Rose Under Fire meets Scatter, Adapt, and Remember

A few things came into my head tonight that I thought might be interesting to others.

First, I recently read the Book Smugglers’ review of Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein because Code Name Verity was so good and because I have no intention of reading her new book, but at the same time I also wanted to know more about it and readers’ reactions to it. (I don’t read Holocaust fiction. If I read about the Holocaust, my preference is non-fiction because the actual events are so horrific I cannot immerse myself in fiction without thinking about the real people who survived or did not survive what other people did to them. Actually, I generally can’t read fiction about war, US slavery, genocide, ethnic cleansing, famines or rape for the same reasons. I read non-fiction on these topics judiciously and sparingly and only when I have enough spoons.) This is what Thea of the Book Smugglers had to say at the end of her review (bold mine):

Rose Under Fire is one hell of a book. It’s a powerful, emotionally resonant historical novel about remembering and about surviving, and I truly appreciate and value that. That said, it’s also a story about a war that ended nearly 70 years ago. It’s also a story narrated by a beautiful, young, privileged, white girl who literally flies into a terrible situation. Please understand that I am not disparaging or arguing against the value of the rich canon of literature about the Holocaust, or the set of circumstances facing heroine Rose. I am simply saying this: there are so many wars, atrocities, even genocides that have happened in the last 70 years, and that are still happening now. Those truths and those stories are hardly represented today – much less in YA literature. And perhaps this doesn’t belong here in this review, but it’s something I am acutely conscious of, and I vow to do as much as I can to change this. Because I am inspired by Rose’s story and by this book, because I think it’s important to talk, to remember, and to experience that truth through storytelling, I vow to read and review books from other, more contemporary wars, from characters and authors other than that of the white, the privileged, the American and Western European. (I think I’ll start with Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick, or A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah…)

So, there’s that, which I totally agree with.

I’m also reading Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz. I’m up to the section on famines. The author brings up the Irish Potato Famine, the famine of the Great Leap Forward in China, and the famine in Greece during Nazi occupation in WWII. And I’m conflicted. Why those three famines? One very well known to Western readers, one less well known (to me, China) and one slightly obscure (again to me, Greece), and all also 70 years behind us. What about the North Korean famine and the ongoing food aid the country receives to this day? Or Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia? (Like Thea, I feel I have to make the disclaimer. Just apply hers here, too.) The author does not tell us the reason she picked those three famines to discuss.

She goes on to say that mobility, food aid and sustainable use of agricultural land are essential to preventing famines and that “Famines and their accompanying pandemics are problems that we’ve been trying desperately to solve for hundreds of years.” (p 113). And that last part is where I disagree, where I think she dodged her own thesis. Famines are created. They are created by political will, either as the intended objective (as I understand it: North Korea, Stalin’s Great Famine, the Greek famine mentioned in the book) or as the unintended but acceptable (as collateral damage) effect of a different objective (The Great Leap Forward, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, the Irish Potato Famine). Some people may have been trying desperately to solve the problem of famine; others have deliberately pursued famine as a means to an end.

These two reading experiences came together for me and reminded me, once again, that it is SO hard for us to confront the atrocities that are happening right now, in our lifetimes, and it is especially easy when the people suffering Don’t Look Like Us, for a value of “us” that is the dominant one.

How many movies and books have been made in the US about the Holocaust? Compare that to how many books and movies, with the same popular appeal and reach, have been made about US slavery? We in the US live with the after-effects of slavery every day. It is inherent in our gun laws, in who can easily vote, in whose bodies are a battleground, who has access to education and health care, in every aspect of our laws and social institutions. The Holocaust was a terrible thing. Many people continue to live with its after-effects. But it is easier to say it’s over, the Nazis lost, besides, they were German anyway and that’s far away and long ago. If we looked, really looked at the legacy of slavery in this country, we would have to admit it’s not over and it’s not long ago.

I don’t have answers. I have questions. I struggle almost every day with the knowledge that my electronics, clothing and food were produced by slave labor–much of it the labor of children. I struggle with sexism and racism and so many more issues.

Like Thea I want there to be more books about all these things. Even if I personally am not going to read them, because at least they’d be part of our world view, part of the discourse, part of what’s in the public eye.

I’m back!

And I’m going to do something I’ve never done before: post some of my fiction to the site, specifically the first 250 words of the novel I’m about to send out for it’s next (and hopefully final) beta read.

I spent a lot of the day over on WriteOn Con reading a bunch of beginnings. There is so much good stuff posted from really polished, to really close, to rough around the edges with a lot of promise, to really rough but with at least one unpolished gem of intriguing potential. There are a lot of creative people out there.

So of course I’ve been thinking about beginnings, which are the hardest for most of us, and thought I’d share the different versions stretching back through the several years of this project, latest to earliest.

Current opening:

THE DESERT WALL

Malenie was hiding. The sun burned hot and brilliant on the white plaster and dull adobe houses, banishing the shadows from even so narrow an alley. Sweat prickled along her hairline. She leaned against the wall, its grit rubbing off on her back, and tried to stop panting. Fear and humiliation made a hard fist of her stomach, urging her to run again. Only two streets over, the market hummed with activity, promising safety.

“I hate them,” she whispered soundlessly, though she wanted to shout. She had been careless after almost a moon without trouble, and now here she was, with at least one bully somewhere behind her. But a cactus never has just one spine, and bullies never travel alone. She tucked her black hair behind her ears, pressed herself closer to the house behind her and crept forward. She peeked around the corner, thinking, Please.

The boy was so close she smelled fennel and anise on his breath as they both recoiled. “Told you,” said the tall girl with him, stepping forward and forcing Malenie back into the alley. Malenie’s heartbeat seemed to shake her whole body, demanding that she fight or run. Run or fight. The boy followed half a breath later, straightening his shoulders, trying to look bigger, but the girl didn’t notice. Pursing her lips, she looked Malenie up and down. “Where you going, Red?”

The insult stung and Malenie said, “I don’t want to fight,” knowing it was the wrong thing to say even as she said it.

8/10/13. Almost right, but felt too aggressive.

Malenie was hiding. The sun burned hot and brilliant on the white plaster and dull adobe houses, banishing the shadows from even so narrow an alley. Sweat prickled along her hairline. She leaned against the wall, its grit rubbing off on her back, and tried to stop panting. Fear and humiliation made a hard fist of her stomach, urging her to run again, and two streets over, the market hummed with activity, promising safety.

The boy was so close she smelled fennel and anise on his breath as he recoiled. “Told you,” said the tall girl with him, stepping into the space he’d left. He straightened his shoulders, trying to look bigger, but the girl didn’t notice. She poked Malenie in the chest contemptuously, her fingers finding an old bruise that sung less than what she said next. “Red, where you going?” Pursing her lips, she looked Malenie up and down. “Thought we didn’t know where you were?”

Malenie took a deep breath, letting her humiliation build up into anger. She tucked her black hair behind her ears, pushed off the house and propelled her knee into the girl’s groin, envisioning it going through her target as her friend Nes had taught her. “Rot you!” she screamed in the girl’s face, using the noise as another weapon. Revulsion and bile burnt the back of her throat and her thigh ached from the impact.

The girl seemed to hand on Malenie’s knee and then she wailed, crumpled to the ground and curled into a ball.

Spring 2013: I never really liked this first sentence, but thematically it seemed like a good fit.

Malenie ran. She pelted down the alley and skidded to a stop in its scant shadows. The sun burned overhead, hot and brilliant on the white plaster and dull adobe walls, making it impossible to hide. Sweat prickled along her hairline. For a moment she leaned against the house to stop panting, but fear and humiliation made a hard fist of her stomach, urging her to move. Please, she thought. Cautiously, she stole a look around the corner and lost her breath again. At one end of the narrow street, a girl and a boy strolled into view, and at the other a girl picked at her fingernails, blocking the shortest route to the market, which hummed with activity just out of sight. No one else was around.

“Rot them,” she whispered, though she wanted to shout. “I hate them.” She cursed again, letting her humiliation build up into anger. Only two boys were following her, and that was better odds, even if she had to run away from the safety of the market. She tucked her black hair behind her ears, pushed off the house and raced back the way she’d come.

Malenie burst out of the alleyway, almost colliding with the skinny rooster of a boy who was the worst of the bullies. He flinched back and she dodged around him, rage flaming up at the sight of his three friends. Cowards. He shouted in wordless triumph and they closed in on her. Head down, she charged, as the camels did in the races, hoping they would scatter.

Original opening from 2009 (?)

Malenie leaned against the mud and plaster wall in the shadowed alleyway to catch her breath. The boys were chasing her again, and Malenie, not wanting to fight, had run straight into their trap. Just around the corner three boys loitered in the white-hot street, blocking the route to the main road and the market. They wouldn’t dare bother her there, surrounded by adults, if she could reach it. Rot them, she cursed. I hate them. They made her feel powerless and alone and never let her forget she was different. She cursed again, letting her humiliation build up into anger. Only two boys had been following her, and that was better odds than facing the three ahead of her, even if she had to run away from the safety of the market. She tucked her hair behind her ears, pushed off the house and raced back the way she’d come. She would barrel through them like the camels in the races, knocking aside anyone and anything that got in her way.

She swung around the corner, one hand anchored on the rough wall to make the sharp turn, and blinked in the brilliance of full sun on the sand-colored buildings. Squinting down the street, she spied not two but three backlit figures; the smallest profile that of a skinny little rooster of a boy: the worst of the bullies. Nothing for it. She lowered her head, pumped her arms and picked up more speed. Her heart pounded in her ears and blocked out all other sounds.

So there you have it. Good thing the blood, sweat and tears don’t show, right?

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson: review

I usually don’t do straight up reviews, but the reviews on Goodreads were making me sad so I wrote one there and I’m copying it here.

From the publisher:

A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.

The lush city of Palmares Tres shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.

Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Tres will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.

My review:

Five Stars

Wow. Just wow.

If you don’t like your books challenging, this one is not for you.

If you think violence is ok, but teen sex isn’t, this book isn’t for you.

If you want the protagonist to be your best friend, this book isn’t for you.

If you love working for the payoff of an amazing book and writing, if you love characters who grow, if you are sick of violence as plot, if you love reading about future societies that are truly different than our own but reflect the concerns of our today, then read this book. Read, savor every word and experience saudade at the end. (If I understand how to use the word correctly; I don’t speak Portuguese.)

Literary Genre Syndrome or How The Elegance of the Hedgehog Ruined The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Cover of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower...

Cover of The Perks of Being a Wallflower

This is my experience of reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower; it’s not a review and there will be spoilers.
The last “literary” book I read was The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery in 2009. A friend loved it, she gave me a copy. To be a good friend, I read it. It was slow going at first, but I liked Paloma, I liked the references to Japanese culture and I even got some of the philosophy references. Then the end happened, like, well like getting hit by a truck. Or rather, the other main character, Renee, was killed in a car accident, just as she was escaping from her dismal isolation and learning to enjoy life.

And once again I felt betrayed by the literary genre’s insistence that a sad ending (usually death) is the only true ending of worth there is.

What does this have to do with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky? Quite a lot, at least in my mind.

See, there are quite a few mentions of car crashes in Perks. The death of Charlie’s aunt in a car crash when he was young affects him throughout the book. In the middle, there’s some risky behavior involving standing in the bed of a speeding pick-up truck while driving through a tunnel. (My adult self says “risky”; I wouldn’t be surprised if my child self is shouting “Yes! Fun!) Towards the end there is some discussion of whether various characters are sober enough to drive and my genre signals got crossed. (A little. Perks has been called a “modern classic” and we all know how much they love sad endings and death too.)

My pattern-seeking mammalian brain was shrieking “Someone is going to die in a car crash, maybe even the main character!” and I dreaded that anticipated ending so much I barely saw the story that was there. A “literary” book almost demands death; a classic approves of death; but commercial books are the best at planting clues so the reader can guess and anticipate and feel invested in the story. (I know my biases are showing, it’s my blog.) Death seemed inevitable.

I guessed wrongly and I didn’t get the payoff of investment in the book until very late, almost too late: the last two chapters actually, when I figured out that what was going on had nothing to do with car crashes and everything to do with abuse.  Maybe this was intentional slight of hand on Chbosky’s part. “Look over here while I do something tricky over there with the cards.”

Unfortunately I was distracted by a few other things. Recently, as in after this book was originally published, there have been a few books with main characters with Aspberger’s so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if that was what was happening with this book. I did not get the “intellectually gifted but maybe emotionally damaged” vibe I think the book was going for. (Maybe this is a terminology problem? Wallflower for me doesn’t equate with Charlie’s extreme lack emotional interaction with others.) And early on, there is a scene with another character that Charlie interprets correctly as rape. Adult, educated feminists often stumble over identifying coerced/forced oral sex as rape so it struck me as very odd that a 15 year old boy would do so. Especially since his fumbling towards feminism older sister doesn’t (unless I’m getting confused with a different scene).

All this adds up to me feeling a little sad that I formed so little connection to a book that so many people love and frustration that I was thinking about The Elegance of the Hedgehog and trying to decipher signals instead of reading the book in front of me.

No Brain Bleach Needed Here

Trigger warning: mild description of the circumstances of rape

I sat down with a fantasy book for adults that I wanted to like (I’m being discreet here, I won’t tell you the title). The prose was lovely, the young heroine interesting. About 70 pages in, the first niggling suspicions started up: She’s not going to get raped, right? She’s going to do something clever or one of those bystanders will step in… Right up until the heroine was gang-raped (yes, gang-raped) I didn’t believe it would actually happen. And then she was raped again. The description was not graphic; the rape wasn’t particularly violent, except, of course, it was rape. And it was enough to make me feel claustrophobic and sick and to wish that I had never read that and to put down the book never to pick it up again.

When I went to my YA book club and told my book club-friends I didn’t have enough brain bleach to remove the memory of that fictional rape, I realized that one of the reasons I enjoy YA is that bad things don’t happen to the main characters  just because they are female.

Sure, bad things happen. The main character might have to choose between saving her dad and saving her city; she might get locked away on the other side of a portal in Prague and separated from all her family; she might have to go kill other teenagers in a staged fight to the death; but none of these things happen to the characters merely because they are female. And for the most part, rape is not a part of most fantasy YA or really most YA at all. There are exceptions, but usually they are in contemporary YA, as backstory (i.e. not on the page) or issue YA (which I don’t read). Occasionally it comes up under the revolting pretense of romantic relationships that the author does not see as abusive and sex that is not identified within the story as rape but which I do see as abusive and as rape. (That’s a whole other post.) Usually my friends or the internet or my own good sense warn me away from those.

Getting back to why there isn’t that much rape in YA, it might be a rape-isn’t-suitable-for-the-childrenz thing or it might be because a lot of YA is written by women and most women don’t think writing about rape is fun. Not that being a woman means you automatically won’t commit rape as backstory, rape as character development or rape because it’s “realistic.” But it seems slightly less common. It might be any number of things, but thank god for it.

It’s no surprise that rape is normalized in fiction; after all rape and violence against women and children is normalized in our society. Lots of people have posted much more articulate posts about rape culture, so I’m not going to. I already have those rape culture paradigms installed in my head, thank you very much, however much I fight against the passive assimilation of them. I have my own firsthand experiences of violence and many, many women have confided in me their own stories of violence and rape–and those are just my friends, I’m not even counting the stories I heard while working at the District Attorney’s office as a domestic violence victim/witness advocate.

So why would I want to read stories that continue to normalize that experience and the expectation of violence? I don’t. Especially given the new studies coming out showing that read experience is, to some extent, lived experience.

I want to read stories that normalize equality and about worlds where women socialize safely with men without the ever-present worry about rape and violence hanging around like a third wheel. (If you think that makes for boring stories, you haven’t read Sherwood Smith‘s Sartorias-deles books where the urge for sexual violence has been eliminated from humanity.) And if not, then I want to read about worlds where the women beat the hell out anyone who tries to hurt them–whether physically or through quick thinking and intelligence. Or worlds where our own rape culture expectations are not imported whole scale and uncritically and where sexualized violence is not seen as expected or realistic.

YA, more often than not, gives me that reading experience.

And as a total PS, I now have to go read all of Seanan McGuire‘s books after her post Things I will not do to my characters. Ever.

PPS Off the top of my head, Malinda Lo has some posts about YA and normalization with regard to LGBTQ people/characters.

PPPS The photos automatically recommended by Word Press for this post were triggerific themselves.

Reading Links

It’s crazy times at work, so I haven’t had much energy to write or blog, but here’s a roundup of the many things I’ve read in the last two weeks or so:

The Yes Gay YA discussion still raging across the internet:
The original post: Say Yes To Gay YA
The baffling response: On Being Used, the Lack of LGBTQ Characters in YA, and Why It’s Important to Work Together
The roundup: What’s going on with #yesGayYA
Some responses worth reading:
Marie Brennan: Swan Tower – Followup on “Say Yes to Gay YA”
Steve Dos Santos: Ixnay on the Gay: The Gay YA Controversy: A View from the Trenches!
Scott Tracey: YesGayYA
Malinda Lo: I have numbers! Stats on LGBT Young Adult Books Published in the U.S.

In the movies and TV:
‘Thelma & Louise’: The Last Great Film About Women on The Atlantic. It’s true. There’s lots to choose from for male buddy movies, but movies that look at women’s friendships? Not so much.

John Scalzi explains why Ellen Ripley Is Clearly the Best Female Character in Scifi Film, and That’s a Problem on Film Critic

How To Discover Classic Doctor Who In 3 Easy Steps on io9 (The real doctor is always the one you watched first)

Race:

Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did by Hamden Rice on Daily Kos. I’ve mentioned a lot of links in this post, but if you read just one, read this one. Mind rattling if you’re from a privileged group in any way… He makes the connection between racism and living in a terrorist State.

Writing:

Writing Muscles by Shannon Donnelly on BVC blog. Exercises to train yourself to write more. I particularly like the directive Plan Your Training. This is something I don’t do. This is something I should do.

Malinda Lo on Authenticity. What does “authentic” mean, anyway?

Kate Elliott continues the discussion with her post Authenticity and Authority

She also tackles beginnings: Empty Space: Some thoughts on openings in novels

New York Times The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules

YALSA 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults Nominations

I haven’t had a chance to watch this video yet, Comforting Words on the Creative Process from Ira Glass

Science:

The Dark Side of the Placebo Effect: When Intense Belief Kills

Pictures of dinosaur feathers!

My new favorite blog TalkToYoUniverse by Juliette Wade (Where I talk to you about linguistics and anthropology, science fiction and fantasy, point of view, grammar geekiness, and all of the fascinating permutations thereof…) prompted by this post Why Nouns Matter, part 1: Proper Names

And here’s the comment I couldn’t get to post

Yes! And it’s so fun to break down character names within a story to subtly show cultural, ethical, religious, racial differences by using different “families” of names. A not subtle example is George Chester Wallace III and Agamemnon – already you’re clued in to two wildly divergent histories. When you’re writing speculative fiction you can make up the names whole cloth to get a similar effect.

One Idea Is Not Enough

I had the pleasure of seeing Gabrielle Zevin, author of All These Things I’ve Done, and her editor do a reading and Q&A session at WORD last night. (WORD is a very cool indie bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The shelves are like a who’s who of what New Yorkers are reading — or a what’s what, or something.)

At one point her editor asked, “How did you come up with a future New York where chocolate and caffeine are illegal and a teenage girl who is kind of a mob boss?” Gabrielle had a long and funny answer involving migraines and dark chocolate and organized crime movies, but at the end she added: “One idea is not enough.”

I also just finished reading Inheritance by Megan Lindholm/Robin Hobb. Each story has an introduction explaining its origins. (These are hard-hitting stories, the kind that stick with you and make you think. Or maybe just give you an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach, mostly in a good way. A masochistic, that was good writing, kind of way.) As I’m at the beginning stages of trying to figure out what my next writing project is going to be, the explanations were fascinating and made me think about where my own stories started.

The first book started from a dream I had. The dream was a pretty complete narrative. In the end some parts of the book strayed far from that original dream, but others remain pretty faithful.

The second book was what Sherwood Smith recently called “white fire” in a post on Book View Cafe Blog Writers on Writing: The White Fire. The story poured through me in a rapid torrent from somewhere else. Never have I written so easily, so fast, so confidently in the story. Not to say there weren’t parts I labored over with blood coming out of my pen instead of ink, but for the most part the story came to me, like a package in the mail. Kind of. Sometimes I feel desolate, wondering if I will ever have that experience again. It also came from what I call postcards from the imagination. In my mind, I saw the main character grinning at me and I saw the setting.

The third book came out of the second, plus the rage that I was experiencing at that time in my life. No one has read that one yet, and I wonder how much of that rage is still there. This book was an act of pure will. I almost lost the thread — of the story, of my determination — many times, and I wrenched it back on path. Maybe back on path, as it technically isn’t finished. When the rage passed I don’t know if I lost a lot of the propelling energy behind it. That might be why it was so hard to find the ending to the story. But again it started with a character and this time a question left unanswered.

But now I’m starting from scratch: no dreams, no white fire, no postcards from my imagination. And slowly I am building up an idea of something I want to write. A vague idea about what kind of main character I want to spend so much time with. A bit of a setting. Something stolen — an unusual physical trait that I admired in a well-known book that I wondered, “how can I steal that and make it mine?” Which l did, in quite an inspired way, I think, and in a way that makes it indisputably mine. Two names for secondary characters. A dose of what-if. And yet, it’s still not enough to start writing. Because one idea, even several ideas, is not enough.

So how much is enough?