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Month: July 2014

The Power of Grief, The Power of Hallucination, The Power of YA Literature: Reading Rebekah Crane’s Aspen

 

Rebekah Crane_AspenLet me point one fact out from the beginning: I admire young adult literature, and I believe it can be extremely powerful when the central characters are confident, self-possessed individuals, dealing with both personal and more widely-recognized issues. Rebekah Crane’s Aspen does not fall short of this; rather, as I will delve into in more depth later, the complications presented to the characters and to the situations that might otherwise be deemed ordinary or predictable set the stage for an example of YA literature which far exceeds that of the average teen story.

On the surface, this is a story of the grieving and coping process as it appears in one high school after the loss of a beautiful, popular soccer girl, who inevitably has a secret. Set against the backdrop of Boulder, Colorado, and with a fixation on a more “hippie” lifestyle (mostly realized through Aspen’s mother, Ninny), though, what could be dismissed as simple grieving is complicated with its juxtaposition against the hippie lifestyle. Though this lifestyle is only truly realized through one character in the book—and a supporting character at that—the characteristics of what we expect from the stereotypical hippie lifestyle echo throughout the novel: the expectation of freedom and free thinking, drug use and freedom of expression. Perhaps it would seem, from the outside, as if the grieving process would be even easier to move through with this sort of open-minded system as a background. However, because of the secrets tied up in Aspen’s survival and the loss of Katelyn, the hippie lifestyle becomes a dramatic irony in Aspen’s, and her friends’, grieving process. Freedom is overshadowed with grief; drugs (though seen by some as a positive outlet and coping source) are given a dark demeanor with little positive outcome; and freedom of expression (both verbal and sexual) is complicated, given obstacle and can hardly be portrayed as free, whether in the sense of ability to express, or in the practicality of consequence. This severing of what it means to be free, via so many avenues, is highly complicated and rich for a YA novel and provides many opportunities for young adult readers to think and ask questions, and for adult readers to similarly analyze and discuss.

As if these complications to the background were not enough, Crane also successfully developed a story that is female-centric and contains strong supporting female characters. Aspen is quirky and self-taught, intelligent and self-possessed, and deals with some form of PTSD throughout the story, juxtaposing lines of psychology with her talent for art and fascination with memorizing definitions. Her mother, Ninny, is endearing but largely helpless throughout most of the story, further enhancing Aspen’s usefulness; however, at the end of the story, she is given a moment of redemption and makes attempts at improvement, both as a mother and as an independent individual. Aspen’s two friends, Kim and Suzy, fulfill two sides of a conformist coin: the non-conformist Kim and the popular girl Suzy, though they both contain their deviations from these standard, flat profiles. While Kim is largely against conformity herself, she still struggles with conforming to her mother’s wishes and poses indirect questions about her relationship with her ethnicity. Suzy, too, complicates what we view as the standard, hateable popular girl, functioning as an extremely kind, caring and genuine individual who is anything but shallow. Perhaps the most problematic female character is Katelyn, since her story is largely revealed via others’ voices, and her presence throughout the novel is largely a projection of Aspen’s fears, rather than Katelyn’s reality; both of these aspects offer up questions about her personal agency, though such a portrayal does also fit within the context of the grieving process and contains echoes of a teen ghost story. With such interesting characters throughout, all at once with their roots in an easily-definable character mold, their exceptions and complications pair easily and well with the complications of the backdrop of the story, reminding us constantly that appearances and expectations are hardly ever what they seem.

As a final example of this phenomenon, there is budding relationship between Aspen and Ben—Katelyn’s boyfriend. How could a teenage relationship become more complicated than that—a relationship between the guy with a dead girlfriend, and the girl who survived the accident? Though some readers may view their relationship as predictable, seeing as how it begins to develop at the beginning of the story and gradually escalates throughout the rest of the novel, I found it to be endearing. While it is predictable for a love interest to be included in a YA novel, I also found their relationship to be believable and likeable, since both characters needed someone in their life who was more immediately connected to the accident, who might more intimately understand and contribute to their personal grieving process. Relationships in YA literature often become problematic, due to their predictability and over-emphasis within the plot, but I found myself defending this particular relationship on the grounds of coping (which also contains a strange echo with Ninny’s coping mechanisms, as a healthier form of how Ninny chooses to lead her life). What’s interesting, too, is how the complications of this novel are threaded through this relationship, largely as an example of the lack of freedom and the consequences of attempting to enact freedom.

What becomes so endearing by the end of the novel for me, though, is how these characters, this central situation, and this relationship, could be viewed as normal, but are then complicated, through the backdrop lens of the story, and when placed up against one another. It ends up being a very interesting read, one worth reading, and one worth getting intellectually and emotionally involved in. I found myself anticipating what would happen next, and how the characters would react; and more importantly, I found myself asking questions, pondering my position on their situations, and what comments this novel might be making about the larger global issues of the grieving process, coping, and even how social media now plays a part in the grieving process! It was truly a fascinating read, particularly within a genre that is all at once so problematic but so extensively full of potential.

 

 

REBEKAH CRANE fell in love with YA literature while studying Secondary English Education at Ohio University. After having two kids, living in six different cities, and finally settling down in the foothills of her beloved Rocky Mountains, her first novel, PLAYING NICE, was published. ASPEN, her second YA novel, set in Boulder, CO, was released in summer 2014 from In This Together Media. She now spends her day carpooling kids or tucked behind a laptop at 7,500 ft high in the Rockies, where the altitude only enhances the experience.

 

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Insight from a Dreamscape

 

“One day when I was really pushing through, writing every last word, it occurred to me there is nothing more wholesome than having great knowledge in literature. You are pure, and insightful, and brave in ways you never imagined when you are intelligent in books; and look how much more beautiful you are when you can also be the one writing it all down . . .”

 

This came to me, in somewhat different form, in the middle of the night, apparently as a quote by Albert Einstein. When I woke, I relaxed, because I firmly believed in that moment that this quote already existed, out there in the world, and that it was generated by none other than a scientist—and how beautiful could it be that someone from a discipline other than English could fathom the beauty of such an involvement with words?

But then I really began to wake up, and the words were going away, and I knew they were mine. So I sat down and kept writing the same sentences over and over again, searching for the exactness of “Albert Einstein’s” observation; and while I’ll never have them back verbatim, these lines feel overwhelmingly true to the originals, and I am happy with them, at peace with them even, and more and more, I realize how beautiful they are.

 

 

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The River Turns White

 

with skyline and sun. The dark shapes
on the water are like turtle shells,

inverted and empty, then sinking
as the sun moves higher.

Fish rising and falling with
sea and storm.

 

 

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Reading Jennifer K. Sweeney

 

ADOLESCENCE

 

1

In the scoliosis clinic, I waited in a room of skeletons
while men reshaped the architecture of my sister,
spongy discs stacked in S-curves
like haunted seahorses, undulant when I shifted
a protuberance side to side in my thumb
and forefinger and the reticulated whip
rippled to the tailbone.
From the cold gleam of chrome rooms,
girls who were apprenticing to be women
emerged with fallen eyes, torsos fitted
in white plastic bodices like armor.
Cage around cage around echo chamber of heart,
tapered fingers at the hips,
sharp rise of iliac points
directing their sway toward revolving doors.
I stared at the skeletons, at the girls,
at the scooped moon of the pelvis into which
the thighbones fasten like sanded doorknobs.

 

2

At 22, I accepted a job teaching junior high.
Not far enough away from the hollow years
of my own shifting body, the seventh and eighth-grade girls,
slight and doe-sprung, drifted down wide industrial
hallways, bones jutting sideways from their skin.
One girl chose my second-story classroom
from where we’d see her fall past the window,
gathered below for the after-school meeting.
She pulled back my chair, tucked her backpack
neatly under my metal desk,
opened the window and let go.
Below, a flash of brown hair, slim form like a sail,
then an anchor, heavy in the grass.
Her silhouette shuddered as we ran.
Don’t move! we shouted, but she was already
standing up, walking away into dusk,
not a bone out of place, walking
like a girl who’s thrown her body
to the wolves and comes back whole.

 

HOW TO MAKE A GAME OF WAITING

 

This is a capsized game
and there is no display of aces at the end.
Buy a rare and expensive plant that never blooms.
Rearrange your books by the color of the spines.
Bury all your keys that don’t unlock anything.
These are not rules but merely suggestions
of what has worked for others.
For instance, the man who painted landscapes
on his daughter’s sheet music.
Put a big rock on your desk.
Do not name the rock.
Take the numbers off the clock and mail them
to your creditors.
Stitch the hours onto a kite.
Every night, ask until you can hear what replies.

 

ERIE CENTRAL STATION

 

It was theatrical once,
the arrivals and departures,
cathedral ceilings, opera windows
and burgundy velvet couches.
At 3 A.M. a bent-back man
crawls out from the dark with a skeleton key
to unlock Erie Central Station
and the people, a handful each night,
emerge from snow drifts,
their facades stiff with wakefulness,
but otherwise languid as flashbacks.
Against the peeling walls the businessmen
lean like a pack of trench coat angels,
and under the unlit chandelier,
two college girls who’ve nowhere to go.
I’d like to think every night contains a fissure
where a couple of strangers are cast
in the grand light of an approaching train,
not the station where the train stops
but the station where the station stops,
and they choose something for which
they are completely unprepared.

 

*

 

all from Jennifer K. Sweeney’s How to Live on Bread and Music (Perugia Press, 2009)

 

 

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Preparing the Way for My Daughter: Reading Lori Day’s Her Next Chapter

 

Lori Day_Her Next Chapter
Upon reading Lori Day’s Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, I am completely floored with possibilities. Her Next Chapter, at first glance, may be meant as an organizational tool for beginning and maintaining effective Mother-Daughter book clubs (which is covered in the Part 1 chapters); but Day’s book additionally discusses current issues and obstacles our young girls are facing, ways of handling those obstacles and teaching our girls about them through conversation and—get this—reading books (covered in the Part 2 chapters).

Being twenty-six years old with my first child (a daughter) on the way, this book was pertinent and timely on a personal level. Upon entering this book, I had never even heard of Mother-Daughter book clubs and loved the prospect of someday starting one with my own daughter, opening new avenues and conversations through the power of reading and discussion. I started making personal lists of all the books I would want to include in my library and was eager to see Day’s suggestions. What I never anticipated about these book clubs was the prospect of collaborating with other mothers, getting to know my daughter’s friends and peers, and how long we might be able to be together as a group. Not to mention the attention to detail in Part 2 on identifying and discussing key issues in our daughters’ lives, via our observations of our daughters, the books we read with them, and the discussions we may have within the book club and other book-club-related activities and events.

All of that being said, however, the timeliness of this text in a larger global setting is much more important—and this is an extremely timely text for our nation. Never before have issues with gender normativity and stereotypes, rape culture and the sexualization of women been of greater focus and importance; and this book largely focuses on these topics, among others, explaining not only the theoretical meaning behind these terms, but how they impact our girls, how our girls may embrace them (or be captured by them), and how we can discuss these topics with our girls to bring greater meaning, authenticity and value to their lives than is offered by hypersexualization.

Perhaps what is the most interesting (and startling) to me is the velocity at which all of these topics have become prevalent, and even accepted and embraced (by some), in our society. When I was a child, there were well-defined toys-for-girls aisles in the stores where my mother shopped, and all of the toys we looked at were offered in pink; but it was still a new enough idea that buying the colorful or gender-neutral option was not considered out-of-bounds by observers. However, issues with sexuality and the new pressures of social media were totally lost on my mother, a Baby Boomer; and we were left with little to get us through the tween and teen years. Though I am in a far better position in this way than my mother, I carry no delusions that I understand every single thing my daughter will have to face and the sorts of pressures that will be presented to her that may have not been prevalent when I was her age. However, having Her Next Chapter on hand, as “cheesy” as this might sound, is a great reassurance and what I believe to be a much-needed tool in my future as a mother.

Whether or not we are ever able to generate our own Mother-Daughter Book Club, I still envision myself returning to this book for the purpose of staying current with the topics presented in this book, and for book recommendations for my daughter’s library (which will be present and discussed on our own time in a more leisurely fashion, if a Book Club does not manage to thrive). Lori Day and her daughter, Charlotte Kugler, have compiled an invaluable tool—for expectant mothers, for mothers with young daughters, for mothers with daughters in the throes of teenhood, and (in my opinion) even mothers with older daughters who need a better understanding relationship with their mothers about the goings-on in their lives and the decisions they’ve had to make along the way. Written in an approachable, at times funny, manner, this text functions as a dialogue about societal theory, literature and film, and generating communities, at a time when we could not need them more.

 

 

LORI DAY speaks in schools, libraries, bookstores, and a variety of other community settings about mother-daughter book clubs, girl empowerment, media literacy, or any other topic of interest related to today’s girl culture and raising girls. To schedule Lori for a workshop, author talk, conference presentation, parent education event, or individual consultation, please contact her through her website for more information and fees. Lori loves to “visit” book clubs anywhere in the world via Skype free of charge, so if that’s of interest, let her know!

 

You can find Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, here.

 

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Midday

 

I am passing through my neighbor’s
backyard, and I stop, because

her patio door is open. The sun
is there, pouring over a table

and chairs, all those rhododendrons
and pollen. In all that light, I can see

up the stairs and into
her living room, where the woman

is sleeping on her couch, bare feet crossed
and dangling off the end. Pink,

chipped toenails. In her sleep, she kisses
her knuckles, individually.

Stars on her hair.
I wonder where she is,

when she is, and who is kissing
her hands—so slowly. The trees here

are quiet, almost courteous. They watch
over my shoulders. She moans

in her sleep. We are all such beautiful soldiers.

 

 

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The Spectrum of Mood & Mind: Reading Kyle Muntz’s Green Lights

 

Kyle Muntz_Green Lights Dreamscape; Existentialism; Echoes of Religion and Tradition—these, among others, represent the themes that are presented to us, and challenge us, in the reading of Kyle Muntz’s Green Lights, a novella structured within a surrealist neighborhood that responds to and depends upon the current spectral landscape.

That is to say, color, and the narrator’s fixation on and repetition of the phrase, “I want to talk about color.” Whether or not this is a literal reference to the desire to discuss the color spectrum, and whether or not this desire is ever achieved, is somewhat unanswerable within the context of this work. Green Lights, from very early-on, becomes a dreamscape. This is not to narrow the focus of the novella, or an attempt to devise one umbrella term for it; rather, it explains some of the expectation, and even the overwhelming acceptance, of the surreal, the unreal, the sublime, as they are presented through these various worlds of color, strung within the landscape of one neighborhood.

Imagine, for a moment, one of your strangest dreams in which you felt the need to do something, to achieve a particular goal; you were then probably met with distractions, diversions, tangents, that all at once abstracted that goal, even buried it, until such a time came that an event, a sight, triggered a reminder of that earlier goal. Until that occurs, however—until the narrator can again say, “I want to talk about color”—those distractions are perceived as real (as normal, even) until such a time comes that the actual goal, the reality from which the dream is based, can be presented as a contrasting point, and the strangeness of those previous occurrences, upon awakening, can be scrutinized. Without that contrasting point, without that goal, though, all the strangeness contained in that dream can simply exist without further explanation—which would, in turn, allow some of the beauty of the surrealist aspects of the story to deflate (as the surreal has a way of not only normalizing itself within the context of a piece, but also spends some time drawing attention to itself, its weirdness, and its weird beauty).

What becomes so fascinating about this repetition of a fairly-simple want—the desire to talk about color—is not only the return to it, from strange observations of large flowers and a man eating children and a talking octopus, but how its simplicity draws greater attention to the impact of these colors on the neighborhood and its inhabitants within. We find ourselves—or, at least, I find myself—looking for patterns in this varying spectrum: How does the narrator’s mindset change from color to color? How do we explain E’s disappearances? The connections between the moon and the girl with the violin and her hiding places? The octopus? The man who eats children and later attempts acts of sacrifice? How do these inhabitants, this neighborhood, change with the passing of colors—everything in green, everything cast in a blue light, seeing red, et cetera?

Can we actually create a correlation between color and act, color and mood, color and the mind?

Perhaps, if given enough time, we could—but I don’t think that is the point. Given that this is a surrealist piece, and (in my mind) a dreamscape of sorts, such a set of correlations would ultimately contain exceptions, inconsistencies, and would fall apart. And that is the point. While the narrator may be under the guise of wanting to talk about color, trying to portray specifics of what can occur within each color-scape would be overly systemic for something so rooted in the surreal . . . But this fascination with the correlation between color and mind, however brief, remains so because of our very-human desire for explanations, for answers, which dreams often do not (cannot, will not) give us, just as the surreal doesn’t.

. . . Which is perhaps where the importance and power of the existential, and even religious, ties come into play. I’ve come to expect certain complexities in Muntz’s work, including (but, by far, not limited to) questions rooted in existentialism: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What do these happenings mean? While Green Lights does not constantly ask these questions verbatim, they are rooted, both, in the happenings of the story, from color to color, and in the narrator’s reactions to and thoughts about such happenings. Such moments as the narrator’s interactions with M, or the confrontation with the octopus, or the inability for the moon to remain out of the sky forever all point to this larger interconnectedness. What’s interesting, too, are the subtle elements of religion and even tradition that occur in the text—from M’s ritualistic act with water that seemed to take root from a Native American wake, to the ritualistic aspect of sacrifice with the old man. These moments, when paired with the more existentially-rooted questions, stand out against the dreamscape, because (whether or not they are occurring in a dream-state) they are real to us, these questions and the desire to connect, whether or not the situation in which they are presented is unusual, or even impossible, in waking context.

Perhaps that is what I love most about Muntz’s work, particularly Green Lights—the connections we as readers can make, through the interconnectivity of dreamscape and existentialism. Whether or not we are meant to know the exact role of each color, whether or not we are meant to know the exact consumeristic meaning behind the man who eats children or the moon’s rendezvous with this neighborhood, we are in some manner meant to connect through those experiences we possess and those acts we perform: we dream, and we desire, and we desire to know our place and purpose within a larger context, whether that context is the size of a neighborhood or the universe.

Kyle Muntz’s Green Lights may, at the foundation, be about the goings-on in a town in which a color spectrum is highly integral and what occurs in these various color settings, but when we begin to look deeper, at all the layers beneath, we find questions of possibility and purpose, and observations of joy and wonder, weirdness and beauty . . . We find life, in all its complexity and strangeness, through one of the scopes of greatest potential for exploration and observation: the dreamscape. This novella, while complex and with many possibilities of interpretation, leaves itself open to our intentions of connection as readers, while continuing to confound us and present us with new avenues through which these characters may traverse and transform and grow, with us and before us.

 

 

KYLE MUNTZ is the author of three novels and two novellas: Green Lights (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and The Crippled Giant (forthcoming from Mixer Publishing). Recently, he’s also the writer and designer of The Pale City, an independently-produced role-playing game for PC.

 

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