Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving Post, or How to Strain a Metaphor

Michael Cart’s recent article about religion in YA books reminded me that Thanksgiving is coming.

Our Thanksgiving celebration this year will be rather large, somewhere between twenty and thirty people, mostly relatives. There will be hundreds of brief conversations. We will talk about the weather (brrr!), the food (yum!), our jobs (or lack thereof), our physical ailments (plentiful), recent amusing or dramatic events, pets, and many other mundane things of general interest. 

We will avoid talking about religion, politics, sex, or money.

That’s kind of like the situation in Young Adult literature. There are things we don’t talk about. Check out the YA section in your local bookstore. The largest subcategories will be “sci-fi/fantasy” and “paranormal,” and most of these books that take place in a fantasy environment in which there might be gods, but no God. Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah do not exist in these worlds, or if they do, their existence is largely ignored. Same goes for “realistic” YA, where most characters exist in a world where religion is never mentioned, which is not realistic at all.

Yes, there are YA novels that deal directly with religion—I could name thirty or forty of them without looking too hard—but considering the tens of thousands of YA novels that have been published over the past three decades, such books are relatively rare.

It comes down to economics, I suppose. A writer who makes his or her readers uncomfortable doesn’t sell very many books, and we readers are uncomfortable when encountering views on religion that conflict with our own.

It used to be that we didn’t talk about sex and sexual orientation in YA. That’s changing fast. But religion? It’s pretty much the same don’t-go-there attitude as was prevalent when I first started publishing.

I’m bringing this up now because my next book, Eden West, is about a boy who grows up in a close-knit and insular doomsday cult, and what happens when an outsider infects his worldview.

I started working on Eden West around the same time I started work on Godless, about twelve years ago. Not sure why it took so long to finish. I changed course a few times, and made an unusual (for me) number of top-to-bottom revisions, but still, twelve years is a long time. Anyway, it’s done. Eden West will be showing up in bookstores next April—like an inappropriate uncle at Thanksgiving dinner.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

48 Hours Later: Prolonging the Cringe

There has been a surfeit of commentary about Daniel Handler’s ghastly faux pas at the National Book Awardsbanquet after Jacqueline Woodson received the NBA for her book Brown Girl Dreaming. Naturally, I feel the urge to add to the noise.

Like pretty much everyone watching Handler’s remarks, I winced as the words left his mouth, and my first thought was, There, but for me, go I. Because I have been steeped in —isms from birth, as have we all. I’ve laughed at racist/sexist/ablest/homophobic jokes; I’ve made assumptions about strangers based only on their physical appearance; I’ve patted myself on the back for accomplishments that are mostly or entirely the result of being white, male, heterosexual, and physically unimpaired; I’ve discounted the feelings of those whose life experience I do not fully comprehend.

I cringe to remember insensitive jokes and remarks I made forty or thirty or twenty or ten years ago. Or last month. I hope I get better every day—I try. Life is a constant struggle to overcome our preconceptions and prejudices. All of us fail at times, as did Daniel Handler last Wednesday evening.

And he knew it, in the moment. You can see it on his face. In that ten seconds he went from one of the highlights of his career—hosting the National Book Awards—to his greatest professional embarrassment. It is agonizing to watch, both for Handler and for Jackie Woodson. I feel bad for both of them.

But Daniel Handler is a smart guy. He knows he screwed up, and he has taken steps to make things better. No backpedaling, no justification, just a straight-up mea culpa, an admission that his comments were racist, and a penance in the form of cold hard cash. I am not big a fan of Handler’s brash, self-consciously clever public persona, but I think he’s sincere this time, and he has done what he can to make things right. I would guess that Jackie Woodson appreciates his effort, even though there is no way he can truly undo the mortification he has wrought.

There is a bright side to all of this: We Need DiverseBooks has raised far in excess of $100,000 (plus the extra $100,000 promised by Handler), Jacqueline Woodson’s extraordinary Brown Girl Dreaming is being read by people who might not otherwise have heard of it, and Daniel Handler has been handed a life lesson of incalculable value—I hope.

Addendum: There is a very smart and rather painful discussion going on in the comments section at Horn Book about an article written by Roger Sutton. Roger makes some of the same points as I made in my post above, and man, is he taking it on the chin! The main point of those who chimed in is that Roger is giving too much sympathy to Daniel Handler without giving Jacqueline Woodson and every other person of color their due. Perhaps true, and I may be guilty of the same. If so, well, I'm working on it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Nao, for something completely different."

Illusionist Kaia Nao recently posted some new works to his website. I've mentioned Nao before. In "real" life he's an artist of a very different sort, but as Kaia Nao he explores visual perception both as an artist and as a scientist. In the piece below, he adds a bit of politics to the mix.

Click to make bigger.

I went to college with Nao, who majored in physics and minored in studio arts. I remember one sculpture he presented for critique, and he had to explain to a class of rather bemused art students the concept of potential energy. I'm sure got an A because the professor had no idea what he was talking about. Also, back in the 70s, everybody got As for just showing up.

You can friend Kaia Nao on Facebook. You might recognize him from his picture. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


The first time I ate goat was about thirty years ago. It was a whole goat, roasted on a spit over an outdoor fire, and there was a lot of beer involved. All I remember is thinking, Hey, this doesn’t taste awful!

The second time I ate goat it was 1992, in Jamaica, and my only thought was that I might die from the searing heat of the scotch bonnet peppers. The source of protein was rendered inconsequential by the capsaicin—it could have been rabbit, rat, or rattlesnake and it would not have mattered.

The third time was another whole spit-roasted goat, about ten years ago at a party thrown by sculptor Zoran Mojsilov for writer Andre Codrescu, two slavic expats who had bonded over their accents. I scored a large slice from the goat’s right shoulder. It was astonishingly delicious. Zoran and Andre cracked open the skull and sampled the brain and proclaimed it “fantastic” for the camera crew documenting the event. Later, Zoran told me the brain was the most disgusting thing he had ever eaten. But the shoulder was wonderful—like spring lamb, but without the tallowy aftertaste.

The fourth time was in a restaurant in Reynosa, Mexico, in the company of Weslaco librarian Renee Dyer and her son. Renee told me her husband always ordered the braised goat leg, so that is what I did. It was delicious.

After that, I looked for goat on every restaurant menu. I had cabrito tacos in Oaxaca, goat vindaloo at an Indian restaurant in New York, and goat stew in a Moroccan restaurant in St. Paul. I never regretted it.

For most Americans, eating goat is a dubious proposition. First, you can’t find it at your local supermarket. Second, goat brings to mind Satan and strongly flavored goat cheese. When I mentioned to my neighbor that I was cooking goat one night, the expression on her face was the same as if I’d said I was dining on roadkill possum.

But in most of the world, particularly Asia and Africa, goat rules. It is one of the most widely consumed animal proteins on the planet. There are two main reasons for this.

1) Goats can survive in nearly any environment, with little care, and they are cheap to raise. Sheep, cattle, pigs, and chickens require a lot of human intervention to thrive. You have to feed them stuff you could be eating yourself, and because they’ve been so intensively bred for fast growth and large muscle mass (The chicken breasts you buy are about three times as “plump” as the ones your grandparents ate.) they are poorly equipped to deal with living independently. Goats are resourceful, and they will eat anything, including your fruit trees, boots, and lawn furniture.

2) Goats taste good. They get bonus points for being low in fat and cholesterol.

Last week I bought a small, grass fed, locally raised goat. Not the entire animal—it came without the skin, feet, head, and innards. The carcass weighed about thirty pounds. I split it with my friend Gary Egger, and we butchered it down to leg, shanks, shoulder, rack, loin, tenderloin, neck, and a few miscellaneous bits. It took about an hour, and we managed to do it without spilling any of our own blood.

Last night we had some goat friendly dinner guests. I cooked the leg and shanks—a slow braise with vegetables, adapted from a French “seven-hour lamb” recipe. I wasn’t sure that would be enough food, so I cut the rack into chops and sautéed them in olive oil, medium rare. Everything turned out perfect—and we had leftovers!

With the influx of Mexican, Asian, and African immigrants, goat meat is now the fastest growing category of consumable animal protein in the U.S. That’s good news for us goat lovers. There are now dozens of goat purveyors in the Twin Cities area. Even Costco is offering goat to its west coast customers.

I am now looking for another goat. If you have one, let me know.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Six Mile

These bleak November days always make me think of duck hunting. I don’t hunt anymore, but those many hours I spent standing in a blind with my dad, Tuck, at the edge of an ice-frilled lakeshore remain precious to me. I can still taste the weak coffee he preferred; I can feel the hot steel cup in my hand, inhaling coffee steam to extract every bit of warmth. I can hear the hiss of the wind tugging at the last tenacious leaves, and the rustle of the reeds, and I can see the cork decoys bobbing on the rippled water.

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This is a painting Tuck made back in the 1940s. The setting is Six Mile Lake in northern Minnesota. I’ve always liked the composition, the colors, and most of all to see the scene as my father saw it years before I was born.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Have You Ever Had a Relationship End Because of a Book?

This Sunday’s New York Times Book Review contains an article titled “HaveYou Ever Had a Relationship End Because of a Book?” Authors Zoe Heller and Anna Holmes each tell a personal story about books trumping love. Well, I have a story too.

Back in the late 1980s, my girlfriend and I were both reading the same book, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s 700 page first novel. I had purchased a paperback copy, and was enjoying it so much that Kirsten started reading it before I finished. Whoever climbed into bed first would grab the book and refuse to give it up. One night, after I had won possession fair and square, Kirsten made the case that since I was on page four hundred, and she had only read the first two hundred pages, I should let her have the book so she could “catch up.” I think I argued that 1) it was not a contest, 2) I’d grabbed it first, and 3) it was my book.

She said, “Fine, then I’m going to stare at you while you read, and you won’t be able to enjoy it.”

It was a strong move, and it might have worked had I not been at a really good part in the novel. A solution occurred to me. I opened the book to the middle, tore it in half, and handed her the first part. Her mouth fell open. She stared at the bisected book, then looked at me as if I’d ripped a child asunder.

Startled by her reaction (I thought I’d come up with a perfect solution), I said, “Let me know when you run out of words and I’ll tear off another section.”

She threw the half-book across the room. To the best of my knowledge she never finished reading it. A few weeks later we parted.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

How Old is that Young Adult?

Two nights ago Gaston the dog woke me up at 12:15 a.m. I let him outside. I didn’t feel like going back to sleep, so I grabbed a book from the teetering stack next to my bed and started reading.

The book was Girl, 15, Charming but Insane, by Sue Limb. The title is perfect. It’s about a 15-year-old girl dealing with being a 15-year-old girl, a not insignificant undertaking. By the time the dog returned from his midnight adventure, I was hooked.

Shortly before 4:00 a.m. I finished the book and set it down, thinking, When was the last time I read a book about a teenager being a teenager?

It had been a while. I read a fair amount of “young adult” fiction—books written for a teen audience, usually featuring a teenage protagonist. Very few of those books are about being a teenager. They are about being an adult.

In Girl, 15, the main character, Jess Jordan, acts and thinks like a 15-year-old. She tells unnecessary lies, blurts inconvenient truths, performs spontaneous self-destructive acts, and caroms from one emotional extreme to another. She is charming and maddening, stupid and smart, silly and profound, cruel and kind. I found her altogether refreshing. She reminded me of Holden Caulfield.

If The Catcher in the Rye were published for the first time today, it would not be well-received. The writing would be noticed and admired, certainly, but Holden’s character would be deemed unacceptable. Holden thinks like a teenager, he acts like a teenager, and if we could see him, he would certainly look like a teenager. Just check out the current customer reviews on Amazon. Today, Holden is perceived as too immature, too self-absorbed, too whiny, too irresponsible, too…too flat out irritating. Today, we want our YA protagonists to act like grownups.

For example, Katniss Everdeen is a compelling and engaging character who serves The Hunger Games beautifully, but she does not for one moment think or act like a teenager. The characters in Elizabeth Wein’s excellent thriller Code Name Verity hardly even pretend to be teens. In Jasper Fforde’s entertaining YA “Dragonslayer” series, 15-year-old Jennifer Strange acts like a 40-something man. John Green’s characters are always well-drawn, intelligent, and likeable, and they wrestle with issues important to teens—but they think and act more like twenty-somethings.*

In part, this is because most of today’s YA fiction is about adolescents who, faced with adult-size challenges, are forced (or choose) to put on adult-size armor, and deal. This is what YA readers want. As our 15, 16, or 17-year-old protagonists face their antagonists, we want them to make grownup decisions, and we want those adult strategies to prevail. We find this reassuring, inspirational, and sometimes instructive. Such characters act the way we (both adults and teens) think teens should act. They are our avatars.

In real life, teenagers are children learning how to pretend to be adults. Eventually they will forget they are pretending, and the label “adult” will become them. In the meantime, they are highly intelligent creatures struggling with real and important issues which they sometimes deal with by using mature, adult-style strategies (Yay!), and sometimes by employing foot-stomping temper tantrums, self-destructive skateboard stunts, or armpit farts (Boo!)

I still wasn’t sleepy after finishing Girl, 15, so I got on the internet and looked up Sue Limb. Turns out she’s written lots of books, several of them featuring Jess Jordan at ages 15, 16, and 17. I was mildly surprised to see that they’re marketed as “middle grade” books, for ages ten and up. It shouldn’t have surprised me. Fifth and sixth graders want to know what it means to be a teenager. Teens have their radar dialed in on “adult.”

I downloaded the next book in the Jess Jordan series. I read it last night.

* In this sense, The Fault in Our Stars film adaptation was perfectly cast.