Thursday, 13 July 2017

On Genre 1: What is Young Adult fiction?

This train of thought was inspired by a Twitter rant, from the Barnes and Noble official account of all places, about people who don't realize that many women write books that are neither YA nor romance. My response was "but women writing YA is why YA is better!". It's not a good response, and here I'm going to figure out why that was my response.

Young Adult fiction (YA) is kind of a two-faced genre. On the one hand, it's known for easily mockable tropes like "the female protagonist who matters because she's Not Like Other Girls," "the popular kid crushed on from a distance who turns out to actually be attracted to the protagonist," Chosen Ones, love triangles, and people refusing to communicate until it's too late. On the other hand, it's the only genre label I've found so far that consistently includes good queer and minority representation, not to mention uplifting stories with happy endings.

Are these the same genre? There's certainly not a gender divide, which is why my first response was inappropriate: Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and J. K. Rowling rely on the cliches just as heavily as John Green (who claims to be parodying the tropes, but it doesn't always show), and Neal Stephenson's coming of age epic Anathem, though not without its problems, somehow avoids almost all the cliches. There might be a generational divide, with most of the good rep being written by people who grew up with the cliches and are sick of them, but I'd like more data before I make that claim.

Now here's where my own perception of genre starts to muddy the issue. A lot of books I think of as YA are actually about adults. Thinking here of Shira Glassman's Mangoverse series and Ruthanna Emrys' Winter Tide. The main characters of both are technically adults, but I've come to associate optimistic fiction so closely with young adult fiction that I find myself calling both YA. To me, Adult Novels are about divorces, court cases, spies trying to overthrow governments, trauma and tragic miscommunication and sex scenes that don't make narrative sense.

How did that happen? Do other people make this association? (Pretty sure Ms. Glassman has tweeted that her books are in fact classified as YA despite being about adults.) How did Fiction For Grownups become so damn depressing, and how did happiness get relegated to the children's section?

Perhaps the writer who best exemplifies this dichotomy is Neil Gaiman, who writes about childhood from the perspective of an adult. The "childlike realms" in his books--like London Below, and the extended flashbacks in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, are full of magic and wonder. Sometimes it's dark magic, but there's always someone who can put things right, and there's always something to marvel at. These realms are contrasted with an extra-gray depiction of adult life, in which nothing happens and all the POV characters leap at the chance to return to some vestige of their lost childhood and its attendant awe.

I think that's what I don't like about Gaiman's work: the implication that when we grow up, the true wonder of the world is lost to us, and that only by abandoning society can we find our way back. This philosophy is not just Gaiman's. It pervades our society and our genre classifications. Hmm, maybe that's why there are so many editorial rants about "millennials" refusing to grow up--because people of my generation and younger (also slightly older) want their adulthood to retain some of the joy of their childhoods, instead of throwing a hard section break in between the stereotypes of one and the stereotypes of the other.

That's a terrible generalization, but that's where you the hypothetical reader come in. What that I have said makes sense? What doesn't, or is just plain wrong? How do we make it more okay for Books For Adults to not be dark and depressing?

Friday, 12 May 2017

On Music 1: I wrote a filk today, oh boy

So I've always been a little freaked out by Jonathon Coulton's music. I mean the songs he wrote for Portal are fantastic, but I didn't realize until I sang Still Alive for a friend as an undergrad that the lyrics are really friggin creepy. Other songs of his, I noticed right away, and decided to stay as far from them as possible. Like Re: Your Brains, a rousing anthem about a zombie apocalypse. I don't like zombies, I don't like zombies in media, and I am especially creeped out by media from the perspective of zombies trying to get someone to stop fighting and get eaten already.

At least that was me a few years ago. In the last year or so, I've warmed a little to the appeal, or at least the utility, of zombies, though I'm still majorly squicked out by any zombie media that highlights the gory aspects of fighting zombies or the societal collapse inevitable to nearly every bezombied fictional setting. The place where I've accepted the role of the horde in my life and my art is in the worlds of Magic: the Gathering, where a year ago I opened a Liliana, the Last Hope in an Eldritch Moon fat pack and set about constructing a Standard zombie deck. The release of Amonkhet, an ancient-Egypt-themed set, has added some new and interesting things to the possibility space of overwhelming your opponent with zombie tokens, and has gotten me thinking about them again.

And then I was discussing the villain-in-absentia of the set, Nicol Bolas, with somebody in a Magic-themed Discord channel, and they said "I think all he wants is to eat the plane." And then my brain did this.


Sunday, 26 March 2017

On Family Tradition 1: The Goy Boy's Guide to Shabbat at Chez Underling

I have, improbably, convinced the Geek to visit my parents with me for a week that will include one weekend and the first night of Passover. Since the Geek is not Jewish, and gets uncomfortable when religion and ritual things happen, I am compiling step-by-step lists of everything he can expect from Shabbat dinner and the seder. Here is what will happen on Friday night.

Cooking and Music: While my parents finish cooking, they will put on a playlist of Jewish folk music and Israeli pop. If we're lucky, the song shuffler will give us the work of Debbie Friedman, Dan Nichols, and other pleasant memories from my childhood. If we're unlucky, we will get a run of songs by Safam about groups of Jews from around the world escaping persecution. Those songs tend to make me cry.
Setting the table: This will probably be my job. Helping with it will get you brownie points. Here is also where you wash your hands for real (see "Ritual Handwashing" below for an important moment where you don't).
Key items
: Dad will find you a booklet with translations of all the prayers, in which you can follow along. He may also offer you a kippah (traditional skullcap, plural kippot in Hebrew; they are also called yamulkes or yarmulkes in Yiddish) and a multivitamin. Whether you take the vitamin is up to you. I strongly recommend the others.
Candle lighting: Every Jewish holiday begins at sunset and is marked by the lighting of candles and the saying of a prayer by the women of the household. Mom and I will do this. My sister doesn't get home until the next day, but if she were there, she would participate.
Important vocabulary

  • The traditional greeting for Shabbat is "Shabbat shalom" (Hebrew, means "peaceful Shabbat") or "Good Shabbas" (Yiddish). 
  • The name Shabbat means "a period of rest," and refers to G-d resting on the seventh day of Creation.
  • The word "mitzvot" will be thrown around a lot. Mitzvot (Hebrew, singular mitzvah) are divine commandments. There are many of them, including the ten you might remember from Christian Sunday school.
  • I will not be spelling out G-d because of the commandment to not take G-d's name in vain. I will, however, go back and forth about whether to gender G-d. More conservative traditions use male pronouns; Reform prayer books tend not to use any pronouns at all. My sister wrote a screenplay last year for a film class in which all gods use they pronouns, which is why I consider this a dilemma.
Singing: We usually sing three songs before getting into the core of the ritual. The first one is just "shabbat shalom" repeated ad nauseum. The second welcomes any nearby divine messengers to celebrate with us, and the third is about why we observe Shabbat--again, because G-d rested after completing Creation and commanded us to commemorate Creation by resting.
Blessing of the Children: This should go quickly, especially if I'm the only "child" at home. My parents put their hands on my head and ask G-d to bless me as He blessed Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
Blessing for Wine: This is a long one. It starts with the part of Genesis where Creation is done and G-d rests. Then we praise G-d for creating wine, creating the world, leading our ancestors out of Egypt (which will be the subject of my next list), and making Shabbat holy.
Ritual handwashing: You are not required to do this. It is traditional not to speak between the ritual handwashing and the blessing for the bread.
Blessing for Bread: This is quick and tasty. The bread is challah; it is sweet and braided and will have egg and poppyseeds and sesame seeds on top. Everyone puts a hand on the bread and pulls off a piece at the end of the blessing.
Dinner: I'm going to ask for breaded chicken and kasha varnishkes. There will be side salads, but we will make available whatever vegetable you prefer.
Cleanup: It will be mostly my job to clear the table, rinse dishes, and put them in the dishwasher. Helping with this will get you brownie points.
The rest of the evening: Now we get to the resting part. There may be table games (Rummikub and Oh Hell are the most likely; Word Whimsy might be too high-energy); there may also be television. I am not particularly interested in most of the television, though if Mom watches Washington Week, a political review show I used to watch for her civics class, I may stick around out of morbid curiosity. We go to bed when we go to bed.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

On Books 3: Binti and Binti: Home

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor was exactly the novella I needed to read this week.

It's not only that it's a book about an intelligent, resourceful black woman stopping an interstellar war, though finding it as I did during an upswing in all things white, male, and violent, it was certainly refreshing. Binti and its sequel, Binti: Home, have helped solidify in my head what it is I want from literature right now.

I grew up as a middle-class white girl in the suburban US. I will never truly understand what it's like to be Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Danbury Kaipka, either in the traditions of her ethnic group, the Himba people of the Namibian desert; her grand and terrifying adventure through space to the university planet of Oomza; or (G-d forbid) the post-traumatic stress disorder that follows that adventure. But through the experiences and emotions that I do share with Binti, I can begin to try.

I know what it's like to leave everything you know to go to school far from your family. I have spent much of my life surrounded by people who neither understand nor respect my family's customs. I have wrestled with the idea that I am not becoming the person I expected myself to be, that I have left bits of myself behind on the journey from there to her, and the worry that my family will not accept who I have become. I feel closer to this person who is so different from me, because of the things we have in common.

And I think that's something literature should do: connect readers with types of people they've never thought about. Teach them to care about people who are not like them. Help them to understand others’ lives through their own, and their own lives through those of others.

Binti does these things beautifully. You should read it for yourself. The first half of Binti: Home also does these things well. But in the second half of Home, the story does a couple of things that I really wish literature would not do.

Friday, 20 January 2017

On Anime 1: Yuri!!! On Ice

I love Yuri!!! On Ice. Which I suppose doesn't make me anything special. But, since I introduced my sister to it a couple of weeks ago and she didn't understand what I liked about it, I'm going to make a list of the things I like about it.


  • It has beautiful music, animation, and choreography.
  • It's a sports show in which training is shown relatively realistically.
  • It's about a chaste romantic relationship between two young men, with obvious respect for personal boundaries.
  • All the characters who want to harm women, even when they've convinced themselves they have good intentions, are portrayed as the creepy bastards they are.
  • All the characters who appear in the last three episodes have complex personalities. You know exactly why each of the competitors, even the creepy bastards, want to win, and they all think they have good reasons to do so.
  • Yuri's only actual rival, Yurio (Russian Yuri), is not a creepy bastard. He becomes sympathetic very early on, and we get to see him grow up and become disciplined and, in spite of himself, kind.
  • The competitors are from all over the world. While only Phichit, the Thai champion, has dark skin, it's great to see Canada represented separately from the US, and Kazakhstan separately from Russia.
  • Victor is incredibly sexy. He uses it to his advantage, and so do the writers. I did not particularly care about men's figure skating before watching this show. Now I care, because Victor asked me to care.
But the thing I love most about Yuri!!! On Ice is none of these things. I love Yuri!!! On Ice because it gives me a way forward.

I am Katsuki Yuri. I share his anxiety, his frequent inability to tell that people don't hate him (and that he's even an inspiration to others), his fear of being terrible at the one thing he's good at. I share his inability to tell himself that the Grand Prix Final is just another competition: on the day I defended my master's thesis, I was just as blind scared and certain I would do everything wrong, in spite of having explained my research to just about everyone I'd met in the preceding months. I've spent the same kind of time in a rut while I apply for job after job. I have the same patchwork of coping mechanisms, from the proven-useful (mindfulness meditation and spending time with people) to the denialistic (Youtube comedy playlists). And like Yuri, I sometimes wonder if it's all worth it, whether I'll ever achieve the thing I want, whether it would really be so bad to just give up.

But Yuri didn't give up, and his work finally paid off. His performance of Victor's routine caught Victor's attention, and prompted Victor (and his poodle) to travel halfway around the world to be Yuri's coach. The moral of this first part of the story is that miracles happen, but only if you work for them. The only way out is through. My Victor, my miraculous job opportunity that'll solve all my problems*, won't see me if I don't keep skating. So I keep skating.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

On A Video Podcast

Last month, a few of my online acquaintances met to talk about one of my favorite books, The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett, in a Twitch livestream. The host of the stream needed volunteers to be talking heads--that is, actually in the stream as opposed to in the chat--and he picked me. And we had fun. And when we were done recording he said something like "I hope you can come back for future episodes, so that it's not only white guys talking." And I said I would, because I'm always happy when someone wants my opinion, and to bring what diversity I can to what discourse I can. So now I'm a regular on a video podcast book club.

I will add episodes to this post as they happen.

1. December 2016: Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic
2. January 2017: M. H. Boroson, The Girl With Ghost Eyes
3. February 2017: Stephen Hunt, The Court of the Air