Friday, January 03, 2014

So you want to read a YA dystopian novel with a strong female protagonist

In the same way that the Twilight series spawned a genre called "teen paranormal romance" (see also: Beautiful Creatures and any number of forgettable books and movies), The Hunger Games trilogy has produced a, uh, hunger for dystopian stories helmed by strong but flawed young women.

I am all for this development. I came of age during the height of the early 80s nuclear war fears and love me a good dystopian story. Young women at the center of narratives - especially smart, physically strong young women, or ones who are willing to become that way: great. Bring it.

Let me tell you the bad news right up front: all of the series that I've read feature white 16 year-old girls in relationships with white 16-18 year-old boys. Often, but not always, there is a heterosexual love triangle. Sometimes there are important relationships among females, but typically these relationships take a backseat to the central girl-meets-boy(s) romance. Now, by and large, these offerings are much better than what's in the mainstream. This is no Walking Dead scenario, for example, which my friend Bob has described as demonstrating that it's easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of  the patriarchy and racism. However, it does seem that in the YA-dystopian-girls universe, it's easier to imagine the end of society as we know it than it is to imagine girls and young women loving other girls and young women, or at least being interested in something other than that boy. (Which goes back to my long-standing argument that boys' coming of age stories are about friendship and death and class and sex and lots of other things, while girls' are pretty much about boys. Or occasionally cancer.)*

The other bad news is that the Divergent series, coming in April to the aforementioned cineplexes and anointed the next Hunger Games by those who declare such things, is not terribly good. The first book about a society divided into five factions that each fulfill a particular role in society - Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Amity - is entertaining. Watching the protagonist, Tris, choose a life of daring and boldness and then learn how to actually be and do those things is exciting, even when things start to royally fall apart around her. Book number two, Insurgent, is fine, though there are almost too many twists and turns and I found myself caring less and less what happened by the end of the book. The series finale, Allegiant, is so badly written and so ludicrously plotted that I can only imagine a movie executive pressured the publisher to skip the editing process and rush a first draft to press. There is no other explanation for the sudden introduction of alternating voices of Tris and her boyfriend (previously Tris is the sole narrator), voices which are in fact indistinguishable and cause a lot of confusion for the reader. (I hate to say it, but it makes Stefanie Myers' introduction of Jacob's voice in Breaking Dawn look really skillful.) And the plot and characters in the third book just have no resonance with what's come before. I was looking forward to the movies (before I read the last book, at least). I've really liked Shailene Woodley's work, and thought she would be able to do justice to Tris' complexities. But now that I've seen the print ads, I'm really disappointed in how they define her only through her relationship to a man. One poster even has her in that back-to-the-viewer pose that has been thoroughly and wittily mocked.

The good news is that there are other series that are actually well-written and engrossing and worth a read. These are probably also the series not likely to be made into movies. They do follow a similar pattern to Hunger Games and Divergent: society got fucked up and people a while ago decided that _______ was the cause of the strife and that order could be restored by _______, which will happen during adolescence, usually age 16, through a public test/selection/procedure. The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld (Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras) focuses on the role of beauty in society. Lauren Oliver's Delirium trilogy (including Pandemonium and Requiem) identifies love as the problem. Westerfeld's series is intriguing for its refusal to produce a pat or romantic resolution, while Oliver's particularly well-written accounts of what it feels like to be in love for the first time made me wish she had written the Twilight series. (In a not-so-subtle marketing ploy, the covers of her books bear a remarkable resemblance to Twilight movie posters, from a Kristen Stewart look-alike to the curve of her hair.) Like Divergent, both series take place in (eventually) recognizable US cities (Los Angeles, Portland, ME). They also propose the forests as places where an alternative life is possible.

What are your favorite YA dystopian novels with a strong female lead? Do you disagree with what I've said here? Looking forward to hearing from you in the comments.

*This is not to diminish the fact that when you're a teenager, first love and relationships can and do feel like the entire world. But really, if we're writing speculative fiction, can't we imagine some other scenarios beyond "girl falls for boy"?

Thursday, January 02, 2014

2014: The Year I Will Be Bold

So last summer I was at the Urban Bush Women Summer Leadership Institute Alumni Convening. It was a four-day gathering of truly amazing dancer/organizers who had come together to refresh skills and (re)inspire one another. One morning, one of the company members/organizers was leading us in creating a cypher. She happened to be next to me in the circle of almost 50 people, and turned to me with a big smile and asked if I would be the first to enter.

I said no.

I was immediately ashamed for not accepting her genuine invitation. But I still couldn't bring myself to enter the cypher. How could I, when in the company of such greatness? What did I have to offer? How could my dance begin to compare? I was overcome with shyness and embarrassment and lack of self-confidence.

I did eventually enter and dance, though I have no memory of what I did. But that "no" stayed with me. I wanted more than anything to take it back, to be able to unreservedly say yes, to take a risk and be ok with however it worked out.

Therefore, in 2014 I resolve to:


despite fear or panic or reluctance or laziness or fatigue or lack of resources or the cop in the head. 

(And remember, it's not doing away with fear but acting in the face of it.) 

(And while I'm at it, how about reinterpreting anxiety or fear as excitement?)

This includes running my first marathon and turning in the manuscript of my first book, things that both involve regular and repeated action (despite fear or panic or reluctance or laziness or fatigue or lack of resources or the cop in the head).

Because sometimes being bold takes planning and persistence.

I also resolve to say, "YES, AND..."

This involves paying attention so as to take advantage of surprising opportunities that may lead me to do things that I might not normally do (because of fear or panic or reluctance or laziness or fatigue or lack of resources or the cop in the head).

Because sometimes being bold requires spontaneity and discomfort and being willing to accept things however they turn out.

Finally, I resolve to make time for the things that make life worth living.

This means doing more of the things I love (despite fear or panic or reluctance or laziness or fatigue or lack of resources or the cop in the head), like seeing more movies and live music and art. Discovering new places. Making art. 

And perhaps most importantly, this means cultivating exciting and rewarding relationships. The long term ones and the brand new ones. With people in the next room and in the surrounding square mile and thousands of miles away. And this means shifting priorities. And remembering that things things shouldn't be put off until next month or next year. 

If it's important, I need to be bold, say yes, and make it happen.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Favorite Albums of 2013

There's been a lot of talk about how 2013 is the new 1990s. New albums by beloved 90s acts My Bloody Valentine, Sebadoh, Superchunk, The Dismemberment Plan and others were received with much fanfare. For me, the 1990s, and especially the early 90s, are all about Riot Grrrl and heavy rocking ladies like Hole, Babes in Toyland, and Seven Year Bitch. Bikini Kill are the only band I ever wrote to. I have an autographed handmade poster from an early Le Tigre show hanging on my wall (Kathleen Hanna seemed as nervous as me when I asked for her autograph). So there was really no question that The Julie Ruin's Run Fast would come in at #1 on my album list this year. I'm just so happy to have KH back, healthy and vital once again. But this is no mere nostalgia trip. Run Fast is a collection of 13 tight, cheeky, exuberant confessions and declarations.

The story I read about Potty Mouth begins at Ladyfest Easthampton, which to me is very much a legacy of Riot Grrrl. These songs aren't super deep, but this quartet of women will make you (pop) rock out. Their album The Spins is my #2 favorite this year.

Continuing the strong women theme, Savages' Silence Yourself comes in at #3. Reminiscent of Siouxsie and the Banshees, but that's never a bad thing.

Speaking of rocking your pop out, have you listened to my #4 album, Parquet Courts' Light Up Gold yet? If so, you know that of the 15 songs, only 2 top out over 3 minutes, including the 5:12 epic, "Stoned and Starving," that chronicles an evening wandering around Queens trying to decide what to eat. "Borrowed Time" takes less than half that time to convince you that you want to hear more.

And now for a sonic switcheroo. I've loved Laura Marling since I first heard her in a song-of-the-day download. There's something about the quality of her voice, and the way she paints a picture with her songs that reminds me of Joni Mitchell, even though she sounds nothing like her. My #5 album, Once I Was an Eagle features more sophisticated and full production that her earlier albums, but rather than covering her up or making her something she's not (as often happens with other female singer-songwriters), it just serves to support her ever stronger songs.

I've always been a lyrics person. Words drew me into a song, and my appreciation of it would grow from there. When I was an adolescent, for example, any song that mentioned "dance" or "dancer" - I was there! Sometimes that worked out well ("Tiny Dancer," "Safety Dance"), sometimes not so much ("Private Dancer"). When I got a bit older, politics were what drew me in. Again, this led to some unevenness (on the one hand: Bruce Hornsby; on the other: Rage Against the Machine). But over the last few years, I've noticed myself being attracted to music based far more on soundscape, particularly ones that surprise me or take me somewhere new. The next batch of albums captured me in this way.

#6 Laura Mvula Sing to the Moon

#7 San Fermin San Fermin, featuring the ladies of Lucius (whose album Wildewoman I also liked quite a lot, so I'll give them an honorable mention here)

# 8 Cloud Cult's Love was a strong contender right from the beginning of the year, but fell off my radar for a while. When I was trying to make my end of the year decisions, I just had to bring it back into the top 10ish.

#9 Tremor Proa

#10 all the other instrumental albums I enjoyed this year
Eluvium Nightmare Ending

Tim Hecker Virgins

Colin Stetson New History Warfare vol III

And because these always go to eleven...
Here are the albums I didn't think I should like, am a bit embarrassed that I like, but what the hell, I do! I tried to take these albums off my list, but I just couldn't. They're all prettiness and heartbreak and tragedy, gorgeously told.

Josh Ritter's breakup album, The Beast in its Tracks, is sad and bitter and joyful all at once.

Is it bad that I like Volcano Choir's Repave better than Bon Iver?

Typhoon White Lighter

And I could go on and on. It was just that kind of year! Hope you discovered something new here, or were reminded of how much you loved something. Happy listening!

Favorite Songs of 2013

This year, picking my favorite albums has been a really difficult task. Not so with songs. This list solidified early, and stayed consistent, with the exception of #6, which was a last minute addition because it's just that good. So without further ado...

1. Phosphorescent "Song for Zula"
From the first time I heard this song, I knew it would be on my year-end list. The "Ring of Fire" reference draws you in to the dark lyrics, but the swirling melodies offer a promise of hope only glimpsed in the words. (Can't speak for the video, though. Maybe just listen without watching?) Bonus: the song can incidentally be heard at the end of my favorite movie of the year, The Spectacular Now.

2. Okkervil River "Down Down the Deep River"
I've never really been into Okkervil River. Nothing against them, just never connected with their sound. But when I heard this single, I really liked the catchy chorus. However, the lyrics didn't really hit me until I was listening one day when I was out for a run, and I literally let out a sob. The song is about the moment when you were first confronted with the fragility of life, and how you got through it then, and how you continue to get through it now.

3. Moby featuring Wayne Coyne "The Perfect Life"
The world needs more Wayne Coyne. That is all.

4. Daft Punk "Lose Yourself to Dance"
So, every August since 1997, I've been getting together with a group of close friends at a lodge in Western Massachusetts. We cook and eat and swim, and eat some more, and laugh, and play games, followed by a sauna and a midnight snack. This summer for the first time, we choreographed, performed, and filmed our first group dance. The reason for this unprecedented activity? Daft Punk. We danced to "Get Lucky" because it fit our movement well. "Get Lucky" is a great pop song, that will grace proms and wedding receptions for years to come. But I love "Lose Yourself to Dance" even more.

5. Kanye West "Black Skinhead"
I often dislike Kanye West's music. Sometimes I even hate it. But there's no denying that he is a capital-F force, and when he is good, he is very, very good. I just wish he wouldn't undercut the power of a good song by peddling it to multiple buyers. Put your trust in Martin Scorsese and leave it be!

6. Superchunk "FOH"
This late entry into songs of the year is a super catchy, upbeat song of busted dreams and middle-age depression that wills itself to come around by the end.

Coming soon...favorite albums!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Why I'm not going to thank the pope for anything


My Facebook feed tonight was full of statements thanking Pope Francis for admitting today what we've all known for over thirty years: "that the church had grown 'obsessed' with abortion, gay marriage and contraception". In addition to gushy messages from individuals in my feed, there was a statement from Catholics for Choice (an organization I have long supported and deeply respect) and the following graphic from the Abortion Care Network.

While I understand this impulse, as a pro-choice ex-Catholic who attended Catholic school through the 12th grade, and received all the sacraments through that point (as Jim Carroll sings, "I got con-fir-MA-shun!"), I cannot participate in this premature outpouring of gratitude. 

While I have known many wonderful Catholic individuals who have been important in my life, including nuns and brothers, I cannot forget nor can I forgive that the Catholic Church systematically covered up a epidemic of sexual abuse shocking in its extent and the way it was implicitly allowed to continue unabated for decades.

I know my parish had an alcoholic pederast as a priest when I was in junior high. They moved him along to another parish soon enough, and I don't know if he raped anyone while at our parish, but I do know that a classmate of mine who had previously been sexually assaulted refused to be alone with him (e.g. in confession), and I trusted her instincts. 

I know someone who got HIV after being raped by his priest. 

These are but two small examples of a massive crisis in which an astounding number of violent, abusive, exploitative acts were covered up at every level of the hierarchy, all the way up to the Vatican. The decision was made that it was more important to protect the institution than the individuals who looked to that institution for solace and guidance. This goes all the way to the former pope, Benedict XVI, who was named in cases brought by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and others. I firmly believe he retired to defuse the issue and deflect attention away from the hierarchy (after all, how can an infallible being resign?). And it's no accident that he continues to live in the Vatican - doing so protects him from prosecution

So no, I'm not going to be mollified by a new pope who names himself for Francis of Assisi, or who phones average Catholics, or who verbally admits blatant doctrinal faults. Those are all nice PR moves, but PR moves aren't enough. I won't accept anything short of massive structural change that results in justice for survivors of sexual abuse by priests, and actual doctrinal changes regarding abortion and contraception, homosexuality, and women in the priesthood. When that day comes, we can all be truly grateful. Until then, I will neither forgive nor forget, and I will certainly not thank.


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