A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. This is my first of the contemporary "superstar" young-adult (YA) books, a whole series of post-9/11 titles now in my reading list that have each sold millions of copies, usually without most of us adults being any the wiser; and indeed, after finishing it myself, I could easily see why John Green has in just the past few years rapidly grown into one of the most popular YA authors in history. And that's because this character-based relationship comedy and coming-of-age tale is literally as complicated and witty as any better-than-average adult novel out there, sort of a teen version of a Michael Chabon or David Foster Wallace book (complete with superfluous footnotes, no less), which of course is going to get eaten up by a crowd that's usually fed a steady stream of parent-friendly morality tales and vampire soap operas.
In fact, that's the best compliment I can give this novel, that it literally made me flash back to some of the deepest, most private moments I had in my own teen years (25 years ago now for me), moments I had completely forgotten about, a laser-precise look sometimes at the weird ways intelligence and naivety and hormones mix in the high-school years; and that's always a special and remarkable thing, when an adult author can tap back into those emotions as if they were there again, and especially astonishing when you add it to Green's natural mastery over plot, ultra-realistic dialogue, and creation of all kinds of fascinatingly unique elements while still adhering to the "rules" of YA fiction (like: find a plausible way to get rid of the adults as much as possible; be dark but not too dark; make the plot at least slightly more adventurous than most teens get a chance to experience in real life; examine sex mostly by way of examining sexual tension; etc). Green has a whole series of passionately loved character dramadies out now (to say nothing of the first project that got him a lot of notice, the million-person-watching "Brotherhood 2.0" online video experiment), and I'm highly looking forward now to reading more.
Additional thoughts, as far as my struggle to become a better YA author myself...
--So far in my research, this is the book I've most pictured as the kind of novel I myself will probably write; but that said, I happily admit that Green is a much better writer than I will ever be, which I actually find oddly inspirational for some reason, the fact that a guy this funny and smart is being so rewarded by his industry right now. (He's also a multiple award-winner, and the film rights to several of his books have now been purchased by Hollywood studios.) That's another big compliment I can give, that I really want Green to write a book for grown-ups now, so that an adult audience can also discover what a wonderful writer he is.
--For being a multiple award winner, I was surprised by how much subversive material there is in here: all the teens curse like sailors, most of them get drunk at one point or another without any repercussions, and there's even a scene where two teen boys come across another teen couple making love in a field completely naked, and end up watching them for a bit before making their presence known. I'm sure it's another reason why these books are so massively popular among teens themselves. Also, I was happily reminded while reading this that teens actually have a much more nuanced understanding of things like relationships than we tend to remember by the time we're in our forties; the characters seen here can get surprisingly jaded and adult in their observations about romance and the like. This is one of the nice things, of course, about a book like this becoming so popular, that it confirms that teen readers really are intimately connecting with the highly sophisticated writing style seen on display here. It's one of the things I'm starting to realize these days, that the entire YA industry is a much different thing than when I was a young adult myself in the early 1980s, and that the most popular YA novels out there (the ones specifically for ages 14 and up, that is) are routinely as large, complex and realistic as any adult book, just with teenage characters.
--Did I mention yet all the infinitely unique and utterly charming details that Green comes up with for this book, all while servicing the traditional blueprint for what a contemporary novel should contain? This is why he reminds me so much of the adult-lit author Michael Chabon, and especially that author's early hit Wonder Boys. I love how Green starts us out in Chicago, for example (in fact, just around the corner from where I live in real life), but somehow comes up with an entirely plausible way for our teen heroes to end up spending the rest of the novel in a tiny little hillbilly town in Tennessee, one that they just happened to randomly come across during an impromptu road trip. I love that the comic-relief best friend is an overweight slacker Muslim, filthy-mouthed and addicted to daytime television and who introduces himself to everyone with, "Hi, I'm not a terrorist." I love how the story ends up centering around a factory that makes the pull-out strings for tampons, and I love how that ends up providing this lovely, completely surprising, visually magical moment at the book's climax. I love how the main conceit is that our male hero has had 19 romantic relationships since the age of eight, and that every single one of them was with a girl named Katherine with a "K;" and I love how Green uses this quirky fact as an excuse for these long, (500) Days of Summer style reminiscences about them, all in the service of this science nerd trying throughout the course of the book to perfect a mathematical formula that can be used to predict the outcome of any new relationship. There's a hundred other details like these I could mention, but I won't.
--And finally, definitely one of the reasons Green has grown so absurdly popular is that he has a brilliant handle over teen stereotypes, and of all the massively complicated layers of personality that actually reside under that top stereotype in real life. Just to cite one example (and again, I could do more if I wanted), look at how our main female character Lindsey comes across at first as a typical redneck with too much makeup and who dates the town quarterback (literally); but how as we get to know her, we come to realize that she's actually an emotional chameleon, whose personality and even dialect changes radically based on who she's around; and how under that, there's actually a very rebellious creature who was once an angry junior-high goth; and how underneath all THAT, what really lurks is the heart of an intelligence-loving nerd, which is how it is that she and our nerdy male hero click so profoundly, despite the surface-level details of their lives being almost diametrically opposite. It's easy for adult readers to look at a character like Lindsey and imagine her as the sassy graphic-designer ingenue or cultishly loved punk-rock bassist she's fated to be; it's absolutely wonderful to watch Green so completely peg this type in the years before she grows into the person she was always meant to be. (And speaking of all this, that's the secret behind Green's miraculous feat of writing a relationship book that somehow appeals to boys as well: he makes the male hero an antisocial, book-obsessed former child prodigy who nonetheless has an insanely busy love life, manages to get the hot white-trash girl by the end, and actually beats up the town quarterback, a wish-fulfillment wet dream for nerdy boy book-lovers if I've ever heard of one.) (less)
(As of summer 2012, a first-edition copy of this book is being sold through the rare-book service at the arts organization I own, the Chicago Center f...more(As of summer 2012, a first-edition copy of this book is being sold through the rare-book service at the arts organization I own, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks]. Here below is the description I wrote for its listing.)
Known affectionately by her fans as "The Dark Lady of American Letters," like many writers the late Susan Sontag is almost equally known for her personality, celebrity and controversial views as for her varied body of work itself. A serious academe even at an early age, who had logged in time at the University of Chicago, University of Paris and Oxford all by 25, Sontag was known as a distinctly European-style intellectual who spent her life championing the challenging countercultural writers of that continent; celebrated mostly for her heady critical essays, among other achievements she was the person to coin the word "camp" as a positive term for "so bad it's good," a virtual pillar of the entire Postmodern era, plus came up with an entirely new way for us to envision the relationship between photography and us as its subjects and viewers, an obsession that even bled into Sontag's personal life, in that this notorious bisexual was romantically involved with famed photographer Annie Liebowitz for the entire last decade of her life.
But despite all this, interestingly Sontag primarily considered herself a novelist, odd to realize given that she only wrote four of them in her long career, two near the beginning and two near the end. 1967's experimental Death Kit was the second, and only the third book of her career overall, after 1963's similarly groundbreaking The Benefactor and the essay collection Against Interpretation in 1966, considered one of her most famous books because of containing the aforementioned "camp" essay. And indeed, there's a lot to be said for one online reviewer's sum-up of Death Kit as "what Kafka would've written if he had been a '60s hippie;" after all, Sontag always saw her formative years in continental Europe as the most important period of her life, the years when she first fell in love with Kafka himself and other cutting-edge Modernist European artists, a love that would not just stay with her the rest of her life but in many ways help define her in the eyes of American audiences. A sometimes nonsensical, dreamlike tale just dripping with symbolism throughout, it is perhaps the story of a pissy corporate executive who loses his temper one evening on a delayed commuter train, manages to sneak off the stopped train, in a fit of rage kills the wisecracking employee trying to clear the tracks, and sneaks back on board without anyone noticing, spending the rest of the story in an existential cloud of guilt and deep thoughts; or maybe none of this actually happened, and what we're really watching is our unreliable narrator experience a complete snap from reality "American Psycho" style. In any case, there is also Diddy's sexual obsession with an easy blind girl to contend with, the travails of his microscope-manufacturing job, and all kinds of tangents to be had about the nature of humanity, the slippery definition of "truth," and all kinds of other Big Issues. A book almost guaranteed to go up in value as the years continue, this a must-have for those interested in the history of countercultural intellectual thought, as well as Postmodernist literary history in general.(less)
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of...more(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)
I recently received a hundred-dollar gift certificate to Borders from my brother and sister-in-law for Christmas; but that ironically created a problem for me, in that I've thoroughly trained myself over the last three years to think of books only in terms of library rentals, making it difficult to picture what kinds of books I might want to actually own permanently. So I bought a hundred bucks in comics! J-sus Chr-st, I suck! And one of these purchases was a volume in Fantagraphics' new hardcover reissuing of all 18,000 Peanuts strips that Charles Schulz ever wrote, each massive over-designed tome covering two years in the strip's history; the one I picked up covers the 730 strips published in 1965 and '66, a seminal time for Peanuts that cemented the strip's lasting popularity for good. See, it seems anymore that less and less people understand this, but it was during the '60s that Schulz first started infusing his deceptively simple strip with all kinds of heady Modernist references to theology, philosophy, the "New Math" and more, turning it from the simple children's diversion it used to be into a suddenly hip Silver Age cultural touchstone; and this of course was before the '70s, when Schulz first started running out of ideas, deciding to devote the strip more and more to being the unchanging daily core of a TV-friendly merchandising empire.
So on the one hand, the book is a real treat, a reminder of the exquisite minimalist humor that Schulz was so perfect at when he was at his creative height, during the exact period of work I myself was raised on (mostly through an endless series of cheap tattered paperbacks bought for a dime at garage sales) that so heavily influenced my own sense of humor; but on the other hand, I'm also kind of disgusted at myself for buying a $40 over-designed hardback doorstop full of freaking comic strips, and acknowledge that that now officially makes me one of those academically trained stuffy white males who are as we speak sucking away what little fun still remains in the world of comics, just like stuffy academic white males ruined jazz, and ruined baseball, and ruined the blues. (In fact, if you want a good look at all the formerly fun things that stuffy academic white males have ruined over the years, simply make a list of all the documentaries Ken Burns has ever made.) As nice as it's been to sit and re-read all these classic strips from the series' height, it's hard to look at all those artsy detail blowups and that dark-on-dark design scheme and not think, "You know, I've now officially become one of those creative-class douchebags who everyone complains about, and there's a part of me who hates myself for it." Good grief.
Out of 10: 9.0...no, wait, I mean 6.2...no, wait, I don't know what I mean (less)