irene’s house, Irene’s father appears and tells her she has to go home. All the way home, Cam is thinking about how he must have discovered what they had done, must have decided that she could not be in his house anymore, not with his daughter. And then they return to Cam’s house and her parents have died in a car accident.

If there’s a recipe for longstanding shame, it has to be kissing a girl in a homophobic town, then returning to find that your parents have been killed. To a twelve year old, in that moment of terror and unreality and confusion and with no adult to help sort it all out, it feels as though the two things are linked, as though the kissing caused the crash. She feels tremendously guilty, because how could she not, that she is relieved that her parents will not find out about the kiss: she feels horrible because she feels responsible. (She also feels horrible because her parents just died, of course).

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Cam’s born again Aunt Ruth gets custody of her, and they live together with her grandmother. Cam escapes into movies immediately. She watches everything she can think of, eager to slip inside a different world, at least for awhile. And then Ruth has her join Gates of Praise, Ruth’s megachurch, and things begin to change.

Gates of Praise—or GOP—is typical in its megachurch-ness; it denounces homosexuality, of course, and at some point a pastor names Rick comes and talks to the youth group about his new program for helping teenagers move past homosexuality. Cam, who at this point has begun fooling around with a girl in youth group, is fascinated and horrified.

Cam spends the next year or two beginning to understand her sexuality. In her small Montana town she hangs out with a gang of boys, and one of them, Jamie, has a crush on her. They kiss once or twice, but it doesn’t feel right to Cam. When she sees Jamie kissing another girl, she feels better—“as if the pressure was off me” (Danforth 2012 p171). Jamie figures out her sexuality, and he doesn’t even seem to mind, really.

Cam is introduced to a lot of queer culture by her swim team friend Lindsey, who comes to Montana from Seattle every summer to stay with her dad. Lindsey is a lesbian who is confident in her orientation and in herself. She tells Cameron about Pride, and gay- friendly musicians, and movies with queer characters. She is essentially providing Cam with the kind of Being Queer 101 information many LGBT youth discover in college. Cam looks up to her and finds her attractive, but when Lindsey goes back to Seattle for the school year she begins—slowly at first—to be with a girl named Coley Taylor. Coley is part of a golden couple at school—a heterosexual golden couple—but she has her own desires, and she and Cam explore them, slowly at first, and then not slowly at all. But when Cam and

Coley actually really have sex, they are interrupted by her brother and several friends. Cam returns home a few days later to find that the Gates of Praise pastor has heard that Cam seduced Coley; Cam is therefore being sent to Promise, a place that promises to move sinners past homosexuality and into holiness.

This is where my rage came in, and it did not dissipate until the book was nearly over. I found myself furious on Cam’s behalf—I had come to quite like her voice, witty and wry and honest and authentic without being cloying—and I was enraged at her aunt for sending her away, her grandmother for going along with it, the people running Promise for existing.

As it turns out, there’s a bit of an inmates running the asylum feeling at Promise: several of the students (or disciples, in the parlance) seem genuine, but others, particularly Jane and Adam, smoke a lot of pot (Jane grows it herself in a hidden plot) and are, basically, faking their way through.

Over her time at Promise, Cam goes through a few changes, which I’ll discuss below. Furthering my rage, another disciple—this one the son of a prominent conservative preacher—cuts his genitals and then bleaches the cuts. This is the part that really enraged me, because it is so absurdly obvious that if you tell kids over and over and over that some base, unchangeable part of themselves is ungodly and sinful and must be fixed, of course they are going to go mad with self-loathing. It cannot be otherwise.

This is the final straw for Cam. She, Jane and Adam plot carefully; they start pretending to really believe what they are being told, and to “work” in their individual sessions with Reverend Rick and his icy cold British aunt. And then they escape. They go to the lake where Cam’s parents died, and Cam swims out, in the frigid water, clutching a candle to her belly, and says goodbye to them, and then she swims in, to where her friends have made a fire for her.

There are several really notable things about Cam’s story. Her obsession with movies ties in beautifully to the idea that girls are “looking at their looks” as Gilligan said, that they are learning how to live within that male gaze (discussed as part of film, after all). You could argue, in fact, that Cam herself becomes also the perpetrator of that male gaze when she watches movies, since she is looking at them as a way to objectify the women.

Even more, though, Cam’s time at Promise seems an especially clear—and terrifying—example of the kind of gaslighting Gilligan and Simmons feel that adolescent girls deal with on a regular basis. Throughout her time, Cam feels more and more taken in by the entire premise. Again, this is not unexpected. Having something told to you over and over makes you likely to believe it. Not too long after she’s arrived—while she and Adam are helping Jane harvest marijuana—Jane asks Cam “so have you started to forget yourself?” by which she means, she says, “Promise has a way of making you forget yourself…even if you’re resisting the rhetoric. You still sort of disappear” (Danworth, 2012 p. 310). By far the clearest example of this comes when Cam thinks about her time at the center:

I felt all the ways in which this world seemed so, so enormous…but also so, so removed. I’d felt like this since I arrived, like at Promise I was destined to live in suspended time….all the ‘support sessions’ were designed to make you realize that your past was not the right past….And when you’re surrounded by a bunch of strangers….miles away from anybody who might have known you before, might have been able to recognize the real you….it’s not really like being real at all….It’s living the life of one of those prehistoric insects encased in amber: suspended, frozen, dead but not….But even if the amber could somehow be melted, and it could be freed…how could it be expected to live in this new world without its past, without everything it knew from the world before, from its place in it, tripping it up again and again? (Danworth, 2012 p. 313) (emphasis original).

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more clearheaded description of the damage done by telling adolescents—or anyone, really—that who they are is fundamentally Bad and Evil and Sinful. It is a crime of erasure. When you tell someone that who they love and how they love is wrong, you are erasing one of the most base, vital experiences a human being can have. That’s in addition, of course, to all of the other things wrong with telling someone they can’t love who they love because God says so.

To her credit, Danforth never makes any of the “pray away the gay” people evil caricatures, as I would be tempted to do. As I am tempted to do whenever I see them in the news. When Adam, Jane and Cam are talking about the boy who cut himself, for example, Adam says angrily that how could his father expect anything else, when he’d been telling him for years how sinful his thoughts were. And Jane points out that his father is genuinely trying to save his son from what he thinks is the horrible awaiting eternal fate the best way he knows how.

It’s a fascinating thought experiment, isn’t it? Now, I actually don’t believe for a second that most homophobia is the result of a genuine fear that your loved ones will burn in hell forever. I think it’s mostly a combination of fear, internalized disgust, xenophobia, power lust, and simple hatred. But, although I do not understand it, I can entertain the notion that there are people out there for whom this kind of thinking really does come from a different place. And Danforth does us all a service, I think, asking us to consider what those people’s duties to each other might be, and ours to them. Which is not a way of saying there is any reasonable, ethical way to condone a place like Promise—just that Danforth should get credit for avoiding the simple characterizations that could easily have fit into her book.

Cam’s story shares elements with many a YA novel. There are the adults who are utter failures at being adults. There’s the first love and first sex part. There’s the learning to rely on friends part, and the grief part. Hers differs partly because of how well it is written and mostly because of it’s authenticity and its refusal to seek easy answers, even as it is definitive about what not to do.

Cam’s voice shines through clearly in the novel. Although in the external world of the story, she loses her voice, but in the internal world as the reader sees it, her voice remains clear and genuine. When I asked Danforth where Cam’s voice came from, she told me that part of it “is almost certainly mined from my own adolescent outlook” (Danforth also grew up gay in the Midwest, although she didn’t go to a Promise-like place) and “part is an attempt to fully utilize the first person [point of view] to create a storyteller whose very style of narration becomes part of the story—a part as crucial as the plot itself” (personal communication, October 20, 2012). Indeed, Cam’s voice—her clearheadedness, her ability to think through things, her way of looking at the world—is what makes her story so compelling.