Saturday, September 18, 2010

Waking up

One of the themes I appreciate from All We Know of Love is travel as a wake-up call to self-absorbed teens. I remember a bit of a wake-up call in my life. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t well-traveled as a teen. I’d lived in Texas, Colorado and Alberta, Canada. I’d spent my summers across Canada and the U.S. My parents encouraged me to see things outside my world. I had all kinds of books about countries around the globe. I heard stories of my parents’ living in Hong Kong. I heard stories from my friends who lived in Iceland, Japan, and South America. And I was a kid who appreciated differences. When I traveled, I noticed the local architecture, tried the local food, tried (unsuccessfully) to introduce other regions’ fashions to my school at home. Still, during my 17th summer, I woke up.

I’d just stepped off the plane and into an airport in Scotland. And it hit me: Every day that I wake up and live my little American life alongside my American friends at my American school, this entire country is full of people waking up and living a life too. And they have never seen my school. And good grief, there are more than 100 more countries full of more people who’ve never seen my school. Who cares if I my hair looks crappy on the first day of my senior year?

How about you? Did travel ever wake you?

New plan

I’m here, I’m here! And I have a reason why I’ve been AWOL.

You know how when you take something you love and make it into work, that thing you love becomes a chore? I discovered a few disturbing facts after starting this blog:

1. Devouring books started to feel stressful. Instead of purely enjoying it from cover to cover, I had to take notes and start thinking of how to approach and present a review of it. Not only was it not fun anymore, but it was also causing me to accumulate large stacks of overdue library books.

2. I don’t like reviewing books. I am not a literary author. Or any kind of author. What do I know? And if I actually finish a book, that means there’s something in there that I like and my personality is such that I want to focus on THAT and end every review with, “blah blah blah, but who cares? I still liked it.” If I really have a problem with a book, I just don’t bother reading it. I am a bad traditional book reviewer.

3. Those large stacks of overdue library books get expensive.

So, I’m trying something different. Brief reviews. Summary and a few informal thoughts. And a hope that I will still get faster at it. I can read a couple of books per day, but it seems to take me at least a week to post something about it. But I will keep persevering because I still like this idea. And I’m not one to throw in the towel. So keep tuning in.

Friday, January 15, 2010

BOOK: All We Know of Love by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Love. Natalie Gordon doesn't know enough about it. She wants - needs - to "figure out how to get love and how to be loved. And how to give love, without giving myself away." And she knows she'll get the answers if she can just finish a conversation from four years ago - a conversation with her mother, who left Connecticut for Florida right in the middle of that conversation. So Natalie buys a bus ticket.

And on her way to Florida and her mother and the end of the conversation, she meets some people - including a grandmother who "has that look, like someone who likes to care about other people for no reason at all," a runaway middle-schooler, a teenage mother/waitress who hardly leaves her small town despite sometimes feeling "hungry, almost burning, though she knew no food would be satisfying," a quiet man with a name that seems too ordinary. They are strangers with their own stories of love and strangers who manage to reach Natalie in a way that family and friends don't:

It means connection. And that's just about all there is in this life, I think. Even the very temporary, even the transient, even the people who you are never going to see again but who exist because we need them to, because we are human.

And that, I believe, is the truth that brings this story together and leads Natalie to her answers, or maybe non-answers. I liked this story of a girl who is perceptive and open enough to let strangers bring meaning to her own thoughts. It feels authentic. I care about and root for Natalie as she struggles through yet another pregnancy scare from her on/off boyfriend, a fight she had with her best friend Sarah, and the horrible thought that gnaws at her heart: that she is "a girl whose mother had chosen to leave her, who had not wanted her. Whose mother had walked out the door one night and never came back."

This is not a book with a lot of comic relief (although it has its few moments) and maybe that’s why my cheese detector started wailing – mostly at the end of the story, which seemed just a bit too heavy with earnest, epiphanous moments. I kept having to put the book down just so my brain could breathe.

But I certainly don’t think anyone would argue with my kudos to Nora Raleigh Baskin’s excellent writing.

Book Information:
TITLE: All We Know of Love
AUTHOR: Nora Raleigh Baskin
ISBN: 1406315516
PAGES: 208
PUBLISHER: Walker Books Ltd

Monday, January 4, 2010

Throwing out boxes

In Bronx Masquerade, everyone knows that the tall Black guy plays basketball. But heaven forbid he should read books in his spare time. For fun. And the caramel-complexioned girl with the long, wavy "good hair?" She MUST think she’s better than everyone else because, you know, she's pretty.

Boxes. Everyone in high school gets put in one. I hated my box when I was in high school and I fought particularly hard to get out of it (prepare yourself for a little taste of my smug teenage spunk):

I’m Asian and I do not LOVE (nor am I even good at) math. Get over it.

I am not a good violinist because I am Asian. I am good because I practice. For hours at a time. Get over it.

I am Asian and I’m not trying to be valedictorian, be in the top twelve or maintain a straight-A record. Get over it. But I did graduate 18th in my class without even trying. So suck on that.

Oh but I guess that means I’m smart. And smart girls are ugly and NO FUN AT ALL. So I guess I’ll go home, hide my hideous, hideous face and recite MATH PROBLEMS.

Back then, the closed minds saw my race before they saw me. Curiously, it isn’t what they seem to see first anymore (except, I'm sure, for when I’m trying to park my very Asian Toyota). I have a whole new set of stereotypes to fight now, but since this site is about teenage boxes, I won’t go there.

Which box did you fight as a teenager? Or did you even try to fight it at all?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Teen Competition

How's this for perfect timing:

Dallas Public Library "Express Yourself" Youth Poetry Competition

Y’all already know that I didn’t enter poetry competitions when I was in high school. I was, however, an adrenaline-hungry competitive violinist. Every year was the same. Fall was training season and spring was time to GET IN THE RING. Oh, and I think I did some English homework somewhere in there too.

My violin teacher was my mentor and a truly great man. Every year, he reminded me that a win is nice, but the real reward is in the preparation. Because that, he said, is when you discover just how far you can push yourself. And you become a better, stronger player with each competition. Winning? Well, it could mean that you really are the superior player or it could mean that this particular judge just happened to like your performance the best on this particular day.

Sometimes I won and sometimes I didn't. Sometimes I almost won - that being the most excruciating of all. Like the time during my senior year, when I placed first in my division for the second time in a row, yet didn’t win the grand prize (and a performance as a soloist with an orchestra) for the second time in a row. That near win hurt even more than I thought it would. My teacher stood next to me while I cried. He let me feel every drop of pain. Then he told me that my time would come and that yes, this ache would make me stronger.

He was right. Those competitions allowed me to see what I was made of as a violinist and as a person. They were about not being ashamed when I didn't win and not gloating when I did. And ok, before I write myself into perfection, I should be honest here: I did always love the spotlight - so they were a chance to go into a room and have all the focus on me, just me. Plus, I loved the rush.

There is a belief out there that when it comes to young people, everyone should win because competitions encourage kids and teens to feel badly about themselves. But maybe instead of letting everyone win, we should teach young people how to compete in a way that makes them stronger, braver and more willing to take risks. Am I being quixotic? What do you think? How did you feel about competition as a teenager?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Open Blog Poetry

In high school, I could never have written poetry as smart as the students in Bronx Masquerade – especially since I was so busy writing remarkably awful, melodramatic short stories, like the one about an emotionally unbalanced girl who ends the story by slashing a dozen lovely roses with a butcher knife into a pile of sweet-smelling floral guts. Because in my sheltered, nuclear-familied imagination, that’s exactly what people from a clich├ęd dysfunctional family (drunk dad, icy mom) did. Holy crap, I cringe at the very THOUGHT of anyone actually finding that tripe with my name on it. Fortunately, I also have journal upon journal full of entries from high school that are somewhat readable because they were about things I lived. And even more fortunately, I’d figured all that out by the time I got to college, signed up for a creative writing class and was forced to write a poem or two. Which is when I dug deep and unearthed some of the teenage angst I’d tried to forget. And at the age of 21, I still couldn’t write smart poetry, but at least I could finally write about high school from my heart.

So in the spirit of Bronx Masquerade’s Open Mike Fridays, I’m going to risk embarrassment (I’m already flinching) and share the untitled poem I wrote as an adult about my experience in high school:

Painted lips, lurid eyes, masks
at Mardi Gras, and hair so carefully forced.
In front of you, their sugar
-coated empty words drip
like honey
from pasted smiles. But behind
your back,
their vicious words are thorns.
Their slippery
Promises – a trap that lured
me, dutifully clinging,
And others’ envy – nectar
for the swarm from which
I fled.

Ok, now that I’ve run naked, it’s your turn. Maybe you don’t have a poem, but since so much of poetry is finding the right word, what’s your word (or two) to describe a feeling, a friend, an enemy, an incident or anything from high school?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

BOOK: Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes

It’s all about a high school English class. There are the students –Black, White, girls, boys, wistful, bold, and real. There’s the teacher, Mr. Ward. There’s the Bronx - described best by the students, sometimes optimistically: “Where else do cabbies and garbagemen, bankers and businessmen all walk with a beat” and sometimes with grit: “I be lucky if I make it to twenty-one with all these fools running round with AK-47s.”

And then there’s the poetry. Written by the students for Mr. Ward’s Open Mike Fridays, these heartfelt verses fuse all of their lives into one plot. Sure, it’s a plot we’ve all heard before: people misjudge each other, people see the truth, people grow to understand and appreciate everyone else. But it’s a wonderful plot and one that can unfold in so many wonderful ways. And I love Nikki Grimes’ way – with each character taking turns with his/her own narrative followed by an original poem.

I’ll admit that I had a hard time keeping track of all of the characters for the first 30 pages or so. Providing some coherency, however, is the voice of Tyrone, the outspoken and somewhat cocky kid who figures that if the streets don’t kill him first, he’ll be a rapper someday. Tyrone’s voice at the end of each new narrative reassures us that the newfound appreciation among the students is indeed underway.

I wish I could’ve written poetry like this in high school – described a sunset as “dripping mango light” or written a verse like this:
You laugh,
rap my woody shell
with wicked whispers shaped
like knuckles,
then toss me aside.

I wish I could’ve written a story and poems in so many distinct, believable teen voices. I wish I could’ve created interesting, imperfect characters who genuinely care about the media’s cynical view of teenagers and who are determined to “be the ones who write the news./Starting now, we can create ourselves a whole new crew.”

Well, so maybe those wishes aren’t mine to come true. But you know what else I wish? For a book that makes me gasp out loud because words are just so beautiful. A book that renews my love of freestyle and spoken word poetry. A book with succinct phrases like “I love my moms” that make me cry. I wish for a book I love so much that the first time I finish it, I turn right back to the first page to start reading it again.

Wish granted. Thank you, Nikki Grimes.

Book Information:
Winner of the Coretta Scott King Award
TITLE: Bronx Masquerade
AUTHOR: Nikki Grimes
ISBN: 0-14-250189-1
PAGES: 167
PUBLISHER: Penguin Group