"J.K. Rowling’s great gift, in this opening salvo of the Harry Potter fusillade, is that she writes a virtually frictionless prose. The story and sett"J.K. Rowling’s great gift, in this opening salvo of the Harry Potter fusillade, is that she writes a virtually frictionless prose. The story and setting are jolly enough, and often rather engaging, but what compels you forward is less a sense of “I must read another chapter!” than “Why not read another chapter?” In Sorcerer’s Stone, reading is so effortless as to require no real investment."
People give lip service to the junior high years being hard, but even so I think it's common to forget how genuinely hellish the passage from childhooPeople give lip service to the junior high years being hard, but even so I think it's common to forget how genuinely hellish the passage from childhood to adulthood really is. Early adolescents are afforded a humiliating lack of even the most fundamental personal autonomy. When to wake up, eat, and sleep, what to wear, where and how to spend every hour of the day, how to manage one's personal space: all of these are subject to the strictest parental control. Even when one's preferences are ratified, the degradation of gratitude is implicitly expected, and one is always mindful that the luck might not run so well again next time. The essential tool that one uses to navigate the world and to arrange one's environment to one's liking -- I speak here of money – is always in ludicrously short supply. One's possessions are quite literally, by law, limited to those few square inches inside one's head, and even that little enclave of thoughts and knowledge is continually being probed, sounded, and assessed by all-too-savvy, if hopefully well-meaning, adults.
This abject condition is bearable if one is blessed with a good and stable home in which to wait out the misery among kind people who make clear their interest in your immediate and future welfare. But one is also forced, during this awful time, into a savage world occupied almost entirely by one's peers. In every junior high school across the land, there exists a social environment akin to the horrors of marine biology, where human animals whose sense of zero-sum social ranking has been fully activated but whose capacity for empathy, restraint, compassion, and the gentle art of letting things slide are still a few years from even starting to come online. The result, for nearly everyone making the passage, is a daily misery that would be simply unendurable to we adults who have pushed through to relative safety and forgotten much of the day-to-day trauma we endured, back then.
The Message of Hope
Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret is, I think, intended as a message of hope to young adolescents, particularly those of the female persuasion. It is a promise that much of what they are going through has been experienced by others, that it is endurable, and that the ride will, with luck, eventually even out a bit.
The first-person heroine, Margaret, is a remarkably well-adjusted young woman who works her way through five major issues, by my count, over the course of the book. She 1) is confused about religion, having been raised by parents who are lapsed, one from Judaism and one from Christianity; 2) is forcibly relocated to suburban New Jersey from Manhattan by a family move, and thus plunged into an alien social environment and stripped of a grandmother who is her closest adult ally; 3) is moderately freaked out about the physical changes she's expecting her body to start going through; 4) is trying to figure out how to deal with her emerging heterosexuality; and 5) is exposed to the ways that people tell brazen lies about themselves and conduct cruel campaigns of propagandistic slander about others in order to establish or preserve their place in the local hierarchy of social status.
Now it's certainly true that we adults generally spend plenty of time furrowing our brows over religion, proximity to loved ones, body issues, mating, and social infighting. All of us know quite a few other adults who wrestle with one of these themes as the central narrative of their existence. But on average, a healthy adult suffers far less angst about this kind of thing than even the happiest of early adolescents. We've made our choices, eliminated options, gotten used to a certain quantum of daily bullshit, learned how to avoid, glad-hand, or browbeat our more toxic contemporaries, or just found other things to worry about. So it's hard to really feel the impact of AYTG?IMM in the same way as an adolescent might. Reading it as an adult is like chatting with your neighbor the trauma surgeon. He seems like a nice enough guy, but kind of unremarkable; you are aware that he saves lives as a matter of course, but fortunately you don't require his specialized skills at this particular moment.
What I'm saying, I guess, it that this is a book skillfully written for young people of a specific age, and that it makes no sense for me to evaluate it as a piece of fiction when I am reading in early middle age. The Goodreads website, where I log my reading, will want me to issue it one to five stars, but I won't. I could give it one star, saying that it was simplistic and offered me no new insights into the human experience, but that would be foolish and kind of cruel. I could give it five stars as a book that, as I understand it, shaped a whole genre of young adult literature that actually addressed aspects of the young adult experience, but that would be a rating of its reputation, not its merit. I can't tell how good it is; I didn't get to it in time.
A few of you are thinking "yes, dumbass, and you're also MALE." It's a fair point. But males also -- this particular male, anyway, and I suspect almost all of them -- also go through puberty ravaged by insecurity about their physical sexual development. Now, whether the nightmarish worry and wondering about the adequacy of one's penis, about that organ’s humiliating ability to move and change form and betray your thoughts against your will; whether that is trivial compared to the wondering and waiting for breasts and menarche, I have no idea. I very much doubt it's worse, but neither am I completely sure it is a whole lot better.
Margaret, Then and Now
AYTG?IMM is -- if you will forgive the unintentional but acknowledged pun -- a bit of a period piece. Judy Blume is recognizably a progressive of the early 1970s. Clearly in tune with the concerns of young people, she however slips up a few times and lets Margaret notice details about her suburban environment (that the houses and trees, for instance, are all the same age) and about the intrusion of commercialism into schools (a presentation about menstruation is sponsored by a tampon company) -- things that, although of interest to adult progressives, would completely fail to register on a sixth grader’s cultural radar. The New Jersey town that Margaret lands in, too, is a broad caricature of social conformity, literally possessing a choice of a Protestant social club and a Jewish social club, one of which everyone is expected to attend unless they are, like one minor character, Catholics who exist on the margins of society.
I'm curious how popular the book is today. I imagine it must be read a lot, if only because it will have been placed before many or most girls by mothers and aunts and mentor figures who found reading it a revelatory experience back in the day. Does it still retain its power to palliate the process of adolescence in the information-soaked matrix that puberty is currently lived in? My guess is that it can still compete, at least among some readers, with the vampire crap -- "Young Adult Paranormal," I believe the genre has been branded -- that is so fashionable/well-marketed in the early-teen market sector of today. A few minutes on the Wiki can yield all of the information about puberty and adolescence that anyone could know what to do with, but a story about puberty and adolescence in which a character encounters something resembling the actual terrors found there, and shows hope of surviving the ordeal -- well, that must be an awfully compelling narrative to a reader of a certain age....more
March 2011: Seems like perfectly good young adult science fiction. But I'm not a young adult, and an expository second chapter sent my interest skitteMarch 2011: Seems like perfectly good young adult science fiction. But I'm not a young adult, and an expository second chapter sent my interest skittering off elsewhere. The book and I part ways with no hard feelings....more
Steven King's "The Long Walk" meets Iain Banks' "The Player of Games" meets "1984" in a remarkably well-written YA post-apocalyptic fantasy novel. ColSteven King's "The Long Walk" meets Iain Banks' "The Player of Games" meets "1984" in a remarkably well-written YA post-apocalyptic fantasy novel. Collins does an impressive job of invoking and sustaining an internally plausible world and populating it with telling details that don't scream for attention (I liked, for instance, the neoclassical affectations of "the capital.") I was initially annoyed at the amount of time the book would spend setting up perfectly obvious scenarios and then endlessly protracting how long it took for the first-person narrator to think them through, but as things progress there were enough surprises to keep me on my toes. As an adventure-thriller, "Hunger Games" works a winning formula very well; the macabre tournament at the story's core is very nicely realized.
Underneath the terrific surface, though, it's a book with some conceptual problems. Most obvious is the disingenuous anti-urban, anti-guvment grandstanding. As dystopias go, this is less an Orwellian anti-totalitarian wake-up call and more as if Sarah Palin got clever and wrote a book to embody the values of The Real America. I dunno whether this reflects an authorial agenda or if it just evolved out of creating a setting for a good gladiator yarn, but there it is.
There's also a fairly glaring moral dishonesty in how our point-of-view character survives the death-match. The Bad Contestants (who are, incidentally, established as Bad primarily by their association with urban society and da guvment) actively kill. The Good (rural, disenfranchised) Contestants are allowed by the plotting to kill only defensively, indirectly, out of mercy, and by outlasting the hapless. They get to succeed in the tournament -- and how! -- without really engaging in it, a contrivance that allows the book to set up a very complex moral quandary and then resolutely refuse to engage with it.
Well, that's OK. Most adventure stories have wobbly underpinnings if you're worried about that sort of thing. The important thing, maybe, is just that I found "The Hunger Games" an entertaining and engaging story. And I really did! But I've noticed too -- and this is what makes this a three-star review instead of a four-star review -- that despite this being the first book of a series, I don't really have any interest in reading the second installment. I'm just not curious about what happens next. That makes it hard to hold this up as a successful piece of serial fiction....more
I got about halfway through this perfectly competent book on the recommendation of a student, because you want to flatter a young person who recommendI got about halfway through this perfectly competent book on the recommendation of a student, because you want to flatter a young person who recommends you a book when you can. But nothing of any interest ever happened, and there are only so many hours in a life....more
My edition leaves out the subtitle and is just called "Tom Swift and His Big Dirigible," but since everyone natters on about how damn dry the forest iMy edition leaves out the subtitle and is just called "Tom Swift and His Big Dirigible," but since everyone natters on about how damn dry the forest is the word go, the subtitle isn't really much of a spoiler. I have a small collection of hard-cover Tom Swifts, probably first editions. They seemed impossibly ancient when I first read them, although this one was only 45 years old at the time. Now it's pushing 85, which doesn't seem so old. It must have been printed on the most acidic paper available, though, because the pages are browned and brittle; it SEEMS like a much older book than it actually is.
How does the writing hold up? Not as bad as I expected! "Victor Appleton," if that was a real person, was clearly a very capable writer! And, I'm guessing he cranked this stuff out at least a chapter a day, basically sending first drafts in to the publisher, where a red pencil was ceremonially waved over the manuscript before it was set to type. The plotting, characterization, and dialog are all perfectly wooden, but no worse than in most mass-produced genre fiction down the ages.
The two servants of color who hate each other because they compete for the love of Master or "Massa" Swift are a bit much to swallow, and should have been in 1930, and the dialect writing for the Swift family's faithful "Negro" is a national embarrassment. Points to the Appleton machine, I guess, for including two sympathetic Italian characters to counterbalance the evil Italian character. And, it is interesting in a young adult serial novel to see the author make gestures towards explaining how things work -- you actually come out of "Big Dirigible" with a sense of young Mr. Swift's management style, credit standing, and ability to weigh immediate profit against the possibility for publicity and relationship-building when putting together a contract.
Three stars was just sentimental -- these books are from my childhood. This book "was OK": two stars it is....more
The improbably diverting story of a kid who gets really good at a board game. Rather repetitive -- lots of pages of people playing games with great deThe improbably diverting story of a kid who gets really good at a board game. Rather repetitive -- lots of pages of people playing games with great determination -- but strong characters and great illustration. From start to finish, has a distressing habit of dropping its most interesting story lines and characters, including anyone female....more