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review 2018-03-31 17:49
The Animators, by Karla Rae Whitaker
The Animators - Kayla Rae Whitaker

The Animators struck a deep chord with me on two levels: as an artist and as best friend to a fellow artist. If you are either, you'll likely love this novel as I did.


Funny and engaging from the first page, The Animators starts with our narrator, Sharon, in college, where she meets the charismatic Mel Vaught. Both are aspiring animators who are into the same shit and share an aesthetic; both come from poor, rural southern U.S. backgrounds. Many of us in the arts could identify that time when we learn we're not actually outsiders, that others share our interests; college tends to be a place where we find our tribe.


But this is not a novel about being a college arts student. The narrative quickly brings us to a present where Sharon and Mel have made a successful indie animated feature that centers on Mel's life. They live together in New York City. Mel drinks and does a lot of drugs; she's the life of the party. Sharon...is not. She spends a lot of time and emotions angsting over her latest romantic interest, of which there are many.


Tension develops between the two, much of it, from Sharon's perspective, owing to Mel's lifestyle. There's a blowout, followed by a shocking, life-altering health crisis for one of them. It's a reset that leads them on a path to mining Sharon's childhood for their next project. This raises very real questions artists face about using their lives in their art in ways that may hurt loved ones. I wasn't quite satisfied by the resolution to this issue, but I appreciated its being seriously considered.


This book excels at depicting partnerships between women, their working lives as artists, and craft. The prose is engaging, the characters vivid, and there are some heartbreaking and harrowing moments. Even if you're not an artist or friends with one, I can't imagine Whitaker's (first!) novel not winning you over from page one.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-04-03 17:13
Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher
Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher

I've had this book forever but was prompted to finally read it by the series adaptation that just came to Netflix.


(Spoiler-free until the note.)


The most impressive element of this book is the fact that it takes on toxic masculinity and rape culture head on. It's the sort of book that I'm not sure would have existed when I was going through high school. That alone makes it a relevant, disturbing, but necessary read for students (and teachers, counselors).


The story is divided between protagonist Clay's perspective and Hannah's, the girl at the center of the narrative who committed suicide. One day Clay finds a package containing seven cassette tapes, which he must pass on to the next person spoken about on the tapes (one side per person). Each person had a role in Hannah's downward spiral, so the book is set up as a mystery. What happened to Hannah? Why did she kill herself?


Each chapter takes on one tape, and as he listens, Clay follows the map Hannah made and slipped in his locker before she died that marks key spots in her story. It was sometimes difficult for me to engage with this structure; someone wandering around listening to audio tapes isn't all that dynamic. I liked the idea of the book's structure but not necessarily its execution.


(SPOILERS) I'm also disappointed in the revelation of Clay's role once he reaches his own tape. I understand the choice to keep Clay a "good guy" in the reader's eyes since his is the point of view we're following, but I think the story would be more impactful if there was something he did or didn't do that forced him to reevaluate his own actions or inaction. He does regret leaving Hannah alone, but it's when she asks him to, which felt a bit problematic because generally when a girl tells you to leave, YOU SHOULD LEAVE, so technically Clay did the right thing. He blames himself for not helping her, for not persisting, but it feels like he's making Hannah's pain about him.


Clay also feels guilty and angry at himself for not standing up to others when it comes to how girls are treated, and by the end, in the last scene, we're to understand that will change (in contrast to another person on the tapes he runs into earlier, who still seems incapable of understanding his role--or won't acknowledge it). Though there are girls among the thirteen reasons, there's a way in which their roles enact rape culture and patriarchy (not that this makes them beyond blame). At the same time, the potential saviors the narrative suggests could have made the difference are boys/men, which both fairly places the responsibility on their shoulders--but also suggests the old man-as-rescuer trope. (END SPOILERS)


Regardless of my concerns, I'm grateful there's a book like this out there, tackling these subjects, and I'm interested in how the show on Netflix adapts its particular structure.

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review 2012-02-09 00:00
The Submission: A Novel
The Submission: A Novel - Amy Waldman

Intricate, confidently written, and gutsy. There isn't a character in this book that I didn't at some point sympathize with and also, at another point, truly dislike (well, I'm not sure I ever disliked Asma or Laila, but both are still well-drawn characters). I had the feeling that events proceeded exactly as they would if this had happened in actuality. I appreciate that no one here is quite let off the hook and nothing and no one is simple.

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review 2011-06-19 00:00
Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson

I read this because I heard it had been banned at some schools, and nothing piques my interest more. I'm betting that, just as much as the trauma the protagonist suffers, the critical attitude toward school and school authorities--the principal, guidance counselor, several teachers--both in terms of ignoring her or bungling attempts at trying to get her to do better, and in terms of stupid rules and teaching methods and content, may have been responsible for the book's being banned in places. (My absolute favorite--and I'm saying this as an English teacher--is when one of the students, responding to the teacher's overemphasis on symbolism in Hawthorne, says unless Hawthorne left a book entitled "Symbolism in My Books," she could just be making it all up.) In this way, it's akin to The Chocolate War (though in the end, with the art teacher's help and the protagonist's breakthrough, Speak is indeed much more hopeful).


I'm sure other reviews have noted the astonishing way that this book manages to be so funny in the narrator's caustic way of observing school and school society. The author mentions in a Q&A in the back how her being a forced outsider allows for that. There are some great lines and images throughout, and the structure and pacing are well-done.


I'm not quite sure how I feel about one particular confrontation at the end, but I do like the way it's resolved and how that reinforces other places where girls helping girls is important. I'm a great admirer of those who can capture teenage voices, and this does a great job, and with important subject matter.

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