YA Conversation (Final Part)

As has been widely reported, young adult literature is enjoying huge popularity at the moment with adults and teens alike reading YA books in droves. Consequently, the genre has become the target of some spirited debate (most famously from Slate’s Ruth Graham in her piece “Against YA”).


In Part One of this conversation, we discussed the differences between “adult” and “young adult” novels while in Part Two, we talked about how schools are using YA and if a YA-based curriculum is really a good thing and Part Three explored the lack of complexity and the phenomenon of adults reading young adult novels.

Kate: Here’s the one niggling doubt in my mind about YA literature: while the complexity of the works being studied in schools has definitely fallen, in their day, works by Austen and Dickens were lumped in with other, more frivolous works as something to distract young people from more important reading of “the classics.”

Jane Austen talks about the “dangers” of novels in Northanger Abbey, a work that mostly centers on a young girl who takes novels, including works by Austen’s predecessor Ann Radcliffe, rather more seriously than she should. Few except scholars of that time period and students of popular literature read Radcliffe now. When they do, they read it as a reflection of the culture of the time, filled with anti-Catholic hysteria and a preoccupation with social class and virginity. The Romance of the Forest is a rip-roaring good story, but there’s not much there apart from sensationalism and a glimpse into the Gothic sensibility.

So my question is, how can you tell if a contemporary work is worth studying closer and may be the next Austen, or if it should be enjoyed as a good story and maybe a reflection of culture, such as Radcliffe? (more…)

November 20, 2014 at 6:40 am Leave a comment

‘The Westing Game’ by Ellen Raskin

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin is one of those books I can’t believe I escaped middle school without reading. Not only is it something of a contemporary classic of children’s literature, it’s also just the sort of thing I would have loved as an eleven-year-old (or so): a twisty mystery with a precocious girl and a possible murder at the heart of it. I was all about those sort of books and, accordingly, devoured every single Zilpha Keatley Snyder book at my school’s library.

But for some reason The Westing Game remained unread. I honestly have no idea why since it turned out to be a very enjoyable read. The Westing Game tells the story of multimillionaire Sam Westing. Upon his (apparent) death, his sixteen designated heirs gather in his spooky old mansion to play “The Westing Game,” which will give each of them a chance to walk away with all his riches.

It’s a fun book, although, much as when I re-read The Egypt Game, I was quite surprised at how seriously the book treated certain social issues—and how topical such things still are today. Although published in 1978, The Westing Game openly approaches today’s hot-button issues including racial prejudice, bullying, and even the immigrant experience. It’s an amazingly on-point book that squeezes a lot into a little murder mystery for children. (more…)

November 18, 2014 at 7:02 am 3 comments

A year in reading: The final ten

At the beginning of the year, I made a silent goal for myself: I would read 50 books in 2014.

In 2013, I read 43. In 2012, 40. In 2011, even with completing my MA and moving continents, I somehow managed to read 45. I figured I could push myself onwards to the inevitable next plateau: FIFTY IN 2014!

There are right now just eight weeks left in 2014 (a startling enough revelation on its own) and I’m at 40 books read for the year. This means I have eight weeks left to top off ten books, which inevitably led me to wonder: which ones should they be?

My “To Be Read” list is extensive and has, in the last few months, been largely predicated on what books have come in at the library. The very last inter-library loan book I’ve requested is coming in this week (How Fiction Works by James Wood), so I’m more free to set my own pace at this point. (As long as I can stop myself from requesting anything more in the next eight weeks. We’ll see how that goes.)

Because I have librarianship in my blood, this “which books will finish my year?” question could really only be solved with a list. In fact, a categorized list. I’ve given myself five categories, with two books each, so I’m not glutting myself on any particular genre in the next eight weeks.

This might just be the most thoughtful eight weeks of reading in my entire life. Here we go!

Classic Literature
1. The Man of Property by John Galsworthy (The Forsyte Saga: Book I)
2. Westwood by Stella Gibbons

Children’s Literature
3. The Westing Game by Ellen RaskinReviewed 11/18/2014
4. Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

Graphic Novels/Comic Books
5. Velvet by Ed Brubaker
6. Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue Deconnick – finished 11/18/2014

7. Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck – finished 11/18/2014
8. Blue Mind: The surprising science that shows how being near, in, on, or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do by Wallace Nichols
EDIT November 18: What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir by Kristin Newman

Recommended Reading: Books suggested by friends
9. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
10. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

What do you have on deck for the rest of the year? Chime in below!

November 13, 2014 at 7:48 am 2 comments

‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ by Susan Cain

quietSusan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking was an affirming read. Yet it wasn’t that way for the reasons the title might lead you expect. While Cain does champion the introvert and explain more about what introverts have to offer our very pro-extrovert society (spoiler alert: a lot), the broader message of Quiet is far more inclusive and comprehensive than just “the power of introverts.”

Quiet looks closely at both introverts and extroverts with a critical and scientific eye. Rarely does Cain veer into the anecdotal evidence, except when giving examples of a specific scientific finding or symptom.

The best part of this even-handedness is that is slowly allows you to recognize the parts of yourself that fit in with both. As Carl Jung noted (and Cain quotes), “There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.” People are often and consistently classified as strictly introverted or extroverted, so it was revelatory to me that you can be a mix. Introverts can sometimes be gregarious. Extroverts can sometimes need down time. And you can skew one way or the other without conforming to every stereotype about either.

Part of “the power of introverts” Cain creates in this marvelous book is the power to remove these preconceived ideas of what an introvert is. (more…)

November 11, 2014 at 6:25 am 2 comments

‘Alice + Freda Forever’ by Alexis Coe

alice-fredaThe book in front of me was slim and had a striking red cover with girlish and looping white handwriting taking up most of the space. The back featured the same white script and a little sketch of a man’s razor blade with black paragraphs of praise from various other authors below it. It looked dramatic, fun, and, above all, like something you’d want to pick up.

I describe the book to you physically because I have never been asked what I’m reading so often as I was when reading Alice + Freda Forever by Alexis Coe. And I never received so many weird looks as when I answered the question. The looks plainly said: “Lesbians? In post-Civil War Memphis? Murder? Well, okay, Corey, you do you, I guess…”

Most people I talked to about the book thought it was fiction and found it plainly weird of me to read such a thing. Those who persevered in the conversation understood Alice + Freda Forever to be nonfiction, but still clearly didn’t see the appeal.

I found their reactions almost more interesting than my own in that they mirrored the reactions of Alice and Freda’s contemporaries almost too perfectly—no one could understand these young women’s “unnatural love” to the point of thinking them insane. Alice was condemned to a lunatic asylum, not because she had murdered someone and showed absolutely no remorse, but because she wanted to marry another woman. That, according to the judge and jury and the rest of America, was clearly crazy. And, more than 100 years later, apparently wanting to read about such a thing is also considered more than a little eccentric.

One wonders what my conversational companions would think of Alexis Coe, author of the book and self-professed obsessor about the case of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward! (more…)

November 4, 2014 at 6:16 am Leave a comment

A Conversation on YA (Part III)

As has been widely reported, young adult literature is enjoying huge popularity at the moment with adults and teens alike reading YA books in droves. Consequently, the genre has become the target of some spirited debate (most famously from Slate’s Ruth Graham in her piece “Against YA”).


In Part One of this conversation, we discussed the differences between “adult” and “young adult” novels while in Part Two, we talked about how schools are using YA and if a YA-based curriculum is really a good thing—should books being accessible matter? And does the “at least they’re reading” argument really hold water?

Corey: So where does an education system that teaches YA leave us? In our last part, Kate asked about why adults might be fleeing to the children’s section and reading YA. Are they doing it because they no longer wish to be challenged?

Personally, I don’t think it’s that adults don’t want to be challenged. I think it’s more a problem of adults never being challenged as young adults and children, so they just continue reading in the similar vein as they grow up. I’m not sure the choice by adults to read “Young Adult Literature” is really as much of a statement or intentional choice as we (and the media) make it out to be.

ya-wutheringKate: I think it’s just a marketing distinction. People are reading books now that they would have read before, they’re just marketed differently. The difference is, people take this pride in it, and I think it’s because of the marketing furor over YA books — the idea being that the books are so talked about that everyone must be reading them, so we talk openly about them rather than sort of hiding them.

Many times I think YA is missing any kind of moral or ethical complexity. There are good guys and there are bad guys and there is never any confusion. Bella would feel much differently about Edward if, in fact, he did kill humans — all kinds of humans, as do the werewolves in The Last Werewolf and Talulah Rising. Sookie Stackhouse struggles a lot with the question of good and evil when it comes to the supernatural. You don’t really find that in YA, at least, as far as I’ve seen.

Corey: That is really the bottom line for me, too. I got really puzzled at that lack of complexity and then eventually troubled. In execution, I found my forays into YA imaginative fiction to be well short of intellectually stimulating. They were entertaining, sure, and I marvelled at the creativity of the authors. And yet…

In the end I found myself rather agreeing with Ruth Graham (and you, Kate!)—young adult books tell simple, clear-cut stories with neat endings and easily-followed plotlines. And adult readers, while they may well enjoy these fables (essentially), should really aspire to something more.

Kate: Of course we should aspire to something more! I recognize that reading isn’t important to some people, and the same holds for complex literary analysis. We all have the right to read and enjoy YA books of any ilk.

But I agree with Ruth Graham that the pride people take in reading YA fiction is puzzling. As a psychological study of teenage brains and human development, maybe. But to be proud of exclusively reading fiction meant for teenagers is a little like Bethany Frankel squeezing into her toddler’s pjs — it might fit, but that might also mean there’s something seriously wrong. In this case, with popular culture’s current definition of “literature.”

Corey: Which I guess brings us around to the distinction between “fiction” and “literature,” which is probably a conversation for another time!

Stay tuned for our final installment!

Next time, we explore the future of YA literature. Kate notes that many books now considered classics started off perceived as frivolous novels. Will any of the books written now that are perceived as “frivolous young adult novels” stand the test of time?

October 30, 2014 at 5:32 am 1 comment

‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion

rosieprojectThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion is the Zooey Deschanel of novels: it’s adorkable.

It’s also a great many other adjectives, but, overwhelmingly, it’s adorkable. Telling the story of a very particular scientist named Dr. Don Tillman, The Rosie Projects relates what happens when he abruptly decides it is time he found a wife (or “female life partner”) and creates a scientific questionnaire to help him find his ideal mate. Inevitably, this fail-proof plan fails in pretty short order when he meets the titular Rosie, who, of course, aligns with none of his criteria, but who, of course, he can’t seem to stop thinking about.

It’s a cute story and one very much in the same mold as James Collins’ Beginner’s Greek: romantic comedy novels approaching the subject of modern love with an immovable faith in romance. The Rosie Project tilts more on the side of comedy than Beginner’s Greek (which tilted more on the side of romance), but, if you’ll forgive the science pun, they share the same DNA. (more…)

October 28, 2014 at 4:02 am Leave a comment

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