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Posts Tagged ‘putting the English degree to use’

2. “Thirteen Reasons Why,” Jay Asher

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment

A few weeks after Hannah Baker kills herself, Clay Jensen comes home to find a shoebox fill of cassettes on his from porch. It’s addressed to him– with no return address. And when he starts playing them, he hears Hannah’s voice, promising to name the thirteen reasons– and thirteen people– who drove her to suicide.

This book made me so, so angry for the first thirty or so pages. It! is! not! right! to! blame! others! for! your! suicide! Especially not when then things you are naming are so run-of-the-mill. Her tone moves between gloating, goading, and blase (which, as we all know, is not the right tone for a suicidal person to take, and not the right reasons for killing yourself). I figured that she would have to have been raped, because that’s pretty much the only “good” reason I could think of for a suicide in a YA book. And pretty soon the book starts to voice a pretty excellent analysis of rape culture, which was way more than I would have hoped for.

Hannah is extremely explicit about the fact that a kiss is not groping, and that rumors that she was “easy” are a problem not only because she’s not, but because the stigma associated with being easy means that she is not able to give full consent once that rumor starts. (See Yes Means Yes, please!!) She begins with her first kiss, a sweet, beautiful kiss she had been literally dreaming about. But shortly after the kiss, rumors begin to swirl that she took off her shirt (right there in the park) and let him put his hands under her bra which, we all all know, makes her a slut, which makes her disposable.

When Hannah tells one boy that she “just looked over every name– every story– that completes these tapes. And guess what. Every single event documented here may never have happened had you, Alex, not written my name on that list [of the best asses in the grade],” (41), it felt horrifyingly unfair. Because, Hannah, my friend, the world will do so many worse things to you than tell you you have a nice ass. There are so many more battles to fight. Hell, there is precisely that battle to fight. I read this book for my class on ghosts in US literature, and one of the critical articles we read that has really stuck in my craw has been Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s “Scare Tactics,” which argues that there is a US American tradition of women writers of ghost stories and that these stories represent an avenue of increased agency for women writers (and, perhaps, the women characters who usually star in their writings).

The problem is, this implies that a woman gains agency in fiction only by being dead. And that was just the problem I had with Hannah Baker. Hannah seems like a strong, insightful, smart, passionate, all-around awesome woman. But she cannot speak her power. She gains power only though haunting people with tapes after her death. And even as a haunting, that is a fairly limited one, for it depends fully on the listener’s doing just that– in other words, Hannah could not speak if people would not listen, if they refused to press play. Asher’s answer to this is to have Hannah explain that there is a second set of tapes and that if the first one is not passed on, that one will be made public. By a man. The man who gave her the tape recorder that she used to record her ghostly missive.

I kept imagining what an amazing world this would be if we did not have to wait until the Hannahs of the world were dead to care what they had to say.

This book was published in 2007, before the recent, well-publicized spate of gay suicides, but it preaches the lesson that we are all responsible to one another, and that our actions have snowball effects. “I guess that’s the point of it all. No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push [the snowball] just the same,” Hannah high schools (156).

I think the message that “it gets better” is condescending at best, and I don’t blame Hannah for not wanting to fight to make it better, but in literature, where anything is possible, it’s so depressing that this is the best we can do.

Realistic, but depressing.

I may have more thoughts after my class talks about this next month.

Pages: 304
Page total: 749

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49. “Blonde Roots,” Bernardine Evaristo

July 19, 2010 Leave a comment

“Blonde Roots” is historical fiction with a twist, imagining if Europe had been imperialized by Africa and whites (or “whytes,” in the vernacular of the book) enslaved.

This was an interesting idea, but extremely heavy-handed, especially the first several pages, which is all telling (as opposed to showing). While the story calls for a massive over-haul in ones thinking (because the fingers of slavery are that long), all I heard for the first few page was “THE WHYTES ARE THE SLAVES, GET IT, BECAUSE IN THE REAL WORLD, THEY WERE THE SLAVE MASTERS AND ALSO THERE ARE THE WEST JAPANESE ISLANDS LIKE THE WEST INDIES AND HER MASTER’S INITIALS ARE KKK BECAUSE HE IS BAD LIKE THE KKK.”

I mention this because I would have stopped reading if someone in 50books_poc hadn’t mentioned that the first forty or so pages are really all about reversing/echoing as much as possible of narratives of Black slaves.

The broad concept was both interesting and compelling, but the details were rather shakey for me. It’s such an odd reversal, but a reversal of things that would not exist without slavery. For example, without many Africans of different religions thrown together and force-fed Catholicism, you don’t have Voodoo, so celebrating Voodoomas doesn’t make sense (the -mas from “Christmas” making, of course, the least sense).

Throughout the book, I also felt myself wondering a lot if what we needed was further empathetic identification with white characters. Is Evaristo simply exploiting the fact that we are trained to identify with white people and see through their eyes, making the story of a white slave girl more heart-wrenching? Or is she effectively reenacting this connection? Is the book challenging because it plays out the distant historical facts of slavery in a way that seems new and therefore immediate? Or is it challenging because it plays fast and loose with history, resulting in a confusing hodgepodge? Does taking issue with the style of a narrative like this totally overlook the point of it, or is it valid to feel that the writing got in the way of an extremely useful conceit?

In the end, I felt that this was a pretty solid piece of young adult fiction– which, I want to be clear, is not an insult. I read a lot of young adult fiction and I enjoy it and think that the genre truly does have the power to educate, enlighten, and challenge. Easy-to-understand writing is not a bad thing. After I got more used to Evaristo’s narrative style, the book got more enjoyable. I would love to read more on the same theme because I do think that this book has the ability to really challenge people to see with fresh eyes the inhumanity of the slave trade. It is creative, intelligent, and deep thought and craft obviously went into the world the book portrays. It’s just that the writing never matched for me the sophistication of the idea.

Page count: 270
Page total: 13,392

26. “The Mother Tongue,” Bill Bryson

May 11, 2010 Leave a comment

This was a very enjoyable book. It’s full of neat little bits of trivia, yet manages to be well-integrated, informative, and funny, much more than a mere collection of quirky facts.

One of the interesting things that Bryson points out early on is that English is the only language that has a book which compiles words with the same meanings (EG, a thesaurus). Most other languages would find little use in this because their lexicons tend to be smaller, with fewer shades of meaning. In another language, you’re only happy to see someone, not glad, or pleased, or joyous, or ecstatic, or chuffed (though if you’re me, you’re more likely to be chafed, annoyed, put-off, irritated, perturbed, aggrivated, or generally bothered).

Page count: 244
Page total: 6,416

8. “Push,” Sapphire

December 26, 2009 Leave a comment

I let this review sit for a few weeks, for reasons that will probably become clear.

I saw “Precious” for a paper I wrote for my Feminist Film class and my reaction to the film and the book are closely tied (surprisingly enough). It’s not a story one can claim to like, of course, but I wish my reaction were something other that reserved blankness. In case you don’t know the plot, Precious is a sixteen-year-old middle school student who is illiterate and pregnant with her second child. This child, like the first (who has Down’s Syndrome and lives with her grandmother) is product of her father’s repeated rapes. This book, which is written in the first person, begins when she is kicked out of middle school for being pregnant again. She enrolls in an alternative school where a supportive teacher helps her to learn how to read and to tell her story. In doing so, Precious gains the strength and self-worth necessary to escape the home of her physically, emotionally, verbally, financially, and sexually abusive mother. She has her second child and evntually takes custody of both her children and, with the help of a social worker, removes her mother from her live once and for all. But not before finding out that she has HIV, which she got from her dad. And then the story’s over.

This is a really loaded book. The paper I wrote was about reception theory with my own reactions as a white man watching this film woven in with the reactions of several Black women bloggers. I was trying to reconcile their differing views and receptions of the film with my own, starting from the belief that we are approaching a story loaded with issues of race, class, and sex from two very different points. This reading was touched off partially from director Lee Daniel’s invitation to “the beautiful white people” to laugh at the darkness of the film.

Because of how loaded this is, I’m not sure that my reactions to the book are entirely relevant, as I don’t think it was written for me. More than that, I think it was specifically not written for me (or people like me). So when I read it and feel uncomfortable about the (constant) aspiration to have light skin, I do so not from a space of identification (as a dark-skinned Black woman who has constantly seen lighter-skinned women get it better than they themselves do), but from an almost colonizing discomfort, a space of superiority that wants to say, “hey, you shouldn’t have to want your skin to be light (like mine).”

I think the book was written for Black women who either can identify with or are identified with with Precious’s status as a poor, abused, “stupid” young woman. So while I can say that I didn’t particularly care for this book and I didn’t really know what Sapphire wanted me to get from it, I will do so with the acknowlegement that this is probably because it wasn’t speaking to or about me.

I will, however, say that I did appreciate that the story didn’t end with Precious having a GED and headed to college, all happy and healthy. It ended better for her, but still damn hard, which I think is realistic.

Page count: 194
Page total: 1,603