Fat Books & Thin Women


Reading Journal: Vacation Edition!

Holy moly, have I been a bad blogger lately. I would like to pin this on a lot of things, namely travel and how much time I spend every day nodding off over books on Albania, but this may just be my natural laziness showing itself. Still, I want to highlight a few of the books I’ve been reading but probably won’t get around to reviewing.

First up is Jessica Anya Blau’s The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, which I had picked up during a 99-cent ebook sale ages ago. I finally got around to reading it while I was in Greece. After a four-day conference in Thessaloniki I went to Santorini for some quality time stuffing my face with Greek food and sitting on beaches reading. Blau’s novel is a sort of perfect coming-of-age story, and finds that rare spot between totally mindless beach read and smart, clever look at (in this case) being a teenager. The novel’s main character, Jamie, is a teenaged girl who watches, with a healthy amount of disgust, her parents and their friends as they conduct the naked swim parties of the title. It’s the ’70s in California, and Jamie is more conservative than her parents, who she describes as “burnouts.” Blau leads the novel to an obvious conclusion, but it’s fun to read and find how she gets there. Jamie’s voice is so strong and earnest and honest that I can’t imagine reading this novel anyway but how I did – getting caught up in it until it becomes the only you can think about. (When you are not thinking about the next time it’ll be acceptable to eat more tzatziki, anyway.)

It was a great trip for YA, I guess, because the other book I read was Lauren Oliver’s dystopian novel, Delirium. I kind of fell in love with Before I Fall, and Delirium didn’t live up to my expectations. It’s not that it doesn’t have its moments; as Oliver weaves the history of Lena’s world into the story, telling us how the United States came to define love as a disease and force people to have a procedure to free themselves of the curse of love, there is a lot for the reader to explore and consider. When the story opens Lena is approaching her eighteenth birthday, when she’ll have her procedure, and dealing with all that comes before it – finishing high school, running through exams to determine her future mate – is for most of the novel her focus, rather than the question of what it means to “save” herself from the possibility of love. As with the above novel, it’s never hard to guess where Oliver will take the story, but it was sometimes frustrating to watch as Oliver puts Lena through her paces in the chapters leading to the close.

I’ve backed off from the YA recently, but I’ve been leaning a lot on the beach reads sort of books to help my brain recover from the reading I do for work. Unfortunately (for everyone who doesn’t have a deep and abiding interest in Albanian literature) there are probably a few more reviews of Ismail Kadare novels on their way, before we’re back to regular reviews.

In other news, just got home from a great trip to Montenegro and Croatia. Yeah, I got to see Dubrovnik – perhaps better known as one of the locations for Game of Thrones! I also got to spend a night in a former Communist hotel in Shkoder, Albania, which was fun in its own special, dead-plants-lining-the-hallway, kind of way. While up there I read The Help, a book I may or may not have said I would never read, because I had a string of ideas about how the novel reinforced racial stereotypes and the idea that black women needed white women to speak for them in the Civil Rights era. But then, it turned out I really liked it, and thought Stockett dealt with some of the issues I was worried about in a pretty nuanced way, although there were clumsy aspects to the novel. As Matt pointed out in his recent review of the novel, a particularly glaring one was the way that the black maids would write or speak in dialect, while quoting the white women in perfect English. Full review of this coming soon, or soonish.

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Review: Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak
June 9, 2011, 7:17 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, YA Lit | Tags: , , , , , ,

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is advertised as a classic of young adult fiction, but it’s one that only came to my attention about six months ago despite its 1999 publication date and my occasional enthusiastic forays into the young adult section of the library. This was an interesting time to read the book, given the recent Wall Street Journal piece declaiming against violence, sex and foul language in current young adult fiction.

Anderson’s book, although frequently banned, isn’t “offensive” in the way the WSJ piece suggests so much contemporary YA fiction is. Anderson deals with what my fifteen-year-old self would label some “heavy issues,” but she does so by exploring her narrator Melinda’s reactions to the events that shape her school year rather than the violence itself. Her novel is, literally, about a girl who refuses to speak, a girl who sees no way of expressing what has happened to her and finds herself abandoned by her friends, shunned by nearly everyone at her school, because what happened to her and what she did afterwards were so misunderstood.

Anderson’s prose is occasionally clumsy, as when she describes one teacher having a “[n]ose like a credit card sunk between his eyes” (10), but obscuring that fault is her skill at describing high school (“Every year they say we’re going to get right up to the present, but we always get stuck in the Industrial Revolution… We need more holidays to keep the social studies teachers on track” [7]), the cruelties of teenage girls (as when Melinda’s one remaining friend, a student new to the high school, matter-of-factly friend dumps her at lunch), and the mind of a student verging on collapse. Melinda is the sort of person, the sort of character, we shy from in life and fiction for the ways in which she refuses to simply “deal” with her issues or reshape herself into the sort of socially acceptable girl she was before the summer leading up to her ninth grade year. Anderson is unflinching in her portrayal of the character.

More than that, Anderson has given us a character who is not only nearly mute when dealing with those in her world, but one who is not capable of admitting to herself what has happened until halfway through Speak. Until that point the reader is left knowing only that something happened over the summer to define Melinda’s year, and her depression, her reluctance to speak and her fear of approaching old friends, are difficult to understand until Melinda herself thinks of herself in terms of “shame.” Melinda does, of course, eventually reveal to herself, to the reader, to one of her friends, what has happened to her, but even then it seems uncertain that she’ll pull herself out of the depression that for the school year has seen her sleeping through whole afternoons and skipping as many classes as she attends.

Anderson’s book should be required reading for teens, not just for the issues it examines but for giving a voice to the sort of high school student it is often easiest to ignore. Contrary to what the Wall Street Journal piece has to say on some other young adult offerings, Anderson deals with sex and violence and depression in an adult fashion, showing what Melinda’s life has become as the result of both what happened to her and her shame over what happened to her, but without glorifying the idea of being a down and out teenager.

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