Monday, June 9, 2014

Review Of Ruth Graham's article "Against YA"

YA stands for Young Adult fiction. Titles like The Call Of The Wild, The Hobbit, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Outsiders, Anne Of Green Gables, Flowers For Algernon, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Harry Potter, Twilight, The Book Thief, Hunger Games, and Fault In Our Stars could all fall under this genre (see the NPR list), but I think Ruth Graham is specifically targeting YA in the last couple decades starting approximately with Harry Potter. So, why is Graham up in arms about YA? Because it’s written for teenagers, with simplistic plot and character development, rudimentary ethics, and falsely tidy resolutions.
In other words, adults should be wanting more.

“…mature readers…find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathize at all. A few months ago I read the very literary novel Submergence, which ends with a death so shattering it’s been rattling around in my head ever since. But it also offers so much more: Weird facts, astonishing sentences, deeply unfamiliar (to me) characters, and big ideas about time and space and science and love."

The qualities of good stories that she mentions are what we all should want out of a truly challenging and growth-stimulating book, but it would be hard to regard these traits as exclusive to the books Graham is specifically advocating for (which are what exactly?) and not present in some degree of concentration in some YA. And that’s the problem I have with her article: it’s too categorical and dogmatic.

She does, however, make some great points, like her eye-rolling take on a feature of Fault In Our Stars:
“This is, after all, a book that features a devastatingly handsome teen boy who says things like “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things” to his girlfriend, whom he then tenderly deflowers on a European vacation he arranged.”

Yeah. That’s kind of dumb. It’s not that she’s criticizing the juvenile nature of juvenile literature, but she’s mostly concerned about adults who want to continue to mentally and emotionally exist as a child and not raise the bar on their expectation of the world and their behavior in it. Besides that, she says it may not be fair to kids to spoil their fun by having adults over-indulge in their world—which is sort of a neutral, experimental ground between innocence and responsibility—at the cost of annoyance with, and loss of confidence in, adults.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine.”

Bam. Here’s the crux: adults have a hard time being adults, just like teenagers have a hard time being teenagers. But what would we as adults think of teenagers who wanted to keep solely reading Dr. Seuss? Sure, it’s good that they’re reading, but are they learning?  Let’s be honest, we want kids to learn to read at least some material that helps them come to grips with their changing situations, and challenges them to think, grow, and become more complex, capable beings. There is nothing wrong with nostalgia—which is, in essence, an appreciation of the formative events and warm relationships in a person’s life—but when it amounts to an obsession with the past, or an obsession with someone else’s experience and stories, it begins to run the risk of a denial of one’s own life. Escapism on a small scale can be healthy as it gives us a chance to dream a new situation and plan our acts accordingly, but a constant avoidance of present problems becomes a type of brain-candy that makes one feel that everything is okay when it isn’t, and can be positively harmful.

Graham is probably going to catch some flak for sentences like, “I’ve…gotten purer plot-based highs recently from books by Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton…” I know what she’s saying, and I agree, since I love Charles Dickens, but that might be viewed as a form of escapism and nostalgia itself, since, much like YA, it deals with some problems specific to its own age. Graham might opine, “But much of it is still relevant in principle even if some parts suffer from outdated style, language, and ideas!” True, as does YA fiction.

So, while I agree with much of what Graham writes, I also believe a certain caution might be in order to not leap to an absolute condemnation of YA. There’s a lot of good there. And who am I to say that adults who have not learned to delay instant gratification, or who aren’t as ideologically oriented as I am, shouldn’t spend more time on teen literature, even if it seems a backward step for other adults. I would rather a person be honest and read at the level they are at, albeit, with options and encouragement (which I think Graham is advocating for) for growth and advancement when they are ready. Telling adults they’re ready for more, and all adults actually being ready for more, are two different things. There are a lot of adults who haven’t really developed intellectually or emotionally beyond the teen years, so should we really be censuring all adults for reading YA? Or should we be encouraging adults to continually try challenging material and helping them learn how to get more out of what they’re reading?

I think the latter. And I think, for the most part, that is what Ruth Graham is interested in, even if it sounds like she slips into a pontifical, elitist attitude from time to time in her article to create a scandalous—and therefore sellable--read. I applaud her for recognizing the need for adults to ‘grow up’, and for sounding the call to a greater thought life. I especially love her more positive approach to provoking adults:

“There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up…But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Shailene Woodley, the 22-year-old star of this weekend’s big YA-based film. “Last year, when I made Fault, I could still empathize with adolescence,” she told New York magazine this week, explaining why she is finished making teenage movies. “But I’m not a young adult anymore—I’m a woman.””

Ruth Graham is concerned about people not challenging themselves to grow, and, frankly, I am too; but for those who are reading challenging material—material appropriate to their personal stage of growth and supportive in their personal progress—then there is no need to only read one genre or one age level. I’d say read it all and enjoy it all, from Green Eggs And Ham to Hamlet. Imagine a world where adults no longer appreciated The Giving Tree because it was for kids! We don’t want to slip into a denial of those foundational principles on which we build our complex ideologies—that’s nonsense. As long as you’re challenging yourself, reading for fun is healthy and beneficial.

My conclusion? The title of Graham’s article, Against YA, is, much like some Young Adult fiction, a bit over-the-top, like I’m sure she meant it to be.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Review of The Miraculous Journey Of Edward Tulane

This is a story for brats. I mean that in the best way. It’s a story about a child’s doll learning about love…the hard way.

Near the beginning of the story, Grandma Pellegrina tells one of the most fabulous “you’ll-poke-your-eye-out” sort of cautionary tales that I’ve ever heard. I committed it to memory for all the little brats, besides my own, I’ll meet with in my lifetime. Here it is in brief:
There once was a princess. She was selfish and didn’t love anyone besides herself. A prince visited and gave her a ring to show his affection for her. But in a petulant fit she swallowed the ring and ran away into the forest. She grew hungry and came upon a small hut. She didn’t know it was a witches hut. The princess knocked, and the witch told her to go away. The princess persisted, and the witch turned her into a wild boar. The princess ran away, was caught by the royal hunters, and brought into the royal kitchen. The royal chef butchered the boar, and served it up, but not before she found a ring in the stomach. She put it on her finger.

The end.

The point? Any story without love has a bad ending.

I’m keeping that one in my back pocket. Now, granted, this could be construed as a story about a princess who was pressured into marrying someone she didn’t love and was establishing her independence and sense of self-worth by running away. But the grandma telling the story said that she didn’t love anyone, and so I assume that she was intended to be understood as cold-hearted and not merely taking a stand for women’s suffrage.

Anyway, the story of Edward Tulane growing to love and desire companionship is intended as the antithesis to the stupid princess story, and I think it does a fine job of it. I read it to my 7 year old daughter, and we had a lot of fun with it. Lots of moral lessons. And it didn’t hold back either, as it dealt with issues like poverty, death, old age, abuse, addiction, and bullying. Good talking points.

Edward’s ‘journeys’—he never actually moves or talks, only thinks, because he is a doll after all—takes him all over, from the top of a scarecrow’s perch, to the bottom of the ocean. I loved his constant yearning to see the stars, as if the stars were what reminded him that he is always home, and always a part of something beautiful and enduring, even when he feels buried in a garbage landfill…which he was. By separating Edward from all his comforts, and later by removing him in tremendously heartbreaking ways from those he actually grew to love, the author helped the reader begin to grasp the transitory nature of life and relationship. The message, glaring and potent, was that you can’t hold on to people forever, though you need to as long as you can; and you have to begin to trust in yourself and life/God/nature that you will find love again. In other words, the author’s message seemed to be that true love is not in the ‘something’ that is loved, but is in the very act of loving, and this is found in the heart of a lover, no matter who is around, and no matter the circumstance. More than affection for one person, love was broadened into love for people you haven’t met yet, love for the changing scenery of our experiences, love for the beauty that always surfaces from the ugliness. True love that anchors a soul is love for life in its entirety with all its chances for joy, beauty, and relationships. I would also add that this includes a love for one’s own self, often last to be loved, but which holds the key for loving all things outside of self.

So, obviously, my daughter may not have gotten all of that out of the book, at least not consciously anyway; but she did learn that if she’s a brat she might spend a night in a landfill. Wait. No. She learned that without love, the story of life does not end well; but WITH love, life, with all of its adventures, is a beautiful story.

Next up, Pinocchio—a story about a blockhead who gets his feet burned off after he kicks his dad in the nose. And stuff like that.

Review of Robinson Jeffers' poetry

Robinson Jeffers thinks of life like a kid who can’t play basketball, and now wants to ban the sport. He’s a man constantly dreaming of death, but in a twist of irony, he didn’t kill himself or completely stop eating. I guess death isn’t so fun when you can’t dream about it.

Jeffers’ Freudian “Death Drive” must have been in overdrive. Even Schopenhauer would have talked Jeffers back from the ledge. Jeffers poetry suffers from a breathtakingly mellifluous denial of the human situation. While Jeffers does not recognize any moral depravity in animal or vegetable, and sometimes even excusing all humans from immorality—not ‘good’ or ‘evil’, but beings who “mean well”—he is quick to want to sweep all being and matter to the big trash bin of oblivion. He has apparently had enough, and he’s decided the rest of us has had enough too. I think it’s a good thing the ‘fire project’ button for the universe wasn’t within arms-reach of him.

Though he was reportedly interested in Nietzsche’s writings, the mood of his poems are a far cry from the life-affirming, life-surpassing things that Nietzsche’s works were. Nietzsche himself would probably have considered Jeffers a downer…which Nietzsche most definitely was NOT. Nietzsche condemned whiny, world-weary souls (religious or otherwise) who looked too far backwards or forwards, and begged for the punishment of life to be over.

“Weariness, which seeketh to get to the ultimate with one leap, with a death-leap; a poor ignorant weariness, unwilling even to will any longer: that created all God’s and backworlds” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra).

Nietzsche had no time for people who just wanted quiet lives and quiet deaths, and he didn’t believe the point of existence was to avoid struggle; rather, he conceived of life as a realm where joy can be so rich and profound that it “thirsts for woe.”

“O man! Take heed!
What saith deep midnight's voice indeed?
I slept my sleep—
From deepest dream I've woke and plead:—
The world is deep,
And deeper than the day could read.
Deep is its woe—
Joy—deeper still than grief can be:
Woe saith: Hence! Go!
But joys all want eternity—
Want deep profound eternity!" (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Even in the tradition of the 20th century existentialists, a nihilist like Jeffers—for that’s what he appears to be—would fall into the category of a denial of freedom and a flight from self and existence. It’s basically self-rejection.
“All in a simple innocence I strove
To give myself away to any power…
I failed, I could not give away my soul.” (The Truce And The Peace)

He’s what Simone de Beauvoir, the French activist and philosopher, would have described as a “sub-man” who has an increasingly destructive bent against one’s own existence that stems from the deep anguish brought on by the responsibility to live and create new values. Not sure if he would agree, but he also didn’t have to READ HIS OWN BOOKS LIKE I DO! Okay….I just totally sub-manned it. Sorry. Ahem. I’m back.

Let’s face it, Jeffers wanted to die. He had clearly euphemized death into some kind of euphoric peace, which I don’t understand since peace is a state of mind and being, and not a state of mindlessness and beinglessness.

“[Death] said, Come home, here is an end, a goal
Victory you know requires
Force to sustain victory, the burden is never lightened, but final defeat
Buys peace. (Woodrow Wilson)

So, peace in the womb and peace in the grave is what you always wanted? Making sure I understand here: it’s what you always wanted as long as you were able to want, which you are only capable of in this life, so you’re basically using your life to bitch about life? So, just die then! What’s with all the poetry? Why write about hating to be alive to write? really is worth it in some way, and whining just helps people blow off steam.

I’m a big believer with the other existentialist thinkers that nothingness proceeds (comes after!) being and “plays on the surface of being.” Even the very idea of ‘nothing’ is only a maneuver of consciousness to separate out oneself from matter and think of self as ‘not that’. In the words of Jean Paul Sartre, “Human reality secretes a nothingness which isolates itself…and this is called freedom.”

Imagine, if you will, the process of a consciousness. A person is born, and their consciousness, or self, begins to distinguish itself from its environment. Then it begins to account for ‘space between’ as a metric for that distinction. For some people, this consciousness, this subjectivity, that is now independent of the objective world may begin to feel so alone and isolated that it wishes everything back ‘into the box’. It begins to wish even for an identity that is the empty space itself between, before, and after self and world, and neither subject or object!

“Surely you never have dreamed the incredible depths were prologue and epilogue merely
To the surface play in the sun, the instant of life, what is called life?
I fancy that silence is the thing, this noise a found word for it.” (The Treasure)

However, HOWEVER, besides sounding like complete nonsense—which, I admit, the best of any of our ideas sound like sometimes—it is an expression of pain and loneliness; and I suppose that THAT always is valid, no matter how it is expressed. It’s sad that some people feel that way so much of the time, but pity from others, or worse—self-pity—will only make things worse. Get out of there Jeffers! She’s gonna blow!

But one thing gives me hope: Jeffers didn’t commit suicide. He kept writing and speaking and living. He must have liked life more than he admitted. Maybe his words were, as author Paul Tillich liked to put it, “a courageous expression of decay” which tacitly affirmed self even while seeming to disavow his life.

So, maybe I’ve been a little hard on him. Maybe I heard too much about him protesting the U.S.’s involvement in WWII. Maybe, just maybe, he still loved life, even if he allegedly loved death a little bit more.

“And I and my people, we are willing to love the four-score years
Heartily; but as a sailor loves the sea, when the helm is for harbor.” (Night)

And, to be honest, there were some pretty awesomely awesome lines in his collected poetry that left me stunned with their beauty. Even some of the lines which I hated for the philosophy, I loved for the gorgeous way they were expressed, and the way I was challenged to look outside my normal perspective and feel with others.

And, if I’m being honest and not just biting his head off for fun—which I do to the delight of some of my more blood-thirsty readers—even some of his odes-to-death were beautiful in that they helped me not fear death so much. I happen to think that a limited will-to-death may be an authentic coping mechanism of over-exposure and reinterpretation of the thing we fear most—death—and may even be healthy to a certain extent. As another example of what I liked, I lift up the poem “Mediation On Saviors” in which he is critical of what people look for in their heroes, “This people has not outgrown blood-sacrifice, one must writhe on the high cross to catch at their memories.” Good stuff there, no doubt.

All said, I do think Jeffers fell face forward into his morning bowl of death-soup and drowned his will to live, but he left a few helpful things behind. And for that, I’m thankful.

Best poems:
The Truce And The Peace
Shine Perishing Republic
The Treasure
Woodrow Wilson

The Old Man’s Dream After He Died