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An Interview with Elizabeth Wein, Author of “Code Name Verity”

In books on April 1, 2013 at 10:41 am

codenamecoverElizabeth Wein has had quite a year. Since her World War II-era spy novel Code Name Verity came out last spring, it’s racked up young adult book awards right and left, as well as accolades from publications like The New York Times and NPR.

All that acclaim couldn’t go to a more deserving book: Code Name Verity is a ferocious, dazzling tale of the friendship between two young women who also happen to be ace British spies, and the courage they summon under terrible circumstances. I stayed up late into the night finishing the book all in one gulp, and the next day, I started reading it over again. After that, I still wasn’t ready to let go of the world Wein had created, so I sat down and emailed Wein herself–who graciously agreed to an email interview with Girls Like Giants. Read on for her thoughts on villains, best friends, facing your fears, and what learning to fly a plane taught her about feminism. –Sarah Todd

‘Verity’ (aka Queenie) and Maddie are such distinctive, vivid characters. Were they inspired by particular people you’ve known or read about?

The things they do were inspired by real people—I read a lot about women of the Special Operations Executive and the Air Transport Auxiliary when I was doing the research for CNV, and I made altered use of some of their experiences. But the characters of Queenie and Maddie are totally original and developed as the book developed. They really aren’t like anyone I know—they are just themselves.

Often books about female friendships seem to focus on the jealousies and tensions between women. But Queenie and Maddie’s love for each other is pure–maybe because they become friends during wartime and establish that baseline level of trust from the get-go. Do you have a best friend? What’s your own perspective on female friendships been?

I have had several best friends at different points in my life, and there has occasionally been some jealousy involved (Queenie and Maddie do actually admit that they are sometimes secretly jealous of each other, and Maddie now and then expresses her irritation out loud to Queenie). But basically I *love* having a best friend—several different people have filled that role at different times in my life. Writing CNV was partly a celebration of that. When my closest friends live far away, as they do now, I really miss that easy and close-knit interaction.

Although I wouldn’t say the friendship in CNV is based on any ONE of my friends, the development of Queenie and Maddie’s friendship was consciously patterned on my friendship with Amanda Banks, who was enrolled in the same PhD program as me (CNV is dedicated to her). At the time we lived about 100 miles apart and only got to see each other every couple of weeks, and we really lived for those brief meetings. Also, we were under a lot of stress studying for our PhD exams and struggling with some academic backstabbing issues in our department—add to the mix a dorm fire at 2 a.m. and the two of us having to usher all the undergraduates out from the fifth floor—it wasn’t wartime, but our friendship developed very quickly sunder stress, a small bit of danger, and in spite of physical distance. So you can maybe see the parallels. Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Year-End Picks: Sarah S’s Favorite Books, TV Shows, and Songs

In books, music videos, Television on December 21, 2012 at 10:27 am

Sarah S.

Books

A Dance With Dragons, George R. R. Martin: The segmented plots of Westeros and beyond weave back together in book 5 of the Song of Ice and Fire series. The gang’s together again, so to speak, or at least all the members who’ve made it out alive. Writer faster, George! Write like the wind!

Bossy Pants, Tina Fey: Fey’s self-deprecation does not mask her confidence. Her funny, interesting memoir feels like a sneak peek into the life of the woman we all want to be when we grow up.

Blood, Bones, and Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton: Beautiful. Gritty. Raw. If you live in NYC, I hope you eat at Prune. Wherever you live, I hope you’ll read Gabrielle Hamilton’s exquisite memoir.

The End of Men, Hannah Rosen: I hesitate to call this book one of the year’s “best” but it’s undoubtedly one of the most fascinating.

TV Shows

True Blood: All good things must come to an end, but summers are going to be dry indeed once True Blood goes off the air. This last season had imperfections, including the painfully boring werewolf plot and the heinous Iraq storyline. On the other hand, we did learn a lot about the Authority (at last!), Eric became one of the most interesting and developed characters on the show, Sookie’s charm returned since Eric/Bill’s imprisonment and actress Anna Paquin’s pregnancy forced the character to interact again with her friends and not just mope around in cute dresses/naked. Last, the season took a flailing character—Tara—paired her with one of the series’ best supporters—Pam—and fireworks ensued. True to form, we are left with more questions than answers, especially since Bill has transformed into an evil vampire blood god or whatever. In terms of the unending love triangle, I would say that Eric’s chances are looking up. Oh, and if you are not yet convinced, I have two words: Russell. Edgington.

Boardwalk Empire: There are many ways to revitalize a struggling show, one riddled with complaints about style over substance. However, Boardwalk Empire took an unorthodox approach by ending season 2 with the killing of a major character. Season 3 opened a year and a half later and the audience had to play catch up as we watched Nucky, haunted by his actions, becoming more and more of a monster. Nucky’s development ricocheted out to the rest of the characters—from his wife, Margaret; his brother, Eli; and his “colleagues” Arnold Rothstein, Owen Slater, and Chalky White. Last, we were treated to one bad-ass baddie in Bobby Canavale’s Gyp Rosetti and the lovely development of Richard Harrow. Boardwalk’s always been an actor’s show and this season allowed its cast to shine, showing that—wonder of wonders—Steve Buscemi can anchor a series, Canavale deserves way more work, and that if you give actors meaty roles they will tear into them with gusto.

Sons of Anarchy: Last season I feared that my beloved Sons had jumped their motorcycles right over that eponymous shark. Instead, they brought on Jimmy Smits, complicated Tara and Jax and their relationship, killed off a major character (*sniffle* Opie), surrounded us with baddies yet never let them detract from the real conflict within the club, and revitalized Gemma. In a conversation to be continued, we officially need to come up with a term for shows that seem like they’re about the jump the shark but that—like SOA—do not.

Read the rest of this entry »

Ladies First: Five Fairly Recent Books by Women, About Women

In books, Uncategorized on November 29, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Sarah T.

Although the subjects of the novels below range from coming of age to coming to America, all five have two things in common: They’re written by women, and they center on female characters. What books by women and/or about women have you been perusing?

A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore

Moore’s coming-of-age novel is set in a post-9/11 Midwestern college town. I read it on a Metro North train and I was really into it. So into it, in fact, that I got off one station before my transfer in a haze of which-world-am-I-in confusion. Then, as the doors shut, I realized that I was still an hour away from my final destination. As the train pulled away, I had two additional revelations: I had left my phone on the seat, and this was the last train of the night. I was fully marooned.

“I guess I live here now,” I thought. I trudged down to the taxi stand to start a new life for myself. Now here I am, a happy resident of Brewster, NY. No, $90 later I got home. But the point of this story is: Moore is very absorbing, especially if you like puns. People in her books are always verbally jousting with each other, no matter how unhappy or confused they are. Even when two characters don’t like each other very much, they can usually cease hostilities long enough to bond over a good homophone. It’s Moore’s way of telling us how lonely her characters are. In her universe, puns are the way that people grasp for connection.

The novel’s narrator, Tassie, is a smart college student cut off even from the people she loves most. One of the novel’s key plot points hinges on an email from her beloved brother, who writes asking for advice on a major life decision. Not only doesn’t Tassie write back, she never even reads the email. She doesn’t understand why herself. But the isolation that courses through the book provides the explanation: The vulnerability of her brother’s email, and the prospect of taking responsibility for another person, was too much for Tassie to bear. People turn away from intimacy throughout the book. The decision seems almost sensible, given that nobody is who they say they are–not  Tassie’s Brazilian boyfriend, nor the white couple who hire her as a nanny for their adorable, bi-racial adoptive daughter Mary-Emma. Self-deception runs deep too. Their liberal college town, which prides itself on being the kind of enlightened place where you can protest wars and buy organic kohlrabi all in one go, reveals a racist underbelly.

Needless to say, this is a sad book. You kind of hear “Eleanor Rigby” playing on repeat as you read it. But Moore makes sure you don’t drown in melancholy: there are still bowls of fresh strawberries with balsamic vinaigrette, the joy of discovering Simone de Beauvoir, art etched into the foam of cappuccinos. The book recognizes the balancing power of ordinary consolations, even as it suggests–steely-eyed–that they’re not enough.  Read the rest of this entry »

Choose Your Own Adventure: Talking “Treasure Island!!!” with Sara Levine

In books on August 28, 2012 at 6:00 am

Sarah T.

“When had I ever dreamed a scheme? When had I ever done a foolish, over-bold act? When had I ever, like Jim Hawkins, broke from my friends, raced for the beach, stolen a boat, killed a man, or eliminated an obstacle that stood in the way of my getting a hunk of gold?”

With those words, the unnamed 25-year-old protagonist of Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! decides to change course. Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s timeless tale, she’s determined to shake off the shackles of her suburban life — though not by leaving the suburbs. Instead, she pursues the Core Values of BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE, and HORN-BLOWING while navigating her day job at The Pet Library and an assortment of friends and family confused by her single-minded passion for a classic of boy’s adventure fiction.

Of course, there are bound to be a few hiccups along the path of any grand adventure. In the narrator’s case, these include embezzlement, an extremely annoying parrot, moving back in with her parents, encounters with poison, and even a stabbing. No matter: she keeps her head up throughout Levine’s laugh-out-loud satire.

Filled with love for a coming-of-age novel that’s less about lessons learned than lessons–boldly!–refused, I asked Levine to talk about her acclaimed debut. Grab your nearest bottle of rum and read on for her thoughts on the Core Values of Little Women, how book reception seems to differ for male and female authors, and the American desire for self-reinvention.

The narrator wants so badly to learn capital-L Lessons from Treasure Island. Her take-aways are questionable and her execution of the Core Values is decidedly slapdash—embezzling, negligent parrot-parenting, etc. But I think a lot of bookworms can relate to the feeling of wanting the books we love to tell us how to live. Is that too much pressure to put on a paperback? And are there books that have inspired a Treasure Island level of devotion in you?

 No book has inspired that level of devotion in me. I can’t imagine committing to a single book with such fervor.  But I’m well aware of my tendency to hope that something—not necessarily a book, but an object, or a practice—will have the power to change my life. And I’m interested in the American obsession with re-inventing selfhood.  Remodel your living room, redo your wardrobe, make a new you!  Why do we always think it’s possible, even desirable, to start over? 

The Core Values the narrator decides to live her life by are boldness, resolution, independence, and horn-blowing. Does that last one mean tooting your own horn (something at which the narrator excels) or taking up the euphonium?

Yes, blowing your own horn means saying what you do well.  But let’s not rule out euphonium lessons for any of the ladies. I understand the solo euphonium repertoire has expanded dramatically in recent years.  It’s no longer necessary to be an ensemble player.

Several of the Treasure Island!!! reviews I read (all of which were very admiring!) praised the book for putting such an unsympathetic character at the center. But I kind of loved her. She’s selfish and oblivious and misguided, sure, and she hurts the people who care about her. But I also found her wild over-confidence and single-mindedness endearing, especially as the cracks in her armor start to show. Am I a patsy?

You are not a patsy.  You are a spiritually evolved human being. Do you know the Buddhist parable of the poisoned tree?  When we encounter a mean, selfish, off-kilter person, most of us want to get away as quickly as possible.  Others, like yourself, they can witness the mess and not run away screaming.  I commend you for approaching the dregs of humanity with compassion and amusement. I apologize if I sound as if I am speaking from a mountaintop.

Relatedly, your self-interview at The Nervous Breakdown brings up the specter of the autobiographical question. (“How much you have in common with your narrator?”) But nobody as un-self-aware as the narrator ever could have written her. Did it surprise you that people were asking that question?

Thanks.  It did surprise me, though probably it shouldn’t have.  People usually write first novels based on their own lives, and it would be ridiculous to expect people to do any homework on me. But I was taken aback by a number of people who failed to see the gap between me and the narrator.  They seemed ill equipped to read the voice. I keep hearing their morally indignant sputters: “She thinks she’s being bold, but really she’s being self-centered!”  Tell me something I don’t know, girlfriend.  And then there was the interviewer who asked me point-blank if I had ever worked in a pet store.      Read the rest of this entry »

50 Shades of WHAT IS GOING ON

In girl culture on June 4, 2012 at 7:21 am

Sarah T.

The summer before I started college, the graduating seniors at my soon-to-be school pulled off the prank of a lifetime. Each incoming freshman received, on official-looking letterhead, a note informing us that the book selected for our required summer reading would be Truly Madly Viking. Eventually the college got wind of the switcharoo and sent out the real summer reading notices, but it was too late for some of the over-achieving types (a category that does not include yours truly unfortunately), who had already dutifully plowed through the timeless tale of the love between a modern woman and a tenth-century Norse warrior.

I’m holding out hope that 50 Shades of Grey is also an elaborate practical joke. But on the off chance that it’s neither a prank nor a collective international nightmare, here’s the basic rundown. 50 Shades of Grey is terribly-written Twilight fan fiction that somehow manages to be a million times worse than the (ludicrous) original. It is a masterpiece, and by masterpiece I mean that it masterfully manages to make this charming young man hide inside his hoodie with discomfort. (He actually does a really funny and great job reading selected quotes, and if you’re curious about all the fuss but don’t want to subject yourself to the actual book, the video and the hilarious recaps from Oh Hai Desk are solid alternatives.)

The hoodie-hiding in which readers may feel compelled to engage probably won’t have much to do with embarrassment over the supposedly racy subject matter. The book pulls off the trick of selling itself as risqué (thereby sending digital copies flying off the e-reader shelves) while actually being remarkably tame and boring. We are talking about a book that includes pages and pages of a legal contract complete with clauses and appendices. Multiple times. THE SAME CONTRACT. We saw it already, E.L. James! Why don’t you and BarBri get a room. Read the rest of this entry »

Boomerangs and Babysitting: Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan

In Uncategorized on May 25, 2012 at 6:42 am

Sarah T.

I don’t watch Girls because I can’t afford HBO, so instead I sometimes eavesdrop on the youngs while I’m on the train.

Over the weekend I took Metronorth from Grand Central to the Berkshires. Two dark-haired girls sat across from me. One had her hair in a ponytail. The other wore shorts and a pair of moccasins, no socks.

The one with the ponytail did most of the talking. She said most of the boys at her college in New York were either gay or in relationships. Due to the extreme straight single guy shortage, the ones that existed had women falling all over them. “But I’m not going to go up to somebody and be like, ‘Hey, I like you, I want you to be my boyfriend,’” she said, embarrassed.

She sort of liked one guy who was a jerk but knew he was a jerk (That is the worst kind, I wanted to break in). He was funny (no he wasn’t), and sometimes she’d go over to his place with friends. But he didn’t want a girlfriend. He was still hot, though, and she would have hooked up with him if he didn’t have so little respect for women (high five for holding out).

She talked about how open she was with people, which certainly seemed true. Making friends was sometimes hard for her, because she let everyone know what she was thinking about and most of the people she met were suppressing things.

The girl in moccasins mostly listened. She did such a perfect job of it—laughing at all the right times, nodding, asking questions—that I wondered if she was secretly an expert therapist disguising herself as a nineteen-year-old. The only time she said anything revealing about herself was when her friend told a story about a girl who’d behaved rudely to a guy at a party.

“I mean, if that was you,” the first girl said, “you wouldn’t have blown him off, right?”

“I don’t talk to boys,” said the girl in moccasins, tilting her head.

“Right, but you at least would have said hello?”

“Yeah, sure.”

I was so intrigued. How interesting that this cool, empathetic girl didn’t talk to boys! From the way she said it, and her friend’s casual response, it was clear that this was common knowledge, based on firm but mysterious (to me) principles.

Then they talked about how scared they were about turning twenty, which was hilarious. But I remember what it was like to worry that twenty was old. I had a friend in college who freaked out because she thought she was getting crowsfeet. Read the rest of this entry »

Becoming “Wild” with Cheryl Strayed

In Uncategorized on April 24, 2012 at 7:53 pm

Sarah T.

Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir Wild tells two stories. The first is about the devastating losses, including her mother’s death from cancer at just 45, that lead her to pound through the mountains, deserts, and woods of the Pacific Crest Trail on her own. The second story is about what happens while she’s on the PCT: the people she meets, the books she reads and burns to lighten her load, the foxes and bears and bygone toenails, the backpack she calls Monster, the small gifts of goose feathers and river-cooled Bud Lights that are her talismans along the way. Those gifts don’t protect her, but she doesn’t need protection. The worst has already happened. They’re just reminders of how generous the world can be.

As a 26-year-old woman by herself on the PCT, Strayed stands out from the crowd–both on the trail and on the bookshelves. American literature is replete with stories of men small against the wilderness: “To Build a Fire” and Into the Wild and 127 Hours and Huck Finn and Walden (sort of, Thoreau had some help) and countless more. These stories tend to center on some combination of two narratives: men discover their true, elemental selves by entering into nature and/or test their strength and hubris against snowstorms, avalanches, and other natural events humans experience as disasters.

Wild refuses either of these tropes, insisting on slow self-knowledge and ordinary–though no less frightening–dangers. There are no avalanches; there’s not even a climax that would be easy to identify. Instead Strayed contends with broken water tanks, a moose that charges and disappears, and a stranger with a threatening leer.

Hunger is her most constant worry: surviving off supplies and $20 bills she’s mailed herself along the way, she’s always ravenous. Daily she fantasizes about cheeseburgers, Snapple lemonades, and Caesar salads. These foods are so quintessentially American that it’s hard not to see them as a metaphor for the safe, loving life that began to shatter when her mother died. As she sets out on the trail, her best friend and parent is gone; her formerly close family has scattered. She’s divorced the man she still loves and left her college degree unfinished.

The momentum of her hike prevents Strayed from sinking further into grief. When she begins she doesn’t know exactly why she’s on the PCT. But as she walks, it becomes clear that she’s found a way to make her outer circumstances match her inner ones. As the last name she adopted after her divorce implies, she’s become painfully unmoored in the wake of so much loss. But on the PCT all the hikers are searchers in some way, and on the days — and there are many — when she encounters no one, she’s as wild as the trail. Read the rest of this entry »

An Interview with Dodie Bellamy

In activism, gender on April 17, 2012 at 9:35 am

Sarah T.

Dodie Bellamy is a force to be reckoned with: an experimental feminist writer and poet whose work pushes against boundaries of genre, form, and literary and social conventions. The author of the acclaimed The Letters of Mina Harker and numerous other works, Bellamy recently gained a passel of new admirers (including me) with the publication of her confessional memoir the buddhist.

the buddhist draws from Bellamy’s blog Belladodie to explore the emotional aftermath of her relationship with an unnamed, and perhaps unknowable, man. Writing about the memoir for Emily Books, Sady Doyle describes it as an effort “to reconcile the person you thought you knew with the damage you know you’ve suffered — to ‘integrate the trauma into acknowledged memory,’ as they say.” This effort, Doyle says, “can, under some circumstances, be a struggle to live.”

The vitality of the buddhist comes from the struggle that unfolds as Bellamy questions, fights, assures, and arm-wrestles herself and her memories. Not wanting the story that refuses to end to end for me as a reader — at least not just yet — I reached out to Bellamy to see if she would answer a few questions for Girls Like Giants. Happily, she obliged. Read on for Bellamy’s thoughts on blogging, boldness, and Charlotte Brontë.

One of the things I love about the buddhist is how you document your resistance to telling your story as you tell it. What was the value, for you, in pushing back against that resistance?

Beyond technical prowess, what makes writing compelling is the energy behind it, the tension, the charge.  I often write about material I feel resistance to, material that makes me uncomfortable, because that creates a charge for me, a sort of erotics of disclosure.

You’re one of the originators of the New Narrative movement [Ed: this is inaccurate! See below]. What relationship you see between the New Narrative and personal blogging—particularly in terms of writing about other people?

I’m not one of the originators of New Narrative, though I was a student of those originators when I was a young writer.  New Narrative was very much about using the personal in writing, and about forefronting the position of the writer, rather than he/she hiding like the Wizard of Oz behind a screen, pulling all the switches and levers.  New Narrative was also very interested in writing communities, how we’re not writing alone but among a community of peers, as well as historical communities of previous texts.  So, this emphasis on the personal and community make New Narrative highly compatible with personal blogging.  But there also was a focus on various experimental strategies in the work that’s more akin to poetry than what you see in most personal blogs.  It’s been a long hard road for me to feel okay about the sort of straightforwardness I perform in the buddhist.

Do you know if the buddhist himself has read your blog or book, or if he knew that you were writing about him? Does that matter to you?

Approximately four months before I finished the book, I told him in an email that I’d been blogging about him and was writing the book.  He said he hadn’t read the blog and that our worlds were so different, he was fine with my writing about him.  This was a brief exchange that surprised me, his permission, but it was very helpful for me, psychologically, in finishing the project.  To my knowledge, he hasn’t read the blog or the book, but I don’t really know.  When I was writing the blog, at first there was the fantasy of him reading it, that I was somehow communicating to him.  Now, no, it does not matter to me if he’s read any of this.  In an odd way, the project no longer feels about him, there have been so many layers of mediation in the writing of it. Read the rest of this entry »

A Great and Terrible Beauty: A GLG Reading Group

In A Great and Terrible Beauty, gender, girl culture, Libba Bray, YA on April 3, 2012 at 8:19 am

Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty (AGTB), set primarily in Victorian England, is the first in a series of three books that trace the coming of age of Gemma Doyle. Gemma is not like every other girl at her boarding school, Spence. In fact, she is the last in a line of powerful women in possession of supernatural power. In a society where women must behave according to very specific and constraining codes of behavior, Gemma comes to realize that these constraints are not meant to protect women, but rather to control them. As Gemma becomes aware of the patriarchy that defines her world, she also realizes that the world of magic is one controlled and managed by men. AGTB is a novel about young women finding power, but also learning to manage and control that power — for without control, we learn, come terrible and terrifying consequences.

After finishing AGTB and missing Pretty Little Liars, we thought another reading group might be fun. Read on for our favorite characters and some more general thoughts on AGTB. But beware: spoilers abound.

Read the rest of this entry »

Scored: A GLG Reading Group

In Uncategorized on March 13, 2012 at 5:59 pm

In Lauren McLaughlin’s Scored, all public school children are monitored and scored on their “fitness.” This includes academic achievement, but also behavioral items such as relation to “peer group,” “impulse control,” and “rapport.” Imani, our working class, mixed-race protagonist, must only maintain her above-90 score for two more months in order to receive an automatic scholarship to any state university and thereby fulfill her dream of resuscitating the dying Atlantic coastline she calls home. However, the arbitrary police state apparatus associated with the score proves more challenging for Imani to navigate than she expected. Consequently, she faces a host of ethical quandaries that she had never encountered before. Complicating her struggle, of course, is a boy—Diego Landis, one of the dreaded “unscored.” He challenges Imani with an audacious proposal that may prove her salvation—or her downfall.

Recently, GLG’s Sarah Todd interviewed McLaughlin about her novel. Subsequently, GLG opted to do a digital reading group of the book. In it, we discuss race, the education system, and the sisterhood between Imani and Katniss. And, we would love to hear what you thought of Scored in the comments!

- Sarah S.

Respondents: Sarah S., Jeni, Gina, and Austin.

*Spoilers Warning! No joke!*

Let’s begin with the questions that McLaughlin posed at the end of her interview with Sarah T: “I’d love to ask readers what they think they would do if they were in Imani’s shoes. Would they give up their best friend to salvage their future? Or would they remain loyal? Also, I’d love to know whether they’d ever faced similar moral dilemmas in their own lives.”

Sarah S: In all honesty, this is a tough one for me only because Imani faces real consequences because of Cady’s behavior and the stakes are incredibly high. Obviously, the system is totally screwed up and unfair but I also think it’s unfair to judge people by privileged ethical standards in such cases. At the point when Imani’s score drops because of Cady, the potential for her future life plummets as well. I like Cady as a character, and am glad they resuscitate their “pact.” But I also think she was unfair to keep her relationship a secret from Imani and, therefore, deprive Imani of the true opportunity to choose friendship over the score. In this sense, I think the book brilliantly unfolds these ethical quandaries, making them complex questions to be wrestled with, rather than obvious missteps.

Gina: But I think that Cady keeps her relationship a secret, precisely because she is afraid of how it will influence Imani’s score. She is naive (she’s only a teenager) and believes that she can outsmart the magnetic chip tracking. In my own life, I have had friends like Cady, young women whose lives seemed predestined to preclude them from academic or financial success and who try to protect their friends from a similar fate. These are the young women who don’t invite you to a crazy party or to hang out with a sketchy boyfriend because, even in our “unscored” society, they want to keep you pure.

Read the rest of this entry »

Interview: YA Author Lauren McLaughlin on “Scored”

In gender, race on February 21, 2012 at 11:46 am

Sarah Todd

The hyper-competitive college admissions game can turn any high school student into an insecure, anxiety-ridden puddle. But what if kids spent their whole lives knowing exactly how they measured up, aware that every move could make or break their futures? That’s the scenario Lauren McLaughlin explores in her deeply compelling young adult novel Scored.

In Scored‘s not-so-distant future, a computerized surveillance system ranks students according to their academic performance and selected social behaviors. High scores guarantee them college scholarships and stable jobs. The lower their scores are, the narrower their options.

Imani LeMonde, a bright teenager from a working-class, mixed-race family, is exactly the kind of student who’s supposed to benefit from scoring. The system was created in the aftermath of a Second Depression that wiped out the middle class and made upward mobility virtually impossible. Merit-based scoring offers students access to higher education regardless of their income—though the rich can still buy their way into college if necessary.

At the novel’s outset, Imani’s dream of going to college and becoming a marine biologist seems secure. But when her score plummets unexpectedly, she must choose between her future and her friendships. Soon, she begins to question the system she’s grown up with, asking whether scoring has only exchanged one form of inequality for another.

Smart, socially-relevant young adult books are currently riding a wave of well-deserved enthusiasm on the success of The Hunger Games trilogy. Scored stands out from the crowd, interweaving a fast-paced plot with complex characters and thoughtful discussions of race, class, politics, and history.

Author Lauren McLaughlin graciously agreed to talk to Girls Like Giants about her novel, which was published by Random House in October 2011. Read on for her thoughts on standardized testing, status obsession, and the secret ingredient for great young adult fiction.

In Scored, Imani begins to question the standardized rankings and surveillance culture she’s grown up with. Do you think there’s a natural connection between dystopian stories and young adult fiction? How can young protagonists explore and challenge their societies in unique ways?  

I do think it’s very interesting that dystopian fiction is having a big moment right now with teens. Personally, I can’t help but speculate as to whether it may have something to do with the fact that we are living in very trying, even dystopian, times. Many aspects of our society are crumbling. Our economy has hit a brick wall and many believe our democracy itself is at risk of collapsing under the weight of extreme corruption. Perhaps the authors of dystopian fiction are hoping to channel the revolutionary inside every teenager in hopes of turning things around. I know I am. I sincerely hope today’s teenagers do a better job of managing society than we’ve done. We messed some things up.

How did current events inform your depiction of the world Imani lives in? Did any personal experiences with standardized testing and surveillance influence the novel?

I graduated from high school at a time when the standardized-test-taking experience was comparatively benign. Of course I got nervous taking the SAT’s, but back then (in the ancient eighties) college admission wasn’t nearly as competitive as it is now. I was very much influenced by the stories I heard of young people with good grades and real talents being kept out of college because of weak SAT’s and ACT’s. That seemed outrageous to me. I think we’ve become so obsessed with status and ranking that we’ve allowed it to warp the entire educational experience.

Are there similarities between Somerton, the blue-collar Massachusetts town in which the novel takes place, and Wenham, the Massachusetts town where you grew up?

Somerton is more similar to Essex Massachusetts, which was home to the marina where my Dad kept his boat. Geographically, I basically just used my exact memories of Essex to create Somerton then added bits and bobs here and there. But the socio-economic status of Somerton is entirely my creation. As far as I know, Essex is still doing quite well, whereas Somerton, as with the rest of the nation in the world of Scored, has fallen on extremely hard times.

What would you say Imani has in common with some of your own favorite female protagonists, and what sets her apart?

Like all good protagonists, Imani has a big dream, or quest. In her case it’s to go to college, study marine biology, then return home to save the dying fisheries and shoreline. What gets in her way isn’t so much the evil actions of Score Corp, but her own conflicted conscience. I’m always drawn to protagonists whose make-or-break moments hinge on an internal realignment of their own morality. I think of Katniss choosing to sacrifice her own life to protect her sister. The whole Hunger Games trilogy hinges on this essentially moral plot line, which I think elevates it above many other dystopian stories. The risk with dystopian fiction is that you make the world itself so dark that the protagonist can only ever be seen as a sainted victim. It’s much more interesting when the protagonist’s own morals are engaged. Read the rest of this entry »

Jonathan Franzen, Edith Wharton, and the Problem of Personality

In gender on February 11, 2012 at 7:53 am

Sarah Todd

The basic gist of Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article on Edith Wharton is, “Whar-dawg, I do not dig you as a human being because you had too much cash flow and too few socially liberal political beliefs, but I do dig the hot fudge sundae that is your novels’ complex protagonists. Radical?” (Franzen talks like a surfer-dude undergrad from the 1960s with hip-hop influences. No, he doesn’t really. I wish.)

When Franzen discusses Wharton’s books, he’s insightful and curious. I particularly like his exploration of why he wants Wharton’s characters–and literary characters in general–to get what they want, even if they want things about which he has ethical and moral qualms: more money, social status, a loveless but secure marriage. The vehemence of their desires is contagious. Eventually, they become the sympathetic reader’s own. This also explains, he says, why he wants Thackeray’s selfish, superficial Becky Sharp to climb right up that social ladder. But Franzen’s own likability and popularity, or lack thereof, is the subtext of half his personal essays as well as the blatant text (top-text?) of about a zillion pieces of Franzen-related criticism, so I think he’s more invested in the subject of ascending and descending social ladders than he’s willing to admit. Read the rest of this entry »

Unshelved: The Secret Garden

In Uncategorized on December 26, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Young adult books through regular adult eyes.

Sarah Todd

Based on knowledge gleaned from heart-warming turn-of-the-century classics like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, as well as even earlier Victorian works such as Jane Eyre, it is safe to assume that historically, in the British Empire, it was a common custom for people to tell young girls how unattractive they were. “Hey, lookin’ weird!” various guardians, family members, classmates, mentors, friends, and co-workers tell poor orphaned Jane Eyre as she silently tries to blend into the curtains. But of course she looks kind of pale and twitchy and bug-eyed. She’s constantly getting insulted by strangers and close friends! Every day of her life is like, Will this person hire me as a governess, or will they call me a goblin? Probably both!  This seems nerve-wracking.

Meanwhile, Anne gets mad attitude for her red hair from the denizens of Prince Edward Island, who are tragically unaware that future Rita Hayworths, Julianne Moores, Joan Holloways, et al. will conclusively prove that red hair is always, always what’s up. (Gilbert Blythe knows the score.)

And then there’s Mary Lennox, the heroine of The Secret Garden, who has jaundiced skin, “a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression.” When Mary’s parents die of cholera in India, she is sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven—a recluse with a hunchback—in a mansion on the English moors. As soon as she sets foot on English soil, people begin proclaiming that she is an unusually ugly ten-year-old girl. Read the rest of this entry »

I’m Going to See Breaking Dawn OR How A Smart, Independent, Educated Woman Learned to Love Twilight

In gender, girl culture on November 23, 2011 at 12:48 am

Melissa Sexton

The first time I went to visit my sister in her new home in Seattle, I needed something to occupy my time during the long days she spent working. I was a 2nd year PhD student in a literature department, so the last thing I wanted to do on my downtime days was read anything serious. Still, my sister made a full disclaimer when she handed me her roommate’s copy of Twilight. “It’s not great literature,” she said with a shrug. “But I bet you’ll be entertained.”

Such a disclaimer was more than warranted given my lit snob past. I had spent my teenage years aspiring to an elite aestheticism, sneering at my younger sisters for their fantasy novels and their mainstream movies. Like many a wanna-be intellectual before me, I wanted to like the right things. I wanted to read philosophy and great literature; I watched old movies, not blockbusters, with my boyfriend. I didn’t watch TV; I backpacked, hello. Before I ever even thought about drinking, I started going to “shows.”  I was relentlessly and, to be honest, baselessly opposed to anything that could be construed as popular. Luckily for me, I was already outgrowing what I still think should never be more than an an adolescent phase: the conviction that, just because we don’t like something, this makes the object of our disdain inherently and objectively bad; that there are good and bad things to like, and your aesthetic preferences say something meaningful about your character; that there were things not just that I hadn’t read but that I wouldn’t read, that I shouldn’t watch. Read the rest of this entry »

Hopelessly Real: Anticipating Katniss’s Transition to the Big Screen

In gender, girl culture, race on November 14, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Melissa Sexton

A couple of weeks ago, following my Halloween debut as Katniss Everdeen, I posted about the awesomeness of The Hunger Games‘s main heroine.  Today, the Hunger Games hype has kicked up again as Lionsgate released the official full-length trailer for the March 2012 film. From the chatter I’ve seen on the Internet and heard amongst friends, a lot of speculation has centered on exactly how the film will depict Katniss – a matter that has been of particular concern given the novels’ self-conscious reflection on the repeated manipulation of beauty and sex appeal as part of the televised spectacle of the Games. Concern has also been high because Katniss is an unusual heroine, self-consciously rejecting beauty and romance, constantly conscious of her class situation, admired for what she does rather than how she looks. I think many girls, like me, are rooting for a female heroine that isn’t supposed to be ugly but also isn’t way prettier than her role necessitates (there’s been quite a range of these, from Zooey Deschanel in New Girl to Hermione Granger in The Past 4 Harry Potter Movies). While I might have indulged in some extra eyeliner for my Halloween costume, I like many others fear a sexed-up Katniss – an ass-kicking heroine in the Tomb Raider tradition. All I really want is a girl whose toughness, independence, and anger isn’t made more palatable for polite (male) consumption by disguising it with pursed lips and big boobs: Don’t be afraid of Katniss! She might brutally slay you, but she looks so good doing it; she might look angry, but that’s just disguised passionate lust. Can’t a girl be fearsome and not a sex machine? There was also plentiful reaction to the Katniss casting  calls for a Caucasian actress (a narrow set of parameters given Katniss’s ambiguous racial identification, marked by dark hair and olive-toned skin). Read the rest of this entry »

How to be awesome like Katniss Everdeen

In gender, girl culture on October 30, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Melissa Sexton

For Halloween this year, two of the GLG writing crew dressed up as Katniss Everdeen.  As my friend Brian said at the party, after he recognized my mockingjay pin with delight, “I’m surprised there aren’t more Katnisses.  I mean, I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it’s the obvious thing to be!”

Perhaps you are not as familiar with Katniss as we think you should be, and perhaps you don’t know why she is the obvious character every girl wants to be when putting on a costume. One of the reasons I ended up loving my costume, despite its limited recognition value, was because it allowed me to proselytize for The Hunger Games hard core and explain to strangers and old friends that Katniss is the most kick-ass heroine who survives a post-apocalyptic dystopian society by drawing on her own inner strength as well as the hunting skills that previously enabled her to provide for her family.  The movies are starting to come out next year, and trust me – once the films hit the public eye (and if the films manage to keep so many of the things I and many people I know love about Katniss) everyone will be wishing they could be Katniss.

So why do we love Katniss with such universal passion? [Behind the cut, I've separated my lists into spoiler-free and spoiler-filled categories so those hoping to read The Hunger Games trilogy needn't worry about finding out too much!]

Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t Lose Yourself: Scott Westerfeld’s “Uglies”

In Uncategorized on August 17, 2011 at 11:44 am

Sarah Todd

[Spoiler warning: some plot reveals ahead]

I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories, mostly because I think people aren’t that good at being organized or keeping secrets. If UFOs were really cruising over to our atmosphere, I feel like at least one modern-day Deep Throat would start an anonymous blog or text friends some pictures or whatever. And then there’d be some other poor sap who’d forget to update a security code or give the alien a snack that disagreed with his/her/its digestive system, and before you knew it, Anderson Cooper would be hiding in a tree somewhere, getting the scoop.

But there is at least one conspiracy theory I definitely do believe in. I think the beauty myth is a giant scam designed to trick people into worrying so much about the way they look that they don’t have time to focus on the stuff that really counts. (Also, I sort of believe in time warps, but that’s another story.)

Scott Westerfeld’s sci-fi YA novel Uglies, the first of a trilogy, takes the beauty conspiracy theory to its logical extreme. In a society several hundred years in the future, everyone undergoes plastic surgery when they turn sixteen. Before you have surgery, no matter how you look, you’re automatically an “ugly.” Kids nickname each other for the features judged most egregiously flawed: “Fattie, Pig-Eyes, Boney, Zits, Freak.” The novel’s fifteen-year-old heroine, Tally, is called “Squint” for her narrow eyes. She’s fully internalized her culture’s standard of beauty, and describes herself in terms of her deviation from that standard: she has a “wide nose and thin lips, too-high forehead and tangled mass of frizzy hair.” She thinks she’s ugly, but she’s not too worried about it, because she knows that in a few months she’ll get the surgery and be as beautiful as everybody else.

Post-surgery “pretties” have the requisite “big eyes and full lips like a kid’s; smooth, clear skin; symmetrical features.” Slight variations in eye and hair color make pretties distinguishable from one another, but everyone basically looks the same after surgery, which is the whole point.  Schools teach young uglies that back in the so-called Rust Era, “Everyone judged everyone else based on their appearance. People who were taller got better jobs, and people even voted for some politicians just because they weren’t quite as ugly as everybody else [. . .] People killed one another over stuff like having different skin color.” The noble goal of achieving equality has resulted in a brave new world in the elite Pretty Committee decides what’s attractive, and everyone falls in line. Read the rest of this entry »

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