Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Travel Problem

I'm away to Spain in a few hours—or, at least, through two other countries and then, eventually, finally to Spain. (In theory my trip starts today. In terms of actually walking, it will probably start three days hence.)

Books are always an issue when I travel. It's just impossible to carry enough of them to see me through a trip. (I am the sort of person who packs three books if I suspect it will be a slow day at work...and as often as not get through at least two and a half of them). I don't have (or want) an e-reader, which means that for more than a month of backpacking...

Well. I've always been fond of Jane Eyre. Here's hoping that that's still true by the end of June. My bigger concern at the moment is all that travel time before I actually get to travelling...which means bringing 'disposable books', or copies of books that I won't mind leaving on planes or trains or hostels. (Or maybe I'll love the books and regret having to leave them behind. Who knows?) On this trip ransacked my shelves and came up with This Won't Hurt a BitSaba, and Phenomenal...and now I have to go worry about whether or not I should add to the stack and, you know, whether or not I forgot anything Absolutely Crucial when packing. (Answer: probably.)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Romance and the Evil Ex

I finished that slog-book that was giving me so much trouble (a good book in many respects, but not for me), but not before speeding through one or two more mass-market romance novels. I read some other things...and now I'm back to romance (I had my hopes pinned on a library book that neither I nor two separate librarians could locate), this time of the lesbian variety.

I was thinking about this before I started the lesbian romance, but it's proving true here as well: the ex is evil. The ex seems to always be evil—or sometimes dead.

It makes some sense, to a degree; if the ex is too appealing or reasonable, maybe the hero or heroine won't look so appealing. Plus, it gives them some conflict. But sometimes it's a little...overkill. Instead of showing how appealing, say, Hero Jack is in comparison to Evil Ex Joey, it can make Heroine Jill's taste look questionable* or just look wildly unrealistic. In one of the het romances I read recently, the evil ex is a deadbeat dad who shows up near the end of the book to demand partial custody and substantial child support to go with it (the heroine is a wealthy princess—and, while we're on tropes, the hero is her bodyguard). When he learns that his son is deaf he says some offensive things and the hero boots him to the door. The evil ex exists so that the heroine can have a child and so that the hero can do that booting.

(Wouldn't it make just as much sense if the heroine was just like, 'yeah, he's not a bad guy but he's not in the picture anymore'? And that was that?)

If the evil ex is female (and the book is het), chances are that she's a conniving, cheating bitch who only wanted the hero for his money. If she's dead, there's still a substantial chance that the hero is not truly mourning her—because she was a conniving, cheating bitch who only wanted the hero for his money, but only the hero knows that (and he's too good a person to smear her name now that she's dead).

Meanwhile, in this lesbian romance, the evil ex (well, soon-to-be, but for simplicity's sake...) is a professor who constantly belittles her ladyfriend, flirts with anything with breasts (including the ladyfriend's sister), and possibly gives top marks only to students who sleep with her.


(In the last lesbian romance I read, the evil ex was not so much evil as deeply closeted and neurotic. Better, perhaps,** but again—wouldn't it have been simpler for them to have just grown apart or wanted different things?)

Of course there are plenty of unhealthy relationships in real life, and people who are really not fun to be around (or to be dating, or to have dated)...but I think it's just as well that I don't live in a (or at least this particular type of) romance novel. I like the people around me to be three-dimensional.

* Not to insult anyone who's ever dated someone who turned out to be a dud...

** Although it would be markedly better if these books did not so often fall to homophobia as the greater conflict and closetedness as a character flaw.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Week Is Not Enough

I've been reading mass-market romance novels on weekends recently, less because of a significant interest in romance novels (nothing wrong with romance, but I find the predictability frustrating...which begs the question of why I read so much mainstream YA) than because...well. First it was on a weekend when I got home from my day job on a Friday afternoon and then spent Friday evening and all of Saturday and Sunday on other work, and my brain felt too much like mush to read anything else. (This weekend it's because the book—memoirish nonfiction—I am trying to read, which I've been looking forward to for ages, has turned out to be something of a slog, and even though I only have about sixty pages left I'd just...like to procrastinate a little longer.)

I get virtually all of my romance novels at thrift stores,* so by default I am reading only those that somebody else didn't think were worth keeping, and yet sometimes...I mean, I can't complain about tropes (e.g., princesses), considering that I actively seek out princess romances at thrift stores (still seriously considering renaming my kings-and-queens shelf on GR 'princess-fantasies'), but when you have a princess (common romance trope #1) falling for a rancher (common romance trope #2) who has been hired to be her bodyguard (common romance trope #3), what is that? (If it's a trifecta, it's not my trifecta.) Why do these characters keep falling in love and proposing over the course of about a week? And why do the women in these books never truly get the upper hand?

* Crowning (relevant) achievement to date: finding, over the course of a few days, three Harlequin romances featuring two heroines and a hero with my name, my sister's name, and my brother's name...none of which is common.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

On Being an Adult or Something Like That

There I go, neglecting the blog already. Shame on me.

I went on my first (of two) grad-school visit earlier this month, and while there I had a chance to talk with the department head. A very pleasant chat—it helped, I imagine, that I'd already gotten in and thus didn't feel quite so much pressure. (I do have to say that any conversation that begins with 'So you edit romance novels?' is going to go either very well or very awkwardly. Am happy to note that this was a case of the former...with only a dash of the latter.)

In any case, towards the end of the conversation, the professor asked what I was reading; at the time I was working my way through Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper series (again), and I mentioned that and the reading I was doing for the class I'm auditing. We talked a bit about YA lit, and the prof asked if I had any recommendations for a twelve-year-old daughter who is into dystopia at the moment, and some sci-fi.

Lesson learned: even if you don't read much sci-fi yourself, it is worth paying attention to all those books your sister read in high school. Anne McCaffrey! Mercedes Lackey! *phew*

Also, The Handmaid's Tale, because if you're going to read dystopia, you might as well read some of the good stuff. (I'm reminded of a book that I won't name that basically has the same plot of a classic teen dystopia...but with romance and spread out over three books.)

Moral of the story there is no moral of the story. Off I go to read more books or visit another grad school or something...

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Mythical Trifecta

I finished reading Not Otherwise Specified yesterday, and it got me thinking about 'trifecta' books—those that hit three of my reading interests. My s.o. and I have a joke about them, because they're so rare. Easy enough to find, say, a book that deals with boarding school and LGBTQ characters (e.g., Rapture Practice) or dance and Africa (e.g., Cape Town), but boarding school and Africa and dance? Uhh. Good luck with that.

Part of it, of course, is that my interests tend to be fairly specific; another part is that books that fit neatly into one category don't always have easy room for certain other categories. But I keep looking.

And yet: the trifecta doesn't always work. (Or rather, the trifecta book doesn't always work for me.) I looked through my shelves on GR and came up with a new trifecta shelf, and...the results are a little surprising. One: I've read more trifecta books than I would have thought, although in some cases I stretched the definition a bit. Two: some of them I loved, but most of them fell at least a little flat.

The Jack Bank is the book that I usually cite as an example of a trifecta book. It's a memoir set in South Africa (1), with boarding school as a featured setting (2), and it deals heavily with the narrator's sexuality (3). All of which pleases me greatly. The reality of it, though, was that I didn't care for it that much—boarding school was a relatively small part of the book (much smaller than I would have expected from the flap), and he left big questions unasked. Good ingredients, but I wasn't crazy about the way they were used.

Not Otherwise Specified worked much, much better for me, perhaps because (as the author said on her blog) the book is not about the narrator's problems. It's about her. Yes, there's dance and eating disorders and numerous queer characters, but it's less about any of those than it is about Etta figuring things out.

Turns out there are more trifecta books than I thought...but what makes Not Otherwise Specified a mythical trifecta book is that it works.

Sunday, February 22, 2015


I'm (still) auditing this class on black women writers, and one of the best things about doing so is that I have a reason to take copious notes. I really have no idea, now, what my note taking looked like in college—class notes, yes (in the rare class that threatened to put me to sleep—usually because of time of day rather than subject matter—my notes tended to wander, ever more illegibly, almost off the page...I do remember hiding Uncle Tom's Cabin under my desk during Horticulture so that I could stay awake, with the added bonus of getting my reading done), but not reading notes. I'm sure I didn't highlight my books. Did I underline? I have no earthly idea. Most of the students in the class seem to highlight and/or underline, though.

But I'm reading library books, and, well, I couldn't write in those even if I wanted to. So instead I'm taking note after note. Quotations for preference (especially useful if I ever need to cite a given book for a paper...or a Goodreads review, for that matter), but also thematic bits and the like. For Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, I (very) briefly summarised each chapter. But for Ghettoside, which was supplemental reading of a sort (to what end, I do not yet know, although I've already sorted out one way to connect it to Incidents—clearly I am desperate to write a paper), it's mostly quotations, because they explain the book so well.

Being in class again is wonderful. I miss taking notes and arguing points in class (though, as an auditor, I am keeping my mouth politely shut) and being told by the professor that I'm wrong. (Or right. Right is just fine too.) When I read just for myself, I still take down lots of quotations, but...this is a different kind of fun.

Monday, February 16, 2015


I've been thinking a lot about POV and, in particular, unreliable narrators. It started with What We Hide, in which the story is told from a large number of narrators; none of them is unreliable per se, but each of them sees events slightly differently. I didn't love the multiple-narrator thing—made it harder to get into the story sometimes, and to sympathise with any given narrator—but that was also, I think, kind of the point. Hard not to respect that.

But then, also, it's books like A Perfect Ten: The protagonist, the POV character, could just as easily be the antagonist if the story were told from another character's perspective. It would be an interesting writing exercise—write a story from one perspective, and then flip it around and write from another perspective. A third. It's not the newest of ideas, but it does make one think.

I'm taking a creative writing class at the moment—personal essays. The focus is on 'risky' essays, which tends to (though doesn't always) mean hard topics—abuse, sex, lies, etc. Some of the essays we've workshopped in the class have been really good, and hard, and complicated...and I'm reminded of something (I think) Dorothy Allison said of Trash and something else that (I think) Alison Bechdel said about Fun Home: The former, that she'd never expected it to have so wide an audience or to be so readily available to, say, people in her hometown; the latter, that her mother was less than thrilled with Bechdel airing out the family skeletons.* How much of our stories is our own? How much belongs to, or is shared with, other people? The books I mentioned in the first two paragraphs are fiction, so the authors can craft the characters any way they please...but in memoir it's trickier; you can tell a certain slant of story, but you can't rewrite history or know exactly how somebody else experienced the same things you did.

I'm quite keen on unanswerable questions, I'm afraid...

*I believe I have the gist right in both cases, obviously, but suffice it to say that I am paraphrasing heavily.

Saturday, February 7, 2015


I'm auditing a literature class right now—believe it or not, I miss homework—and one of the first readings is a selection from Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. And oh, gosh. What a reminder—I read a ton (more than is 'normal', or so I am led to understand), but much of it is...not of great quality. That is, I read a lot of good or excellent books, but also a lot from which I derive entertainment but don't really learn much.

And here's Alice Walker, tossing out names of authors and books that I should be reading instead—feminist writers, writers of colour, books that are political and have a point...or at least books that you could write a college-level paper on. (I mean—I guess you could write papers on 80s teen 'issue' lit, but it would be a very different kind of paper.)

I take no issue with the way I read and feel no (or at least very little) shame/guilt for reading a lot of meh stuff along with the high-quality stuff. But gosh, it feels good when I get into the deeper stuff—definitely more complicated, slower reads, but so many kinds of worth it.

The only trouble is that I took four pages of notes, and I've been out of class long enough that I'm not sure if any of those notes will be useful in class...

Monday, February 2, 2015

Odd Narrative Choices

So. Last week I read Jantsen's Gift, which made me think of However Long the Night (same ghostwriter), which in turn made me think of King Peggy (because...ghostwritten memoirs about West Africa? I guess?). And that made me think of odd narrative choices.

In King Peggy, what felt off to me was that it was not actually a ghostwritten memoir—rather, the writer talked about the eponymous King Peggy in the third person, narrating what she did and said and thought. The story was absolutely fascinating, but the writing took me out of that story and out of King Peggy's voice.

Then there was Volunteering in Ethiopia (hmmm...bet you can't guess what that one was about...). I was unable to glean much info about the publisher, and it's possible that this one was self-published (read: less editorial action), but the narrator—i.e., the writer, as the book is a memoir—managed to drive me up the wall and right back down again (and then across the room and up the other wall) by constantly referring to himself in the third person. Not I did this and "Oho," I said, but Skelton did this and "Oho," Skelton said.

And lastly, there was A Room with a Pew. This one was written jointly, with its two authors contributing (presumably) roughly equal weight. That's not an uncommon model (or a bad one, or an odd one) in and of itself, but in this case the authors wrote as one: one I in the book, not two. Not Richard and Miriam but I. For the sake of the narrative—and they do address this, briefly, in an Authors' Note—they...consolidated their experience.

It makes me wonder. That narrative choice in A Room with a Pew was intentional, measured. It didn't work terribly well for me, but a quick look at other reviews on Goodreads suggests that I am in a minority; in any case, I imagine they considered other options before landing on this one. I am not so certain about Volunteering in Ethiopia—that author went to law school after his time in the Peace Corps (the PC being the subject of his book); it's impossible for me to know whether he took writing classes or anything like that, but there is no evidence that he is a trained writer. In his case I suspect that he found it easier to get a bit of distance when writing about himself in the third person.

And in King Peggy...well, again, it's all supposition on my part, of course. There I imagine that it was just a poor fit between writer and book: the author has written other books (without the memoirish twist), which have good reviews on Goodreads (as does King Peggy, for that matter, so perhaps* I am a cranky reader).

There are plenty of other, perhaps odder, narrative choices—especially in fiction—that I don't question. Books where the narrator isn't named until the last page, or isn't named at all. Books where the main character is something of a pathological liar, and the reader can't trust anything they say. (In all three books I'm thinking of there, it worked out just fine, as far as I was concerned.) And I can't say that I'm much of a purist. I mean, I'll read the words on a cereal box ten times in a row if I don't have a book on hand. But...I guess I'd be curious to see an outside-the-box narrative choice in nonfiction that...well, that worked better for me. (Suggestions, o nonexistent readers?)

*'Perhaps?' Definitely.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Boarding School Books (Hurray)

I'm taking a personal essay class (I missed homework, seriously), and I wrote up this week's assignment tonight. One of my themes is boarding school, since I spent a couple of years in a boarding school (an odd one, at that) and have always loved reading about them—hence, you know, willingly going myself.

Boarding school books have changed a ton, though. Now there are books like Anna and the French Kiss (Stephanie Perkins) or Breathless (Jessica Warman), both of which I enjoyed—albeit for very different reasons—but more than that I keep finding info on fiction about paranormal boarding schools: vampires! Witches! And...that's all good and well...and actually, I have Once a Witch (Carolyn MacCullough) checked out from the library right now...but gosh. Where are all the 'normal' experiences?

When I was a kid I devoured the Chalet School books, and the Mallory Towers books, and... That doesn't actually age me as much as it could, since they were my mother's books originally, but I loved the books, loved them, and it never occurred to me that they should be getting into more 'exciting' scrapes or having boy drama or whatever. It's not so much the innocence of the books that appeals to me now as it is the...normality, I suppose. Oh, they get into far more scrapes than the vast majority of real-life students, I'm sure. But they're normal scrapes. Accidentally dyeing one's hair green, or sneaking into a different dorm after lights-out, or...even in Kit Pearson's The Daring Game, the big-deal drama is all about sneaking off campus.

Those run the gamut in age-appropriateness, of course; I probably wouldn't read The Daring Game now (or, if I did, it would be for nostalgia only). But I'm ever on the lookout for YA boarding school books that don't revolve around vampires or boy drama or...actually, that about covers it.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Hoarding and Priorities

A slew of library requests showed up for me the other day, just in time for the giant snowstorm that's supposed to hit tonight. Not clear yet whether I'll have any time off my planned schedule, but in the meantime...I sped through Hungry yesterday, am most of the way through Leaving Before the Rains Come, and have Jantsen's Gift and A Tale of Two Centuries waiting.

To be honest, the one I expect the most out of is Leaving Before the Rains Come—I absolutely loved Fuller's first book, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, although I have not (yet) managed to make my way round to any of her others. I'm reading it before the others because it's due back at the library soonest...puts me in a hurry, but also makes me that much more likely to read it pronto!

It's odd—I do the same sort of thing with books I own. If I own it, urgency diminishes sharply; why read it now, when there are so many books at the library that I won't have access to forever? I suspect that if I didn't have ready library access (and really, the nearby libraries are truly excellent), I'd end up with fewer books: I'd read them, and then I'd get rid of the ones I didn't love. As it is, I can scan my shelves and think, Well, if I just read that one, I could get rid of it... except then I also think, Yes, but library books!

I'll make my way through the pile eventually. (Hopefully before I move again, so that I need to drag fewer books with me...) And then...I suppose I'll very, very quickly acquire another pile, and do the exact same thing with that.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Reader's Guilt

My goal last year was to read more nonfiction than fiction—I'd noticed, because I love playing with statistics on Goodreads, that I tend to skew towards fiction; more recently, that's been a skew towards YA fiction. There's some truly excellent YA fiction out there, but let's be honest—I read a lot of drivel as well. (Not all of it, I will note, YA.)

One thing I learned from my reading in 2014 is that I have a much higher tolerance for lousy fiction than for lousy nonfiction—in nonfiction, whether it's memoir or something more academic, if I'm not into it, I stop reading. With fiction, and especially with YA fiction...well, often by the time I decide I'm over the book, I'm halfway through it anyway, and it won't take more than a long walk or a commute home to finish it. Why not? Add to that my guilty-pleasure teen-issue YA fiction and...well. It's a weird mix.

But I don't have the same goal this year. (In fact, the first two books I read* were both (YA!) fiction...precisely so that I wouldn't feel compelled to keep going, to see how long I could take the thou-shalt-not-read-two-works-of-fiction-in-a-row rule.) It's funny, though; I find myself feeling rather guilty when I read two novels in a row. It's not even that the nonfiction I'm reading is of particularly high calibre; some of it's been excellent, but there have been some distinct clunkers. I gave up on Her: A Memoir the other day when I was out walking and felt a thrill of oh shit the only other book in my bag is fiction run through me.

Presumably this will pass. Maybe I will even get around to reading heavier stuff more regularly. For now, I'm making my way through The Girls Who Went Away, which is a different kind of heavy...and precisely the kind of book that makes me want to read more nonfiction, more, more.

*Gloss and Summer Scandal, both by Marilyn Kaye

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Reading Wish List

Someone asked on Goodreads the other day about books that haven't been written yet that people would like to read. It just so happens that I already have something of a list (several, actually, scattered on Post-it notes that are...somewhere...). Sooo in lieu of talking about existing books, here's a version, in no particular order:

1) A memoir set in Gaborone, or another major Botswana city. Ideally, it would be written by someone native to Botswana and about his or (preferably) her life as an adult rather than a coming-of-age piece. I've read Place of Reeds (review) and Twenty Chickens for a Saddle (review), both of which I loved, but the latter is about the author's childhood, both books are written by outsiders, and both take place in relatively rural areas.

2) YA gymnastics fiction. I've read my fair share of gymnastics books, memoir and fiction and the occasional piece of non-memoir nonfiction, but most of the fiction tends to be aimed at middle-grade readers rather than older teenagers or adults. I'm not sure why, except that gymnastics offers a small window of opportunity—many gymnasts retire by the time they're twenty, so a lot of books tend to focus on younger teens. I have a couple of not-terribly-promising gymnastics books on my to-read list, but those too look middle grade. (It would also be nice to read some gymnastics fiction with male protagonists—don't think I've seen anything along those lines.

3) A really ridiculously stereotypically over-the-top YA novel set in the late 60s or early 70s (but probably written in the last fifteen years). Possible elements: Summer of Love, Woodstock, war protests, feminist marches, Mondrian dresses, free love, bellbottoms, vinyl dresses, vinyl records. More than most of the things on this list, I'm holding out some hope that I'll be able to find what I'm looking for.

4) Nonfiction about Makoko. Makoko is a neighbourhood of Lagos perched on a lagoon; inhabitants live in raised houses and get around via boat. It doesn't sound like a terribly nice place to live, to be honest, but it also sounds interesting. I've been able to find very very little about it at all, let alone a full, in-depth book...but you never know.

5) Fiction about the Vestal Virgins. There's the occasional thing, but really, how is there not more on them? The Vestal Virgins were priestesses in ancient Rome; they both had significant power and were under serious restrictions. Seriously, look them up—and then try to tell me there isn't a whole host of material there for some fiction.

6) More contemporary boarding-school books. Not paranormal, not over-the-top wealth, no murder or mayhem. Just characters (or authors, if it's memoir) growing up and learning and forging relationships and the like. There are some of these, but there are a great deal more (or so it seems) books involving demons and/or ostentatious wealth, etc. Would particularly love some more memoir about boarding school.

Books, books, books...

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

1971 and Not So Different from Now

I just read Love and Haight, a recent YA novel set in 1971–1972 San Francisco. Chloe is a teenager, hopefully college-bound—and pregnant. She's come to San Francisco to get an abortion, as California is one of the few places in the US where abortions were legal at the time.

My full review is here, but I want to pull out something specific from the book here—something that reminded me of another book, Every Little Thing in the World. Warning, if you haven't read them: significant spoilers ahead.

The two books have a lot of similarities. Although Love and Haight is set in the early 70s and Every Little Thing in the World is contemporary, they were published only two years apart (2012 and 2010, respectively). In each book, the teenage protagonist is pregnant and trying to figure out what to do. (Chloe knows more or less from the outset, although it's a decision she struggles with; in Every Little Thing, Sydney is not as sure, but it's pretty clear which way she's leaning.) Both protagonists are on journeys, Chloe to San Francisco and Sydney on a summer wilderness programme. Both are pregnant by a 'wrong' boy. Ultimately, neither protagonist can proceed with the abortion she seeks without the help of her mother. And finally, both books end with, or immediately after, the abortion.

It's those last two points that interest me—the mother's last-minute entrance and the choice not to go beyond the abortion. At a guess, they come down to the same thing: Abortion is a touchy subject in fiction, and especially in fiction marketed at youth. Bringing a parent in to help out acts as a reminder (intentional or not) that teens don't have to go through difficult things alone and should be comfortable reaching out to trusted adults for help. (I will note, however, that leaving the parent-finding-out bit for the very end makes it pretty obvious how the parent will react—there just isn't space by that point for added complications.) Love and Haight in particular reinforced the idea of the decision being Chloe's and other characters (ultimately) supporting her whether or not they agree with her decision. Offhand, I don't know of any YA books where the character has an abortion without her parents knowing (which is not, of course, to say that those books don't exist), but I imagine it's a 'safer' choice, from a publishing perspective, to have the parents play a role, if only at the very end.

And then timing. This, too, feels as though it comes down to risk. Both Chloe and Sydney know that it isn't quite over when it's over, but they're also both relieved to put an end to their pregnancies. Neither book examines impact beyond that. It's an understandable place to be cautious—no experience is universal, and letting things play out further would be making another political statement, intentional or not. If Sydney regretted her decision (whether or not she ultimately came to terms with it), how would readers/reviewers react? What if Chloe never struggled with it after the fact?

To be perfectly clear, I'm not suggesting that either author should have done something else. It's just interesting to note the plots' similarities and to speculate on possible broader reasons for those similarities. It will also be interesting to see how the treatment of abortion in YA fiction evolves over the coming years.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Swim, Bike, Run, Write

I read triathlete Chrissie Wellington's memoir, A Life Without Limits, recently, and it reminded me (somewhat oddly) of another triathlete's memoir—that of Sister Madonna Buder. I suppose it's not really much of a leap. They're both triathletes, both competitive. They both came to triathlons relatively late. Wellington won the Ironman championship in Hawaii four times and has smashed records; Sister Madonna has created new records.

But I've read other books about athletes who won races or came to their sports late in life—what stands out to me here is more the accidental nature of it. Sister Madonna describes feeling somewhat lost until a priest suggested that she go for a run. She went on that run, and then another, and then another...and when running was no longer enough, she added biking and swimming, and her races got longer and longer. She suffered numerous injuries (another similarity; Wellington returns frequently to her childhood nickname of 'Muppet' when describing her own accidents and errors) but just. kept. going. And somewhere along the way, she managed to meld her love of triathlons and her religious vocation.

Wellington was considerably younger than Sister Madonna when she turned to triathlons, but it feels no less by chance. She took a chance, and her coaches took a chance, and hey, there was this big race in Hawaii, and did she want to give it a shot...? Over and over again she describes training like there were hellhounds chasing her, and then showing up to a race with borrowed gear and limited knowledge of the race itself and a secondhand bike—and winning. She didn't win every race (she's since retired from competitive triathlons), but she won every Ironman she entered, which is...pretty incredible. (Honestly, when she talks about her marathon times, I kind of...gape. Sub-three-hour marathons after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112? The mind boggles. I'd love to know what she could do in a marathon if she entered one fresh.)

Neither book is going to be held up as an example of great writing or research. If you want that, you're better off with Born to Run. What I love, though, is that here you have two very different women who are doing the same thing for different reasons—and, really, having quite different experiences—and yet there's this other common thread, this oops I fell into a triathlon and I can't get up, guess I might as well be awesome while I'm at it, that you wouldn't expect.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Three Authors, Two Books, One Cover

One of my recent reading themes: The Camino de Santiago. I'd like, at some point, to do an overview of Camino memoirs, but for the moment I think I'll stick with something a little more manageable: two books, The Year We Seized the Day (Elizabeth Best and Colin Bowles) and On Pilgrimage (Jennifer Lash). The pairing is somewhat arbitrary—it's just that the publishers used the exact same cover for both books, which are otherwise very different.

Some of these memoirs tend to run together a bit—the authors are following the same (literal) path, after all; there are many iterations of the same stories. The Year We Seized the Day is fairly standard as far as these things go, with a twist or two. It's a straight travel narrative (getting from one place to another; dealing with some personal struggles along the way), but written by two authors—which meant, in this case, both that we got to see two perspectives (rarely a bad thing) and that I liked one of those perspectives far more than the other.

I haven't read any of Colin Bowles's other works, but I'd read Elizabeth Best's previous memoir (and in fact reread it in November last year, on the same day that I did a 24-kilometer trial walk with gear). I can't say that I strongly recommend the first memoir (Eli's Wings), but this later work feels like she's done a great deal of growth as both a person and a writer. It also stands as an interesting contrast to Eli's Wings—in both she is effectively talking about breaking down her body, but for very different reasons and in very different contexts.

Lash's pilgrimage is different. She has neither the emotional demons that Bowles has to contend with nor the physical ailments that plague Best—at least, not exactly. Lash's pilgrimage was not solely one of the Camino: she ended up in Santiago, yes, but only after travelling through France to visit various holy spots; she took busses and trains and taxis rather than walking and was unconcerned with collecting stamps for a compostela.

It raises an intriguing question, one common to Camino memoirs—if all three are pilgrims, who among them is the 'truest' pilgrim? Some writers look down upon pilgrims who do not walk as they do (whether this means that the others bike, or walk only a hundred kilometers, or walk but have their bags taken by bus, or set foot in a vehicle themselves...); even those who do not mention how common a sort of...mostly benevolent animosity is.

Without placing such a value judgement (because really, it's silly), I'll say that they all had complications, reasons to claim (if they wanted it) the description of pilgrim. Best had a difficult time of it physically. Bowles had a lot of emotional things to work out (and perhaps, in that sense, the most to gain). Both Best and Bowles did the Camino as a long walk. But Lash—who didn't walk the Camino but nonetheless made a pilgrimage to Santiago—was the one who sought the most out of the Camino's religious (Catholic) history. She was also in remission from cancer at the time (and not always entirely comfortable physically), and though she doesn't talk much about that, it felt as though she knew this might be her last chance to visit these places.

Neither of these is my favourite of the Camino memoirs I've read. The Camino is a relatively small part of Lash's story, and I was less interested in the rest of it; I didn't love the two-author format of The Year We Seized the Day. But I love that, despite their near-identical covers, they represent such different takes on the same destination.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

S.A.S.S.: Armchair Travel in YA

Last year I read my way through the S.A.S.S. -- Students Across the Seven Seas -- series. There are fourteen books, written by eleven authors; in each book, an American student takes off to a different country* as an exchange student for about three months.

As one might expect, mileage varies, though by and large it's an entertaining bunch of books.** Very quick reads, and good for one who wants to indulge in a bit of cheesy armchair travel (to which I say: always!).

It's hard to know how much direction the authors received from the publisher -- although some details remain consistent (each student is abroad for a semester; a number of the programmes include an environmental component; there is always, always a boy), there's variation in others. Some students stay in dorms, others with families; some attend local schools, while others talk only with S.A.S.S. students (in which case The Boy is a local exception); in Heart and Salsa, the protagonist goes to Mexico on a service trip rather than something more academic.

But my question is this: Where is the diversity? Of fourteen books, nine take place in (Western) Europe. The remaining five take place at sea, in Australia and the U.S., in Mexico, in Japan, and in China. Of the fourteen protagonists, twelve are white -- and of the two who are not, Cece (who is Chinese-American) goes to China, and Nori (who is Japanese-American) goes to Japan. To be fair, they are not the only two who go to countries where they have family ties -- both Elena (Spain) and Siena (Germany) have family history in their respective countries of study.

The diversity question isn't new in YA, and these books aren't super new either -- they were published between 2005 and 2010. Still, what a disappointment. Would it have been so difficult to write in a protagonist who was black, or Latina (and who didn't go to Africa or Central America)? To send a student to Vietnam, or Kenya, or Turkey? (Chile, Egypt, India?)

'Well, these programmes aren't cheap,' my mother said when I commented on how white the protagonists are. She's hosted half a dozen exchange students before; she knows how it works. It's true that white families are often more likely to have the necessary resources, or simply to have information on programmes. But this is fiction -- if the authors or publisher couldn't dream up an African American student with enough money to study abroad, surely they could dream up a scholarship or two.

At a guess -- given the range of authors -- the authors just, for the most part, wrote characters who looked like they did (come to think of it, while I've taken only a glancing look at the author makeup, that begs a few questions about author diversity). Ultimately that leaves me wondering about the publisher's choices: Did anyone question the lack of diversity, either in destination or in heroine? If no, why not? (If yes, why did we end up with this particular lineup?)

Again, I enjoyed the series -- easy, light books that I could finish in a day's worth of commuting. I would very happily have kept reading. But given how limited diversity in YA is, it seems that the publisher missed a big opportunity here.

*Both Pardon My French and French Kissmas take place in -- you guessed it -- France, with the same heroine; Up Over Down Under features two heroines (American and Australian) who switch places.

**Reviews, in the order in which I read the books: Girl OverboardPardon My FrenchThe Finnish LineThe Great Call of ChinaGetting the BootFrench KissmasNow and ZenWestminster AbbyWhen Irish Guys Are SmilingUp Over Down UnderThe Sound of MunichHeart and SalsaSwede DreamsSpain or Shine

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014: A Year of Reading in Review

2014 was the year of more nonfiction than fiction: Thou shalt not read two works of fiction in a row.

That ended up translating to a lot of memoirs, but more generally...some really excellent reads. Fittingly, most (but not all!) of the books named below are nonfiction of one sort or another.

Final tally: 369 books read in 2014 (yes, it has been suggested to me that I read too much), of which 238 -- 64 percent -- were nonfiction. Mission accomplished!

Best nonfiction read of 2014: Claiming Ground by Laura Bell. Bell moved to Wyoming when she was fresh out of college, expecting a brief sojourn before starting her 'real life'; thirty years later, she hadn't left. (Review on Goodreads here.)

Honourable mentions: The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg (review); I Dare to Say, edited by Hilda Twongyeirwe (review); Ten Days in a Mad House by Nellie Bly (review); Story/Time by Bill T. Jones (review).

Best fiction: Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko. A girl grows up in Idaban; her life is happy, sometimes, but more often...complicated. Lots of nuance in this book, and lots of strong, interesting characters -- male and female alike. (Review here.)

Honourable mentions: Pointe by Brandy Colbert (review); Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (book link); Threatened by Eliot Schrefer (review).

Best graphic work: The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert. The (nonfiction) story of a photographer who went to Afghanistan with Médecins Sans Frontières in the 1980s to document the work they were doing there. Lefèvre, the photographer, died in 2007, but this work includes a vast array of his photos. (Review here.)

Honourable mentions: Tomboy by Liz Prince (book link); Lighter than My Shadow by Katie Green (review).

Best LGBTQ book: Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis. Two teenagers from different worlds -- teenagers of colour, with disabilities -- must come together to understand the link between their lives and that which is threatening them. A good book to begin with, but even better for featuring characters who are queer, who are people of colour, who have disabilities...sometimes all at once. (Review here.)

Honourable mentions: Transparent by Cris Beam (book link); Prairie Silence by Melanie Hoffert (review); Redefining Realness by Janet Mock (review).

Best book about the Camino de Santiago: Walk in a Relaxed Manner by Joyce Rupp. Rupp is a retired nun and an experienced writer, and she took a nonlinear approach to writing about the Camino, focusing instead on lessons she'd learned along the way. (Review here.)

Honourable mentions: Following the Yellow Arrow, edited by Lynn K. Talbot and Andrew Talbot Squires (review); All the Good Pilgrims by Robert Ward (review).

Now what? It's the first of January, and I don't have a reading goal...except perhaps to read a little less and live a little more. (Or at least write a little more.) In the meantime, off I go to find my next book!