Black Literature Matters

Reflecting on my rather poor performance when it came to reading authors who weren’t straight white men in January, I decided to dedicate February to reading more black authors in honor of Black History Month. As I was browsing offerings online and from my local library, I tried to think of famous black authors – maybe ones I had read in the past – and was shocked to realize I hardly knew any. The only name that came to mind was Toni Morrison, but trying to think of more black authors and black classics just resulted in a blank.

I must have read some literature by black authors in high school, though, right? Some that address black history, culture, or politics? At least one or two. But the two texts I remember reading that were concerned with the black experience were The Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin – written by a white man and a white woman respectively. Even in college, the only black literature I remember coming across was maybe a short story or two and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In a total of 17 years of education, I had one memorable black voice in my past. One. The more I thought, the more I realized just how much my education had failed both black literature and myself.

This month, I finally indulged in works like Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Fledgling by Octavia Butler. They gave me an understanding of slavery, racism, and prejudice that my faux-black literary experience or history classes never did. 12 Years illustrated to me the horrors of slavery the sanitized and clinical passages I read in textbooks glanced over, trying to hurry readers along to cover up that ugly part of American history. Souls showed how the disadvantage of black Americans continued long after slavery ended, looking into how that hate and violence affected the spirit of newly free blacks three decades after emancipation. Beloved and Fledgling made the history of Northup and Du Bois personal, taking it to a level that made me uncomfortable, but rightfully and necessarily so.

Even as an educated adult who is aware of events like slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and current racial prejudice, I’d never examined them on an emotional level prior to this month. I’d read about them historically, analyzed them as fact, and thought my work was done. It wasn’t until this month that I was able to feel that history, to understand it beyond fact and begin to reflect on what it must have been like, what it must still be like to be black in America. As a white woman, I will never be able to truly empathize with the black experience, but at least now I have an understanding, a place at which I can begin to sympathize with both past and current struggle when I listen to black stories.

These works were brilliant, beautifully and emotionally written pieces of literature.. These authors speak of their experiences with eloquence and make them accessible, allowing an outsider to explore their stories while still maintaining them as their own. As 

However, we live in a country that silences these voices. A country filled with racial hate and violence where black men and women are killed, dehumanized, and disenfranchised. Where something as seemingly obvious as “Black Lives Matter” has to be campaigned for and is actively fought against by not a few radicals, but by many. Where these issues are put onto the shoulders of blacks – still struggling with the aftereffects of centuries of slavery – who are told fixing them is their responsibility even as they continue to be driven further into poverty and deprived of the resources they need to feed, shelter, and educate themselves, much less excel politically, economically, or socially. Most white Americans watch these injustices at best with casual disinterest and at worst with gleeful malice. They don’t see it as involving them, as being part of their experience – issues like gang violence or police brutality are just too foreign to a middle-class white person, so they marginalize these stories to keep themselves from feeling uncomfortable or guilty.

I think this failure to listen to black stories and foster empathy is where my education failed me, where education everywhere continues to fail its students. Literature has the ability to take these situations, these injustices, and these sufferings and make them tangible, real. A 30-second clip of a black man being shot by a police officer on the news is easy to disregard, to forget about in the course of a day – he becomes a footnote, a statistic. A novel that shows us that same black man’s past, shows us his thoughts and feelings, and shows us the multifaceted political, economic, and social reasons why he ended up in front of the officer’s gun that day is not so easy to ignore or brush off. It gets into our minds, our emotions and sits there, not letting us turn away from the ugliness that we as a country need to face but refuse to.

As Du Bois says, “Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor,—all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked,—who is good? not that men are ignorant,—what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.” This sentence was written in 1903, but is still true over a hundred years later where the divide between white and black is still as apparent as ever. To ignore the incredible power of literature to create empathy, to give someone the ability to look at another person and say, “I want to understand,” is negligent, almost criminally so – it perpetuates a culture that continues to ignore and minimize the victimization of black Americans. No child should make it through 17 years of schooling only having heard one black voice when the power to make these individuals into adults with a nuanced and sympathetic view of race, racism, and prejudice is so easily attainable – simply opening a book.

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February 2016 Round-Up

VonG: 

Best of February: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

I didn’t want to be this person. For some reason, I lump the people who go around saying Walt Whitman is one of their favorite poets with the kind of people who wear nice hats, smoke pipes, and have patches on the elbows of their jackets. Professor types who aren’t actually professors and who berate you for liking your low brow literature because, ugh, who will truly be as great as the authors of the past? Also you’re in your twenties, stop smoking a pipe ffs. Who do you think you are?! But after 600 pages of poetry, some of which made me drool as I disassociated to avoid more poems about boats, I ended this volume with a deep passion and respect for Whitman. It was one of those books you have to call ‘transformative’ about your life even if you shudder a little and you have to resist rolling your eyes back into your head. (Nothing kills a book recommendation like the promise that it will CHANGEYOURLIFE, because let’s face it, we’re all in different points of life and books affect us differently). But I have to say it (shudder), Leaves of Grass changed my life.

Worst Weirdest of February: Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay

Out of the 12 books I read this month, shockingly none were that awful. I mean, I can’t say they were all GOOD, but none of them induced me far enough into a rage to make a blog post about them, which is surprising. A lot of the YA fic I read this month could only be called mediocre. They weren’t down-right offensive when they strayed into moments I disapproved of and there weren’t even that many moments.For that reason, I’m addressing the weirdest book I read this month instead. I’m one of those people who loves Shakespeare, so whenever there’s a YA book involving Shakespeare, I get a little titillated. This one time I read a book where a girl goes back in time to seduce the playwright, as if someone had flipped through my wishes and penned a book just for me (this is real. Incredible). Juliet Immortal is a story involving Shakespeare that is perplexing from start to finish. First of all, why even involve the name and the play Romeo and Juliet? I’m not sure this story, which held onto the association with about as much conviction as a distracted toddler, even needed to be related to Shakespeare. It probably would have been just of fine of a story if it was completely unrelated. Second of all, What the Darn Diggly??? This book is wild, and I’m still unsure if it is in a good way. I love Stacey Jay’s other work but ??? I don’t even know what else to say.

Maggie:

Best of February: The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois

After crunching some numbers and realizing I hadn’t read a single POC author in January, I vowed to read at least 50% black authors in February in honor of Black  History Month. – The Souls of  Black Folk, Beloved, and works by Octavia Butler. While I may not have enjoyed reading Souls the most – it was published in 1903 and reads like it was published in 1903 – I think it was the most important book I read. It gave me a historical understanding that made the emotional aspects Morrison and Butler brought to their works even more poignant, making their themes of race and racism sink in in a way they couldn’t have if I wasn’t aware of the political, social, and cultural history they were steeped in. Also, on a more day-to-day level, Souls gave me awesome ammo whenever I have the misfortune of conversing with a racist who rightfully deserve to get shot down.

Worst of February: Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams

It’s almost too painful to talk about this book so soon after reading it, but I’ll try. Have you ever been kicked in the teeth by your best friend? Or kidney punched by your grandmother? Did they then take all your valuables and spit on your dog? That’s kind of how reading Mostly Harmless felt. I have never been more disappointed and dissatisfied with a series arc, especially the ending. Adams took everything that was good in his first two or three books and tore it apart in the finally two, laughing knowingly while he did. The Hitchhiker’s series was only supposed to be a trilogy originally, so I have a theory that Adams was forced by an editor or by the need for some quick cash to write the other two. He must of resented it because he became almost actively hostile to the reader, acknowledging the degrading quality of his stories in little quips throughout the last two books. It was maddening as a reader to watch what started so strongly crash and burn. I don’t think I’ll ever quite trust a series again. Thanks, Douglas Adams.

What The Fuck Wednesday – 02/24/16

Have you ever reached a point in a book where the author clearly just said “fuck it” and called it a day? Ever read something so brilliant or absurd that your brain does a double-take? We’ve dedicated Wednesday to capturing these moments when you just have to ask yourself, “What the fuck?”

VonG:

One of my goals for this year was to read a non-fiction book every month. I wasn’t too excited about this goal, it was more of one of those goals directed towards making me more of a well-rounded reader (and hopefully person). But that didn’t mean I was going to enjoy it.

My selection for February is Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, which has turned out to be one of the most hysterically true stories I have ever learned in my life.

When we think of spies, we think of the sexy image that James Bond represents: confidence, expensive cars, action sequences of drawn out chases, secret messages, and, of course, the Bond Girl–espionage at its finest

It turns out the reality of the spy life, at least during World War II, had almost all of those things except the sexy part. Instead everyone is a goddamn mess (which I have sympathy for, because this would be me if I was a spy.)

The entire Double Cross operation is one big WTF moment as in, how the hell did they ever pull anything off?

The spies, at the very least, had some of the appearance of the James Bond lifestyle, especially agent “Scoot,” also known as “Tricycle” also known as Serbian playboy Dusko Popov.

“Dusko and Johnny were friends. Their friendship was founded on a shared appreciation of money, cars, parties, and women, in no particular order and preferably all at the same time.”

Sure, Dusko sounds like James Bond material. But this is a man who will later write a letter to British intelligence demanding that they buy him….chocolate. Because we all know that having your chocolate funded by a top secret spy agency is how espionage works.

“My heart is in a very bad condition. My doctor who is my biggest friend says it is too much alcohol, tobacco and sin. The only remedy which I found efficient until now was milk and chocolates. Please send $100 worth of any kind of chocolate you can think of. I don’t mind what they are. I am taking them as medicine.”

You and me both, Popov.

What about “high” speed chases? The double cross spies had those as well, but they looked a little more like this:

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You can’t make this stuff up. Even if you made this stuff up, people would say you weren’t being realistic. This is beautiful.

And thanks to one spy’s obsession with her dog (girl I feel you), you get gems like this:

“Britain was preparing for battle on an epic scale, and MI5 was seriously considering whether to deploy a navy submarine to fetch a small dog, illegally, in order to placate a volatile double agent.”

Freaking INCREDIBLE.

And the Bond girl? Popov spent a lot of time sleeping around and sending pictures of his girlfriends to MI5 (I’m sure they really cared), but shout out to Double Cross agent Bronx, who was both a lady Bond and slept with women and men. I’m going to say it, she had Bond Boys.

Also shout out to the records about the Double Cross agents, who referred to Bronx’s “Lesbian tendencies” with a capital L. The only other thing to be reliably given a capital letter in attention were, of course, the all important double agent Pigeons. (Like actual bird pigeons. There were pigeons in the Double Cross department who were going to infiltrate the German pigeon houses. Send help.)

Maggie:

So I stopped at a department store on my way home from work to pick up some paper plates and beef jerky – I lead a sophisticated life – and just happened to sneak a glance at the bargain book box only to spot this little gem:

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Excuse me, but what godforsaken planet do I live on in which a publisher allowed the men of Duck Dynasty to write a book about their beards?

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Apparently one with a beard, if you manage to make it about half way through this book.

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I just can’t stop imagining the creative team for this book and how painful it must have been to sell their souls to pay off their MFA debt. The writer sobbing bitterly into his frappuccino as he types out rhyming beard couplets. The graphic designer looking through pages and pages of old men’s beards to photoshop onto children, sunflowers, and ducks – wondering where he went wrong in life, what he did to deserve this. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, but Jesus…

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Sweet, sweet Jesus.

 

Book Haul- Provoke Edition

Maggie and I had a conversation a while back where we ended up bemoaning how most of the literature we were presented in high school was written by white men. There was, of course, the token woman or person of color writer thrown in–Maya Angelou, ironically, as she qualifies in both of these categories and thus eliminated the school board’s need to have us read anything else god forbid, by people who aren’t white men. What I found most telling about our experiences of literature exposure was that, though we had both read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque, neither of us knew until recently that the book was originally written in German.

The system failed us. Even when we were exposed to the voices of different cultures and races, they were edited or awkwardly tip-toed around. We read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings but why did it take until University for me to learn about the epidemic rates of abuse, especially against women and even further, especially against women of color? We read the book but we never really had the conversations that could matter.

Recently in Vienna, I visited the Albertina Museum. They had a temporary art exhibit called Provoke in the photography wing.

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I walked into the exhibit not knowing what to expect from “Between Protest and Performance, Photography in Japan 1960/1970.” Honestly, it’s not a time period I’m familiar with in Japanese history. Nor am I that familiar with Japanese art that isn’t the familiar wood-cut that fill the sections in Art History text books. In the exhibit I was suddenly faced with a voice I hadn’t heard much of.

Provoke features the photographs from three volumes of the magazine of the same name that Japanese artists published as well as images from other small magazines or books during the years 1960-1970. Three volumes doesn’t sound like a lot, but each one was packed with evocative, gritty black and white images and essays.

Though the photographers involved with the Provoke volumes were not student protesters themselves during the turbulent period of history in the years after the infamous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their art exists in tandem with the protests. This is the reason for the exhibit’s subtitle.

I have, of course, seen images of the mushroom clouds that heralded such destruction. To me, these are distinctively American images. They are clinical in their documentation, perhaps tinged with awe at the fact of destructive power produced. But that is all they can be because they are marked with the American perception of the bombings at the time. The awe isn’t horror yet or even regret.

Provoke features some images that tackle the topic of the aftermath of the bombings. These are images twenty or so years after the event, so they are not the same as the stark horror that marks the early photography after the bombing that occurred in Japan which has the aesthetic of photojournalism. The topic has had time, culturally, to breathe and integrate itself with art. The photos in this collection that relate to the bombings are deliberate, loving.

This is no longer documentation. The camera moves in close on scarred skin that has healed. It is intimate, too abstracted to be akin to the cataloged photos of those freshly injured and dead. The conversation has moved on with the lives of the people who survived. This is a person, not a war story.

More than the photos of the immediate destruction, these portraits hit me with an previously absent sense of overwhelming cultural guilt as an American. It brought to light to me how much as a culture we dropped the bombs then moved on. People in America have a kind of fascination with Japan now, based on technology and modern culture.

Perhaps it was that the images of the aftermath are too similar to the other war photography from World War II. Yes, it was horrific but so was the war on every front. A special responsibility is hard to separate when faced with the never ending slide show of that incomprehensible achievement of human suffering. (Not to mention, of course, that America perceives itself as the heroes of WWII.)

Japan couldn’t be hit by the bombs and then move on. Culturally the ripple of the events would continue for decades and one of those ripples ended in a couple of photos in a series mostly about protest. It wasn’t given special attention because it was just another fact, another facet of life. But for me, that made all the difference.

I could pull out one of my well worn, dirty and faded personal soap boxes about how art and literature should be used in history classes to illuminate students on the perception of events from different people. Of course, that soap box is of the same construction as my soap box on art education, because without learning to experience art, it can be hard to understand the significance of photos. Despite this, history text books line up photos often with nothing more than a small title and photographer name, without any discussion of the significance of the piece.

In Provoke I see photos on the universal triumph of protest, from both the young students and the determined older generation, standing still and tall in their ragged clothes. The photo of a young man screaming stands out to me, the faceless mass of the riot police familiar even though it is in a different country in a different time.

Photography and art have the special quality of needing no translation, at least not in the traditional way, giving every person equal opportunity for experience and emotion.

Though I don’t know much about the student protests, I’m looking forward to reading the translated essays in Provoke (the book) to learn about it from the people living during the times.

“This book was put together through the struggles of Nihon University comrades. We wish to dedicate this book as a love letter to all fellow students fighting on their campuses throughout Japan and the world.” -Nihon University All-Campus Joint Struggle League Secretariat

Slam and Jam: The Scarlet Letter v. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Sometimes the classics are trying even for us literary lovers, much less for teens just trying to get their last English credit. In Slam and Jam, Maggie and VonG decide what books should be cut and what books should be added to high school curriculum. 

Maggie:

I love books – I read about 100 every year, I participate in book challenges, and spend my time writing for two separate book-related blogs. But if given the choice between rereading The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and dying of organ failure alone in the woods, there would be a distinct and noticeable pause before I gave my answer, which wouldn’t necessarily be rereading Letter.

It may seem marvellous, that, with the world before her– kept by no restrictive clause of her condemnation within the limits of the Puritan settlement, so remote and so obscure, free to return to her birthplace, or to any other European land, and there hide her character and identity under a new exterior, as completely as if emerging into another state of being, and having also the passes of the dark, inscrutable forest open to her, where the wildness of her nature might assimilate itself with a people whose customs and life were alien from the law that had condemned her–it may seem marvellous, that this woman should still call that place her home, where, and where only, she must needs be the type of shame.

Um. UM. What the shit did I just read? This sentence is 127 words long and has fourteen commas. Four-fucking-teen commas. Which was coincidentally the age I was when I was assigned this book for school. Excuse me, but the last time I checked, 14 year olds are basically infants. Teachers expected a kid who has just barely stopped sleeping in a crib to wrap her head around this and comprehend it? Nope. Sorry.

So if Letter can make even the most avid reader cringe, how must other non-literary inclined people feel? Well, judging from the Facebook page “The Scarlet Letter Sucks” and the fact that the Cliff Notes for Letter outnumber the sales of the actual book 3.6 to 1, I’m going to say negatively.

There’s just no way for young teens to comprehend or connect to Letter in a meaningful way. They’ve barely scratched the surface of having crushes on their fellow babies and Letter features a sexual affair between two adults existing within a oppressive religious system that ends in an unintended pregnancy and the main character being essentially exiled from the community? WHAT DO THOSE WORDS EVEN MEAN WHEN YOU’RE FOURTEEN? They still crack up when you mention condoms and teachers want them to relate and empathize with a knocked-up Puritan from the 1600s? This inability to connect with the text  coupled with the 100+ word, migraine-inducing sentences leaves Letter so removed from the teenage experience that most won’t make it through the first chapter.

I do understand that this book is a classic for a reason – it touches on the topics of justice, guilt, religion, sex, and ostracism – but what do these themes matter if most aren’t even reading and those who are just come out lost and confused? Letter needs to be removed from the high school classroom and left to people who have a fully developed frontal cortex and don’t need help tying their shoes.

VonG:

When looking for themes in The Scarlet Letter that teenagers maybe could relate to, all I can identify is ostracization. So to propose a book to replace this I turned to a selection that is A. readable in both style and length and B. tells a story about someone who is an outsider in accepted society.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is a perfect selection to replace Hawthorne’s impenetrable, symbolic, brick wall of a book. It focuses on the life of a teenager (wow, who would have thought that teenagers could relate to characters better when they are their own age??) who is trying to solve the mysterious death of a dog in his neighborhood. So not only do we have a familiar setting and a character in the same age group, there’s already a compelling reason for readers to get through the book because of the “who done it” mystery.

Haddon also attacks issues that teenagers can relate to, including difficult relationships with parents (even when the child and parent love each other), depression, and feeling misunderstood.

Curious Incident takes these issues a bit further by handing them to a character who is on the Autism Spectrum.

I don’t want to get into the dark details of some of my time in high school, but there were definite moments where I witnessed public cruelty (kind of like what Hester had to bear, ironically) committed against kids who fell on the spectrum. People with Autism may not be able to hide symptoms and it makes them an easy target for bullies because they are ‘different’.

You know what high schoolers need? A lesson on empathy. Having them read Curious Incident and be confronted with a character they can sympathize with who lives on the spectrum may help them understand how to treat people they will encounter in life who have ASD. Because what Haddon does well is show how Christopher sees and understands the world. His character with Autism feels a lot of the same emotions that your neurotypical teenager feels.

Students can read this book and learn that living with Autism doesn’t mean you don’t experience the same difficulties of growing up as every single other teenager.

“Sometimes we get sad about things and we don’t like to tell other people that we are sad about them. We like to keep it a secret. Or sometimes, we are sad but we really don’t know why we are sad, so we say we aren’t sad but we really are.”

There are scenes in Curious Incident that are hard to read, but in a different way than the obscure rambling nonsense that Maggie touched upon in The Scarlet Letter. What makes the scenes in Curious Incident hard to read is that they are about a teenager suffering in a visceral way and unable to communicate with everyone around him. And yes, it is uncomfortable to read about Christopher’s reactions to events that a neurotypical person can handle easily in the same way that it is uncomfortable to witness someone reacting like this in real life.

But discomfort is an opportunity for discussion and often propels discussion.

At this time in my life I live in a state of dismay and shock that we don’t approach these topics with teenagers when it will be something they have to understand their whole lives. Let’s have dialogues with kids about the “strange” other children in their school. Knowledge, we can hope, will lead to understanding. You know what life lessons I learned from The Scarlet Letter? None. Because I don’t like in Puritan times nor did I commit adultery and get pregnant. And even lessons I might have learned about how to treat people who end up in a situation like Hester (sympathetic instead of victim blaming) I didn’t learn because I was required to write essays on the symbolism of the plants in the book. Imagine how riveting that was for me at 14.

You know what life lessons teenagers can learn from Curious Incident? That people who react differently in certain situations do so because they experience the world differently. That the way to treat these people isn’t with disgust or avoidance but with understanding, patience, and trying to see their point of view.

Reading Curious Incident with a high school class can foster discussion with people while they are young on what Autism Spectrum Disorder is, how they feel about seeing the world through the eyes of the main character, and maybe how they might change their behaviors.

I believe in the power of books to change how people think, feel, and act. So instead of forcing kids to suffer through The Scarlet Letter when it is mostly no longer relevant in our day and age, we should use that power to change how real people are treated every day of their life in modern society.

World War II By the Books

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I’d like to think that everyone has at least one unique book that they own and love. It might be the copy of American Gods signed by Neil Gaiman or even just a book that used to belong to your grandmother, but for me it’s Donald A. Wollheim’s The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction.

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Science-Fiction isn’t particularly old or particularly rare (you can pick up a copy for about $10 on Amazon), but it’s not part of most book collector’s collections. It was part of the pocket book series that were released by publishers during World War II to send to soldiers over seas. They were small enough to fit in a pocket and were made with the same paper as newspapers – the printers figured they’d fall apart in about five readings. The book feels so much different in your hands than a modern paperback. The spine is brittle and the pages are thin, actually see-through in some places – both adhesive and paper the casualties of wartime rationing. The fragility of it makes it even more amazing to have copies still laying around.

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Every time I open it up and see the bold “HELP WIN THE WAR!” at the bottom, I’m a little stunned thinking about when this book was printed, what it meant to those fighting, and how we once lived in a country where people thought books were as necessary to a young man’s well-being as food or boots. My copy almost certainly never saw time overseas – it’s in far too good of condition – but it’s amazing to be able to hold a piece of history in your hands, especially one that was never meant to make it through it out of the 1940s.

The DUFF

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When I sat down to read The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) by Kody Keplinger I was prepared to be enraged. In fact, I was planning on being enraged because rage keeps me young (this is supported by the evidence that I was recently carded while trying to buy beer and the drinking age here is 16. So I’m supported by science).

And yet here we are, and I’m about to seriously praise a book called The DUFF. You have to hear me out, because when I saw the title I was offended too.

This is what I thought when I saw the title: “Great, I bet this book is about an ‘average’ girl who thinks she’s fat because she’s a size eight and somehow is going to end up with a ‘hot’ guy after she goes through a makeover routine and her bitchy friends will learn their place. Haha, I’m so glad that YA books are tackling the actual issues of body size image in teenagers, in a way that has nothing to do with a girl learning she’s pretty through the attention of a man. FKLJFLJS:KFJ:Jhjd:KFDJS.”

I stand corrected though, because while the book DOES feature an average looking girl with two traditionally attractive friends and ends up involved with a traditionally attractive guy, there’s attention to real issues facing young women.

Here’s a few issues that The DUFF tackles, and does so in a way that I respect:

-using casual sex as a coping mechanism for depression

-slut shaming being common and representitive of internalized misogyny

-the fact that feeling ugly is more of a matter of self-perception than physical appearance

-importance of platonic friendship

-calling out ignoring platonic friendship for romantic relationships as shitty behavior

-ocassional thow-ins of blatant feminism that are kind of awkward but I support that they’re in here

-divorce between two people, not because on of them is the ‘bad guy’ but because people change and may no longer be satisfied in a marriage

-divorce ending in a positive relationship between two people that doesn’t end with the “they got back together” fairy tale trope but supportive behavior

-friendship between girls who have different interests and appearances but have a strong bond

Even ONE of these being handled respectfully by a YA book is rare and just look at this list! I’m in shock, I’m still in shock.

Let’s talk about ugly as self-perception. A lot of times in YA books, an average girl finally realizes she’s attractive because she recieves attention from a male gaze. This is a really slimy way of increasing a girl’s self-confidence not only because it implies that worth depends on the male gaze (vomit) but also because it tends to focus on girls who are already ‘average’ on the traditionally attractive scale. What about girls who aren’t traditionally attractive?

The Duff doesn’t follow this. The main character, who does feel like the ‘ugly’ one of her friends, realizes through TALKING TO HER FRIENDS (not a man!!!) that they all feel like the ‘ugly’ one. Her friend who is tall feels ugly because she’s so tall (while the MC feels like she’s beautiful being tall), as an example. And this is completely true. A lot of our insecurities are viewed as enviable by other people.

The heart of the issue is that anyone can feel unattractive and that envying a girl that you think is more attractive than you is a waste of energy because she’s envying someone else. The book addresses the fact that all women are torn down by misogynistic culture. Actual quote from the book “It was just one of those titles that fed off of an inner fear every girl must have from time to time. Slut, bitch, prude, tease, ditz. They were all the same. Every girl felt like one of these sexist labels described her at some point.”

Preach.

Not to mention that the MC begins the book as an awful slut shamer. She goes around calling girls whores if they act in a more sexual way than her. But by the end of the book (okay, with a little help from a male character, but props to giving a male character a line that shows women who have sex aren’t whores. In fact, he has less internal misogny than the MC, which is interesting) Bianca realizes how awful this point of view is. She wants women to support each other because all the labels, shown in the quote, are sexist, from the prude end of the spectrum to whore.

I feel like I had this internal awakening, a little later when I was at University, and the pride I felt for Bianca in that moment was palpable. I wanted to give her a high five. She broke out of the stupid thinking we’re fed from society, and that isn’t easy. I love that it is shown as character growth.

But I have to say, I think my favorite issue in this book is the use of sex as a coping mechanism. There are a lot of books in YA literature that address self-mutilation, drinking, and drugs, but I haven’t read one that tackled sex so earnestly. Don’t get me, or the book, wrong. Sex between teenagers isn’t always dysfunctional. But we do need to address that casual sex, especially a lot of it, CAN be a sympton of depression. Again, I want to stress that it doesn’t have to be, but it CAN be.

Bianca’s sex reflects this. She does it to get away from her troubles at home and begins a cycle of sex and shame that is common in these situations. She needs the high, but is overrun by guilt afterwards, leading right back into her needing the high. There’s not a lot of romanticising her behavior during this phase of the book.

It’s so important to highlight the way sex factors in as a behavior of depression so YES! THANK YOU!

The DUFF isn’t a perfect book. I wish that it had a cast that wasn’t just heterosexual, “attractive” white people. But what it gets right, it gets right, and I won’t tear a book down for making steps in the right direction. So thank you for defying all of my expectations.

I give it a “YES GIRL YES” on the “how well does the main character react to sexism” scale.

(P.S. Don’t see the movie because it undermines every single thing that the book does right and instead DOES make it into a romcom where the main character doesn’t have self-destructive behavior etc etc)

What The Fuck Wednesday – 02/10/16

Have you ever reached a point in a book where the author clearly just said “fuck it” and called it a day? We’ve dedicated Wednesday to capturing these moments when you have to ask yourself, “What the fuck?”

Maggie:

After five years of being lost in the Amazon, archaeologist Chaz Vincent has finally come home to his wife, Kelly, only to learn that she has had him declared dead. When he attends his own funeral, Chaz finds out that Kelly married another man just that morning. Now she has to choose between them. Who will be her favorite husband?

— My Favorite Husband, Pam McCutcheon

Excuse me. But. What is this? You’re going to get married on the day of your husband‘s funeral? Are you a goddamn sociopath? Who is the man who’s okay marrying you before you’ve even buried your first husband?  Where is your family? Your father, mother, siblings, and friends were all told to attend a wedding in the morning and a funeral in the afternoon and they said nothing? Also, there’s some weird overlap in time frames here. When did you have him legally declared dead because you had the wedding before the funeral? Did you declare your first husband dead while he was stranded in the Amazon rainforest so you could bone another dude? Why was your new husband okay banging a grieving married woman? Is he a goddamn sociopath? I have so many questions. Stay tuned for the answers as I delve neck-deep into this shitpit next week.

The traffic on the stairs lightened as they reached the IT floors. Here were the most sparsely populated levels of the silo, where less than two dozen men and women – but mostly men – operated within their own little kingdom.

“Well, sure enough, I wound the coils on ten pumps that week. The whole time, I’m waiting for her to break. Hoping for it. My fingers were sore. No way should could move them all.” Marck shook his head. “No way. But I kept winding them, she kept hauling them off, and a while later she’d bring another. Got all ten of them done in six days.”
“So she got someone to help her,” Marnes said. “Somebody probably just felt sorry for her.”

“Smart girl,” Jahns said, smiling.
“Too smart,” Marck said.

Wool, Hugh Howey

Do you want know the publication date of Wool? 20-fucking-12. Why add all these interjections, especially the first one? Are we still insisting that women can’t be intelligent or mechanically-inclined? Oh, the IT department? Mostly men, of course! A girl is set an impossible task and she accomplishes it? Must have gotten help from the menfolk, the poor waif! A girl uses some ingenuity? She’s too smart – what’s she doing with all them brain learnings! Can you just fucking not? It’s too early and I’m too grumpy.
VonG
I’ve been talking about Leaves of Grass a lot because it’s been two months and I feel like I should have finished this book a long time ago. It’s so long. So, so long. Maggie came up with a theory that the book is a literary asymptote and that I was never going to finish it. I didn’t believe her.
This week my Kindle told me I only had 30 minutes left in Leaves of Grass. I totally was going to finish it. Then I read it for another HOUR and it says 6 minutes remaining.
What if Maggie is right. What if I never finish it.
On the other hand, I now no longer remember who I was before Leaves of Grass because my memory spans only about two months. So if I finish it, who will I be?
Both possibilities are terrifying.
For this WTF Wednesday I present something I learned about the language Breton from the book Lingo. This is less WTF in the sense of horrifying and more WTF in the good way, which is where you lose all sense of how life can possibly be the way it is. Languages are weird and while French’s strange counting ways are pretty well known, Breton wins this category handily.
“If you really want to torment a Breton, ask them to calculate 78+59.”
In a decision of logic that I totally follow, if you had to do this in Breton you would be calculating the following equation:
(3*6+3*20)+(9+1/2*100)
Breton has no word for 18! INCREDIBLE! And people think doing Math in English can be ineffective.
Since I’m already talking about Lingo, I’ll throw out my favorite word from the book.
vrtíčkar– strictly speaking no more than a hobby gardener, but the word also suggests that the person is more interested in drinking beer with other vrtíčkars than in growing vegetables and flowers. (Slovene)

Game Changer– Rene Folsom

79I know this is about a book I read in 2015 and at this point the rage should have left me and I should have moved on with my life. Listen, I know. The problem is that the rage hasn’t left me. So in an effort to purge my anger, I’m going to tell you a little bit about why Game Changer by Rene Folsom is garbage (and not good garbage like, haha check out this book, it’s GARBAGE).

As always, when I picked up this free e-book about a pair of nerds falling in love, my guard was up. I don’t have a good track record when it comes to books targeting the video-game playing, sci-fi loving, geek population (also look at the cover lolol). I’ve found pretty much all of the time these books tend to be degrading and condescending to their audience, which is one of the baffling choices I’ve never been able to puzzle out the motivation for. Why are you insulting your audience? How will that help you be financially successful?

Game Changer dives straight into this problem with the kind of acrobatic elegance that would earn a 9.78 from the Olympic judges. Where do I even start?

It was 2015, I was under the impression that maybe we had escaped the hell of the trope “you’re not like other girls.” Then Game Changer came along, and with a wink, subjected me to not only “you’re not like other girls” but “you’re not like other nerds.”

The man: he’s “not like other nerds” because, gasp, he’s not only attractive but he’s confident! Wow! Did you know all nerds suffer from crippling anxiety and lack of self-confidence? Turns out all you need to do to be a “nerd” and still hot is to wear referential t-shirts and smirk a lot (bed-head inspired hair also helps). I kept seeing in my head Cliff Bleszinski (of Gears of War fame) smirking in front of his Lamborghini whenever I read lines about this witty, one-liner throwing CEO of some vague game company that’s designing some vague popular game.

In fact, I mentally replaced whatever macho nerd that was in this story with Cliffy B because he had no defining characteristics and at least there was some humor in imaging this fictional character was based on Cliff Bleszinski. I had to amuse myself somehow.

Also it was fairly apparent that the author had no idea how game design actually works because Cliffy was barely ever in the office, spending most of his time chasing after this girl and drinking coffee and running his hands through his hair while strutting around town. How can you be a successful CEO with this behavior, I ask you? When the crunch is real during game development, you wouldn’t have time to haunt a coffee shop hoping the stranger you have a crush on will show up.

And the woman he has a crush on, by the way, is allegedly an author (?) or something and HER job description seems to be: show up at coffee shop, flirt with cocky annoying man, slam keys on laptop, ignore writing in order to flirt with cocky annoying man. No one does any work.

The real moment of unsquashable rage happened when Cliffy B and his lady date were out eating somewhere because we already know they don’t do any actual work for a living and, of all things, lady date orders a hamburger.

Then it happened. “You’re not like other girls!” I’m sorry…what???

girls who eat smol

tell me the secret

Not only that, she’s not like other girls because she plays video games! Haha, not like the demographic of gaming has rapidly been shifting towards a larger and larger female population over time! It’s 2015! Women play video games in large numbers! It isn’t that wacky!  You know what kind of women play video games? All types of women.

Video game culture has left the sphere of being that weird thing only enthusiasts do. It’s become so incredibly accessible that everyone and their grandmother plays video games. Playing video games actually may be the shallowest “nerd” tier you can hit because I have known a lot of people who are not “geeks” who play a lot of video games. I’m saying it here. Video gaming is casual nerd level (unless you’re playing Dwarf Fortress or Eve or something because wow).

My point is, in general, playing video games just isn’t that weird anymore. So this whole, “wow I can’t believe I found a woman who eats hamburgers and plays video games, this is more unlikely that being struck by lightning while holding a four leaf clover” thing is a migraine of stupid.

Actually, it would be more like, “this is more unlikely than finding a book targeting geeks that actually treats its audience in a respectful way without having to separate the characters away from the very subculture they’re supposed to represent so that the audience can understand just how conventionally attractive they are.”

Game Changer gets one soggy hamburger out of “how great is this date food.”