8.7.14 Alex Reads COUNTING BY 7S

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan | audio book by Robin Miles

first read : 7:15/7:15

Warnings for: cancer, car accident, parental death, traumatic loss, references to child abuse, authorial fatshaming


Very recently, two of the closest people in the world to me lost their stepfather, and it’s really horrible. He was part of my family, too, but he wasn’t my dad; so while I personally am off my normal rhythm, my version of sadness seems to be showing up in the way where all the emotions I expect aren’t always in me when I look for them. So this sad book, which is about very real people, some of whom die and the others of whom have to keep living, and are good at it, and are just good, was a cathartic choice of reading instead of an emotionally catastrophic choice of reading. I wouldn’t hand it to my two close people for a very long time.

I want to be clear about that: maybe you are the kind of person who won’t be personally injured by reading about this kind of sudden, violent, world-rending loss, or about the discovery of being terribly, frighteningly ill, or about being a child who is unable to fit herself into the comfortable shapes other people want out of her, who is suddenly alone. But if you’re vulnerable to those things, it will find you where your heart hurts most.

Willow is a twelve-year-old, adopted, self-identified P.O.C. who is absolutely brilliant. There are untold numbers of genius children in literature, but Willow’s is specifically characterized even if it’s all-encompassing. She loves plants, she loves primes, she is unceasingly logical, she is shamelessly fascinated in human illness (especially skin conditions). (Willow is exquisitely voiced in a thoughtful, sometimes awkward staccato by Robin Miles, who also keeps a firm grip on characters’ Spanish and Vietnamese accents, never descending into racist parody.)

Her parents are killed in a car crash on the way home from a very upsetting doctor’s visit. Willow doesn’t have friends and her family is not close to their relatives or to many other people. They are good but solitary. So when her parents die, it’s kindness, chance (like her last name), and the will to love that will pick her up out of her grief, and give her a new, good home. 

The found family Willow accumulates include a Vietnamese woman and her two children (one of whom sees the same counselor as Willow at school), a Hispanic taxi driver named Heiro Hernandez, and the school counselor, who doesn’t care about much of anything–his job, himself, other people–until Willow and her new caretakers force themselves into his everyday life. 

Some of the things that happen in the story, that are demonstrative of what love and attention and a brilliant little girl can do, aren’t 100% likely. But I really have to think it’s all right that this is the case, because the human heart of the story is unquestionably real, and the idea that things can be okay is good, and the choice to make them more than okay is a dream that maybe sometimes people need to clutch at, to find okay of any kind. 

The only real objection I have with the book–well, there are two. One is a stolen cat. The other is that Dell Duke, the lackluster counselor, is fat, and his weight is observed by Willow and also by the author’s third-person segments, as a negative and dangerous quality associated with sloth and dirtiness. THIS IS NOT COOL. DO NOT DO THIS. I think when it comes to Willow, the presence of this attitude is acceptable, because lots of twelve-year-old girls are taught to think in this way. But if that’s the only attitude you wish to demonstrate in the whole book, I’m less happy about it. I got back at the book for this, though–Mai Nguyen is supposed to be skinny, but she was like a panel of solid, chubby, immovable teen oak in my mental picture, and she will stay that way in my mind forever.

 But with this one failing in mind–I loved this book, and it gave me some of what I needed. I think I cried for about 65% of its total run time–which, by the way, not counting opening and closing credits, is 7 hours and 14 minutes. Just what Willow would like.



Divergent by Veronica Roth

first read : audiobook : 11:12/11:12

 DIVERGENT! It is the thrilling tale of a butt-kicking girl teen for fans of The Hunger Games who have already read The Hunger Games. DIVERGENT! It takes place in a future Chicago. At some point in slightly less future Chicago, everyone got together and decided in an act of consensus that reminds me of nothing that has ever happened on this Earth, that society’s problems are not racism, religious bigotry, poverty, and so on, NO, the problem is Myers-Briggs types. 

The unknown forebears, determining this, decide that segregation is usually a good option in these situations. So they establish the five Cyberhogwarts houses that will reductively and peculiarly dictate the lives of the people of Chicago for at least several more generations. These houses are Evil Ravenclaw, Puritanical Hufflepuff, Friendly Stoner Hufflepuff, Mrs. Weasley, and EFFED UP GRYFFINDOR.*

In this completely realistic society where no one is sure what exists outside of Chicago but one imagines that internet quizzes are read as holy scripture, you live with your parents until you are 16. Then you and all the other sixteen-year-olds play a VR game with the worst programming of all time and it tells you what you should do with your life. 

The protagonist of Divergent is an Abnegation (Puritanical Hufflepuff) girl called Beatrice. Later, when she becomes cool and starts getting tattoos and punching people’s teeth in, she is Tris. Right now she is Beatrice, because that is the kind of name you have when you’re a white girl future Puritan who will be needing a tough-sounding nick-name later. Beatrice, Roth tries really hard to tell us, us a BAD, BAD girl, who is not nearly giving and selfless enough to stay in Abnegation. She sometimes feels pride. It’s despicable, you can only imagine how despicable is. This is real important setup for Tris not staying in Abnegation, where probably you could not fit fight scenes into the mix until close to the end of the book? 

Tris goes to her super secret test and goes into the VR that will tell her her fate and she has–a choice. The One Choice, from the very cover. The One Choice that will change you forever. I am ready now for the SH*T TO GET REAL. This is a gritty, action-packed, sexy future-story where Tris is A TRUE OUTLIER, A DANGEROUS ANOMALY, A MYSTERIOUS AND ENDANGERED RARITY. That is the PREMISE of the ENTIRE SERIES. TWO BASKETS. TWO OPTIONS. WHO WILL YOU BE? I. AM. PREPARED.

The VR wants Tris to pick between a knife and…a block of…cheese.

Nooooooo there isn’t CONTEXT, she’s just standing there in front of these virtual baskets on virtual pedestals and there’s just this BLOCK OF CHEESE (or you could have this knife, what will it be?) WELL HOW WOULD ANYONE ON EARTH KNOW? Is it to EAT? Is it to OFFER A HOMELESS PERSON? Is it a LIFELONG INVESTMENT, like a knife will probably be more useful over time than a block of cheese…? BUT MAYBE…? IT IS FOR SEASONING SOMETHING? Can I not just USE THE KNIFE TO EAT THE CHEESE?

Apparently Tris and I are the only people to get stymied at this point, apparently everyone else looks and goes OH OBVIOUSLY BLOCK OF CHEESE I WILL TAKE THE BLOCK OF CHEESE, CLEARLY or whatever, because suddenly the whole simulation is messed up in its virtual head, it does not know what to do. And Tris’s results are…IN CON CLU SIVE. Her inability to choose at random between cheese and a knife make her a dangerous subset of humankind, with a computer-defeating superbrain who MIGHT singlehandedly destroy the Myers-Briggs society….somebody…? created. So the test-giver is like HOLY CRAP BEATRICE DON’T TELL ANYONE EVER FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, YOU HAVE SUPERBRAINS AND THEY’LL TAKE YOU DOOOOOOOWN.

Listen. Here is the thing. This means almost nothing for the rest of the book. The test means NOTHING. Because you don’t even have to commit yourself to the faction you come from OR the faction the computer puts you in. You. Just. Pick. One. You pick one by cutting yourself in the hand like everyone ever to take a stupid oath in every book and TV show and movie for fifty years, like your hands aren’t important and delicate appendages that you can completely destroy with that kind of nonsense.

The only reason that your choice matters, aside from your family will hate you forever possibly if you switch factions, is that if you fail your initiation you end up factionless. This is kind of like college admissions where you are forced to stab yourself and move across the country before beginning the admissions process, and oh, if you don’t get in, you will live on the streets for the rest of your life.

It’s both worse and more hilarious because Roth’s idea of Untouchables-style jobs is, like…train conductors. Janitors. You know, normal moderately well-paid blue-collar frequently unionized jobs, so, totally the lowest rung of society ROTH. YOUR PRIVILEGE IS SHOWING. (Then again, you might have known that from the fact that she wanted to write a dystopia only after she’d tossed out all those pesky Real World Issues.)

You can pick, let me reiterate, ANY FACTION YOU FEEL LIKE, NO MATTER WHAT YOUR RESULTS SAY. And Tris has already belaboredly informed us that she doesn’t fit in at Abnegation, where action sequences will be limited. So she and her brother both pick other factions, and their boss-Puritan dad is deeply disturbed by this. Brother picks Evil Ravenclaw, which looks good on the surface, but Tris picks Dauntless, and I can’t figure out why. She should have known better. In her defense, knowledge is a spotty thing in future Chicago. Like, Tris knows ALL about how other factions perceive her way of Abnegation life, apparently, and she knows what the Hancock building used to be called even though she definitely like all other future people calls it the Hub. Buuuuuut she does not know that you have to get initiated after you pick a faction, and she doesn’t know not everyone makes it even though her faction are in charge of feeding the Factionless ? ? ?

On the surface, the Dauntless are punk police forces that wear only Hot Topic remainders and do a lot of body-mod. That doesn’t seem great to me. But also, as Tris would probably know if knowledge made sense in this world, Dauntless members hurl themselves on and off the L, which no one else rides and which NEVER STOPS, EVER. (Is this where the factionless work? Why? Who is paying for this train to drive all around future Chicago just so Dauntless can hurl themselves on and off it?) And that I think says most of what you need to know about Dauntless. THEY ARE NONSENSE CHILDREN. NOW TRIS IS AMONG THEM. WHAT COMES NEXT?


*In order: Erudite, Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless.

8.2.14 ALEX READS The Year of the Griffin

The Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones

first read / library book / 178/178

The number of Diana Wynne Jones books I can read for the first time is rapidly dwindling, which is fairly terrible; but one of many good things about Diana Wynne Jones is that you can always read her again, because almost every single one of her books is infinitely re-readable.

Year of the Griffin I put off reading for a long age because I didn’t adore Dark Lord of Derkholm. I don’t know why, and I do adore the Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which spawned it. I think it’s that DLoD is spotted with violence in a way that’s meant to be unnerving, except it unnerves me out of enjoying the book. That’s incredibly subjective, so everyone else should probably go read DLoD immediately.

Point one: Griffin sexuality is weird as heck.

Point two: Year of the Griffin is nothing like Dark Lord of Derkholm. Year of the Griffin is, like Witch Week, partially a critique of British schooling (in this case university) and partially an eventful and good-humored tumble through several interesting young people’s coming into their own.

In Dark Lord of Derkholm, a man with a plan and a demon wreaked havoc over the land with yearly hordes of fantasy-adventure enthusiasts (“tourists”), until he and his demon were overthrown. Eight years later, one of the wizard Derk’s children (a griffin) has started at wizard’s college. She’s in a class along with a number of other somewhat misfit young magical people, most of whom aren’t supposed to be there and some of whose magic has…hiccups. Jinxes and things. But they’re all smart and willing and just need something to jolt them out of their troubles and into KNOWLEDGE.

UNNNNNNNFORTUNATELY, everyone who works at the university was trained by people whose only concern was getting a lot of nominally competent wizards into the field for Chesney’s devastating Tours. So most of the faculty know next to nothing about magic. They also know next to nothing about teaching, so it’s a lot of harshly put down questions and BIG HEADINGS / LITTLE HEADINGS, and Wizard Corcoran REALLY wants to get to the moon but he is completely clueless. And their administrative bungling is directly responsible for waves of angry bandits and assassins and kings and murderous dwarf forgemasters and centurions.

The HEADINGS and the teachers who aren’t taught to anything but train for the exam and the general tendency of university administration to make everything as horrible as possible, beyond even the scope of their offices, is incredibly realistic, and DWJ makes it funny. You can tell that in real life it’s awful because DWJ usually gets the funniest right around the worst parts.

The best part, obviously, is the imminent arrival of a magical renaissance, in the hands of claws of the first year students, who all learn in the course of the book a lot about themselves and about their magic. (The magical problems of which are unsurprisingly personal and not just magical problems.) And it’s event after event, the whole way through, so there is no time to be bored and plenty of time to watch DWJ play one of her best self-acknowledged writer tricks–that is, to take a small idea and blow it up to its ultimate possibility, so it’s absurd and exciting and really does fill your book up with great stuff. She does that trick particularly well in this book.

One of the cultures in this world (from which one of the students comes) is a sort of generic fantasy Arab country, and this is just a statement of fact and preparation, because it made me somewhat uneasy but I couldn’t gauge its efficacy/appropriateness. If you happen to have an opinion on that I would love to hear it.