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  • I read a lot, and I have a lot of opinions, so I can't believe I haven't made a list like this before. If you are even a little bit like me or you want to get a peek into my psyche (you probs don't), these are the books to read.
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Posts Tagged ‘Books’

The world just got a little more BLACK IS THE COLOR

Posted on February 24th, 2011 by annakjarzab

So I don’t know if you guys heard, but my amazing friend Alex Bracken just sold her first TRILOGY last week! Here’s the announcement from Publishers Marketplace:

February 23, 2011 Children’s:
Young Adult  Alexandra Bracken’s BLACK IS THE COLOR, a near-future thriller trilogy about a sixteen-year old escapee from a “rehabilitation camp” and her quest to understand her abilities as she tries to determine who to trust and how to stay alive, to Emily Meehan at Disney-Hyperion, in a significant deal, in a three-book deal, for publication in Spring 2013, by Merrilee Heifetz.

I think I’ve mentioned BLACK IS THE COLOR on this blog before, but I have been in love with this book from the jump. The minute Alex told me about it (over margaritas, I guess, although I don’t really remember it, which might be because there were margaritas involved) I knew that I was going to absolutely adore it, and I do! I’ve read probably like, what, five drafts of it? And I can honestly tell you that it’s one of the most exciting YA novels I’ve ever read, with THE BEST ROMANCE. Seriously, you are going to swoon for her male lead. BLACK IS THE COLOR is also totally heartbreaking in places, which I just love–I often say that if a book doesn’t leave me either grinning like an idiot (i.e. Anna and the French Kiss) or feeling like I’ve been punched in the gut, the author is doing it wrong. This book does both, so it’s pretty much the best.

Yay Alex! I cannot WAIT to go to the store and buy this book for everybody I know.

MAN VS. MACHINE!!!

Posted on February 15th, 2011 by annakjarzab

Okay, so I figured out today that it’s technically called the Jeopardy! IBM Challenge, but whatever: Man Vs. Machine sound so much more ominous, does it not?

Anyway, tonight was the first installment of what will heretofor be known as Jeopardy! MAN VS. MACHINE!!! The idea is that IBM created a supercomputer that was built to process information the way a human brain processes information, by making sophisticated connections using natural language, all with the purpose of beating the pants off Jeopardy!‘s biggest winners: Ken Jennings, who was a 74-day Jeopardy! champion, and Brad Rutter, the all-time highest money winner on the program. Brad Rutter, by the way, got SUPER cute between his Jeopardy! run and now–I guess with all that money he hired a trainer or something, apparently he lives in LA now and is trying to be an actor/game show host, which made him slightly less attractive in our eyes, as did his non-stop talking during the contestant introduction part of the game, which is by far my least favorite part.

Brad and Ken will be playing against Watson, the computer. Now, I’m simultaneously amazed and terrified by the possibility that a computer might be able to beat human beings at a game as sophisticated as Jeopardy! I’m imagining an I, Robot future for us all, but whatevs. So the game is being played over three days, with two games spaced out between the days. Today they played only the Jeopardy round of the first game–Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy are tomorrow, and I’m guessing Wednesday will be game two. Right now, Watson is just killing the human contestants–SCARY RIGHT? I mean, he’s winning by a lot.

However, Watson has some difficulties. One of the biggest problems with Watson is that he can’t (obviously) see or hear, so unlike a normal Jeopardy! contestant he can’t tell when another contestant has answered a question incorrectly. A human contestant would know that, for instance, Ken gave an answer that was wrong and they can assess whether or not, in light of what they know is not the answer to the question, they should hazard their own, different guess. At least once Watson gave an answer that was already shown to be incorrect. Trebeck, of course, being Trebeck, was like, “No, Ken already said that.” WATSON CANNOT HEAR YOU ALEX!

And Jeopardy! is more than a straightforward Q&A quiz show. It uses a lot of wordplay, double meanings and jokes, not all of which the computer can accurately perceive. But interestingly the category Watson had the toughest time with was one in which the answer gave a couple different things that happened in history and the contestants had to say which decade it happened in. Watson, for whatever reason, couldn’t answer the questions. For almost the entire category it couldn’t even figure out the proper sort of answer (meaning that it wasn’t even proposing decades). Finally, it was able to come up with a decade for an answer, but that was also wrong.

It’s an interesting thing to watch. At the bottom the screen, you can see the top three answers it comes up with to every question, and each question has a bar that charts exactly how certain (in percentage) Watson is about that answer. When it reaches the “buzz threshold”–i.e. the point at which it is confident enough in an answer to buzz in–it attempts to buzz. And the computer is quick; if it wants to answer a question, it usually beats the human contestants. Watching the top three answers is pretty fascinating, too. One time, for example, in the Beatles People category, the answer was Lady Madonna–the other two answers that Watson had on his list, below Lady Madonna, were actually related to Madonna the person, NOT the Beatles at all. Things that make you go “hm.”

I’m super excited to see how this plays out. After it was over, of course we got sidetracked talking about just how likely the rise of the machines actually is, and I brought up the fact that machines don’t really want things. Until machines can not only think, but also desire, they probably won’t take over the world. Which then led me off on a tangent about the amazing Catherine Fisher novel, Incarceron, which is about an artifical intelligence that does learn to desire things, to the detriment of all that live under its thumb (because the things it desires usually aren’t in the best interest of anyone else). You should all ready that book, it’s great.

See you back here tomorrow for my thoughtsicles about round two of Jeopardy! MAN VS. MACHINE!!!

Play therapy

Posted on February 14th, 2011 by annakjarzab

So as you know, I finished my most recent draft of The Opposite of Hallelujah a week ago and sent it to my agent. It’s at this point, when you’re a writer, that you end up sitting in your pajamas on a Saturday morning wondering, “What do I do NOW?” That’s if, like, you’re single and childless–I’m sure authors who are also parents have plenty to do with the time they usually spend writing. Anyway, I don’t have children and I’m all caught up on my TV, so I did two things this weekend: I read, and I wrote.

First I finally finished Brother/Sister, which is this CRAZY mystery told from alternating perspectives. Is it really a mystery? I’m not too sure about what to call it. It’s certainly a thriller, perhaps a psychological thriller? Anyway, it has these two narrators who are both unreliable in their own ways, the writing is really great and the suspense is really well done and subtle. And then–AND THEN–the end of the book turns everything that you think you know about what happened completely on its head! I was out singing karaoke on Saturday for my friend Monica’s birthday and I didn’t get home until 4 AM, but if you don’t think I stayed up even later to finish Brother/Sister then you don’t know me very well. I also read a really great manuscript for a book we’re publishing in Fall 2011 and it was ALSO awesome and totally scary. I’m shocked I didn’t have nightmares last night.

I also started working on a book that I’ve been thinking about writing for a while. It’s basically a sci-fi thriller and I am LOVING writing it. The best part about writing it is that I don’t have to ever show it to a single person (except maybe Alex, who might kill me if I don’t let her read it after all the talking we’ve been doing about it). It’s mine. I don’t owe to anyone, and I don’t have to worry about other people liking it. Of course at some point I probably will worry about those things, and I’m not saying that every time I see a deal on PM or PW I don’t jump out of my skin a little, but that’s only natural. In those moments I just keep reminding myself, this is your book. You’re writing it for you, not for anyone else. Enjoy it.

And I am enjoying it. I don’t think I’ve had so much fun writing a book in years; it’s a nice change of pace from what the last year or so has been like, writing-wise, for me, which is extraordinarily difficult and not nearly as rewarding as it once was. But this book is cool. Alex once said to me that she tries to write books that her brother would read, and for once I’m trying to do that, too. I’ve only got 60 pages of this book (let’s call it Book 3 for tagging purposes) and so far there has been a 2-on-3 physical fight and a car chase, and I plan for there to be escapes and imprisonments and espionage and betrayal and love and heartbreak and double-crossing and science! All in one book! One hopefully not 800 pages long book (I don’t think it will be that long, but Hallelujah is, inexplicably, like 400 manuscript pages, which is almost 100 pages longer than AUT and I do not know how that happened).

ALSO: Jeopardy! Man vs. Machine* starts tonight! I may or may not have made this clear in my last blog post, but I DVR Jeopardy! every night. Sometimes I watch them nightly, but most of the time I let them build up and watch them all in a row on the weekends. Right now I’m a little behind, but I’m going to be sure to watch tonight’s IMMEDIATELY. I love Jeopardy! I even violated my own very strict “no paying for iPhone apps” rule to download the $4.99 Jeopardy! app.

So that’s my life right now. Reading (I also plucked a copy of Diana Mosely: Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler’s Angel from my shelf; I’ve had it for a while, bought it for $5 at the Strand, because as you may or may not know I love anything having to do with the Mitfords and hope someday to read everything there is by or about them, but Diana is not my fave so I hadn’t actually ever started this biography of her), writing, and Jeopardy! You would think that would give me plenty of time to update this blog, but apparently that’s not true, although you might be interested to know that I do update my Tumblr way more often and recently I posted a bunch of songs over there that reminded me of The Opposite of Hallelujah, so you might want to head over there and have a listen.

*I don’t think that the Jeopardy! people are calling it this, that’s just what I’m calling it.

Telling you for the first time

Posted on January 6th, 2011 by annakjarzab

I don’t know why I haven’t posted about this before, probably because I’m losing all of my marbles starting with the ones that allow me to remember something without first writing it down, but anyway I was just reminded today that I’m doing an event in Brooklyn on January 28, 2011 (it’s 2011–isn’t that weird?) with Leila Sales (who wrote Mostly Good Girls and is also my coworker and is also hilarious) and Lauren Oliver (who wrote Before I Fall, which I’m sure you’ve never heard of, PSYCHE you’ve totally heard about it it’s very famous)! I’m really excited about it because:

  1. It’s my first New York City event!
  2. I get to do the event with Leila and Lauren. To be honest, I would go to this event even if I weren’t participating in it. I love Mostly Good Girls and Before I Fall and it should be a really, really good show.

Below are the details–if you come, you can see my cute new haircut in person! (This haircut is a real hit, I promise, I’ve received so many compliments.)

WORD – January 28, 2011 at 7:00 PM
http://www.wordbrooklyn.com/
126 Franklin Street
Brooklyn, NY 11222
(718) 383-0096

We will probably be talking about the experience of publishing your first novel, but more importantly we’ll be discussing the coincidence surrounding the fact that our titles all have three words in them. See you there! (J/k, that’s the least coincidence-y thing about Leila, Lauren and I. What are the most coincidence-y things? Come and maybe we’ll tell you!)

The world’s greatest thing (and I mean it)

Posted on November 30th, 2010 by annakjarzab

This Harry Potter fan vid. It’s seriously amazing:

I’ve been watching it over and over and over again. It’s pretty much perfect, and very impressive–it amazes me sometimes what people are capable of, and what they’ll do just because, not for money or fame or whatever else people do things for these days (iPads!).

Relatedly, I read this book last night called Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod, the man behind Gaping Void, and while everything in it is common sense, it was also a really great reminder of all the things we neurotic writers tell our neurotic writer friends but cannot for some reason believe or remember when we need them ourselves. Not that I’m in the business of recommending books for people to buy other people as gifts (minefield!), but if there’s anybody in your life who’s struggling with creativity (and I don’t mean just writers; as I was reading Ignore Everybody–it’s pretty short–I could think of several people to lend it to off the top of my head, and among that number was a friend who’s an engineer, a friend who’s a stand up comedian, a friend who works in advertising, and a friend who works in fashion, my sister who’s a film student, and my cousin who sells fire hydrants and stuff, so…) this might be a good purchase. Also MacLeod is really funny and there are a bunch of his signature cartoons scattered throughout.

If you’re asking yourself, “Gee, did Anna go to the Charmin Bathrooms this year?” I’m here to tell you that I did, but that will be a separate blog post. Suspense!

The pursuit of Nancy Mitford

Posted on November 18th, 2010 by annakjarzab

This book changed my life.

I’m serious. I have a really cool job, the result of which is that I get to meet awesome authors of fabulous books like Stephanie Perkins, who wrote Anna and the French Kiss, which comes out on December 2 (just two and a half weeks from now!) and which you should totally go buy and read immediately because it is awesome. Anyway, Steph and I got to spend some time together last Thursday afternoon, and we were talking about our influences and I mentioned Nancy Mitford. First of all, Steph gets so many bonus points for knowing who I was even talking about, because you say “Nancy Mitford” these days and you get a blank stare from most people. Anyway, I told her that if I could write a book that was anywhere near as good as Love in a Cold Climate, I could retire and die a happy woman.

This is not an exaggeration. I discovered Nancy Mitford in college, I think, although I feel as though I’ve been reading her my whole life. The thing about Nancy Mitfords novels is that they are so incredibly hilarious that you can miss how incredibly sad they are. I just started to realize that a year or two ago, after five or so readings of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Nobody creates characters like Nancy does, and you could make the argument that she cheated because she based all the amazing people in her books on the amazing (for better or for worse) people in her life–her friends and family. But the thing about Nancy (do you like how I’m writing about her like we’re friends? So familiar!) is that she’s also a pitch perfect writer, with amazing comedic timing, a flair for the ridiculous, and the ability to control her ridiculous, which is very important if your work is going to veer in the direction of the absurd. There is so much to learn from writers like Nancy Mitford.

Anyway, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate have been available in that bind up linked above for a long time, but Random House’s Vintage imprint is now putting some of her other back list into print as well! Look at these pretty new covers:

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the-blessing-nancy-mitford

Thanks to Alexa for the heads up on these! So I’ve read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate like six times each, and I’ve read Don’t Tell Alfred once. All the books have the same narrator, a girl named Fanny who’s super normal and almost boring, but is related to a fantastic group of crazy people who are crazy. Don’t Tell Alfred, though, is told from Fanny’s perspective when she’s in her fifties; it was published in 1960, and by then Nancy Mitford, much like her bff Evelyn Waugh, had soured a bit. Her work was way more cynical, and Don’t Tell Alfred suffers from that. I’ve never read Wigs on the Green or The Blessing, though. None of them feature Fanny or the Radletts (that I know of), but I don’t care–I’m excited to read them anyway.

AND I found out that Chris Adrian has a new book coming out in April 2011; it sounds batshit insane, so that’s wonderful. Things are looking up. Now, if only I knew someone at FSG who could get me an ARC…

Overkill

Posted on November 17th, 2010 by annakjarzab

You guys, I think you might be able to download Beatles music on iTunes now. I just have a feeling…

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Yeesh, iTunes, give it a rest. We get it, you’re very excited.

In other news, the book I’m writing might actually be killing me. Every day I decide to shut it down at some point, and then either later that day or the next day I decide I’m going to give it a shot even though it’s currently in a particular state of awful I can’t even adequately describe to you, and then twelve hours later I’m like, “WHY DID I EVER THINK THIS COULD WORK? I AM THE WORST EVER.” Ask Alex. She gets to experience it live and in person on G-chat every damn day! Lucky girl.

(Note: This is not OoH, or “Hallelujah” as I’ve decided to call it for short because…well, obviously “Ooh!” is a weird shorthand for a book title. I’m waiting for a Hallelujah editorial letter from my agents, which I’ll hopefully have before Thanksgiving. This is a completely different disasterscript.)

I seriously think this book is rotting my brain. It feels utterly unoriginal, yet too weird and different, at the same time. 90 percent of the time, when I even think about working on it I get this feeling in my shoulders like I’m being squeezed to death by a professional wrestler. The characters are all underdeveloped, the plot is ridiculous and full of holes so big you could drive a semi through them, and I still don’t have any faith in my ability to pull of the mechanics of the story. The mechanics. THE STUFF THAT MAKES THE STORY GO VROOM! And even though the quality of the actual writing should be, at this point, the least of my problems, I’m stressing out about that, too.

Basically, I’m a whole ball of anxiety about everything having to do with writing and publishing and being myself in the world these days. I’m afraid I’ve run out of ideas. I’m afraid I can’t put together a decent sentence anymore, let alone an entire novel that doesn’t totally suck. I’m afraid I don’t have the right body armor to be on the writing side of this business. I’m afraid of the mere idea of doing anything else. It’s really quite the idiotic predicament, because honestly, sack up, Jarzab! These are first world problems! And yet they bear down on me all the same. Awesome.

So I have come to this conclusion: I need a vacation. New York is getting to me, and so is this book. I’m looking forward to working on Hallelujah again because, as spooked as I am after the Great Book 2 Debacle of this summer, and as low as my confidence level is, I think I can handle Hallelujah. It’s not a wild, sprawling octopus of a book that I need to wrestle into submission; it’s more of an overgrown garden in need of weeding and pruning and maybe a little bit of Miracle Grow. And thus it has become my anchor, something I’m looking forward to working on, which I need because damn. And I get to go home for Christmas for twelve straight days, which is another anchor. I can’t wait to be out of this crowded, stinking city. Maybe this time I’ll remember to bring a coat.

(Funny story: Two years ago I spent Christmas in California–as I’m doing this year–and because I live in New York, where the winters are very cold, and I’m a moron, I was all, “It’s California! I don’t need a coat!” Guess what? You need a coat in December practically everywhere. Okay, that’s not true, but you need one in Northern California. Not, like, a sleeping bag snow parka, but something to take the edge off the wind. Anyway, I didn’t bring a coat to California for Christmas two years ago and I had to wear my high school letterman’s jacket, the only coat I had at my parents house, around town for two weeks. I looked pretty cool. Just kidding, I looked hella dumb. Lesson learned!)

So…yeah. That’s me! The upside is that my friend Mary, she of the fabulous AUT blurbs you can find somewhere on this blog (sorry, too lazy right now to link), is coming to visit on Thursday, and on Friday I get to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows after some chicken and a giant margarita at Dallas BBQ. And then next week is Thanksgiving! I’m making the pies.

And, one last piece of news if you made it this far–I got my first royalty statement! From the looks of it, AUT sales are much healthier than I expected (erm…I think, as I do not actually understand the statement at all). A little birdie has been feeding me BookScan numbers since pub and it looks like the real sales were about twice as much as BookScan shows, which is kind of insane. BookScan only covers about 70% point of sale, but the channels it doesn’t cover (box stores, Walmart, etc.) are ones AUT wasn’t even distributed in. But I’m not knocking it; it was a nice piece of news to dull the pain of my realizing today was only Tuesday. Somehow, it felt like Thursday.

Unfinished business

Posted on October 7th, 2010 by annakjarzab

So there’s this thing that keeps happening. About twice a week, I’ll open up a new blog entry and start writing it, get almost to the end and, because I’m tired of talking by then, have no idea how to wrap it up, so I’ll save it for later and then it never gets posted. I just want to let you know, I intend to blog about two to three times more than I actually do blog, and there’s a whole graveyard full of abandoned blog posts just sitting in my drafts queue to prove it. Whoops!

I thought I’d use this post to wrap up some loose ends from my various recently deceased but (I’m sure) incredibly interesting blog posts. Let’s get started:

  • I saw The Social Network with my roommate last weekend. It was really good, especially the writing, which I guess is expected due to the Aaron Sorkin factor. I recommend that people see it, but I will say that I don’t think that these people are necessarily wrong when they say that the movie is A.) not an accurate representation of Mark Zuckerberg as a person, and B.) not a movie that’s overly concerned with exploring the import and impact of Facebook. They call Facebook a MacGuffin, and they’re right; the characters of Mark and Eduardo in The Social Network could really have created anything and the dramatic tensions and character arcs in The Social Network would have been the same. So if you’re looking to see a movie about Facebook, The Social Network is not it; if you’re looking to watch a well-written, well-acted movie about flawed characters betraying and retaliating against each other, by all means go see this one.
    • Eesha went in to the theater to grab us seats while I got popcorn and soda. I ordered two Diet Cokes, but after we’d been sitting down a while, we started to suspect that they were actually real Cokes. Eesha was like, “Well, we’re already drinking them…” and I said, “I just like to think of this sort of thing as God’s little hello.”
  • I also cooked a really great chili last weekend. My mom bought me a slow cooker for Christmas last year, and so far all I’ve made in it are batches of chili, mostly turkey chili, in varying degrees of delicious. But this batch of turkey chili was especially delicious–probably the best I’ve made so far–and it fed me for four days, lunch and dinner! I’m the sort of person who can eat the same thing over and over again and not get sick of it, so the slow cooker is the single most wonderful gift I’ve gotten in my adult life.
  • I’m sick now. My dad and sister were sick at the wedding last week and warned me, to which I said, “Oh, I never get sick.” And of course my immune system was like, O RLY? And now I’ve got a cold, too. The universe is a cruel, cruel prankster sometimes.
  • Last Thursday, I left my duck umbrella at my friends’ house. I woke up on Friday and couldn’t find it anywhere, so I assumed I’d left it in the cab, but then I got this text on Sunday: Somebody misses you. It had this picture attached to it:

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That would be my duck umbrella (her name is Quackityite–because she’s white) hanging out with Cambria’s creepy 3D kittens. You can’t tell that they’re 3D from the picture, but if you saw them in person you would realize that their heads are actually sticking out from the background. I actually bought them for Cambria, so I guess I’m just getting what I deserve here.

  • I’m in the thick of revising my manuscript. Hopefully, this book will be my second book in my deal with Random House. I’m doing this new thing where I separated all the chapters out and stacked them, and am going through them one at a time, marking them up with red pen, then inputting the changes before moving on to the next chapter. It’s working out quite nicely so far; I’ve got 21 chapters completely finished, and I’ve marked up chapter 22 but haven’t inputted the changes yet, and I have eight chapters to go (if you’re a math whiz like me, you know that the book has 30 chapters). Right now, the book is at 375 pages and around 97,000 words, which surprises me every time I see those numbers. To me, it just doesn’t seem that long. That’s longer than AUT by a lot, and yet, it just seems to read very fast. I think that’s because so much of it is dialogue. Which I fear will be a problem for people, but I like it that way.

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  • Oh, and just a fun story for my boring life: on Tuesday, I went home sick from work around 1:30, and guess what I came home to? This:

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That’s right! When I got home, we had no water. According to my roommate, we’d had no water since 10:00 AM, so what this “1:30-??” business is is anyone’s guess, really. The water didn’t come back on until 6:30 PM–I had to go to the bar to use the bathroom! It was very rude. Wah.

Anyway, that’s what’s going on in my universe. Oh, and also my friend Leila‘s book went on sale on Tuesday! It’s called Mostly Good Girls and it’s HILARIOUS! So, so clever and full of life. If you’re looking for a contemporary story about friendship and prep school, this is the ideal book to pick up. I got my copy last night at the Union Square B&N after dinner with Alex, and because I’m lucky and Leila lives here, it was signed! Although, she works down the hall from me, so probably I could have a signed copy if I wanted, anyway. But still.

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Oh, and I read Alex’s new book, and it is awesome. I can’t wait for other people to read it SO I CAN TALK TO SOMEONE ABOUT IT FOR GOD’S SAKE!

Speak loudly

Posted on September 21st, 2010 by annakjarzab

I tend to go mostly offline most weekends (except for Four Square! And, of course, Tweeting about Make It or Break It with Adele at Persnickety Snark), so I didn’t even know about the whole Speak Loudly controversy until the very end of Sunday evening, but now that I’m all caught up I want to echo the sentiments of the entire blogosphere when I say, OMG CENSORSHIP IS GIVING ME AN ULCER.

I would never say that books aren’t influencers; after all, that’s tantamount to saying that books don’t have power, and I just don’t believe that. But books, in my experience (and I have been a reader since age three, and a really, really big reader at that, of books at my age level and above and below and everything in between), are about strengthening the human condition, not weakening it by asserting that people should keep low moral values close and not hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior. I have never read one novel whose agenda it is to encourage people to think less, to act worse, or to devalue themselves or others. The purpose of most fiction, at least, is to investigate what it means to be human, to enter into a conversation about how much power we have over our own lives and our own choices, to try to puzzle out just how best to communicate with people, be part of a community, find family, embrace change, to love, live and set forth on a path that will hopefully someday bring us happiness. Maybe I’m just reading the wrong books; maybe there are a bunch of novels out there about just how horrible the world is, and how we should all behave like animals because what else is there to do with our miserable lives but look out for ourselves? But I suspect not. If those novels do exist, and their messages are sincere and all they aspire to be is evil, well, pass them on to me and I’ll get back to you.*

Wesley Scroggins, the man who so vehemently opposes Speak and other books–such as the tried and true classic Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, or Twenty Boy Summer by 2009 debut author Sarah Ockler–is choosing to rush to reaction instead of to think critically about exactly why books like Speak, Slaughterhouse Five, and Twenty Boy Summer are being taught in school. Unless he thinks that the teachers in these schools are actively trying to titillate their students with soft core pornography, which seems pretty unlikely to me considering they are TEACHERS and not Larry Flint, what Scroggins seems to be objecting to is not their messages, but instead the very idea that Laurie Halse Anderson, Sarah Ockler, and Kurt Vonnegut find issues like sex, choice, doubt, anger, fear, remorse, pain, and especially sex, to be important topics of discussion for their readers. He’s not championing morality; he’s actively trying to squash any discussion surrounding difficult topics in favor of limiting ideas about adolescence and sex and violence and faith to one–his.

And this is why books exist. The whole reason all books–not just Speak, but every book written in the history of mankind–are even written is because there is not just one perspective, not just one right answer, not just one experience and not just one thing worth fighting for. It’s why all art exists–poetry, music, movies, television, painting, sculpture, architecture, you name it. By closing your eyes to the reality of human existence and refusing to look at, talk about, or engage with difficult topics, you are closing yourself off from the world and the many things it can teach you. But that’s your business. But to actively hinder others, especially people just coming into their own like teens are, from doing the same is criminal. It really is. And I’m not even saying that parents shouldn’t take an interest in what their children are reading, for school or for pleasure–of course they should! Parents should take an interest in all areas of their children’s lives.

But the thing I believe most fervently is that children (and teens, and adults, too) will put aside books that they aren’t ready to read, for any reason, whether it’s content, or straight up boredom. The thing about books is that they can’t actually hurt you–they’re made of paper and ink. Their ideas are potent, but they’re not going to turn anyone into a slavish zombie who never thinks for themselves ever again and just blindly follows the lead of admittedly fictional characters in a book about events that did not actually occur. In fact, books help create critical thinkers! JUST READ THE BLOGS. And the thing about books that is different from movies–and that’s why they don’t have ratings or ID checks when you’re trying to buy them–is that they’re totally opt-in. A movie, you might not know what you’re going to see until you’re seeing it, and then you just can’t unsee it (not that I’m advocating censorship in movies, of course I’m not). But a book isn’t like that. If its ideas or characters start to bug you or upset you, just can just set it aside and move on to something else. People make those sorts of choices every day. It’s natural, and great! We should be able to pick up and put down books as we see fit. That is the beauty of living in a free society full of choice.

Having read it, I can say for sure that Speak is a powerful, important book about taking power over your own life, the process of recovering from abuse, and not letting your past dictate your future. Rape is what happens in the book, but that–self empowerment, self acceptance, self expression, self love–is what it says, what it means. To dismiss such a deeply important message as soft core pornography is absolutely ridiculous (and, to be honest, downright disgusting and suspect of Monsieur Scroggins). But in order to say the things it says, Speak first has to show you how things got that bad, how the need for the message, for the conversation the book creates, even came about. THAT IS HOW STORIES WORK. God, I’m sorry for all the CAPITAL LETTERS, but seriously. I feel like all of this should just be self-evident, and I’m sure it is to you, dear readers (Mom).

It’s so alarmingly ironic that the book is called Speak and it’s about giving a voice to a survivor of sexual abuse and Scroggins is saying that because the book depicts “immorality”, it should be silenced. I’m sorry, but at the risk of being indelicate about this, that’s just plain stupid. It is. Only stupid people believe that by refusing to talk about something, it goes away. Wesley Scroggins is an idiot.

And I don’t care about him. It’s likely that all of our raging on this topic isn’t going to change this dude’s mind at all, and I couldn’t care less. I couldn’t even care less about the people who are going to read his article and assume Speak is a piece of trash they should shield themselves from–it’s their loss, and God bless them. People are responsible for their own critical thinking and the choices they make as a result of it. But the people who really get hurt here are: 1.) the teachers who obviously felt strongly enough about Speak that they decided to teach it in their schools despite possible controversy, and 2.) the students who may or may not pick the book up outside of the classroom if it’s removed from the curriculum, but who will definitely miss out on the opportunity to discuss it as a group in their classroom with their peers.

I often think about what my policy about media consumption in my household might be when I have children. When I was a kid, my TV watching was monitored, as was my movie going, but I don’t ever remember being told not to read a certain book. I had the run of my parents’ bookshelves; I don’t know that my parents ever deliberately made sure I wasn’t reading anything “bad”, but I sure didn’t hide what I was reading from them–I left books all over the house, splayed open upon coffee table and arm rest and kitchen counter. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out what it was I was reading, and I don’t ever remember having books kept from me, even, like, The Clan of the Cave Bear. I don’t know if I’ve ever asked my parents why this is, but I assume it’s because they’re readers and they understand the value of the written word. They also probably had way more faith in their parenting than to think that some random novel was going to scar me for life and transform me into an immoral person–I mean, their influence had way more to do with how I turned out than one freaking book, no matter how good it is.

Not being fool enough to say “this is the kind of parent I’m going to be!” when I am not a parent yet and probably won’t be for a while, I’ll just say that my parents’ strategy worked for me and I’m likely to continue the pattern. I think literature is just about the safest place for children, teens, and adults, too, to be challenged in a real way. Speak does that, and parents and school administrators who are denying their kids and students the opportunity to discover things for themselves within its pages are committing a far greater moral crime than any book ever has.*

*Except Mein Kampf and the like, obviously. Here I am talking about fiction, not propaganda or political manifestos.

Forget it, Jake, it’s Mockingjaytown (spoilery as hell!)

Posted on August 25th, 2010 by annakjarzab

Yesterday at lunch I went with my coworker Emilie to go buy Mockingjay at the B&N on 9th St and 6th Ave. I say this because, while not a far walk, that’s a good maybe ten/fifteen blocks from where we work, and it was spitting rain, and though I had brought both my rain boots and my umbrella, I decided to bring neither of those essential pieces of rainy day gear with me. Because I am good at planning! So of course it started to pour on my way back to the office and I got soaked. At least Mockingjay was safe! I treated myself to Chipotle in celebration.

It was REALLY HARD not to start reading at work, although the following picture might somehow give you the impression that I might have glanced at a few pages while on the job TOTALLY ON ACCIDENT OF COURSE and even though I wore a Mockingjay t-shirt to work last Friday I should TOTALLY NOT BE FIRED because it was a summer Friday and summer Fridays = sanctuary. Right? (Also: I have a Mockingjay t-shirt! It was a gift from my friend Eric, who besides building this beautiful website, is now officially the Coolest Dude I Know. He was only unofficially that before.)

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Also, I can’t read hardcovers with the dust jacket on them. It makes me squirmy. So that’s why Mockingjay is naked. But it looks good naked. This metaphor is getting weird.

So, I’m sure you’re all breathless with anticipation about what I think about the events of Mockingjay and how Suzanne Collins settled the Great Peeta v. Gale debate. The answer is…I kind of raced through it, so I’m not sure I remember a lot of the details. BUT this “review”, such as it is, will contain spoilers so don’t go getting any fancy ideas about reading it unspoiled. Okay, cool.

District 13: I think it’s bomb that it’s so awful down there. And really, it all makes sense. For instance, District 13 would not be able to exist without the cooperation from the Capitol, so that makes total sense. It also makes sense that they’d be completely heartless Chuck Basstards, because you don’t survive in secret for 75 years while the other residents of the country suffer the consequences for your uprising, including–but not limited to!–sacrificing two of their CHILDREN every year to be hunted most dangerous game-style on TELEVISION every year. I’m like, they had BETTER have been organizing a rebellion all these years, because if they hadn’t been, they’d have been the worst. As it is, they’re pretty much the worst already, which Collins completely acknowledges–by the end, most of the characters are like, President Snow, President Coin, who cares, it’s the same damn thing over and over again. But I guess if you’re choosing between two devils, you might as well choose the one that says they believe in freedom, rather than the one that’s basically guaranteed you a life of servitude, squalor, starvation, and sex slavery (I’ll get to that!) no matter what happens.

The Evils of Marketing: Is it just me, or is this book all about how marketing is only used to manipulate people? I mean, duh, marketing is only used to manipulate people. But that whole part where they’re discussing “targeted” videos in which they show the different districts their own slaughtered children in order to maximize the effect of the rebellion’s message? Hits a little too close to home, you know? I love how Katniss is like, “GENIUS!” Because really, it is genius. The best way to get people on your side is to remind them (as if they could forget) what they’ve lost to the other side, and how it will continue unabated unless they do something about it.

Peeta v. Gale: If possible, I liked Gale less in this book than I have in every other one, and that is certainly saying something. I mean, I get it. He’s strong and brave and capable and smart, but he’s no benevolent superhero. He’s got very fine-tuned loyalties, and anyone who isn’t, like, Katniss or her family or his family can basically go blow as far as he’s concerned. His sympathies don’t even extend to the people Katniss herself cares about–like her prep team, for instance. The image of them all chained up, starving and beaten and pissing themselves (literally), was horrifying and Gale’s like, “What?” when Katniss is upset about it. Now I personally think that Katniss has always been in love with Peeta, and Gale never really had a chance with her in the first place (well, not since the first Games, anyway) unless Peeta died and even then probably not (as he himself points out). But this is when Gale starts to really lose her. His lack of compassion isn’t something that Katniss can deal with, because it’s a struggle she’s already going through, trying to find it in her to forgive and to care about people even though she’s hard-wired for survival and almost nothing else (I love the word the LA Times uses in their review: “nihilistic”). Peeta not only off-sets Katniss’ nihilism with his hope and compassion, but he also encourages and nurtures it in her. That’s what makes them such a great pair, and Collins gets that, if the last page of the book is anything to go by. Also, I’m not a squee-er, but when Katniss tells Peeta: “Because that’s what you and I do. Protect each other.” I was like, “THAT’S WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT! SHE GETS IT! SHE SAID IT!” And then texted Alex to squee.

Peeta’s hijacking: There’s some debate about this going on with people who’ve read the books, and some people are like, “Great, yet another YA heroine who is inexplicably drawn to the boy who’s trying to kill her–literally.” Which is whining that I am, under most circumstances, completely get behind. I hate stories like that. The Romantic Stalker Dude is really my least favorite trope in YA. HOWEVER. That’s not how Peeta’s hijacking functions. One of the most important things about it is what I failed to adequately articulate above, which is that Peeta’s break from reality brings things into focus for Katniss. She is forced to face the things she understands about her relationship with Peeta (their reliance on each other, the way they draw strength from each other, their very important connection) and to bring Peeta back to those things by expressing them openly, which she’s had a very hard time doing before now. It isn’t that she didn’t know she was in love with Peeta, or that he’s the person she needs most in this world–it’s that she never knew how to put those things into words, or what they meant (because she’s so used to being alone and fighting for herself and the people in her life who have so little agency it hardly matters). When it comes to Peeta, so much of their relationship has grown under a veil of obfuscation that she was never really sure what was real and what was just a play but Peeta was always sure. Now that Peeta’s uncertain, she has to be the one with the conviction. She has to figure out what reality is and mirror that back to him. It’s her great expression of love for Peeta, and I think it works beautifully. Also, angsty lit boys are just my style, so Peeta’s suffering gets my heartbroken stamp of approval.

Also, we know Peeta well enough to know that he’s not a Romantic Stalker Dude. He has explicitly been Derek Zoolander-ed into killing Katniss. She’s not attracted to him because of that–she’s always been in love with him, and actually his transformation causes her great pain, pain that for a long time bewilders her because she doesn’t know how to be the emotionally strong one. It’s an opportunity for growth for Katniss, and our girl rises to the occasion–she brings him back, to himself and to her.

How Katniss totally kills President Coin instead of President Snow: Awesome. I wasn’t expecting it, and I actually called out, “ROCK ON!” when she did it. My roommate was in the other room, with her hands over her ears and humming to herself, rocking back and forth, in order to avoid the spoilers I so badly wanted to dump on her, because she’s going to “read the books one day.” Kill joy.

The deaths: I have to say, I forgot Finnick and Annie even existed because I read Catching Fire so long ago, but I liked Finnick a lot in Mockingjay and I’m going to miss him. He was pretty cool. And Prim–she was annoying to me in the first two books, but I’m glad she grew up a little and got herself some agency. That’s really what makes her death so tragic; she was finally coming into her own, only to have her life snuffed out. And the irony of Katniss starting all this shizz because she wanted to protect Prim from dying in the Hunger Games only to have Prim die as a result of all of Katniss’ Hunger Games shenanigans is quite poignant. Who else died? I forget. Like I said, I rushed.

The conclusion: There were a couple of great lines in the book, but I especially liked when Peeta said on his broadcast, “Is this really what we want to do? Kill ourselves off completely? In the hopes that–what? Some decent species will inherit the smoking remains of the earth?” I love the phrase “decent species.” It reminds me a lot of something Adama said in Battlestar Galactica, when he was questioning whether or not the human race really deserved to survive. I guess that’s sort of a moot question because no species is going to be like, “Actually, we’re pretty awful–we’re just going to lay down and die here.” It’s evolutionarily whackadoo. But the statement is important. It brought up an idea that I’d never given much consideration to before, which is that the current situation in Panem is not the result of just one uprising that brought about the “destruction” of District 13 and the introduction of the Hunger Games–it’s the result of countless wars and genocides and acts of destruction over hundreds and hundreds of years. This is basically their last chance at thwarting imminent extinction! That is a really heavy burden for Katniss to carry around, one that I’ve never given its proper weight to before. And I think the ending is pretty ambiguous on that point–it’s more of a question than an answer. Plutarch and Katniss have that conversation about whether or not they’ve finally learned their lesson, and Katniss seems to think not a chance in hell they have, but Plutarch is more sanguine, saying:

“We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss.”
“What?”
“The time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that.”

Oh, I’m definitely thinking about it. And if the epilogue is anything to go by, probably things have gotten better since the end of the war. But like Plutarch says, we have short memories. And nuclear weapons. Still, I think the ending is hopeful, although not glowingly so, which is consistent with the tone of the series and also reality for those most part. I loved Mockingjay. I can’t wait till all my peeps have read it and we can run around screaming at each other about it like morons.

Edited to add: I just realized that I promised to talk about the sex slavery somewhere in here, so I will say that–SEX SLAVERY. Poor Finnick. 🙁 And now he’s dead.