December Book Review: Teen Fiction

I haven’t made much progress with the non-fiction book this month, in spite of having one checked out for 5 weeks; I’ve gotten sucked into children’s/young adult fiction.

But it never ceases to amaze me that at some times in history, and in some circles, reading fiction was regarded as scandalous and, worse, a waste of time – no better than, in the words of one man, “a pre-fabricated daydream.” Of some fiction, yes, that is true. But the best fiction is as instructive as any textbook and a lot more memorable.

A few months ago I started reading the Betsy-Tacy series. The early books (which start when Betsy and Tacy are 5 years old) can be read at the most leisurely pace you desire. But once I got halfway through high school they became surprisingly compelling. Each was read late into the night and the minute one was done I checked out the next two.

Betsy and Tacy graduate high school in 1910, so the adventures of their high school crowd are exceedingly innocent and fun. They go for drives and picnics. They congregate at Betsy’s house, with Betsy’s family, for Sunday night dinner. They stand around the piano and sing by the hour. They dance spontaneously in the living room or go to dances – the old-fashioned kind, with dance cards and a three-dance limit for any two people.

Honestly, I’m completely jealous. Having once in my life been present at an impromptu sing-along, I can testify that it’s a lot more fun than our self-conscious generation would expect. In fact, after reading these books – which were based on the author’s experiences growing up – I suspect the last couple generations just might not know how to have as much fun as people who lived before the age of video games and 24/7 TV did.

Should I ever have kids, I hope this is the kind of teenage experience they can have. But I wonder, is that even possible? Will kids by then be so electronics-ized that they can’t comprehend or join in this fun? That sounds alarmist and probably is but I think it would have taken strong leadership to get a group of kids to do this in my day, and I can’t imagine it’s going to get better.

No sooner had I finished those than the library informed me I had reached first place in line for a book that depicts an experience I hope my kids never have: The Hunger Games. The timing was bad, but given that it had taken two months to work my way up from #37 and there were now 28 people behind me, I went to get it. (In a moment of stupidity I failed to request the 2nd and 3rd books at the same time as the first, which means I’m now 142nd and 85th in line, respectively. It’s good to know people still read.)

On the face of it, The Hunger Games doesn’t make sense as a young adult book; for those of you who haven’t seen or heard of the movie, it’s about a group of 12- to 18-year-olds who are pitted together in a government-organized, fight-to-the-death, last-survivor-wins televised entertainment.

But while this is certainly a more subtle and sophisticated read than, say, The Princess Diaries, there are plenty of indications that this is indeed teen fare. The story takes place in fictional Panem, which was formed from the ashes of a United States destroyed by a series of natural and man-made disasters. Panem consists of a very rich cosmopolitan Capitol, surrounded by 13 Districts – until civil war between Capitol and Districts destroys the 13th District. The choice of 13 original colonies – sorry, I mean districts – is clearly not at all obvious or contrived.

The love interest manages to be even more influenced by outside events, and consequently confusing, than even the average 16-year-old crush. Our heroine is pushed into a relationship in the hopes it will give her a better chance of survival, then left to wonder for the next month whether the guy’s affection is real, whether she can trust him, or whether this was all a clever idea to get her to lower her guard so he can more easily kill her.

And Battle Royale it is not. Of over 20 deaths, we’re present for five (four extremely quick and lacking in gore) and know the cause of four more (three of which are of natural causes). The others happen entirely off-screen. The point of the book is not to give us a bloodbath for the sake of it, but to make us understand that physical violence follows from mental violence, and that injustice is a form of violence.

In that context, I offer two reviews from the author’s website that I particularly like:

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire [the second book in the trilogy] expose children to exactly the kind of violence we usually shield them from. But that just goes to show how much adults forget about what it’s like to be a child. Kids are physical creatures, and they’re not stupid. They know all about violence and power and raw emotions. What’s really scary is when adults pretend that such things don’t exist [or, one might add, turn them into cheap entertainment].

and:

“…readers will instinctively understand what Katniss knows in her soul, that war mixes all the slogans and justifications, the deceptions and plans, the causes and ideals into an unsavory stew whose taste brings madness.”

Indeed, if being good requires as a first step filling one’s mind with good things, the book provides plenty of examples to choose from. Self-sacrifice, generosity, gratitude, loyalty, outgoing concern and love are really what drives the book forward.

In short, if the next two books in the Hunger Games series are as good, this series will join Betsy-Tacy on the list of books I want on my shelf should I ever have children.

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Judging a Book by its Title

Yesterday I was introduced to The Book Den of Santa Barbara, which is the best bookstore I’ve ever been in. It had the perfect blend of interesting new books and beautiful used books, and if I ever have a house with a library, I would happily fill it up there.

While browsing, I began to ponder whether the phrase “judging a book by its cover” isn’t a little too narrow.

When I was no older than thirteen, I would pester my mom to take me to the book store so I could buy books you wouldn’t expect to even be on the radar of a tween: collections of Jane Austen’s lesser and unfinished novels; Tales of a Wayside Inn; Moby Dick; Camilla. (Austen references Camilla in Northanger Abbey so clearly I must read it, and I did, all 913 pages. It still tickles me that, a decade later, a literary roommate saw it on my bookshelf and was hugely impressed. “My professor always said that if we were really serious about literature we would read Camilla,” she explained.)

“Literature,” then, was always something of a hallowed concept for me. At our local Borders, amidst the sections devoted to history and biography, mystery and young adult, there was a whole section called “literature”. Naively assuming an author must meet some elevated standard to be included there with the classics, I was wildly impressed.

And then I was disappointed. At some point, after picking up countless of these novels and having reactions ranging all the way down to disgust, it dawned on me that this was the catch-all section. This was the section for books that didn’t fit into any of the accepted genres. This was the section for writers with literary aspirations – most of which they could never hope to meet.

A snobbish reaction? Yes, most likely. But I was upset by the failure to distinguish between great and bad and only so-so. Confronted with an entire bookstore, how was I supposed to know what was worth the time to read? The result was that for many years, when confronted with modern books with “literary” titles, I instinctively shrank away in horror.

But as I looked at the rows of titles yesterday I finally realized what a useless distinction that is. Many of the classic titles – Portrait of a Lady, Tender is the Night, The Age of Innocence, War and Peace, The Eternal Husband – sound much like the modern titles. The difference, at least for me, is that the classic titles are irrelevant; they have no independent meaning. I know that they are classic, so the titles are just the way of distinguishing one classic from another in my mental index.

And yes, that is definitely snobbish.

For years I have proudly declared that I always judge books by their covers (and, apparently, their titles), and that it works. That is, when I do pick up a book, I nearly always like it. But there is no way of knowing how often the reverse is true. How many of the books I don’t pick up would I like?

Confronted by an entire bookstore (and, now, internet!) of books to read, I may continue with this method. After all, there is limited time and everything has to be prioritized somehow, and there is nothing wrong with that. But I will make an effort not to assume the worst about a novel just because it is modern and has an interesting title. That is simply small-minded.

Fixing the Problem is the Problem

This is sort of a companion piece to Complaining for Peace, which I wrote nearly two years ago. During that time I’ve read new books, watched some situations play out, and come to think about things slightly differently.

To be clear, I still stand by everything I said in that post; telling me when I’m off base is absolutely the greatest act of friendship there is. I’m sad that I don’t feel able to be a true friend to more people. In the last few years a lack of honesty about “wow, you shouldn’t have done that,” both to me and from me, has driven a wedge in several valued friendships.

But… I’ve also come to realize that sometimes being brutally honest just isn’t a viable solution, or even the best option. Unfathomable as it is to me, there are people in the world who don’t want to hear truth and will hate you for forcing them to see it – however briefly. Or, more understandably, there are people who absolutely would want to change if they could see what needed to be done, but aren’t ready for it yet.

A few years ago I took a personality/aptitude test that said my most dominant characteristic was a desire for “Harmony.”

People strong in the Harmony theme look for consensus. They don’t enjoy conflict; rather, they seek areas of agreement.

I scratched my head for a full week. So did everybody who heard of the results. How could the girl who never shied from an argument dislike conflict?

Then I started thinking, well, yes, I do want harmony. I want the peace that comes from an absolute absence of friction. I hate the conventional wisdom on literature that says a story needs conflict to be interesting; it annoys me when characters cause problems for themselves – I just want them to do the right and logical and reasonable and generous thing, and be happy.

The odd twist I put on it is that whenever I find conflict, I want it resolved, not just glossed over. For many years I had a certain OCD about telling people whenever they were doing something that negatively affected themselves or others. Despite what others might have thought, (most of the time) I wasn’t trying to be superior – I was trying to be helpful.

Which is perfectly valid in certain circumstances which meet all of the following criteria:

  1. the person would want to change if they knew
  2. the person is capable of hearing what you have to say
  3. the person is ready to hear what you have to say
  4. your delivery doesn’t interfere with their hearing

But, unfortunately, many situations will not meet the criteria. And in those cases, saying something will not only not resolve the current conflict, it will create a new one.

In such cases, the best option is to cultivate one’s own patience and peacefulness – and tolerance, even love, of others and their foibles.

But I expect there will be a third part to this series in another few years, because keeping in mind George Bernard Shaw’s statement that “The only man who behaves sensibly is my tailor,” one must assume that someone who is not ready to hear at one time may well be ready at another – and I have not yet learned how to retake that measurement. I look forward to that day.