Where Are All the American Boy Books?

I was talking with the most excellent finslippy, whose son is getting ready to enter middle school. He is (as any sane person would be) a little nervous about it. So where, she wondered, were the boy books about getting ready for middle school?

And I realized: I had no idea.

And that's a problem, because while advice books may not be perfect, they're reassuring to read for the nervous and anxious among us. Chestnut read this over and over and over the summer after 5th grade, and it really helped her. But it's true that these are almost all pitched directly at girls. And why is there no boy equivalent? Do publishers think boys don't read? Boys read. Do they think boys aren't nervous? (They can't possibly think that, right?) Do they think boys don't like quizzes and advice books? All I'll say is that my nephews (who aren't yet in 5th grade, but are still, you know, guys) were raptly involved when their cousins were administering the "What kind of cupcake are you?" quiz.

So what gives?  How can this be? And does anyone know of a book for this kid to read—a book about starting middle school, that's not explicitly for girls? Put it in the comments.

Those Stupid Tests (What Do You Think—Is That Too Biased?)

Tis the season, again. The season for standardized testing. Ugh, ugh, and double ugh. Chestnut is in the crosshairs, because she's in 7th grade, and naturally, what you're doing academically in 7th grade should determine the course of the rest of your life. That's just obvious, isn't it?

Because here, in NYC—well, here's how I put it to Chestnut's friend who visited over February break.

Chestnut: THE TESTS are coming up.

Chestnut's Friend: Ugh!

Me: Double ugh!

CF: Well, at least they're just to judge the teachers* so we don't have to worry about them too much.

Me: Um, yeah, except, er, um…

C and CF: look at me questioningly

Me: Well, actually, in New York City they are part of what determines which high school you get into…

CF: blank look

C: look of grim despair

Me: …so they sort of do count. Chestnut's friend still looks confused. Oh, yeah, you have to actually apply to get into high school in New York City.

And so, it is time for me to remember (and remind you) that there are voices in the wilderness.

Voice 1: Kate Messner. I saw her speak on failure at SCBWI conference, and she was really pretty amazing, and part of what she talked about was how paralyzing the fear of failure is, and how it's being pushed earlier and earler in our culture, and standardized tests are a big part of that, with their insistence on one right answer, right away. Failure lurks in all the others, it's the way it works.

Voice 2:

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Major caveat: I have not read this. But! I read the first page, and it's the I.P.T.U. test (say it aloud with me now) and that's enough for me.

Voice 3: These ladies. Go read it. The whole idea of saying to a kindergartener "I can't help you with that" really hit me hard.

OK, so there you go. That's my semi-annual testing rant. Here's hoping you and yours are engaged in something completely other right now.

*Incidentally: WTF? I mean, I know this is how parents and schools try to lessen student anxiety, but can we talk sometime about what it means for a kid to have his/her teacher's credibility/autonomy/judgment undermined like that?

The Goldfinch, Time Travel, and Me, with Many, Many Spoilers

I should probably let you know right now, spoilers loom ahead: consider yourself forewarned.

Here's what happened. First, I read this.

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I'd heard people talking, you know? And it was pretty wonderful. Time and Again is a novel about time travel, and its theory of time travel is (more or less): all of time coexists (they're attributing this to Albert Einstein, to which I say, I don't thinks so, but go on). The metaphor? A river. We may be ahead in the river; we can't see the "past" because of the way the river bends, but the past is still there, right "now" (or whatever passes for now).

So. If all of time is available to us, we have the option of moving from one time to another. The method? Surround yourself with the trappings of another time in the same physical space, and allow yourself to become more fluid through self-hypnosis (there's a lot of groovy 1960s vibes in the book, along with casual happy sexism/racism sprinkled around). Then you can pass freely through the bends and be in another time.

Why am I talking about this, you wonder? Because after I read that, I read this:

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Full disclosure: I am not pure. I cannot say that I view Donna Tartt with an easy and open heart. I am too envious, too bitter. That must be said. Also? I did really enjoy The Little Friend; I did not really enjoy The Secret History.

Here is my problem: Time. Let me explain.

The Goldfinch begins with our hero thinking back on his past. This reminiscence is set in the present time, coming up on Christmas. So. In the most insistent possible way of time, that would be, say, now: this month, December 2013. That is our most generous possibility.

I'm already starting to sound crazy, right? A little conspiracy theorist? Alas.

We hurtle back in time to when the hero's mother was alive. They are on their way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a terrible explosion will set things going. The hero? He tells us straight out: "It happened April 10th, fourteen years ago." We can do the math, yes? This puts us at 1999. Again, at our most generous calculation.

Here's the thing: things have changed a lot in poor old New York City between 1999 and 2013. They've changed a lot everywhere. And…and it's just not there. The whole novel is set in an ever-present present (if that makes sense): everyone always has cell phones, they always text, they are always—well, they're like they are now.

And I know I shouldn't mind. Right? I mean, what's a bit of fudging? Why am I looking to a novel, of all things, to tell the truth? Except I am, and I do. And somehow this sleight of hand makes me queasy. I stopped and stopped and stopped, thinking: NO. This doesn't make sense! Upper east side ladies were not texting in 1999. People were not talking about MetroCards like that was just normal—MetroCards were weird! Tokens weren't phased out until 2003! (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

In the explosion, he passes cell phones strewn across the floor! Don't you remember? We didn't all have cell phones in 1999. A few people did—not everyone at all. Most people didn't. He finds one with a collapsible nylon shopping bag in some woman's purse. He passes a woman with a spray tan. But calling it spray tan? People carrying around shopping bags? Not in 1999. And when he goes outside to view the disaster from the street, he passes what we all pass now, many people holding their cell phones up to take pictures. Except this wasn't how it was in 1999—it's how it is now. So just: No.

And with that no, I lost my way. It was like looking at an Escher, except that it never acknowledged it was an Escher—you just kept walking off the stairway and ended up near the top instead of the bottom, or…or maybe this is an unextendable metaphor? Still, it's true.

Later in the book, a character says, "I only understand it, as I get older. How funny time is. How many tricks and surprises." So maybe, she is playing? Perhaps she is shooting for the timeless, for the idea of a book that transcends the specifics of when exactly it is set, and is somehow through this more universal?

Except it is only through specificity, somehow, that fiction is universal.

Except maybe I am wrong about that?

I don't know, I don't know. I might not have noticed any of this if I hadn't read these two books in just this order. But I did, and now The Goldfinch is off-kilter for me, an ambitious, masterful thing that ends up feeling (it must be said) like a fraud, like a glittering bauble with a core of bullshit.

But in all likelihood I am being too hard on it. I mean, Patrick O'Brian said he always had people write him after each book saying, "You got this wrong! They didn't have that type of watch that year! That sort of bird doesn't live at that longitude" and so on. And he is a truly wonderful writer.

But while he may have made mistakes, at least he tried to get it right. With this, it feels…otherwise, somehow. More wily. As though she just doesn't want us to think about where or when we are, we're in story-time! The magical time of novels that exist outside of reality. To me, that makes it feel like a con job. But I know that is ungenerous.

Oh help me, readers. What am I to think? Reality and fiction have interscected—or rather they haven't—and I am unmoored.

President Obama & Harold

I deeply appreciate having a reading president. A president who makes a point of doing his Christmas shopping at an independent bookstore? This is excellent, no question.

No, my quibble is with the New York Times. Which says,

Many of the nearly two dozen volumes Mr. Obama picked up at Washington’s Politics and Prose bookstore will be gifts, and certainly children’s tales like “Harold and the Purple Crayon” offer few lessons for dealing with Tea Party congressmen. But even if they are given away, some of the books reflect what Mr. Obama has already read or would like to read. They are volumes about identity and reinvention, about what it means to be American, and about family, love, betrayal and redemption.

Ahem. Really? First of all, I have a whole problem with "about what it means to be…" because—ugh. I don't care if it's about what it means to be human, or American, or whatever, it just stinks of bullshit to me. Every great book is "about" something larger than can be defined in a single word, especially a single word so freighted with everyone's crazy projected meaning.

Second of all? Harold and the Purple Crayon offers few lessons for dealing with Tea Party congressmen? Not so. Harold creates his own reality—is there a better lesson about what it means to be human (heh, heh) than that? Or, about what it means to be a politician? (Not that I'm calling Harold a politician, I swear it.)

Do we really have such a reductive view of books? It's as though books are useful in a directed way: read about Lincoln for tips on how to deal with asshole senators; read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to learn about dealing with violence. Isn't reading and understanding the world way less direct than that? Don't you read Anna Karenina and end up with a clearer vision of your school's math specialist, and read Chaos and end up thinking more about how your grandmother was lonely? Isn't that how brains and reading and thinking work?

All of which is to say: I am very much hoping Harold gives President Obama some crazy inspiration on how to manage his altogether impossible job. Or at least is, as we know him to be, really fun to read. I would imagine he could use something pleasant and wonderful once in a while.

The Problem With Fun

I have been in a bouncing-all-over-the-place sort of phase with my own reading. I read William Boyd's A Good Man in Africa, though that was sort of assigned (book group). Then I read a short (ish) story by Tolstoy (Hadji Marat). And then, gee, something else that has entirely slipped my all too porous mind. And then I thought: I'm hot. I'm tired. I'm cranky. I'm going to dig out the Ruth Rendell I bought for $1 at Book-Off, and I will have FUN.

See, here's the problem with expecting fun. You feel even more disappointed when it doesn't work. Cheated, almost. A bit like "I was all set to read something without literary value, but if you take away the fun too, what am I left with?"

I don't know. I mean, I am a big fan of wide reading. I read high and low and side to side, and I want to welcome it all. But there is something about reading a book that you hoped would be a good time and instead having it be a bummer, but without that soul-stirring depth I associate with greatness? That's just a drag.

Sigh.

Should I attempt greatness? Probably. I will work on it.