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!