My Brother and I reform the American Educational System: Complaints about the Lexile Test

Many of you may know that I have an amazing younger brother (R). For those of you who don’t know, let me be the first to tell you: I have an amazing younger brother.
Trust me on this, I’m not biased at all.

My brother and I spend a lot of time reading together (when we’re in the same city) or giving each other recommendations for what to read (when we’re not). We talk about books ALL THE TIME. R. has forced me to stay awake until I finished a book he wanted to talk to me about (this was during my winter break, otherwise known as “the only time in the world I can sleep.” I was not pleased). The book, by the way, was Deadline by Mira Grant, and my ensuing discussion with R. was totally worth the lack of sleep. R. and I are bizarre like that. It freaks some people out.

Last summer, two poor, innocent members of my family were trapped in a car with me and my brother while we were talking about China Mielville’s The Scar, which is one of our favorite novels of all time. By the time we’d gone through a blow-by-blow plot summary and a careful analysis of every major character, and we were moving towards the inevitable comparisons with China Mielville’s other Bas-Lag novel, Perdido Street Station, our driver looked ready to claw his way out of the vehicle with his bare hands.

So, as you can probably tell, my brother is pretty passionate about books. (Did I mention he’s awesome?)

It is in this vein that I present to you the following story. For the record, I did ask my brother’s permission to post this – I’m not using him as an unwilling source of amusement!

R. sent me an email about an incident at his middle school:

 “At school today, in science, we’re starting a new project. You have to read a scientific article and summarize it and bla bla bla. The  usual. Then my teacher says that you should pick what you read by your Lexile score. Under my breath, I said “That’s so stupid!” But my teacher heard me! So he asked, “What’s so stupid?” So I said “I think that it’s unfair to regulate what students read by what they got on a test that for all we know could be very inaccurate. Students should challenge themselves, right? Students aren’t going to read things if you give them specific material. People should be able to read what they want! What if you wanted to read something interesting but it was too “challenging” for you? That’s why I said “that’s so stupid.”” And [the teacher] was speechless. Ha Ha Ha!”

Uh, have I mentioned that my brother is awesome? If teacher had called me out in middle school, I would have fallen out of my chair, and said something along the lines of “Ghlahbbshiiiirghportanggoooo bang bang, uh, what was the yyyyaaaarghing question?” And then I probably would have burst into flames. Or melted like the Wicked Witch of the West. But not only did R. have a non-melting response to the teacher, he had a GREAT response to the teacher. Seriously, we should have him writing education policy for the United States.

I think his comment to the teacher pretty much stands for itself, but since I like to blather on, I’ve got some additional information and some commentary.

If you don’t already know, American students in middle and elementary student get their Lexile score after taking the corresponding Lexile test.  I don’t know if it’s used outside the USA – if you are a foreign reader, and you know, speak up!* The Lexile score, in theory, measures reading ability and should allow the teachers to match students to “appropriate” books. Essentially, it’s a reading test. I never had to take it, but I think I only managed to avoid that era by only a year or two.

I understand the instinct behind the use of Lexile scores. Schools want students to read more, and think that if kids are discouraged by the books (or articles) they’re asked to read, they’ll read less. I also want to tread carefully, since there are probably reasons for using the Lexile Score that I’m not thinking of. But in the essentials, I think my brother’s right.

Part of the problem is sheer inaccuracy. The Lexile test is a high-pressure, timed examination. It cannot possibly replicate the conditions under which most students read. While supposedly the test tells us things about reading comprehension and analysis, instead, I think it tests kids’ abilities to work when faced with speed and stress. Neither of those factors is particularly important to good reading. As far as I know, kids aren’t strapped to their chairs and forced to read The Scarlet Letter in thirty minutes or less in their language arts classes (although that would have made my middle school years far more interesting).

Moreover, although I can understand using something like the Lexile scores to gauge a class’s general reading level (I don’t like it, but I can understand it), I think using Lexile scores to determine what kids should be reading is a terrible, terrible idea. The assumption behind the Lexile test – and the science teacher’s remarks – seems to be that what will get kids to read is reading material that is not too hard. And yes, it’s important not to discourage kids. But I seriously doubt any avid reader fell in love with books by going “Wow, that was not too hard! I want to do that again!” Or even “That article was not too hard! I want to learn more science now!”

So many of the problems we face in getting kids to read more are ones that take place before the book is even opened. The schools don’t have enough money. The teachers don’t have enough training. Kids don’t have time to read outside of school. Many students have serious problems outside of their academic life. It’s hard to concentrate on language arts when your Mother is sick, or your electricity is off, or you live in an unsafe neighborhood, or your classmates bully you. Those are important issues, and they need to be addressed. The Lexile Score is no solution. Nor do I have a solution to those problems.

I do, however, have an idea about what to do once we get students opening books.

If that first page is opened, I think a student’s interest in the book is determined not by the ease of reading, but by their interest in the book’s content. And I think that by focusing on the Lexile scores – on level of difficulty rather than level of interest – we are doing students a grave disservice.

I have no idea what my brother’s Lexile score is; I never did. I’ve bought him quite a few books; I’ve recommended even more, and he’s stolen an immoral quantity of novels out of my bookshelves. (Yes, R., if you’re reading this, I know about those. And I am not pleased).

I recommend books to my brother based oh the blind assumption that if he’s interested in them, he’ll read them regardless of how difficult they are. I’ll gladly admit that it’s a stupid assumption, but for the most part, it’s proven useful.  As I wrote above, my brother has read China Mielville’s The Scar – in fact, he’s read almost all of Mielville’s oeuvre. R. also read (and loved) Bram Stroker’s Dracula at the tender age of eleven. I’m pretty sure he’s read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Last summer, he read Azar Nafisi’s very sophisticated, intertextual autobiography Reading Lolita in Tehran for fun. None of these are typical 12 year old fare. And none of them are “easy texts” – even Mielville, the most “popular” of these writers,  has a knotty prose style, and his plots are complicated enough to give me headaches (of joy).

And if I’ve followed the content assumption with R., it’s because that’s the way I came to books. I read my first classic at eight. I took it off my parents’ bookshelf because the name was interesting. It had a strange cover. The print was tiny. I shouldn’t have liked it – but the first few lines described a girl my age being thrown in a haunted bedroom by her mean Aunt and her bullying Cousins, and I was captivated. I identified with her; I knew her; I had to know what happened to her. The book, of course, was Jane Eyre. If my parents had been using a miniature Lexile score, they probably would have taken Jane Eyre out of my hands and given me a more appropriate text. Which would have been a shame.

I want to be clear that I don’t think R. and I read Dickens and Bronte at a young age because we were some kind of prodigies.  Much as I’d like to believe that my family is fertile ground for young geniuses, those books should be within the power of most teenagers to read. That they don’t speaks more, in my opinion, to their interest in Jane Eyre than to their lack of reading skills.

When we make students read Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter and they seem completely uninterested, it’s a lot easier to blame it on their reading skills than to consider the issue of content. Maybe younger students nowadays can’t identify with Huckleberry Finn. Maybe they don’t care about Hester Prynn (sacrilege!). Maybe we should focus on finding books that students want to read – in hopes that someday they’ll turn to the books we want them to read.

So why aren’t we trying to find books that kids want to read?

A lot of it has to do with trust. We, as adults (I’m over eighteen! I’m totally an adult!) think that we know best for kids. And a lot of times, we do. But in this particular situation, I worry that our intransigence – our belief that we know their reading interests and their reading levels better than they do – leads to problems.

Yes, the content kids prefer might be Gossip Girl. Or The Hunger Games. Or Twilight. It’s okay. They’ll live; I promise. I went through a YA phase, and my parents freaked out. They wanted me to read Joseph Conrad. I wanted to read The Princess Diaries. But if I’d read Joseph Conrad when I was fifteen, I would have been wanted to drown the man in a teacup. Now, I really like Conrad. I also really like The Princess Diaries. Reading YA didn’t – and doesn’t – prevent me from reading and enjoying “literature.”

Yes, the content some kids want to read might have sex. It might have violence. It might have drugs. Good.  There are a lot of Middle Schoolers who deal with sex, abuse, violence, death, drugs, disease, bullying etc. on a daily basis. They should be able to read books that speak to them. We can’t just pretend that “grown up” problems are divorced from the lives of pre-teens and teenagers. Maybe we can even use it as an opportunity to talk about those issues with kids.

(I know. I just proposed that we talk about sex with kids. Someone arrest me).

Or maybe they’ll just prefer to read War and Peace. Or Gossip Girl. Or Whale Talk. In any case, they’ll be reading. And if they like what they’re reading, odds are, they’ll want to read more.

As R. said:  “People should be able to read what they want! What  if you wanted to read something interesting but it was too “challenging” for you?”

My brother: as awesome as Starbuck:

(No, I don’t know if Starbuck reads. But if she does, I guarantee she reads neither The Princess Diaries or Joseph Conrad. I’ve always pegged her as a Whale Talk gal myself.)

Anyone have other insights into the use of Lexile Scores? Am I not seeing something? How else can we get kids to read?


Frantically, Florally February: Monthly Reading Roundup

I go through a lot of books -  most years, I read at least a hundred and twenty novels. Last year, I hit 162 books, which was a record for me.

Before you ask: of course, I count! I’m so competitive that I can’t help but compete with myself (can I read more than 160 books this year? Or will last-year me win? NEVER). It’s pathetic. But hey, it gets me to read.

Since I consume so many books, there’s no way I can ever review all of them on this blog – or even most of them. Thus, I’m planning on doing a monthly roundup, which will allow me to discuss most of them briefly. And then I can stop feeling guilty that I’m not reviewing all my favorites.

I’m also doing these roundups because I’m a narcissistic, self-obsessed literature student who likes to obsessively document all the books she reads. But we don’t need to go there.

I’m starting with February books, even though it’s March. March isn’t over yet; it’s not too late to talk about February. At least, that’s what I tell myself (allow me my delusions).

The reviews follow the list:

(note: any book that is starred (*) and in italics is one I enjoyed enough to recommend)

1. Dawn by Octavia Butler **
2. Groundings for the Metaphysics of Morals by Kant
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen **
4. The Studhorse Man by Robert Kroescht
5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins **
6. Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware
7. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton **
8. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton **
9. Green Grass and Running Water by Thomas King **
10. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen **
11. Genealogy of Morals by Nietzsche **
12. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons  **
13. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzochelli **
14. The Day of the Locust by Nathaneal West
15. Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine **
16. The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaage
17. I Never Liked You by Chester Brown
18. Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey **

Given how busy a month February was, I’m retrospectively shocked by how much I managed to read. Eighteen books? Really?

But most of them are books I read for school – twelve out of eighteen, in fact. If I didn’t have to read for class, this would be quite a sparse list. It’s hard to be a vigilante literature reader… I need some kind of structure.

February was a bit of a low month in terms of quality. I only liked twelve out of the eighteen, which sounds decent, but is far below my personal averages. And a lot of the books I didn’t like, I really didn’t like – The Studhorse Man, for example, was a complete trainwreck for me.

That said, there were a few standouts. Other than the Austens, which are always a treat, I thoroughly enjoyed Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique (nominated for a Nebula in 2012), Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Oliva, David Mazzochelli’s Asterios Polyp and Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water.

My two favorites this month were Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm and Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw. Both are genre-defying, hilarity-inducing mashups with lots and lots of knotty thematic stuff for me to sink my metaphorical teeth into (I assure you, I do not chew books, except when they’re made out of candy).
Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm is a mashup of the highest order. In the book, it’s as if Emma Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma suddenly showed up on the set of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and proceeded to put everyone’s life in order.

With no-nonsense vigor and an arch sense of humor, Flora Post (the Emma Woodhouse lookalike) sends the brooding, woman-hating man of mystery (*cough* HEATHCLIFF *cough* ) off to become a Hollywood movie star. She transforms the imp-like but beautiful young woman (*cough* Catherine Linton *cough*) into a desirable mate for the local aristocrat. She teaches the overly fertile maid the importance of contraception. She deals with Aunt Doom (yes, her name is Aunt Doom), the owner of Cold Comfort Farm, and a woman who has refused to come out of her room for some sixty years, because she saw “something in the woodshed” as a girl.

We all know Healthcliff just wants Fame...

The book also presents some subtle discussions of feminism and the treatment of female authorship. When Flora meets an aspiring author (Mr. Meyerberg), he tries to convince her that the Bronte sister’s entire oeuvre was written by Branwen (their brother).** Mr. Meyerberg pursues Flora romantically, and blames her indifference on sexual frigidity.

The whole story is funny as hell, in a mischievous, high-wire sort of way. I’d be fascinated to read the scholarship on the piece, because there’s so much rich, tangled intertextuality to work through.

Jo Waltons’ Tooth and Claw, meanwhile, is another 19th century parody (what can I say? I love the 19th century. I love parodies). Walton writes a typical Victorian comedy of manners: everyone tries to get married and find their vicarage and display proper conduct all while keeping their clothes in perfec order. But the “everyone” she writes about aren’t humans. They’re dragons.
Yes, you read that right. Every character in the novel is a dragon, from blushing maiden to overbearing aristocrat.

All he needs to be perfectly respectable is a vicarage and a nice cup of tea.

It shouldn’t work, but it does, in large part because of how Walton uses the biological realities of being a dragon to explain the bizarre traditions of Victorian society. For example, we finally understand why victorian girls weren’t allowed around men. When men get too close to virgin dragons, the virgin’s scales “blush” red, and everyone knows they’ve been near a man, bringing on scandal.

Walton explains the perpetual survival of the aristocracy in a similar way.  Aristocratic dragons are allowed the first bite of any dead dragon. They, for example, get to eat the stunted children of their tenants. Dragons grow big depending on the amount of dragon-flesh they eat – and since the size of a dragon determines their ability to survive a fight, aristocrats will always have a physical advantage over their tenants.

In these, and many other examples, Walton cleverly reworks the tropes of two genres (dragon stories and Victorian comedy of manners). It was a fantastic, funny, flaming (sometimes literally) read. And I hold out hope that there might be a sequel someday.

** Cue obligatory Joanna Russ reference. As Russ points out in her non-fiction masterpiece How to Suppress Women’s Writing,  the easiest way to marginalize womens’ writing is to yell “SHE DIDN’T WRITE IT!

Mr. Meyerburg, Joanna is Judging You.


Trainwreck of Sin and Misery: Why I Started Watching American Idol

“There’s going to be a couple of trainwrecks. Haley Reinhart is going to be a trainwreck.” – Michael Slezak, TVLine, March 1st 2011

Trainwreck... of awesome

I don’t watch American Idol.
I mean, I didn’t.
Ever.
Oh, I knew it existed. I mean, I wasn’t THAT far under the rock. But my parents didn’t believe in TV, and they especially didn’t believe in reality TV.
Neither did I. In my teenager idealism, I thought American Idol was a  “commercialized, manipulative, exploitative piece of garbage” (I had a thing for adjectives). And I patently refused to support it. No, I would sit in my room and blast my African Pop, feeling virtuous. Youssou n’Dour was the sound of my adolescence, not David Archuleta or Jordin Sparks.

Yet American Idol crept up on me. Based on seeing his youtube performances, I became an Adam Lambert convert, though I still refused to watch show. And then I discovered a fantastic commentary writer called Michael Slezak. Unfortunately for me, Slezak wrote American idol reviews. But since he was fun and smart and snarky, I started reading his recaps anyways. Sometimes I’d go on youtube to see a performance – but usually Slezak’s writing was more interesting than the singers.

And then Slezak convinced me to watch season 10 contestant’s Haley Reinhart’s performances. One song later (“You and I”), it was all over for me; I was madly in love with her.

And I shouldn’t have loved Haley. I mean, she’s a jazz vocalist (I don’t like jazz). She picks weird songs to cover (I don’t like weird songs). She was on a show called American Idol (I don’t like American Idol). The entire production did everything it could to send her home early (I am usually easily manipulated by producer tricks).

But I loved Haley Reinhart. And I still love Haley Reinhart. In fact, I go all kinds of fangirl when I listen to her. I have listened to her new single “Free” approximately 20 times today. It’s a bit embarrassing.

But why? Why do I love Haley?

Well, I always love the underdog. And there’s rarely been as big an underdog as Haley Reinahart.

She was in the bottom three for her first two weeks on the show. The judges consistently trashed her performances. The producers hated her. She was, in other words, “cannon fodder” – someone who was never, ever, ever supposed to get into the top 10 of American Idol.

But miraculously, Haley didn’t go home. And she started getting better. Much, much, much better. She began at the bottom of the pack of contestants; she ended as someone who turned in the best performance almost every week. She began as someone no pundit could see winning; she ended in third place, knocking out early favorites like Casey Abrams, James Durbin and Stefano Langone.

And she did it without any help.

Even as Haley morphed into a genuine contender, the producers continued to ignore and sabotage her. The judges refused to give her any credit. In a season where the judges were notoriously easy on people – where they almost never called contestants out on pitch problems, missed notes and bad singing (and when I, with my complete lack of expertise, notice that someone is off-pitch, or singing badly, they’re REALLY singing badly) – where everyone got a “in it to win it” and a “gold star” – Haley Reinhart’s treatment was shocking. As she survived elimination after elimination, Haley became the one and only contestant the judges would critique – despite her noticeable improvement, and the fact that she always stayed on key.

Even when the judges finally acknowledged just how incredible Haley was – she did get the most standing ovations of the season (3 in a row, not counting her standing ovation from her duet with Casey Abrams) – it was always more muted than with other contestants. The others were so good that there was “nothing to judge here.” They were “in it to win it.” They were “the one.” On the other hand, Haley was, at most,  “the best performance the night.” Or she had a “good, good, good, good round.” No judge ever discussed her as a potential winner. No one ever said she could make the top three or the top two. No judge ever discussed her appeal as a potential recording artist. There’s actually a recording of Randy Jackson saying of Haley (during top 5 week, before the cameras were on him) “I’m not rooting for her.”

If you want proof of the blatant favoritism, look no further than top four week. After the first round of songs, all the contestants – Haley, James Durbin, Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina – were called back on stage. Ryan Seacrest, the host, asked the judges who did had done best. Randy Jackson said – and I quote – “Uh, I think it’s a tie between Scotty, James and Lauren.”

(notice someone missing?)

I almost threw my coffee at the TV screen on that one. Seriously? Seriously.

When I say Haley was the underdog, I really, really mean: she was the underdog. No one was on her side. Not the producers. Not the judges. Not (initially) the voting public. And usually, when you don’t have all three of those guys in your corner, you are dead in the water. But not Haley Reinhart. And that’s why I love her.

Most contestants would buckle under the pressure; not Haley. Even when it was clear that no one thought Haley would win, she refused to play it safe. She pushed her vocals. She took risks. She choose songs that no one in their right mind would choose – a Led Zepplin song, an unreleased Lady Gaga track, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”, the completely unknown jazz ditty “Moanin’.” And as Haley was doing everything a contestant should not do, she was also single-handedly destroying the producer’s genius plan for the final five.

Which is what’s so incredible about her: by throwing out every rule in the book (except for: sing like a queen) Haley Reinhart single-handedly destroyed the producer’s genius plan for the top three.

Haley Reinhart: transforming rule books into confetti since 1990.

With all of those things – the judge’s riducata, the production’s sabotage and Haley’s own grit and spunk – it was basically impossible for me NOT to root for her.

But even though I love an underdog – and I do always love an underdog – I wouldn’t love Haley nearly as much if it weren’t for that aforementioned quality: her talent.

And her jaw-dropping singing.

When Michael Slezak erupted with outrage at the Judge’s refusal to praise Haley’s “You and I,” I went to youtube, and watched it. And started laughing. Not because it was bad, no – but because of how ridiculous her voice was. The growl! The passion! The grit! The clarity of her tone as it hit the higher register!

And then I flipped to Haley’s “House of the Rising Sun,” and had a full scale meltdown of hilarity. I didn’t even know singers could do things like that. She looped her voice between low and high notes with a timing that left me gasping with laughter. She slid between champagne-velvet smoothness, and a powerful growl like a DJ flipping tracks – effortlessly.

One of the reasons I don’t watch idol is because I’ve found that, no matter how good the singers are, they don’t do anything I can’t find on my iPod, or in the current crop of recording artists. They’re fine, sure, but other people are fine too, and I don’t have to watch a whole seasons worth of a TV show in order to get my hands on their music. Adam Lambert is of the few exceptions to this rule – Haley Reinhart is the other. She does things that I didn’t even know were vocally possible, like go from her rich, bluesy, simmering lower range to the stunning clarity of her upper register in seconds. I’ve never heard a voice like hers before. It’s a medley of elements that shouldn’t go together – a warm, smooth velvet tone; a passionate growl; a rocker’s intense, sugar and alcohol-laced rasp; a yodel and a haunting, whispery register. Yet somehow, under Haley’s direction, all those different edges combine into utter perfection.

Haley was a convincer. She transformed Michael Slezak, who hated her at the beginning of the season, into an obsessive fanboy. She got the American public to vote for her all the way to the top three. And she convinced me. I didn’t think an American-idol singer would ever top my list of favorite musicians. I didn’t think I could ever love a jazz vocalist.  I didn’t know I needed a singer like Haley Reinhart in my life. But I need her now. She convinced me.

And in honor of the fact that she did the impossible, and made me, an utter music-phobe, care about American Idol – and also because her first single “Free,” just came out (it’s FANTASTIC) – I’m celebrating my favorite Haley Reinhart performances. Please pardon my utter fangirlness.

1. “House of the Rising Sun”

The best performance of season 10, hands down, and probably in the top ten performances on American Idol, ever. The a Capella opening sends chills down my spine. The way her voice loop up and down. The “breaks” in her smooth melodies. The way she handles her notes. Some of them are straight lines; others slide sharply around the edges of bubble, like she’s curving them, drawing a perfect 360 with her voice.
And then she rips into the melody with determination in her eyes and raw power of her tone, and it’s just incredible, especially as she draws back into the haunting stillness of “oh mother” before her voice explodes on the final few lyrics. She felt every word of the song. She, a 21 year old woman, embodied the mood, the power, the despair of a male Louisiana drug addict. Well played, Ms. Reinhart. Well played.

2. “What is and What should Never Be”

My favorite Haley Reinhart performances are the ones where she goes between her creamy velvety register, and her rock-and-roll rasp. And her “What is and What should Never Be” vocal exemplifies that: it’s blues and rock and jazz; it has elements of both ethearality and grit. There’s a magnificent, controlled-yet-raw sense to the vocal.

And you gotta love a girl who can fall down and still deliver one of the best performances all season, right? You also gotta love a girl who performs an obscure Led Zepplin song after being trashed two weeks in a row for bad song choice. Haley “I don’t care about your terrible advice” Reinhart.

I’m going to quote Beyonce on Haley’s song choice (because everyone should quote Beyonce at least once in their lives): “It shows her guts. It shows her *bleep*. It shows her strength and her fearlessness. She is a risk taker, because she didn’t pick a pop song or something that everyone knows. She has conviction. She makes you believe in what she believes in – which is a huge part of being a superstar.”
Oh, by the way? The guy on electric guitar? Her dad. The look that lights up her face as she comes down the stairs and sees him? Priceless.

(I am a total sap, and the first time I saw Haley and her father playing together, I MAY have teared up. Or I may just have had REALLY BAD ALLERGIES.)

3. “Bennie and the Jets” (exit)

Haley’s original performance of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” on Top 11 week put her on the map. It was a stunning vocal from a contestant who everyone had already written off – in the space of ninety seconds, Haley the inevitable loser had transformed into a bonafide dark horse.
When she reprised “Benny and the Jets” as her exit song, right after getting cut from the competition, it was even more incredible.
And this is after she’d been cut. AFTER.

I know some people think the performance shows Haley’s arrogance. I don’t get that. I think it shows her passion for singing; her love for her music. And that’s not something that always came across with other contestants. That’s not even something that comes across with professional singers. But with Haley – yeah. You can tell. She’s just living inside every single on of those notes, burrowing deep within, enjoying every second of being up there. And it’s almost impossible not to enjoy it right along with her (which is why I’ve watched this performances approximately eleventy five billion times)

The moment when she leans back and slides down the stairs, and her voice flies up to the rafters like a helium balloon on “magazine” is incredible. And when she changes the lyrics to include the names of the judges, softening into a lovely soprano for “Steven,” – I got chills. Or when she starts rocking out with her fellow booted contestants. Or that final run of notes, right before the end. And then her “This end of this! Shindig!” and hug with her parents was just -

I almost wasn’t upset that she’d been cut anymore.

4. “Moanin’” (duet with Casey Abrams)

I have nothing to say. Because it’s just too wonderful for words.

Oh, I’ve got something to say after all. Whoops. When Haley comes in to the song, her voice it so light and soft and lovely it barely touches the lyrics. And then she scats! SHE SCATS! (so does Casey, who I think is pretty fantastic here).

But the moment I fell out of my seat (figuratively) is at the 1:37 mark of the video. When her voice emerges from nowhere and hits that series of ridiculously high notes -  How do you even…

Just watch it.

5. “I (who have nothing)”

Let’s take a scenario here. You sing your song. You are the only contestant out of the four who is criticized. You are then brought up on stage where you are told that EVERY SINGLE OTHER CONTESTANT is beating you. The camera pans to you, and it’s clear that you’re on the verge of tears.

And then you have less than five minutes to pull yourself together before you perform again.

See, this is when it’s completely justified to be a trainwreck. Seriously.
Haley, though? Not having it. She comes back with a theatrical, bluesy, bordering-on-the-psychotic version of “I (who have nothing).” The performance oozes with longing and pain and is threaded with viciously powerful vocals.
It’s also proof that Haley doesn’t need her signature growl to sell a song.  She only uses it once in the entire song, and it’s still one of the best vocal performances of the season.

6. Oh, what the hell.

Like I could decide on the rest of them! I’m just throwing in her Top 3 rendition of Rhiannon, which is dreamy and cool and lovely in all the right ways. She puts the slightest hint of her growl into her creamy upper register, which gives the performance an undertone of the ghostly. And the way she pulls back her final note into the whisper? Girl’s got skills.

Oh, and her top 5 performance of “You and I,” which the judges hated. And which, conversely, made me fall in love with her. Judges: Go jump in a lake.

I will end with Michael Slezak, who says it all:

“Like a salmon swimming upstream and dodging the vicious claws of grizzly bear Randy Jackson and the gallons of pollutants dumped by toxic she-beast Jennifer Lopez, Haley made what has to be the most sensational (and artistically satisfying) come-from-behind run in Idol history. I’d also argue she scored more “Idol Moments” than any other contestant this season: “Bennie and the Jets,” “Moanin’,” “You and I,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “I (Who Have Nothing),” “What Is and What Should Never Be,” and “Rhiannon. And in what felt like a love note to the fans who watched her grow from awkward, slurry cannon fodder to a poised and confident musical risk-taker, Haley turned what could’ve been a tearful exit performance into a moment of pure triumph.” – Michael Slezak, TVLine, May 20th 2011 

You go, girl.

GROWLER SAVED.

So apparently, the internet has found this post – my blog traffic suddenly spiked around two in the morning when someone posted this on the idol forums  Which is great, if a bit overwhelming (this blog is two weeks old – I have no traffic yet)! Hello, fellow Haley fans! Nice to meet you!

I’m assuming that if you’re enough of a die-hard Haley fan to find this post, you’ve probably heard every song Haley’s played off of her album, but just in case anyone hadn’t, I thought I’d put a collection of links below. I’m going by least-to-most trafficked on youtube.

“Now that You’re Here” – this is the newest I’ve found online, and it’s fantastic. I had the chorus stuck in my head after two listens, and my roommates kept asking me what I was humming while I was cooking.

“Hit the Ground Runnin’” (at House of Blues). My fingers are crossed that this will be her second single. As much as I love “Free,” “Hit the Ground Runnin’” is my favorite song off her album (that I’ve heard so far), and I think it would sell extraordinarily well to radio. Also: lyrics= win.

“Wasted Tears” (at Hard Rock Cafe). Apparently she sang this while sick. Which is ridiculous. When I’m sick, I usually curl up in a ball and die.

The lead single, “Free.” If you have not bought it, buy it. Because it’s incredible. I also highly recommend listening to her performance of it on the American Idol results show – her phrasing of the “let it be/let it be/just a beautiful memory” gives me goosebumps.

If anyone knows of other new videos and leaks, let me know and I will put them up!

Very Vaguely Related Posts:

Why this blog exists: (hint: American Idol is only the tip of the iceberg of the things I haven’t watched)

Nebula Nominations are… better than I expected

I complain about the Hugo Nominations before they even EXIST.

A Review of Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo


Let the Djombi Eat Cake: a Review of Redemption in Indigo

Book: Redemption in Indigo

Author: Karen Lord

Publisher: Small Beer Press

Published in:  2010

Cover of Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Paama is not having a good year.

First, there’s her husband. Let’s not even talk about her husband. No – let’s.  His entire life is about food. When going on a three day trip, he hires eight mules for his bags of food, and takes along two hunters. And he still runs out. When he arrives at his in-laws’ home, Semwe (his father in law) gives him an entire lamb to eat. Which sounds like a lot, but Ansige eats all of it in a few hours, goes prowling around the village looking for more food, and ends by trying to kill one of Semwe’s sheep. Ansige’s gluttony and arrogance have pushed Paama to the point where she’s abandoned him and gone back to her parents’ village – but then Ansige decides to follow her.

Now, Paama has to try to get rid of Ansige (again). But she can’t actually throw him out, since there are Expectations.

Also, Appearances. Let’s not forget about Appearances.

It is, of course, nearly impossible to keep up appearances when your husband is running around killing other peoples’ sheep and stealing peoples’ corn, and falling into wells and getting his head stuck in your mortar.

Fortunately, Paama is up to the task. She lies. She cheats. She cooks extra food. She pretends to love Ansige. She pretends everything (from the sheep killing to the well-falling) is her fault. And she manages to kick him out.

Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of Paama’s troubles.

Impressed by Paama’s ability to deal with the insanity around her, the Djombi – powerful, undying spirits – decide that she is the perfect person to hold the chaos stick, a magical artifact with the power to control (you guessed it) chaos. They don’t bother asking what she thinks about it. They also don’t bother to let her know that the real owner of the chaos stick, a renegade Djombi with a hatred of humanity and a penchant for comic books, is on his way to take the stick back.

Whoops.

This, in a nutshell, is the setup of Karen Lord’s debut fantasy novel, Redemption in Indigo. It’s an unusual fantasy novel. It isn’t set in a european, or euro-derived landscape, but somewhere in Africa. The magic may be magic, but it might also be science – we get a dose of chaos theory along with the wand-waving. The hero is not a young boy, but a middle-aged woman. Her talents aren’t swordplay and sarcasm, but cooking, cleverness and civility – with a side serving of compassion. Paama isn’t interested in beating people up. She’s not even that interested in being right. She asks questions, and demands answers, and is willing to learn. Sure, she’ll yell at you, or tell you what an idiot you’re being, but only after all other options have been exhausted. And she treats everyone with this brand of tough-love civility, be they her husband, the deadly djombi stalking her, or the giant spider popping up around her town.

It’s also an unusual novel because of the narrative structure. The plot hues closely to the curves of the characters lives and thoughts rather than follow the strict linearity of conflict, climax and denouement. Several reviewers have said the book is like traditional storytelling. I would tend to agree, with some important reservations: I know absolutely nothing about storytelling culture in either Barbados, where Karen Lord grew up, or Senegal, where the folk tale that inspired Redemption originated. So it seems a bit silly of me to claim Lord is writing like a storyteller, since I don’t even know what that means. I agree, however, that there are definite elements of the (universal) storyteller in the narrative – the call and response, the meandering, the opinionated narrator (I LOVE THE NARRATOR SO MUCH. Hem. Will get back there later). Moreover, I think it’s important to note that even if Karen Lord is following a storytelling structure, she’s doing so in innovative, radical ways – she’s reworking a genre rather than just playing into it. Reading Redemption in Indigo isn’t “just like” listening to a story.

I personally am a huge fan of this sort of work. I like novels that rework genre conventions, I like novels that foil my expectations, I like novels that play around with narrative structure, that have unusual heroes, that take place in non-eurocentric cultures. So it came as no surprise to me that I loved Redemption in Indigo.

The beginning – with Ansige’s attempt to take back his wife – is hilarious. I kept trying not to laugh, because Paama’s predicament was so terrible I felt bad about laughing at all, but I couldn’t help it. The rest of the novel was equally satisfying, if not nearly as funny.

I should amend that. The rest of the novel isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it’s still quite funny. Indeed, what becomes funny in the novel is how thoroughly Lord undermines genre conventions. When the Indigo Lord shows up, he demands that Paama give up the chaos stick by threatening her sister. And she immediately hands it over. It’s fantastic!

I mean, seriously, if a giant blue guy was threatening to kill your sister, would you haggle over a stick you barely even knew how to use? No? No. Come on.

Of course, this doesn’t work (because magic never works out like that). In order for the Indigo Lord to reclaim the chaos stick, he must convince Paama that he would wield it better than she is. So the Indigo Lord takes Paama on an intergalactic road trip to show her why she’s unprepared for the responsibility of the Stick. Meanwhile,  he tries to get over his hatred of humans long enough to persuade Paama that he’s not going to kill them all the second he gets his hand back on his powers. The interaction between the Indigo Lord and Paama is priceless – their natures are so different that they really can’t understand one another, but it’s fascinating to watch them try.

Although Paama and the Indigo Lord are the main attractions of Redemption in Indigo, they don’t take away from the richness of the side plots and secondary characters. The spider-trickster who can’t seem to keep a grip on his human form when trying to manipulate humans, Kwame, the tracker whose moral conscience causes him to become less and less secure about the ethics of his profession, the courtship between the failed poet and Paaama’s sister – all of those stories add to the central plot in intriguing ways. My favorite secondary plot, however, involves the House of Sisters, a group of women with supernatural abilities who help Paama handle the Chaos Stick and the Indigo Lord. They’re a very competent bunch – even when a giant spider shows up on their threshold and demands they turn him back into a human, they deal with the situation with calm and good humor. Like Paama, they are rattled by the presence of the djombi, but they’re entirely able to deal with them. The presence of the House of Sisters means that Paama isn’t alone in facing the powers of the otherworld. It also means that she isn’t the “chosen” human, with special abilities that enable her to stand up to the Indigo Lord. While I do like chosen ones (I’m an epic fantasy reader, after all) I also like this storyline – the one where, sure, a chosen one is great, but if she doesn’t work out, we’ve got other options.

My absolute favorite part of the novel – more than the House of Sisters, more than Paama, more than the genre subversions – is the narrator. The narrator is not objective in the least. She – or he – has definite opinions about the story, and she will make them known. And if she thinks the characters are silly, she’ll let the readers know. More importantly, when she thinks the readers are stupid, she’ll let us know. I particularly like how she’s always accusing readers of derailing the story, giving us information in an exasperated manner. It’s her story, damn it, and she’d prefer not to infodump, but we’re forcing her to, with all our ignorance.

“Second, you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they made themselves known? (…) Think!” (Lord 15).

She’s always berating readers for their (supposed) dislike of the story. When she anticipates that readers won’t like the moral of the story, she tells us:” Do you go through life with your eyes blindfolded and your ears stopped? Everything teaches , everyone preaches, all have a gospel to sell! Better the one who is honest and open in declaring an agenda than teh one who fools you into believing that they are only spinning a pretty fancy for beauty’s sake. I was honest and open! Don’t you remember? I told you from the very beginning that it was a story about choices” (Lord 181).

And her discussing of the epilogue is wonderful, and hilarious, and snarky, and I was charmed to bits, because she promised us we wouldn’t get an epilogue (which was quite frustrating, since the story obviously wasn’t over), but then she gave it to us anyways, protesting all the way.

There’s something to that – to the narrator’s question and answer relationship with the reader.  Much of Redemption in Indigo is about question and answer. The narrator asks readers questions. The narrator answers our questions. Characters ask questions of one another, of the universe, of themselves. Thinking about it now, I realize that there’s a chaotic element to the question and answer motif. After all, how do humans deal with the confusion of daily life except by asking questions? Constant, almost invisible questions, about our existence, and where the socks go in the laundry, and why does our sister like that boy, and is there a god, and why do people listen to Justin Bieber anyways? To the anarchy of life, we respond with an equal anarchy of questions. And we get answers, and most of the time, like Paama, or like the Indigo Lord, they’re not answers we’d anticipated, or even answers we can understand. So we ask more questions.

And sometimes, if we’re insistent enough, the world is forced to give us a semi-coherent answer – just as the narrator was forced to give us the epilogue at the end.

When I consider how well the narrative structure works with the novel’s theme, I’m in awe at Karen Lord’s ability. Especially since Redemption in Indigo is her debut novel. Her debut novel.

All I can really say is “Wow.”

And apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way. Redemption in Indigo was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for best novel (which is how I heard about it). It’s also successful enough that Karen Lord is writing a sequel. To which I say: Hurrah! I’m pleased to see this kind of work get the attention it so richly deserves – and I’m hoping for a Redemption in Indigo series.

Watch out for this woman. I would not be surprised if she keeps appearing on the major awards ballots. And if her work keeps improving – or even if it stays at this level – we’re in for a serious treat.

Which is why I say :Chocolate cake for everyone! (Even dastardly immortals).

I should also note that Redemption in Indigo is published by Small Beer Press, an independent, speculative fiction book publishing company operated by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant. I evidently need to keep an eye out for them, since they published one of my favorite YA novels of last year – The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman.

 

Other Reviews of Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord:

Bibliophile Stalker: Book Review: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

The Book Smugglers: Book Review: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Sx Salon: The Djombi and the Wormhole: A Review of Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo (includes an interesting discussion of the physics in the novel)

 

author Karen Lord

Karen Lord: Watch out for her.

Favorite quote:

“He gave her one of his unfathomable, blank looks. ‘I like to read the paper for the same reason that I like the occasional bit of food – to sample human tastes.’

‘I thought you despised us,’ she said quietly.

His hands squirmed on the folded newspaper. ‘Not despise. Not all of human taste is abhorrent. There are bits that are enjoyable.’

‘Like chocolate cake and comic strip humour?’ she murmured, eyes downcast, sarcasm mild.

‘Are you eating that last piece of cake?’ he asked, unmoved.”


Nebula Nominations are Wearing the Awesomepants

The Nebula Nominations are Here! The Nebula Nominations are Here! AAAH!

In case you don’t know, the Nebulas are annual awards given to the best science fiction and fantasy of the year (novel, novelette, short story, movie etc.). Unlike the Hugos, the Nebulas are decided by not fandom, but by creators: only members of the Science fiction and Fantasy Writers of American (SFWA) can vote. They’re pretty crucial awards – in fact, I’d put them right up there with the Hugo and the World Fantasy Award, in terms of visibility and importance to the field.

So the Nebula Shortlist coming out? Totally warrants a freakout.

But before I have the aforementioned freakout, a digression (about another freakout).

Tor.com runs an annual reader’s poll on the best novel of the year. Since they’re a major SF/F hub, I assume that the poll is pretty, well, popular,  and so the results might be a bellweather for the Nebulas and the Hugos. And ever since I’ve seen the aforementioned results, I’ve been having a minor freakout.

The freakout goes like this: OH GOD, a list of the ten books and exactly ONE woman. No authors of color (as far as I can tell – please, someone correct me if I’m wrong). And NO support for the really awesomepants genre-defying, mind-bending fantasmagorical novels I think are the “best” of the year. NOOOO, the Hugos and the Nebulas are CLEARLY going to be a two-man race between PAT ROTHFUSS AND GEORGE RR. MARTIN, WHYYYYYYYY?

My freakout kept increasing as I read every category (again: one woman in the short story category. Is there a quota system I’m unaware of?) You can witness the results of said freakout in my post about the Hugo nominations. (Fair warning: it’s quite a long post).

I will admit, I’m the only person I know who would get this worked out about awards that haven’t even been announced yet. Such is my curse.

But for today, my friends, my curse has been lifted, because the Nebula Awards shortlist is OUT. And it is telling me that I should never, ever, ever pay attention to the Tor Reader’s Poll. Because the shortlist?

Is wearing the awesomepants.

I actually gasped when I saw the best novel category. Do you know why? Because N.K Jemisin is BACK on it, ladies and gentlemen. WHOOO HOOO!
I was convinced The Kingdom of the Gods wouldn’t make it on the ballot, because it’s the third book in the trilogy (usually not nominated in these sorts of things) and it was released in late October last year, and there wasn’t the same buzz around it there was around The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Which was really unfortunate, because The Kingdom of the Gods is, in my opinion, even better than The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It’s absolutely incredible, and I’ve been moping around because I thought it would not get the recognition it so richly deserved. But it has! Hurrah! Go N.K Jemisin!

And then, the shortlist continued its wardrobe of awesomeness by including Jo Walton’s Among Others – one of my favorite reads of the past year (and the only female-authored novel to crack the top ten in Tor’s Reader Poll). Jo Walton, or, as I like to call her: Jo “genre boundaries? What genre boundaries?” Walton.

I am fully committed to any author who writes a Victorian comedy of manners starring a pose of dragons (Tooth and Claw). Or an author who writes a story about a young witch discovering science fiction.

Of course, when I saw China Mielville’s Embassytown was on the shortlist, I knew the Nebulas were going full-out. Oh yeah. The shortlist was putting on its high heels, man. As everyone and their grandmother knows, I am slightly obsessed with China Mielville. He’s one of those hyped authors who truly deserves the hype. He also never rests on his laurels – all of his novels are different from one another, and each one of them is difficult and challenging in new ways. I always approach Mielville with a bit of trepidation because I never know if he’s going to pull it off. It’s like each one of his novels is a roller coaster, but there aren’t any tracks under the car, and Mielville’s sitting there, assuring me that yes, the roller coaster will make it back to the ground safely, and before I can protest, he locks the doors and I can’t get out. But somehow, the roller coaster DOES make it onto the ground, and I’m always amazed it hasn’t fallen out of the sky, and I can never quite figure out how he’s done it. He’s that kind of storyteller.

I was also quite pleased to see Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique on there – I finished it last week, and I thought it was fantastic. Valentine managed to take two things I was getting a bit tired of – Steampunk and circus novels – and make them fresh and interesting by pushing the conventions to that weird, dark place I always hoped they would go to. Plus, I love a good narrative about the posthuman. I’m not sure I liked Mechanique as much as I did some other of 2011’s books, but it’s one I can get behind for the nomination.

And then I saw Kameron Hurley’s God’s War was on the ballot, and I realized that the shortlist wasn’t just wearing the awesomepants. It was wearing the diamond-incrusted, Jean-Paul Gaultier designed awesomepants.
When the ladies of the (wonderful) podcast Galactic Suburbia described God’s War, I though “There’s no way I’m not going to love this.” It’s about an assassin. There are aliens. And a holy war. And a planet settled by muslims. And people sell their wombs. And there’s BOXING. And bugs. Lots and lots and lots of bugs.

And I was right. I did love it. I’m planning on posting a full review at some point in the future, so I will restrain myself for now. But it’s a great, great book, and the fact that it was nominated for a Nebula (rather than burned to the ground for its radical feminism), gives me hope.

Sadly, I have nothing to say about Jack McDevitt’s Firebird, because… I haven’t read it. Whoops. I haven’t even really heard of it, so I will need to track it down and discover why it’s on the ballot. But given the standard of the other nominees, I’m sure it’s fantastic.

Going back to my fears that the ballot would time-travel back into the dark days of all-white men?  Incorrect! Of the best novel authors, four are women, two are men. Hurrah! The trend of women being recognized in the SF/F field continues!

As far as I know, NK Jemisin is the only author of color recognized (again, anyone with clarifications there should let me know, because I don’t want to erase anyone). But two of the novels are in a non-european setting (The Kingdom of the Gods and God’s War) and Valentine’s novel has quite a few non-white characters (I don’t know about Firebird).

I have a lot less to say about the non-novel categories, since I haven’t read that much short fiction this year (or any year, really. I’m working on it). But I let out my second gasp-whoop of the night (after N.K. Jemisin) for Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie.” It’s a story that made me get teary-eyed in a public space. Enough said.

I’m also very excited to see that some of my favorite writers -  Catherynne Valente, Kij Johnson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Rachel Swirsky and Geoff Ryman – were nominated for their work in short fiction.  At some point, I’m planning on actually reading the entire short fiction ballot and writing up thoughts on it… but not until I get some more homework done.

I was a bit disappointed to see X-Men: First Class hadn’t made it onto the dramatic presentation shortlist. Because homoerotic tension should ALWAYS be rewarded with a Nebula. No, actually, unresolved homoerotic tension should be rewarded with a Nebula nomination… but then lose to a movie that actually RESOLVED the aforementioned homoerotic tension. And the Neil Gaiman-penned episode of Dr. Who, “The Doctor’s wife” got a nod, which is great, since I’m sure it will lead to Neil Gaiman doing this again (I love Neil Gaiman).

Finally, regarding the Andre Norton award for Young Adult fiction (which is… not a Nebula?I never quite understand the relationship between two, but they’re given at the same ceremony, and they’re announced at the same time).

I have only read two novels on the shortlist, but based on those two alone, I can tell you that the Andre Norton award is wearing an awesomeskirt to match the Nebula’s awesomepants. Those two books, are, of course, Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch (soccer!) and Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze, both of which I thought were fantastic. The Freedom Maze, in particular, is an Acheivement  of a novel (capital A and all). It proves once more that YA can handle difficult and complex topics just as deftly and intelligently as “grown-up” books. If not more.
Also, the cover is amazing. I’m just saying.

all credit goes to the artist (Kathleen Jennings) the author (Delia Sherman) and the publisher (Small Beer Press)

Going back to my epic freakout over the Tor.com results, I will quickly give a gender/race breakdown of the Nebulas (again, I don’t know all of these authors, and wikipedia/image searches will only tell me so much. Correct my errors if you see them).

Novel:
4 women
2 men

1 POC (People of Color)
5 caucasian

Novella:
4 women
2 men

1 POC
6 Caucasian

Novellette:
3 women (do not be fooled by the “Charlie” in Charlie Jane Anders. I almost was (thank Claude for Wikipedia). She is, in fact, female)
4 men

7 Caucasians
0 POC

Short Story
3 women
4 men

3 POC
4 Caucasians

Andre Norton
7 women
1 man

2 POC
5 Caucasians

Hey, all in all, that’s pretty good! Maybe the Hugos and the World Fantasy awards will be a bloodbath. Maybe all the WINNERS will be white men. You never know. (It’s not paranoia if they’re really trying to kill you).

But for now, my friends, I listen to the message the Nebulas are sending me.

“Shut up, disoriented chick,” sayeth the Nebulas. “We have not yet fallen back to the dark side. We are wearing the awesomepants.  And the awesomeshirt. And the awesome high-heels. We will not go back to the drab blue jeans and T-shirt of old.”

And that’s a message I can get behind.


Wait, Spiderman isn’t a Supermodel?

It occurs to me (somewhat belatedly) that I never bothered to explain WHY this blog is called “Culturally Disoriented”

I believe one example will suffice:

Yesterday I was reading the archives of the disturbingly hilarious blog Yo, Is This Racist?* In one post, a reader explains that he describing Stevie Wonder to a friend, and he forgot to point out that Stevie Wonder is black. Andrew Ti responds: “you have a friend who doesn’t know who Stevie Wonder is?”

I laughed. And then I realized I had no idea who Stevie Wonder is either.

Yes, I know.

And this, my friends, is just the tip of the Giant Iceberg of Very Important Cultural Phenomenons I know Absolutely Nothing About. Need more examples?

- I also thought rock bands were groups of people who went around collecting rocks. In my defense, I figured this one out when I was thirteen. But still.
- In spite being a hardcore science fiction fan, I have never read Robert Heinlein, watched Dr. Who or Star Trek, or seen any of the Terminator or Alien(s) movies.
- Until this summer, I had never eaten Macaroni and Cheese
- I have never seen an Indiana Jones Movie.
- I have never watched an episode of American Idol,** Survivor, the Bachelor, The Real Housewives of Any City On Earth, Jersey Shore, Project Runway, The Amazing Race or Dancing with the Stars.
- I didn’t know who Michael Jackson was until after he died.
- For the longest time, I was convinced Spiderman was the name of a really good exterminator. Because he’s the man who deals with spiders. Like the Garbage Man deals with the garbage. And the Tax man… you get my point. (At least now I know Spiderman is a male supermodel. Right? Right?)

Yeah as you can see, I’m really out of it (I prefer the term “disoriented”. The Iceberg of my Cultural Ignorance could sink ten Titanics.

English: An iceberg stuck in the river that dr...
The good news is that, thanks to global warming, my iceberg should soon melt.

In fact, it’s already melting. I do now know who Stevie Wonder is. Like the tagline says: I’m working on it:

* If you are not yet reading Andrew Ti, you should. A few days of watching him answer questions will convince you forevermore that the United States is not a “post-racial” society. Also, you’ll probably laugh until you cry.
There is a point, however, where you skip the laughing and go straight to the crying.

** Okay, the Idol thing is a bit inaccurate. I’ve read a great deal of American idol commentary, and in the last year or so, I’ve seen some of the better Idol performances. I also watched portions of episodes from last season, when Haley Reinhart was on. Because Haley Reinhart is incredible. But I’ve never seen a FULL episode.

 


Invasion of the Hugo-Snatcher: Or, How I wish I Were the Only One Deciding the Hugos.

This summer, half my family was in South Africa, half my family was camping – and I was stuck at home working. I’m not bitter at all, can you tell?

Actually, I’m not that bitter. My family being away meant I had the house to myself, which was glorious. I did enjoy the solitude, particularly in late July when I had a most fantastic evening. I cooked myself a nice dinner, I dressed up (I am not even joking. There was makeup. I broke out the good eyeliner). I set my computer up on the table; I turned on the internet and I sat down on the (very comfortable) couch to watch the live-stream of the Hugo awards.

To a passerby, I must have looked nuts – a girl all alone in her house, wearing a poofy lace dress and occasionally jumping up and down like a maniac (I have no shame. I love Mary Robinette Kowal).

As you can tell, Hugo awards are a big deal to me.

When I realized I knew absolutely nothing about my favorite genre – Sci-Fi / Fantasy, in case you were wondering – I went straight to the Hugos, and started reading my way through the Best Novel shortlists.Thanks to this little exercise, I discovered most of my favorite contemporary genre writers. Last summer it was China Mielville and Catherynne Valente. This summer, it was Lois McMaster Bujold,  N.K. Jemisin, and Mira Grant. Oh, and the fabulous Connie Willis.

The Hugo nominees were what got me excited about SF/F again. Before I started reading the shortlist, I was so entrenched in “classic” fantasy and SF that I was beginning to worry that the genre was stale. Or that I’d outgrown it. But no one who has read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Feed, Palimpsest and The City and the City in the space of two years could call the genre stale with a straight face.

This year, however, the Hugos are an even bigger deal to me. World Con is taking place in Chicago, which is only a two hour drive from my hometown. For the first – and possibly last time (at least until I stop being a poor literature student) – I can actually afford to go. I can go to WorldCon. Where there will be awesome people. And fans. And writers. AND THE HUGO CEREMONIES.

I can be there when they give the awards.

Excuse me, I think I need to lie down for a minute or two. I’ll be back.

I’m back. Sorry about that. The Hugos will do that to a girl.

Of course, if I was going to be at the Hugos, I had to buy a supporting membership so that I could NOMINATE for the Hugos. Got mine the day before the deadline, I might add – nothing like putting things off till the last minute!

For me, nominating is almost a bigger deal than getting to vote, in that I think shortlists are a better representation of the field than the winners. I’m in no way implying that the winners aren’t important, but when we make a shortlist, we make a statement about what we think our genre is and where we hope it goes. We reward the kinds of experiments – or the kinds of traditions – that we find valuable. We reveal the kinds of writing we think are worthy, and the topics we think are important.

A shortlist says something about who we are.

Now, I’m about to complain for a bit. And I realize there’s something unfair about complaining about a shortlist that doesn’t exist yet. But – I don’t care. I like complaining. And this way, if I’m right, I get to feel triumphant (especially since I can point to the blog and go “Look! I predicted this would happen in March! And it did!).  And if I’m wrong, I get to feel relieved. It’s a win-win situation.

Last year’s best novel shortlist was glorious, but frankly, I’m a little worried that this year is going to let me down. The Hugo-related chatter I hear on the blogs and the interwebs is heavy on the white male authored, very classic fantasy/ SF. From this chatter, I would put money down on Patrick Rothfuss and George RR Martin both being nominated, and tentatively guess that Lev C. Grossman and China Mielville will round out the top four. The fifth seat is harder to judge, but Hannu Rajaniemi and John Scalzi both have a decent shot.
I’m not seeing any of the same momentum around female or non-white authors.

(It should be noted that I have not read either Hannu Rajaniemi or John Scalzi’s work (which is pretty pathetic of me), but I intend to remedy that forthwith. It should also be noted that my complaints about the Hugos is in no way a complaint against the individual authors I think will be nominated. I love Mielville. I love Grossman. I think Scalzi’s non-fiction is fantastic, and I’m sure I’ll love his fiction. I am not criticizing these people for being popular or well-liked.  They deserve the accolades they get.)

Classic fantasy and SF is great, and far be it from me to condemn white male authors. Some of my favorite genre authors are white and male: China Mielville, Neal Gaiman, Lev C. Grossman, H.G. Wells, Bram Stroker etc. Hey, some of my favorite people are white and male! (Hi, little brother).

But last year’s shortlist was such a revolutionary statement about the state of our genre. It was everything I wanted in a list – recognition for some traditionally acclaimed writers who were still being awesome (Lois McMaster Bujold and Connie Willis), praise for writers who were taking risks and expanding the frontiers of the genre (N.K. Jemisin, Mira Grant, Ian McDonald); it had more gender and racial diversity (both within and without the books) than we’ve seen in a long time – I was ecstatic. Four of the five nominees were women (I KNOW). One was a black woman (two would have been black women if they’d nominated Nnedi Okorafor (No, I’m still not over it)). Two of the novels were dominated by characters of colour (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Dervish House). We had a post-colonial epic fantasy, a post-modern zombie apocalypse, cyberpunk set in Turkey, time travel, and a Vorkosigan novel. The only way I could possibly have been happier is if they’d also nominated Nnedi Okorafor, but I’m a perfectionist.

“Wow,” I thought. “All those people who say SF/F is a staid, conservative genre can go eat my copy of the Lord of the Rings. This is a popularly nominated shortlist, and look who and what is on it! And those people who say SF/F is a “male” genre? They can go jump in a lake.”

And call me crazy, but I was hoping that this would start a trend. I’m not saying that a year’s worth of reversion to the default white male will stop SF/F’s evolution in its tracks, but I was crossing my fingers for another surprising, interesting ballot, and right now I’m worried that it’s going to be “well, that was expected.”

We’ll see. I could be paranoid. But just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss aren’t trying to kill my shortlist.

Damn them.

(For the record, I do like George R.R. Martin’s work. I’ve only read Game of Thrones, so I’m not yet on the bandwagon. But I think he’s quite good. I do not like Patrick Rothfuss’s work, and I don’t understand the hype around him, which makes the fact that he’s probably going to get nominated and win all the more irritating. At the same time, it is entirely possible that I’m missing something important about Rothfuss. If so, forgive my idiocy).

Ah, my readers, I can hear the your complaints already. “Well, if you don’t like the shortlist, why don’t you nominate? Also, why are you complaining about a shortlist that doesn’t exist yet?”

I refuse to address the second question. We’ve already established that I’m a chronic complainer, and that no logic in the universe can stop me. But to the first question: Fair point! I thought of that myself. And having spent my hard-earned money to buy a supporting membership, I did, in fact, nominate.

But what did I nominate? Good question! I know you are all dying to know the answer, but if some of you would prefer not to die of boredom, turn back now, or forever hold your peace.

Novels:

The Kingdom of the Gods by N.K. Jemisin: it’s everything I never knew I wanted from an epic fantasy series. For me, at least, this series has completely changed my idea of epic fantasy, and what I think the genre can do. It’s provocative. It’s got amazing characters. It’s got incredible diversity (Queers! Women! Almost everyone is a Person of Color! Gods! Humans! Demons!) It’s got a plot with twists and turns that actually manages to keep my attention (usually after the twelfth twist, I’m done). And it’s that rarity: a last book in a trilogy that actually manages to be the best book in the trilogy. Which is saying something, because The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms? Probably my favorite book published in 2010.

Among Others by Jo Walton: Another genre-bending work: it’s a story about a young witch who finds her place in the world by discovering science fiction. I have high hopes that this one will actually end up on the ballot. It absolutely deserves to be there. It’s a love letter to reading, coupled with a description of  the awkward, horrible pain of growing up when you’ve already got a grown ups’ maturity and intelligence. It’s smart and insightful, and quietly moving, and you don’t even realize how good it is until a week later, when you have a “duh” moment.

Deadline by Mira Grant: The sequel to Feed. Or: what happens after you shoot your sister (who was transforming into a zombie). Hey, she did ask you to.
All zombie novels have some measure of social commentary, but none of them do it as subversively and intelligently as Feed and Deadline do. On the flip side, NOT all zombie novels have the depth of characterization that Grant’s do. Grant makes you fall in love with characters, and then she throws them on the ground and jumps on them over and over again and makes you watch, and it’s horrible. And wonderful. So wonderful. Deadline had me pounding at my brother’s door in the wee hours of the morning, because I just could not handle the pain Sean was going through (after major revelation 101). I never thought I would care so much about a book about zombies, but I did, and for that, Deadline got a nomination from me.

Embassytown by China Mielville: I’m a huge Mielville fan (he’s my designated male author-crush), but I actually didn’t enjoy Embassytown that much. I did, however, greatly admire it, and I think it’s got a chance to become a classic of the genre. It’s one of the most interesting alien stories I’ve read in quite some time, and reminds me of my all-time favorite sci-fi novel, The Sparrow. Both deal with similar themes – diplomacy, communication, colonialism. Except here, the conflict comes from the colonialism of language.
Embassytown has an incredibly claustrophobic feel to it. Humanity has abandoned the planet  and its human inhabitants to the tender mercies of the indigenous aliens. The human inhabitants, meanwhile, have abandoned greater humanity. The characters are completely and utterly alone. And even in the lulls, the reader can feel the oppression of space all around you.

God’s War by Kameron Hurley: I knew I was going to like this novel before I read it, and I did. Correction: I loved it. Any novel that opens with the heroine selling her womb is going to be a favorite. Heck, the first twenty pages alone are worth a Hugo nomination: I certainly knew it was going on my ballot at that point. It’s set in a militaristic, muslim matriarchy, which seems like a giant oxymoron waiting to happen, but Hurley makes it work. It’s about an assassin. It’s got aliens. It’s got war. It’s got lots and lots of gender examination and body horror and an amazing central character who will sell her womb and seduce your women and assassinate your deserters, and she’ll break a sweat doing it (I love a hero who doesn’t pretend that hard things aren’t hard work) and then she’ll go get drunk.
There are also a lot of bugs. Which I thought I would have a problem with. But I didn’t. I love the bugs. Bugpunk = awesome.

Novellas:

“Kiss Me Twice” by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Confession: I only read three novellas this year, and this is the one I thought was worth putting on the ballot. Kowal confuses the living daylights out of me. I discovered her through her novel Shades of Milk and Honey, which is essentially Jane Austen with Magic.  But her short fiction is pure SF. Actually, it’s SF with a liberal application of hardboiled detective, two genres that are… very different from Jane Austen. “Kiss Me Twice” is absolutely fantastic – it’s about what happens when AI’s stop functioning in a society where police work depends on AI. A great examination both of AI’s as conscious beings, and of AI’s as human technology, which is a difficult balance to strike.

Short Stories:

“Younger Women” by Karen Joy Fowler:

if you don’t like Twilight, you’ll like “Younger Women.” It’s Twilight from the perspective of the parent. It’s the story that goes: “Hey, what’s with all these thousand year old vampires and these seventeen year old girls?” And it’s fantastic.

“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu: Liu zeros into an oft-forgotten facet of magic: magic as a method of cultural transmission. Magic as something you share as a family. Magic as the way you communicate your culture to other people. The story is quietly, gorgeously emotional.

“The Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu: There are wasps. They make maps. They colonize the bees. The bees become anarchists. It sounds insane. In the hands of Yu, it’s completely and utterly realistic. And interesting. Oh, and also a little insane.

“The Bread We Eat in Dreams” by Catherynne Valente: Oh, Cat, how do you do it? Please, explain to me how you do it? Because I don’t think I’ve read anything of yours that isn’t absolutely exquisite and absolutely monstrous at the same time. I should have known that only you could take the salem witch trials, and puritanism, and new world colonization, and infused them with richness and warmth and canny sarcasm. You’re one of the few authors I know who looks at monstrosity – be it human monstrosity (femaleness, queerness, non-whiteness), or real monstrosity (demons, mermaids and griffins, oh my!) – and manages to look beyond the disadvantages of monstrosity. You write powerful monsters. You write the monsters we are, and the monsters we want to be.

Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form:

X-Men: First Class: I had so many problems with this movie, but it was still the best SF/F I saw all year. Especially the romance between Charles and Erik. And the makeout scene (listen, I don’t care that it didn’t happen. It did. Everyone knows it did).

Best Editor, Long form:
It’s surprisingly difficult to find out who edited what! Even the internet isn’t that helpful. I had to dig through author acknowledgments and industry blogs to come up with a list of names, but having done my research, I’m quite satisfied with this group of nominees:

Devi Pillai (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy, the Parasol Protectorate and Kate Elliot’s Cold Magic)
Jeremy Lassen (God’s War, Of Blood & Honey)
Anne Groell (Blackout/All Clear, The Game of Thrones series)
Kelly Link – I’m not 100% sure she’s eligible, but if she is, she should get a nomination for her work at Small Beer Press (The Freedom Maze)

Fancast:

There is a special Fancast category this year (what’s a fancast, you ask? A Podcast!), and I think we all know who I’m going to nominate for that: GALACTIC SUBURBIA, FOR THE WIN!
Man, I love that show. I’m going to write a post on it eventually. Because it is made of awesome. I hope they get a nomination – I’m pretty convinced they won’t, because it’s three Australian women talking about SF/F and feminism, which pretty much takes them out of the running. But they deserve it. Because they are awesome. And they make me read ALL the good books.

And that’s me done (for now). Any thoughts on my list? Any other Hugo nominators in the house? Will you be at WorldCon? If so, want to be friends?  CAN ANYONE HEAR ME?


… I’m working on it

I am absolutely terrified of writing this post.

Actually, I’m even more terrified of publishing it. As long as there aren’t any posts, the blog is just an experiment. Full of potential awesomeness, but with no actual responsibility to make the blog awesome.

The second there’s a post, on the other hand, there’s no going back. I’ve got a blog. I have to take care of it. And the awesome potential of the blog will inevitably change into me falling flat on my face in some embarrassing manner. Granted, my life is filled with moments where I fall flat on my face, or walk into walls. But see, usually when I walk straight into a wall, there’s only one or two people around to witness it. The internet, on the other hand…

I’ve heard there’s more than one or two people around here.

In fact, thousands upon thousands of people can see a blog post. Can watch me, barreling face-first into cold, hard concrete.

By the way, some of you may think I’m being metaphorical with this “walking into a wall” thing. I’m not. It’s happened. More than once.

And yes, I’m fully aware that I have no readers right now (hi, Mom!). And I might never have readers. But still. Someday, someone could dig up the archives of the blog and discover my walking straight into a wall, and use it to torment me forever. It could happen. Being paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not trying to kill you.

So in order to avoid this potential embarrassment, I’ve been getting prepared. I keep “find material for posts” or “working on my writing” or “finding the right photo” or “making the background colors pretty” (are the background colors not pretty? Is the photo not awesome?). I tell myself that I’ll be ready to post when everything is perfect. When I’m truly ready.

But at this point, it’s been over a year since I decided to start a blog – and over three months since I registered this domain. And I’m getting suspicious that this whole “when everything is perfect” thing is just me making an excuse. The truth is, as long as I don’t start the blog – as long as I’m “getting ready” – I can’t fail at the blog.

I know myself pretty well (hey, it’s been over two decades). I know that very good at letting my fear of failure stop me from doing the things I want to do.

But not this time.

This time, I have decided that enough is enough. I refuse to sit around moping about my lack of blog for one more day. Darn it, I want a blog, and I’m going to have one! And I want a piece of chocolate, and I’m going to… not have one, since I have no chocolate in the house. That’s not the point, though.

Here’s the point: I can have an awesome blog. If I write said awesome blog.

So now I’m writing the awesome blog.

Plus, as I keep telling myself, I’ve got tons of good reasons for starting a blog. For one thing, I cannot let another awards announcement go by without whipping up a giant blog post dissecting the nominees.

Sure, that reason’s pretty petty. But I’ve got other reasons. Tons of other reasons:

6. I read blogs. People with blogs are awesome. Maybe if I start a blog, I can be awesome too! (stop laughing)

5. I have a lot of random obsessions. I have been known to harass friends on such diverse topics as American Idol, the Hugo Nominations, Sigmund Freud, the West Wing and the attraction of Icepunk. In the same day.

4. Maybe if I have a place where I can write about my random obsessions, I’ll stop harassing my poor friends on the state of science fiction today, and why American Idol is fascinating as a sociological study, and why N.K Jemisin deserves all the awards.  Instead, I’ll harass the internet. Frankly, my friends could use a break. And I could use a chance to keep my friends. Because they’re pretty incredible.(Except for the one who will inevitably betray me by digging up my blog archives to find embarrassing information. But we’re not thinking about them right now.)

3. I’m afraid of people. But the internet doesn’t have any people: the internet only has trolls. Which are a non-human life form. Since I only have social anxiety around people, the internet will be a breeze! Trolls can’t possibly be as a nerve-wracking as humans!  Right? Right?

2. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m convinced that it is in fact possible to read everything on the planet, while also watching every movie and TV show in existence, and doing my homework, and sleeping. Watching me flail around trying to accomplish these goals is bound to be amusing (hey, I walk into walls). And I’d like to think my pain was serving a purpose.

1. I enjoy writing. Correction: I enjoy writing things for which I am not graded. The internet does not grade. If this is not true, tell me now so I can frantically correct all my comma splices.

And the most important reason?  My mother told me to.

It’s a long story, but she did. Three years ago. Took me two years to decide she was right (Hi Mom!). And I hate it when she’s right. But still, I can’t let my pride get in the way of doing the right thing.

And there, my devoted readers (hey, if you’ve put up with the blog post so far, you’re pretty devoted), are all my reasons for starting a blog.

And now I’m done.

Wow.

Indulge me for a moment. So, I’ve got lots of problems (other than the walking into walls thing). I’ve got stacks of homework that would make Hermione Granger want to cry. I’ve got enough migraines to be a walking advertisement for Excedrin. I’ve got projects I haven’t started, rooms I haven’t cleaned, friends I haven’t written to. I can’t solve all my problems in one night. But tonight, I conquered one giant goal of doom.

I started my blog.

WHOO HOO!

This is me right now (except without the smoking).

That’s right. Starbuck. You know why? Because the blog: Unfracked.

Now if you don’t mind, I have an appointment with a bar of chocolate I need to keep -

Oh, wait.

I forgot to buy the chocolate, didn’t I?

Well, can’t win every time.

Yet.

I’m working on it.


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