Monthly Archives: August 2012

Just a few more words

Mark,

Just a few more thoughts on this topic–though I’m still hoping we can get some others to comment or guest-post on the subject.

First of all, regarding Margaret Atwood: you’re right, Handmaid’s Tale was the first Atwood I read, but Alias Grace is her best of the ones I have read (and I haven’t read Blind Assassin). Although, as you point out, hers vary widely in style and genre, so it’s a little hard to compare them.

But let’s talk YA. How about John Green? Looking for Alaska, a debut novel, won the Printz Award in 2006 and An Abundance of Katherines won a Printz Honor in 2007. In my opinion, Katherines is the better book, moving beyond the–let’s face it–typical first-novel autobiographicalism of Alaska and doing something really different and interesting. But Katherines did win an honor, something none of Green’s subsequent books have managed to do. And here again, it’s hard to know how much of that is anticipation and familiarity. John Green has an amazing fan base, both online and in terms of real readers who actually buy his books, and of course, that includes the librarians who are on award committees. But it does make me wonder a little bit if I and other readers are able to read his latest book, The Fault in Our Stars, completely objectively. Would I have a different reaction to it if I had read it without knowing the author? In this case, possibly not–because it sounds like a John Green book. The characters are John Green characters, and the dialogue is John Green dialogue. So if I didn’t know John Green had written it, I might be thinking, “Wow, this author is really ripping off John Green.” But it will be interesting to see where it lands in this year’s Printz deliberations.

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Antici . . . pation

Mom,

Well, if you’re going to bring Paul Auster into it – you asked for it.*  No, I won’t give you my whole spiel on Auster here (if you want it, read the link in the footnote below), but I will say that while I agree with you that Book of Illusions is Auster’s best novel, my personal enjoyment of it increased enormously by reading the rest of Auster’s novels.  Understanding his particular take on postmoderism and metafiction as pursued especially in the New York Trilogy, but also many of his other novels, gave me a great background as to what he was up to in Illusions.  Also, reading some of his lesser novels gave me a new appreciation for what he had done right in Illusions to make it so great.

More generally though, I think your point about anticipation is definitely worth pursuing – and perhaps it is not so much the opposite as the flip side of what I was talking about on Monday.  I was talking about reading all of an author’s work enriching my experience, and you are talking about how a first great experience can (perhaps) lessen the impact of later books**, but both points are about the ways in which the works interact with each other in our minds as we read. 

But wait – are you even right?  Continue reading

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Auteurists and anticipation

Mark,

I’ve been thinking about your last post all day, and I find that almost all of the examples I can think of are the opposite of yours. To start with a couple of adult authors: I have read almost everything Richard Russo has written, but I still think Nobody’s Fool  is his masterpiece, and that was the first of his books that I read. I have very much liked several of his other books, and I can definitely see similar themes and, as you said, interconnections, continuities, and discontinuities. But even though he won the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls,  to my mind, Nobody’s Fool is the better book.

Similarly, Book of Illusions was the first Paul Auster book I ever read. I’ve read most of his other novels, and I found them all fascinating and beautifully written, but Book of Illusions is the only one I’ve ever wanted to re-read.

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An Auteurist Approach to Authors

Mom,

Last week we were talking about the various different components of a book and how we personally rank them–character, plot, prose, ideas, etc.  But there are many other factors we use when we evaluate books: age range*, genre, or (what I want to talk about today) how a book fits with an author’s other work.  Over at The Hub, I’ve been writing a series of posts called The Completist, in which I evaluate an author’s entire body of (YA) work, and it has made me realize that whenever I pick up a book by an author I know, I am always reading it in the context of everything else I’ve read by her, finding interconnections, continuities, and discontinuities between the works.

All these interconnections can not only be interesting in themselves, but really improve the quality of the works as I perceive them.  So, sometimes you have an author like AM Jenkins who can take a single idea and explore it from different angles in different novels.  Other authors have various themes and allusions they come back to over and over.  An interesting example is Rick Yancey.  In his Alfred Kropp books, he introduces readers to his take on Arthurian legends, but he pretty quickly seems to get distracted by plot concerns.  Then, in his adult series, The Highly Effective Detective, he begins exploring the concept of knights further, but this time in the context of a ordinary guy just trying to do the right thing–is it possible for him to act as a knight in shining armor, or do those values act contrary to modern society (the climax of this question is a throwaway joke in which the detective renames his agency White Knight Associates–he walks into the newly minted agency while the stenciler is in the middle of writing, so that the agency appears to be called “White Knight Ass”).  In the third of these books, he even briefly outlines the story of Sir Pellinore and the Questing Beast**, giving the reader an enormous clue about the existential themes he has been pursuing in the series.  Meanwhile, in the Monstrumologist, published the year before, Yancey names his main character Pellinore, and as the Monstrumologist series progresses, the idea of the Questing Beast moves from the very literal Anthrophagi of the first book to the almost entirely metaphysical quest for the “Holy Grail of Monstrumology” in The Isle of Blood.

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Great prose

Mom,

Interesting thoughts.  It’s probably too obvious to mention, but I’ll still say that when either of us is looking for “greatness” in a book, it has to have a combination of quite a few of the qualities you mentioned–characters, plot, ideas, literariness, setting (my personal weak point).  Oh and humor–it is very rare for me to truly love any work of art that doesn’t show at least a little bit of a sense of humor.  But, if I’m honest with myself, out of your list of paths to “goodness” I would peg myself (the English BA) as a sucker for “literariness.”  Except that for me that comes down not to lush descriptions but to well-built prose.  Of course, good prose takes many different forms, and I love Holly Black’s practically transparent, fast-moving prose almost as much as Margo Lanagan’s challenging, dense, thought-provoking words, but nothing sucks me out of a book quicker than a poorly-turned phrase or false dialogue.  A.S. King read our last set of posts and tweeted that she “swoons to be in the same tweet as” Lanagan, Beth Fama, and Libba Bray, and I responded to her by saying that I couldn’t think of anyone else to add to that list besides Laurie Halse Anderson.  Looking at that set of women, they all have tremendous ideas, but they I think they actually vary greatly in characterization and plotting.  What holds them together is their commitment to their (very different) senses of how to manipulate language.  And looking at the list I gave you last time, only the graphic novel really fails the test of great prose, and my reasons for loving Hades have to do with other aspects of “literariness” – specifically, O’Connor’s highly intelligent reworking of a classic myth.

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What is good?

Mark,

I have been thinking today about what “good” means to me, in terms of books. When I used to run a book group at the library, it became very clear to me that different people had very different ideas of what made a book resonate with them. In fact, I got to the point where I could almost predict which members would like which books. There were those who read only for plot, and were bored by character-driven books. There were those who had to find a character they could like and identify with, or they couldn’t like the book. There were those who were looking mainly for “literariness,” which mostly seemed to have to do with lush descriptions. There were others who were mainly looking for a sense of place.

Now, I read pretty eclectically. I enjoy my share of plot-driven adventures and character-focused narratives as well as all sorts of genre fiction and so-called literary fiction, and, of course, nonfiction. But I realized a long time ago that what really gets me excited is a book that is, at its heart, about ideas. When I pick up a new book, I want to be entertained, of course, but I also want to be given something to think about, and I want to see something that is different from anything I’ve read before.

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More Good Books

Mom,

Well, you’ve mentioned a lot of my favorites of the year already: Code Name Verity, Chopsticks, Ask the Passengers, and Monstrous Beauty we agree on pretty completely.  A.S. King just gets better and better, which seems pretty impossible since even her first novel (The Dust of 100 Dogs) was pretty dang good.

The only book on your list that I had major problems with was Amelia Anne.  I certainly don’t disagree that it’s a good novel, but it didn’t rise to “great” for me.  I never really connected with Becca’s story, and found myself impatient to get back to Amelia Anne.

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Good books

Mark,

Let’s talk about books!

I just looked back over my record of what I have read so far this year, so here are my thoughts about the best ones so far:

To start with YA books, here are my favorites of the year so far:

I read Chopsticks, by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral, back in February, and it still sticks with me as one of the most interesting and original books I’ve read in a long time. Like last year’s Alex winner The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, by Caroline Preston, it’s a book  presented not in traditional text format, but rather in scrapbook format. Chopsticks, though is part mystery, part love story, part psychological thriller. It wasn’t until my second time through it that I realized that the picture of Francisco’s school was the same as the picture of Glory’s hospital, and that the logos on the stationery were similar. That sent me back looking for more clues as to what was really going on. At one point, I was convinced that the words on the boxing robe (Sergio “the Marvel” Martinez) was an anagram that was going to tell me something about Glory’s mother in Argentina. (I couldn’t unscramble it to mean anything important, though!) The book left lots of questions–which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily–but still succeeds, I think as a thought-provoking and visually beautiful piece of literature.

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Librarians and nonfiction

Mark,

Well, that’s a can of worms! I don’t even know where to start! You’ve heard me on the subject of nonfiction and boys (men) before, so you know I believe that many boys prefer to read nonfiction, and many girls and women (who make up the majority of teachers and librarians) prefer fiction. (Although, oddly enough, you and your brothers (and your dad) were–and are–big readers of fiction. You and Dad probably read the most nonfiction, and even then you both also read a lot of fiction.)

Anyway, just looking at things like summer reading requirements and the Accelerated Reader program, it’s obvious that many (most?) adults who are guiding the reading of young people think of “recreational reading” as fiction reading.

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Nonfiction, Part 3

Mom,

I have a ton of thoughts on your last post, but I want to focus on one thing in particular: your point that librarians are biased towards nonfiction that “reads like fiction.”  Is this something that we (meaning YALSA members) can (or should) try to change?  Obviously, as you point out with the 1962 biography example, nonfiction itself goes through a lot of fads and changes.  Maybe this is just the current trend and we should go with it?  Still, I feel like there are books that are being slighted.

You’ve been on the Printz Committee, and you’ve appointed people to the Printz Committee.  Is this a topic that comes up at all?  Is it possible to change a committee member’s mind about what makes a Printz-worthy nonfiction book?  Or, is it possible to find librarians who have different approaches to nonfiction to appoint in the first place?

– Mark

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