As a high-school library lady, I constantly run across the idea that teenagers will only read “trash.” That it is a rare breed of adolescents and young adults who reach for the more literary, more “valid” forms of fiction. The argument for this idea involves a range of socio-economic, gender and social factors which culminate in the theory that teenagers just want to read about sex, drugs & rock’n’roll. I have two things to say about this:
2) WHAT THE HELL IS SO WRONG WITH TRASH?
Shakespeare wrote about “trash.” Sex and drugs and the most badass rock’n’rollin’ characters fucking and fighting from here to Verona. Incest and murder and faeries and magic. If you walked into a Creative Writing program today and expressed a desire to write fiction that encompassed all and more of those things, you would be labelled with the most insulting label CW majors and professors and cultists can come up with — “GENRE FICTION” (cue Hitchockian dramatic music).
Yeah, well, screw that. I love genre fiction. I love reading about murder and faeries, so sue me. So what if it’s not always the best quality writing? So what if it’s not exploring the breadth of the human condition or mining the emotional depths or whatever else the blurbs say on the back of a Jonathan Safran Foer novel? If I enjoy it, then I enjoy it. I’m not out to write a review for the New York Times and, frankly, I think the people that do should take a couple of deep breaths and chill the hell out.
Ideally, I want to be transported when I read fiction — which is why I am usually drawn to fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal & magical realism fiction. I like the otherworldy aspects of these genres — the impossibilities that make the fictional world so NOT like mine. I also want sex and drama and suspense. As much as possible. Give me a book where absolutely nothing happens and I don’t care if it’s curing cancer with it’s prose, I will not finish it.
Sometimes people try to insinuate that I should try to steer the kids away from books they deem “trashy.” Who am I to tell these kids what they can and cannot read? There are school policies, sure, about what books can be on our shelves — but if a book is there, or it’s one we can procur that the kids want…then they can read it until the cows come home (or, until the due-date). You won’t catch me reading Twilight (my one dealbreaker is strong female characters) but I am not going to shame a teenager for wanting to make out with sparkling vampires. I tend to gravitate towards the side of the spectrum that includes well-crafted prose and strong ladies and involving plotlines, because I am thirty and I have had longer to cultivate my tastes and I know what I like. These are teenagers! Babies! They don’t know what they like because they are taking their first steps into the world of books that talk about things other than homework and wimpy kids or whatever. If they return a shitty vampire novel and say they liked it, I will recommend one that I enjoyed. And they will move up the quality ladder, without sacrificing the things (the “trash”) that makes them open the book in the first place. And they will keep reading and keep learning and their tastes will evolve. And they will realize that just because a book is “trash” doesn’t mean it’s worth throwing away.
Because I am all drained of verbosity (which is a good thing, it means I am writing), here is a list of the top 10 non-fiction books I have read in the past year. I read a lot of non-fiction — almost exclusively, in fact. I am trying to change this, but it’s just so good. I love a good history tome, travel guide, biography of a doomed soul. I like knowing that interesting, captivating people are real and not just the figment of someone’s imagination.
I am a terrible “book-reviewer-person.” I don’t read critically, and I have a hard time capturing in words the feelings that a book evokes. I should be better at it — I am a person who usually has no problem at all expressing my opinions on things. But it is what it is. I will tell you something about the book & I will tell you why I liked it (or try to)…don’t expect much more.
Confederates in the Attic: Dispatched from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz. I loved this book. Loved it. Maybe because, growing up in the South, I recognize the people in it. The crazy Daughters of the Confederacy & their bouffant hair-dos, the old red-necks spitting tobacco juice onto steaming sidewalks, the slick new-South business men with their Rebel Flag tie-pins. I get it. Southern Pride. But Horwitz cuts deep, exposing the fallacies & un-truths surrounding a contentious battle that is far from being over — I’m not going to get into my feelings about the North (Yankees) & their pre-conceived notions about my homeland — and tries to find some balance between recognizing history & distancing self from the racism & cruelty of so much of our past. Oh yeah, and this book is goddamn hilarious.
Bobbed Hair & Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties by Marion Meade. This is a no-brainer. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have an unhealthy relationship with the 1920s & 1930s. I am obsessive, spending long hours hand-mending 1930s silk-velvet bias-cut dresses & buying flaking silver t-strap shoes that once graced the teeny feet of some flapper. I read anything I can get my hands on that might show me a tiny glimpse into the world of speakeasies, Art Deco mansions & city streets. This book does all of that, and as an added bonus follows the life & career trajectories of some amazing ladies: Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St.Vincent Millay, and Edna Ferber. Winning.
Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life by Bill Minutaglio. Molly Ivins is the Queen. Molly Ivins is The Shit. The end.
Not In Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America by Lily Dale. This was an interesting book because of the characters within it. A couple who live as elves. A middle-aged white woman running a hoodoo empire. A man with a puppet who predicts death. It’s a portrait of a part of America that is often overlooked, or sometimes worse, romanticized.
Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock & Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood by Michael Walker. I didn’t actually read this one. I listened to it on audiobook. Three times. It’s that good. I will probably listen to it many more. Tracking the Los Angeles neighborhood of Laurel Canyon from it’s creation in the 1920s to it’s relative demise (in terms of legend & ethos) in the cocaine-fueled parties of the 1980s, this book is insane. Peopled with characters straight out of your 1960s rock & roll dream (Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Mama Cass, Jim Morrison, etc etc etc), this is a love story to a neighborhood that existed in a blink of the eye. A meeting of souls, in the heady heat of Laurel Canyon, who creating some of the world’s most beautiful music. This book is epic.
Americans in Paris: Life & Death under Nazi Occupation 1940-1944. I am a newbie obsessive of WWII trivia. My little brother can rattle off facts about munitions and planes and battles and politics like it’s going out of style — I am still learning. But I previously thought I had a rather firm grasp on the basics, maybe even a better than usual understanding. Wrong. This book proved it (thanks book). Charting the four years of Nazi occupation of Paris, it follows the American citizens who remained behind, including Sylvia Beach, owner of the famed Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. But my favorites were the doctors & nurses of the American Hospital — an institution I had no idea existed and which served to smuggle out countless Allied servicemen wounded in battle. The American women in their little prison-camp, bickering and pulling rank and being generally insufferable, were also lovely. Lots of pictures of heroism in this one. A few of pretty base cowardice too. Humans.
Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle For America’s Soul by Karen Abbott. Turn-of-the-century prostitutes? I AM SO IN.
In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. In a perfect world, I would have read this before reading Americans in Paris. Different city, same terror. Follows the family of the American ambassador in Berlin in Hitler’s early days as Chancellor. A very frustrating book — I yelled “YOU IDIOT!” so many times. Lots of chances to perhaps stop or, at least, lessen the terror & cruelty that was to come.
American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, The Life & Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott. THREE WORDS: GYPSY. ROSE. LEE. Done.
Holy Ghost Girl: A Memoir by Donna Johnson. I listened to this one on audiobook, too. I have wondered if I would have liked it as well if I had read the book, but it was so good. Following Johnson’s life as the daughter of a fanatic Holy Roller (for those of you outside the South — a person who frequents & follows tent revivals) and disciple (& eventual mistress) to the enigmatic David Terrell (look that guy up, he’s nuts). Johnson does a fantastic job documenting the craziness, the fear and the terrible pressure of her little world — all without passing harsh judgement on those who certainly deserved it. A touching book, a very sad book, an often times hilarious book.
There is this novel. It is half-done in my Scrivener program, stewing slightly and starting to stink. I opened it up for the first time in months today and did a bit of work on it, surprised myself on how much I still like it. It’s not bad, or at least I don’t think it is. The story still moves me, catches me unaware, interests me. Isn’t that important? I’m not bored with it, even after months and months of frustration and tears. The main character is a girl who fights and fucks and laughs and cries and probably writes angsty poetry in dog-earred notebooks hidden under her mattress. She is a teenage girl, alive and sweaty and proud. I like her.
I joined an online writing critique workshop because I have no friends. No, it’s really because I hate placing my friends in a position to critique my work — I feel like they go too easy on me, they sugar-coat everything. They grin and bear it. I also joined it because they have success stories, several members have gone on to publish their work and I would be lying if I said I am just writing this novel because it needs to be written. BULLSHIT. I want it to sell and I want people to like it. No high-falutin’ mumbo-jumbo there. I am a broke thirty-year-old with a degree in Creative Writing — do you think I can afford to write for art’s sake?
I start a new job next week in a high school library. Is it too much to ask to hope there will be lots of conversations about books? I want to pick their brains — what are they reading? What do they like and not-like about books? Teenagers can smell phonies a mile away. I hope I can convince them I’m not a phony. If I can’t, I’m doomed — both as a writer & a librarian.