Stardust

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

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As always, Neil Gaiman is amazing. As far as I’m concerned, everything he touches turns to gold. This fairy tale is about a boy who grew up in a town just outside Faerie. He sees a falling star, and tells a girl that he will go find that star and bring it back to her. So he sets off into Faerie, and has many adventures along the way, of course. He finds that the star is a person, and that a witch is after her, and meets two brothers questing for the rock that knocked the star out of the sky. The world of this tale is slightly sexier and more violent than in most children’s books (which is why it’s marketed for adults), while also being whimsical, colorful, and slightly silly at times. If that seems a strange mix, a delicate tone to set, that’s because it is, and it works because Neil Gaiman is just that good.

I listened to the audiobook of this novel, which was read by the author. Neil Gaiman really has a great voice for storytelling, very soothing and atmospheric and humorous. At the end of the book, there was a recording of an interview with him, where he talked about writing across several genres, the story behind Stardust and its different versions, as well as the process of making an audiobook.

Internet Roundup: Motherhood, part 4

As usual, I’ve got lots to say about this mom gig, especially when I read things about moms on the internet that are either brilliant or terrible. Over the course of this year, I’ve accumulated lots of links to articles that hit a nerve with me when I read them (maybe months ago), and I can’t just forget about them, even though the news cycle has long since moved on. As I said before, I have to speak out in whatever small way I can, and not let my dearth of free time quiet me. So here are three of those articles and my comments.

This one qualifies as terrible. “A Letter from a Working Mother to a Stay-at-Home Mother, and vice versa” by Carolyn Ee is supremely well-intentioned. It’s about mothers appreciating each other and recognizing that we all work hard and make sacrifices, whether or not we work outside the home. However, the terms for that appreciation are retrograde and guilt-inducing. Jessica Grose at Slate did a great job explaining what’s wrong with the letters. Grose especially emphasizes that working or not isn’t really a choice for most women, and that when it is, it’s a choice that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. That’s an approach to the issue that I’ve read and appreciated before.

The vision of gender roles in these letters is really old-fashioned. The husband/father/partner figure is only even mentioned once, when he comes home and fails to relieve the stay-at-home mom because he had a hard day too. The mom doesn’t demand help, but simply dissolves into tears. There is no sign of a partner in the working mom letter, as if all working parents were single mothers. This really doesn’t give enough credit to involved dads who work hard to be equal partners and co-parents. The “second shift” is referenced, but as a fact of working-mom life, not as an injustice that needs to be rectified in our larger community and in individual families. One of the main reasons given for why working moms are admirable is basically because they are everywhere and we all need them to do their jobs. As if our economy’s dependence on the work of parents were remarkable at all, and as if the community’s reliance on them were necessary for us to permit them to leave their children in day care without calling it neglect.

These “letters” are a great example to me of the rhetorical dangers of using the second person to address an entire group of people. By saying, “all of you stay-at-home moms do a, b, and c,” or worse, “every one of you working moms feel x, y, and z,” the author alienates all members of that group who do not do or feel exactly those things. She implies, for example, that the working moms who don’t enjoy the time they spend at home with sick kids don’t love their kids or something, ignoring the fact that sometimes kids are their most insufferable when they’re not feeling well. I was offended by this line about working moms, because I have committed this sin, and plan to do it again, as often as possible:

I know that you often feel guilty about having any more time away from your children so you sacrifice your leisure time. I know you can’t bring yourself to take a “day off” for yourself when your children are at daycare.

So am I supposed to feel guilty for working half days over the summer while keeping my child in care full time? I thought the purpose of these “letters” was to alleviate mom guilt. Lines like that present a single acceptable version of motherhood, whether working for pay or not, and judge all who fail to conform to it. And that single version is an oppressive one; it’s total motherhood, and it’s exactly what’s making stay-at-home and working moms both feel so insecure that they end up judging each other to make themselves feel better. So Carolyn Ee has really just been feeding the fire she says she’s trying to put out.

Instead, this is the kind of discourse we should be having about stay-at-home moms and working moms. FaithM will be working less because she’s having her second child soon, and she puts that ‘choice’ in the context of the wage gap, family policy, and our cultural assumptions about families (mother = primary caregiver, and worker = breadwinner = man with wife and children at home). She points out that parenting is hard work that society doesn’t value the way it should because there is no dollar amount attached to it, and that to some extent, some versions of feminism have bought into that devaluation of domestic work. We need to talk about the larger context in which we make ‘choices’ about our families and careers, while also appreciating people who don’t get enough respect because of our screwed up ideas about work and family.

Cogan at One Year

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At a year old, Cogan is starting to show his personality. He’s open and affectionate. If a stranger smiles at him, he’ll reach out to her to hold him. Last time he saw his cousin, only 3 months younger, he gave him a hug. He hugs his stuffed animals, especially a singing puppy toy. He loves our cat and is learning to be gentle with her. He’s been so determined and persistent in his efforts to learn to walk, not even getting phased when he falls. He gets excited about so many things and has no inhibitions about showing how happy he is. He hands me board books to read to him and turns the pages himself. He’s learning by imitating us: he holds anything phone-shaped up to his ear and makes a questioning sound, and holds my keys up to the doorknob because he knows that makes it open. He points at everything and says, “This? This!” He cackles with enthusiasm and takes off. I love all these things about him so much, and I fear him losing them as he gets older.

 

When her daughter was about this age, a friend of mine wrote that her little girl was perfect, and so she feared that anything she did wrong could only ruin her toddler’s perfection. I was pregnant at the time and conscious of how clueless I was(/am) about parenting, but I commented to remind my friend that her baby is a human being and therefore imperfect, hoping that this thought would relieve the pressure on her.
Now, I don’t think my baby is perfect. I’m very mindful of his flaws. He definitely has a mind of his own and wants to do things his way. He insists on doing things like climbing the stairs one at a time, holding the bannister (Hilarious.) His drive for independence leads to screaming when he needs a diaper change or tries to climb the baby gate. He’s starting to throw tantrums by throwing himself on the floor or arching his back to resist my arms holding him. He clings and whines. He throws his food on the ground for fun. He still won’t sleep all night and resists any nighttime comfort I try to give him that doesn’t involve unsnapping a nursing bra. He drools buckets, so that his adorable outfits are sopping and disgusting. Clearly, my child is much more imperfect than my friend’s.

 

But at the same time, I think I understand better now what my friend was feeling. Loving the wonderful, beautiful aspects of my baby’s character means dreading the changes that will come naturally with his growth. I want to preserve his innocent wonder, his curiosity, his persistence, his open-hearted joy, and I know the world will not let me. I wish these parts of him could stay the same always, but I’m not sure to what extent they’re him, his fundamental personality revealing itself, and to what extent they’re just part of the stage of life he’s in. If he changes, does that mean he’s getting corrupted by this rotten world, does it mean I’m messing him up, or does it just mean he’s growing? Curiosity, determination, loving warmth: these are traits I value very highly. Identifying them in my child makes me afraid of raising him in a world that will frustrate his attempts to express them, or, worse, see them as signs of weakness.

 

The phrase “killing a child’s spirit” makes me sick because I usually hear it coming from entitled parents who romanticize their children’s disruptive behavior and allow them to impose on others, but that’s exactly what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of the day when rejection or social shame clamps inhibitions on my child’s sweet, affectionate nature. I hope that he always keeps his heart open to others and allows himself to trust, to take the risk of caring. I want him to remain curious and excited about learning and discovering. I don’t want repeated failure to teach him that his persistence won’t pay off. Seeing him shut down will break my heart, and I know it is inevitable because one day he will be twelve.

 

Around his birthday I felt especially nostalgic for his newborn body, his skinny legs and fragile, weblike hands. I had done my best to take sensory snapshots of him, to imprint in my arms the way it felt to hold him as he was then, and I’m glad haven’t lost that memory yet. This time next year I’ll be missing his unsteady gait, the way he puts the ‘toddle’ in ‘toddler,’ and his silly babbling noises, while being thrilled with his new accomplishments. I know  it’s not good for kids to be protected from every disappointment, that making mistakes and experiencing challenging, unpleasant things are what turn us into adults. This world corrupts all of us, and we lose some sweetness, but gain complexity and flavor. Someday I’ll be able to enjoy adult conversations with my son, and I hope he’ll amaze me with his wisdom. What a gift that will be, one that won’t be possible if he doesn’t endure some heartbreak along the way. But for now, I’ll enjoy storytime, finger foods, and the final days of nursing. But not the tantrums. I can endure those if I must, but I can’t enjoy them. Sorry.

 

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Into the Still Blue

Into the Still Blue by Veronica Rossi

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This novel ends the Under the Never Sky trilogy, a YA dystopia series. Aria, Perry, and their friends have to team up with Hess, leader of the Dwellers, and Sable, the treacherous leader of another Outsider tribe, in order to have a chance to reach the Still Blue before Aether storms destroy the world around them. The three leaders display varying levels of ruthlessness as they manipulate each other out of fear, mistrust, and ambition, each hoping to secure a safe position for his own people. The protagonists are still dealing with their losses from the earlier books, and their memories and traumas influence their choices. Rossi’s language is strong and her characters well-rounded and complex.

This volume was a worthy conclusion to the series. The setting was imaginative, vivid, and lush, the love stories irresistible, and the moral questions compelling.

YA Is For Everyone

As my blog clearly shows, I read a lot of YA. So I can’t leave this article alone. Ruth Graham shows herself to be the biggest book snob I’ve ever encountered outside of academia. Even though others have already responded adequately, I have to give the world my own particular reasons why I think she’s wrong.

  • Sure, some YA is crap. I’m the first to admit it. I’ve criticized several YA books pretty harshly. But there are a lot of trashy books marketed to adults too. No genre can be judged by its worst representatives. Are critically acclaimed YA books really that much lower in literary quality than the paperbacks they sell at the grocery store?
  • Some of the adults who used to read formulaic, shallow adult books (bodice rippers, mysteries, thrillers) now read YA instead. This does not represent a loss of readers from Literature. Shallow readers read shallow books in the past, and shallow readers read shallow books now, whether they’re labeled YA or adult. Nothing new here.
  • There is considerable overlap in YA and adult literature. Some ‘adult’ books that were written before YA existed as a category would probably be considered YA if they were published today, especially those with child or teen protagonists. Some writers–J.K. Rowling, Julianna Baggott–publish in both categories. I’m currently reading Kelly Link’s book of short stories for young adults, that contains a story, “Magic for Beginners,” that was also included in a collection marketed to adults. The categories are pretty meaningless as descriptions of content or quality, and mostly just serve a marketing function.
  • The endings of YA books are not as uniformly simple and uncomplicated as Graham implies. I think the ending of Mockingjay is pretty nuanced indeed, for example. There is a ton of moral ambiguity in books like The Lunar Chronicles and Maggie Stiefvater’s books. Graham has not read much current YA.
  • Some of the aspects of YA that Graham objects to are just aspects of the teenage experience the books document. Teens are over-the-top dramatic and ridiculous at times. Graham may groan at characters in The Fault in Our Stars, but in doing so she is only groaning at teenagers in the same way that grownups have always done. It doesn’t make the teens’ experience any less worthy of being the subject of a bestselling book.
  • YA readers young and old don’t necessarily ready uncritically. Just because a book seems to invite its readers to enjoy an uncomplicated romantic moment doesn’t mean that its readers see the moment in an uncomplicated way. Any skilled reader can read any text in a complex way if she wants. You don’t have to agree with something wholeheartedly to get some kind of enjoyment from it. And you don’t have to “abandon the mature insights” of adulthood either. In fact, sometimes that grown-up perspective is exactly what makes us YA readers long for the things we find in YA books. The things that are marketed to young people need a critical eye the most urgently because they can be so insidious, for some of the same reasons that Graham mentions. In this way I think those who criticize and review books for young people are performing a kind of public service.
  • Graham assumes that it is necessary to be naïve to get pleasure from a narrative that is simple enough for a child. But there are many ways to enjoy a book. It may be true that certain ways of reading and certain kinds of readerly pleasure are inappropriate for some YA books. I have certain critical tools that go unused when I read books for teens, and that’s ok. The new ways of reading that I have learned as an adult have simply added to the other, less complicated ways I have been reading for a longer time. I didn’t unlearn the old ways when I learned the new ways, and I didn’t lose the capacity to enjoy a book in an uncomplicated way. There’s no shame in immersing yourself in a narrative or delighting in characters’ personalities. Graham feels this way because she privileges certain kinds of readerly pleasure over others, preferring the kinds of analysis you learn in grad school over the simple joy of being a fan, and her basis for this preference is unclear. Some people don’t like to read like PhD students do, and that doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent or heralds to the End of Literature. It may mean they don’t have those very specialized skills, or it may mean they prefer not to use those skills every single time they pick up a novel.
  • Graham is entitled to her opinion, and if YA isn’t for her, that’s fine. It’s good that she recognizes that she’s a different kind of reader than she was as a teenager, and she chooses her books accordingly. But there’s no need for her to cast judgment on others for their reading choices. Perhaps some people have done the same kind of introspection that she has regarding the type of entertainment that will suit them best, and come up with YA novels. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are immature readers, or that Literature is doomed.

Summer Refocusing

The end of the school year is always busy for a teacher, and there was also a first birthday that had to be celebrated, and pictures to take and family to host. So I’ve fallen behind on the blog again, of course. I have accumulated dozens of links I want to post and comment on, there are at least 2 books I’ve been procrastinating reviewing. and the reviews I do post are getting suspiciously shorter (please tell me they were just so brilliant you didn’t notice).
Now it’s finally summer, and I have more free time than usual, but not as quite as much as I’d like. It may shock you, but a teacher’s summer is rarely the leisure-fest that you think it is. There is a year to recover from, a year to prepare for, and this year there’s required online professional development. And since I’m on the hook to pay for childcare already anyway, I decided to teach summer school (because, another thing you may not know is that while teachers do often get paychecks year-round, we’re considered 10-month employees, so the only reason we get paid in summer is because we get paid that much less during the school year). The school only had enough money to pay me for half days, so I do have the afternoons free. But with almost two weeks of summer over, I’ve been surprised at how little of my ‘extra’ time I’ve been able to translate into writing time. I wanted to reestablish my daily gym habit, for one thing, and then I had to make a crockpot dinner, and do laundry, and clear the cameras of photos for a trip home…
I hate how life gets away from you like this. I hate how meaningless things like laundry and dishes and grocery shopping get in the way of the things that matter in life, the things we want to accomplish and the people we want to be with. I hate how I get it in my head that I need this big gigantic chunk of free time in order to accomplish anything, and that becomes yet another block. And at some point the block becomes an excuse, a reason why it’s ok that I haven’t done this thing that I’ve always said was really important to me.
I want to participate in current dialogues and comment on things that happen and stuff others write before they’re old news. It feels ridiculous to post links to month-old articles and say, hey, I had some thoughts about this issue you forgot about last week. (But I think I’m going to have to do that ridiculous thing anyway because the alternative is never saying what I want to say, and I don’t want my lack of free time to silence me.) I want to do things like post on the blog on special dates, like my birthday and my son’s. It stresses me out to see those dates coming up and know I won’t be able to do anything for them, and I feel inadequate when I watch them go by without doing anything. Parenting a baby gives me the urge to record everything, and the rapid pace of his growth makes me feel like I’ve always just missed a milestone, just as the speed of his movements frustrates my attempts to photograph him.
I don’t know how to respond to this feeling, this problem, except by recommitting myself to catching up as much as I can and trying to be mindful of the way I use my time. I don’t want this blog to turn into a bunch of apologies for not being a better blog, and I don’t want my life to become a bunch of regrets and excuses. It’s important to stand up every once in a while and say, no, it’s not ok that these people and things that I’m supposed to value are not getting their due. I’ve always wanted to live my life in a deliberate, purposeful way, and I need to hold myself accountable when that’s not happening, and do my best to make a course correction.

City of Ashes

City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare

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This second book of the Mortal Instruments series improves on the first; my theory about Clare improving as a writer with each novel seemed validated. The sentences and descriptions were less clichéd. Jace became more complicated and less annoying, and Clary also seemed to mature as she encountered more of the Shadowhunter world, even discovering a talent of her own. I liked visiting Clare’s version of the faerie court, but I didn’t like it when couple of the adult authority figures, Maryse Lightwood and the Inquisitor, had ridiculously overblown temper tantrums. I enjoyed Simon’s genre-savvy asides, and it was interesting to get to know the villain, Valentine, a little better. He’s a zealot and a bigot, and a poor excuse for a father. His demon hordes are what make him so formidable; the fear demon Agramon revealed the characters even as he intimidated them. I liked the way the ending dealt with the love triangle. Of course there are four more books in the recently concluded series, so there are many open ends. I’m particularly interested in the Maia/Simon relationship, and hoping it ends up more than just an example of pairing the spare.