Sunday, May 20, 2012

Goodbye For Now

Hello delightful readers -

Thank you for the support over the last year! I've loved writing this blog, researching obscure LGBT trends, and reading amazing YA books. As many of you know, I just launched a new online magazine called T(OUR), an exciting literary project about true experiences in the queer community. I'm taking a break from the blog to put all my efforts into the magazine. I hope our paths continue to cross on the interwebs in other ways. Keep being awesome! Thanks again.

Over and out,

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Taking On an Army

Let's get all of the gushing out of the way first: Rachel Maddow is fucking adorable, and everyone and their mom has a crush on her. Okay. Moving on. Maddow's debut book, Drift, is about how the United States military has grown over the last 40 years and how the constitutional restrictions that once prevented any one American from declaring war on another country have disappeared. Drift is textbook-comprehensive, covering nuclear weapons, post-Vietnam policy changes, and the evolving power of the presidency. Thoroughness, however, doesn't make the book dry. Maddow keeps the serious content light when she can: "It's like they thought it was magic," she writes of the 1996 vice presidential report on the Department of Defense. "You half expected the pages of that Al Gore report to shake loose a little glitter, a smiley face sticker or two." Her political ideas transition well from television to the written page, and Drift is all new material. You'll find little repetition from The Rachel Maddow Show reruns.

Maddow doesn't know how to fix the problems within the US military, but she offers eight "to-dos" at the end of Drift - solutions like raising money for each new war and shrinking our nuke supply. One of her suggestions expands on "Colin Powell's cautionary 'Pottery Barn Rule' - you not only own it if you break it," she says, "you own it if you build it too." Simple stuff. Common sense. The sort of thing you shouldn't have to say.

Maddow and her book have been well received on this book tour, especially in Seattle. How many other authors get a standing ovation at Town Hall before saying one word? "It's so nice to actually see an audience," she told the sold-out crowd last week. "Usually if people are watching me talk, I can't see them."

In person, Maddow is just like her book: witty, honest, and completely endearing. As she talked onstage about her different career steps, Maddow impersonated herself being drunk, which was almost as funny as her impression of Ronald Reagan having a temper tantrum while writing in his presidential diary. More than anything, she seemed genuinely interested in conversation as she opened up the room for questions. She talked about social justice. She talked about how Dick Cheney can be both a villain and a man to be admired (her book bears the dedication: "To former vice president Dick Cheney. Oh, please let me interview you"). Maddow discussed the ways in which her book will hopefully provoke more conversation about the military. "There are lots of ways to worry about nuclear weapons, and I worry about them all," she said. "Which makes me no fun at a dinner party."

Though American politics are dear to her heart, Maddow admitted to me in a post-reading interview that she didn't enjoy the book-writing process or "the nuances of procrastination" that came with it. "I needed to commit to starting to write," she said. Her distaste, though endearing, doesn't show in the text. Drift resonates with an overwhelming sentiment: Our military situation sucks. So let's fix it."

(My article is also featured in the April 25, 2012 issue of The Stranger.)

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Mothers Mothering Daughters, Daughters Mothering Mothers

Coming out stories are common. But incredibly well-written simultaneous mother-daughter coming out stories are very rare and kind of awesome. Chana Wilson's memoir Riding Fury Home relates over 40 years of her life - starting at age 7 with her mother, Gloria's, first suicide attempt and electroshock treatments - in honest and unapologetic language.

Gloria's tale of emerging queerness is riveting, and Chana's accounts of Gloria's pain, depression, and journey through a cruel therapy program are heartbreaking and heartfelt. She inserts comic relief in all the right places, like secret jokes at a funeral. When Gloria admits her pro-lady tendencies and confirms she has no interest in men, Chana says, "Well, Mom, I hate to tell you, but you're not bisexual, you're a lesbian," to which Gloria is "pretty damn nonchalant: 'Guess so, honey.'" Many of Chana's discoveries about Gloria's life unfolded through a series of radio interviews between the mother and daughter that Chana recorded in 1974 for KPFA-FM in Berkeley. (You can listen to original interview clips on the Riding Fury Home website.)

It is Chana's childhood that sticks with you. Her journey seemed to go backwards, starting with when she was forced to run a household as a young girl. "First, I was the mother and she was the daughter," Chana said to the crowd at Elliot Bay Book Company for her reading last night. "When we came out, we were like two teenagers. Then, when I needed it, she mothered me."

(You can also read my review on The Stranger's website.)

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Everything Reminds Me of Everything

(Below is a review of last night's incredible Sister Spit performance. The review is also published on The Stranger's blog, SLOG.)

It's unclear whether Dorothy Allison planned to celebrate her 63rd birthday with eight other freakishly talented writers, a platter of gluten-free cupcakes, and a standing ovation, but damn it, that's what she got at Hugo House last night.

Sister Spit host Michelle Tea's bubbly energy jump-started the night, as she assured everyone that she was only on her first Red Bull of the evening. (Read my interview with Tea and Allison here.) Later, with the deep, whispered voice of a phone sex operator, Cassie J. Sneider lamented the loss of her family's car antennas. Erin Markey belted out songs from her one-woman musicals (one about a baby named Secret with no labia). Brontez Purnell shouted things like, "I had totally been fucked by a ghost." Our own David Schmader wooed the crowd with tales of medical discoveries and sheet cake. In an intense Southern drawl, Allison read from Bastard Out of Carolina, which was also celebrating a birthday (20 years in print). The room replied with hushed awe.

The night ended after Allison's birthday cupcakes, but not before she made an announcement: "The entire company has promised me lap dances." The group has only been on tour for 11 days, but already they have story after ridiculous story from the road - Tea described an 8-year-old boy from California who was shocked to realize the tour members were all queers. Tea said she tapped the stricken boy on the shoulder and told him, "Now you're gay, too." The boy responded, "I'm going to go tap more people!"

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tour de Force: Trash-Talking in Strangers' Basements with Dorothy Allison and Michelle Tea

Michelle Tea and Dorothy Allison have spent an awful lot of time sleeping on strangers' basement floors. Tea co-founded Sister Spit, originally an early-'90s all-female open mic, with Sini Anderson at a time when spoken word was, as Tea said in a phone interview, "hot and not cliche yet." The open mic spent several years grounded in San Francisco, during which time Tea had gone out on tour with her amateur punk band. After living out of her van with bandmates as they rambled across the West Coast for a month, Tea told Anderson that Sister Spit should try the open road. "If my shitty punk band could go on tour - and we sucked - then we could bring Sister Spit on tour," she told Anderson. "Sister Spit is so much more universal than a band."

The first Sister Spit tour in 1997 was a financial shitshow and a logistical nightmare. Partway into the tour, the van irreparably broke down at midnight on the border of Alabama and Mississippi. "Oh shit, we can't fuck this up," Tea thought. "Eileen Myles has trusted us with her life." The group had to split up. Some writers went on ahead in a cargo van with no seats, an illegal but necessary move. Everyone else got into the "little soccer van" that writer Tara Jepson's stepmom offered. Throughout the month, the ladies would ask to make long-distance calls from the strangers' houses where they were staying, contact the promoter in the next city, open up their word road atlas, and say, "Okay, we're in Athens, Georgia - how do we get to you in Virginia?" By the time the artists got back to San Francisco at the end of the month, they had made enough to give everyone $80, which, according to Tea, was a total shock; she was surprised there was any money left at all.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Allison experienced her own chaotic tours. "I'm part of that generation that all piled into a car and drove," she says, reminiscing about the '90s tour for her book Trash. For six months, she shocked the small towns of Georgia and Mississippi with her bold words and black leather chaps. "Let's remember we were in the heyday of 'take revenge on your ex-girlfriend in your poetry,' a phenomenon, an art form," Allison points out. "When you're on tour, you can take revenge on your ex-girlfriend-as-of-two-days-ago. She said something bad about you in Atlanta, and now you're in Nashville."

Twenty years later, Allison has joined Sister Spit for the first time. She looks forward to being surrounded by artists who will "provoke one another and shape each other's work" out on the road. Besides Tea and Allison, the 2012 Sister Spit tour includes Justin Vivian Bond, Erin Markey, Brontez Purnell, KitYan, and Cassie J. Sneider. Keeping with tradition, the tour kicked off in San Francisco on April 1 and began the monthlong trip across the country. Seattle is the 11th stop of 29.

Sister Spit has grown up. Its first publication is schedules for fall 2012. The anthology, which Tea will edit, features a variety of pieces - poems, snippets, tour diaries - written by folks who have traveled with Sister Spit from the '90s through today. Just like the tour, the anthology will include some of the new stuff and some of the classics. Both Tea and Allison agree that the 2012 tour is much more civilized. No strangers' basements, no ex-girlfriends' couches, no towed vans (fingers crossed). The one thing concerning Allison, naturally, is shoes. "You can't take that much in a little van, so I have to figure out what type of shoe will work from Tucson to Portland to Minneapolis," she said. "I have just enough room for one pair of high heels." Then, in between performances, "Justin Bond and I can sit around and talk about them." (Unfortunately, that's a conversation we'll miss at Hugo House: Bond won't be joining the tour until after Seattle.)

Listening to Bond and Allison commiserate over footwear is something Tea has wanted for some time. It took five years for her to secure a two-week period to bring Allison out with Sister Spit. "If someone asked me in my wildest dreams who I would bring on tour, I would say Dorothy Allison and Justin Bond," Tea said. "It's a total dream tour."

(This article was published in today's issue of The Stranger. Read it on the website here.)

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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Inside/Out: Eileen Myles Does Jekyll and Hyde, Plus Snowflakes

In her newest book of poems, Snowflake/Different Streets (Wave Books), Eileen Myles uses just the meat of her ideas and discards the rest. To ensure her meaning across across without any frill, she provides the fewest words possible - almost every and has been replaced with &, with with w, and because with cause. Even the poems' format adheres to this stripped-down style. Myles writes in thin strips down the center of her pages, leaving the remainder of the page blank and ripe with questions.

Myles's creation is really two books in one, a Jekyll and Hyde collection. Snowflake (labeled "New Poems") goes first. Then, halfway through, the pages flip. The reader turns the book upside down to read Different Streets ("Newer Poems") and continues to drool.

Everything about Snowflake feels lonely. The poems either portray isolated contemplation or report from the outside of human interaction. In "To Weave," she describes early-morning sex that she doesn't necessarily experience herself. In many pieces, Myles even beats herself up: "I don't know myself/and that's a sin" ("No Excuse"). Snowflake feels raw, describing bare emotions and all things natural and earthly. Myles writes about road trips, storms in Iceland, a dog's death, lambs, rabbits, fleas, and naps.

Snowflake depicts singular emotions - individual reactions and moments. Different Streets describes stories and togetherness. Myles writes about relationships, self-awareness, birthday parties and heartfelt cards, conversations, "our endless/sound. Our connection" ("Mitten").

Myles is a master of language. She pulls multiple meanings not only from words and phrases but also from syllables: "I do a lot of/wrong reading," she writes in "Rock On," "stretching a meaning (my name)/into a world/view. If/it calls Ei/leen/I look up."

Both parts celebrate imagination. On an untitled page in Different Streets, Myles writes four lines: "The new poems/are poems of healing./But first I'll/be funny." It's unclear whether this is an afterthought (describing the previous pages) or a disclaimer for the next set of poetry. The preceding poems are about pencils, and the one immediately following is about a dog in a barbershop. So who knows? And honestly, who cares? She invites readers to interpret it either way.

Buy a copy of Snowflake/Different Streets here.

(My review also appears in the April 4, 2012 issue of The Stranger.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Powerfully Adorable: A Review of the Sharon Van Etten Concert

"It's really hard to sustain a note on a full stomach because I'm afraid I'll burp into the microphone," Sharon Van Etten said to a packed house of queer couples, single ladies in flannel button-ups, and groups of middle-aged hipsters at Neptune Theatre Sunday night.

Opening for the petite Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter with a booming, grainy voice was Philadelphia band War on Drugs - four gentlemen with a swarm of echoing synthesizer sounds that, combined with constant blue lights overhead, made the Neptune feel like a fish tank. Adam Granduciel (lead vocals/guitar) and Robbie Bennett (keyboard) sported trendy Jesus-length haircuts, and all four had a great sense of humor. Granduciel began to tease David Hartley (bassist) about his family in Seattle. "You're from around here, right? In Poulsbo?" he asked Hartley. The bassist (along with half the crowd) scoffed at Granduciel's geography skills. War on Drugs played for a good hour in their bizarre, aquatic way before Van Etten finally took the stage.

Apart from her intimidating vocal power, Van Etten is otherwise downright adorable. The 31-year-old giggled and palled around with her band mates and the crowd and, though she's been performing for most of her life, appeared almost nervous on stage. "Like I'm supposed to remember all my songs?" she joked when she forgot the set list three songs into the show. Her guitarist climbed over two amps to whisper the next title into her ear.

Van Etten's good-natured, awkward demeanor was endearing and instantly won over the crowd as she answered the questions folks shouted from the audience. For example:

Random person: "Do you like cats?"
Van Etten: "Cats? I love cats."
Same person: "I love you!"
Van Etten: "I love you, too, beautiful stranger."

At one point, a fan pushed his way to the front and set a flower onstage. Van Etten stopped playing to go pick up the flower and slide the stem through her guitar strings. "This song is now for that guy," she said before continuing with the swooning, mesmerizing voice and gut-wrenching lyrics of her latest album, Tramp.

Van Etten's drummer is the tallest man alive. Even seated, he towered over Van Etten's tiny standing frame. Part way into the set, her lead guitarist pulled out a violin bow and continued to play his guitar without missing a note. But the real treat was the lady sharing the stage with Van Etten, who switched from back-up vocals to guitar to bass to keyboard to the occasional tambourine, and the two fierce female voices took over the audience. Their harmonies swelled and swayed, particularly on songs like "Tornado" and "One Day." Together, they wooed the crowd long into the evening.

(My review also appears online at The Stranger.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Review: Rosecrans Baldwin's "Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down"

First off, I picked up this book and saw that the author's first name was Rosecrans. Therefore, the book couldn't possibly be bad, right? Well, I was partly correct.

Rosecrans Baldwin wrote a bitchin' debut novel in 2010 called You Lost Me There, about a baller Alzheimer's researcher named Dr. Victor Aaron who discovers that he and his late wife remembered their marriage very differently. The brilliant memory specialist must go back through his own memories to figure out what is real and what is make believe. The book won several awards and was on NPR's Best Books of 2010 list.

Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down is smart, funny, and engaging, but doesn't quite live up to the You Lost Me There hype. Paris describes Baldwin's true story of moving to his dream city with his wife, Rachel. The two Americans must endure the language barrier, the culture shift, the coffee, the streets, the driving, the rules about kissing, the cab fare, and more. Baldwin's voice is strong and he isn't full of himself. When he makes mistakes, he admits them. In fact, his minor (and major) screw-ups are what make the book so entertaining. One of Baldwin's most frequent mishaps is, of course, his struggles with learning French:

"You can also try rendering American idioms into French. Coworkers will stand flamingo-still when you so casually drop Moi, je ne donne pas une merde (I don't give a shit). Because other people might pass along feces as gifts, but never you, cool you."

His descriptions are spot-on and his adventures make the reader want to hop the next plane to France. The story is certainly genuine - it just lacks a sense of urgency, a sense of "keep reading," a sense of "Oh my God, I can't put this down." Perhaps the switch from fiction to non-fiction is what makes the book slightly less satisfying, or maybe You Lost Me There is simply too good to be topped just yet. Either way, Paris is worth the read, but isn't necessarily a must-read. An interesting connection, however, is the secondary story line in Paris. Besides battling the French culture, Baldwin was trying to get his first book published: You Lost Me There. The book-within-a-book thing is typically campy, but works well here.

Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down will be published on April 24th by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Q Review x2

The Q Review, a Chicago literary magazine, published another one of my essays in their March issue. Check it out here!

As an organization, The Q Review is a great platform for LGBT artistic community sharing. Their mission statement says it all:

OUR MISSION is to provide a platform for queer art and expression. We want to bring queer voices together as a collection of voices, as a deafening roar and unite LGBTQ artists under one title, one website, one letter: Q.

We chose “Q” because we aim to include everyone. “Q” literally stands for Queer, the all-inclusive identifier from the alphabet soup, LGBTQ. So whether you write poetry, or create graphic illustrations – gay, lesbian, or simply queer – your voice is welcome inside The Q Review.

We intend to bring the greater Chicago area and the rest of the world a formal, regular, and cohesive publication to spread queer thought, creativity, and to nourish the growth of the queer arts community as a whole.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Film Review: Paul Weitz's "Being Flynn"

When Nick Flynn (Paul Dano) walks into his deadbeat father's living room after not seeing him for eighteen years, Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro) greets him by stepping out of the bathtub, baring his ass, and boasting about his manuscript. "Everything I write is a masterpiece," Jonathan continuously tells Nick during Being Flynn, which is based on Nick Flynn's 2004 memoir (originally titled Another Bullshit Night In Suck City. The title switch must have sucked as well). Both father and son are failing at life. Miserably. The latter is aware of this; the former is not. The movie is told from both perspectives - Jonathan spends the film talking about his novel, while Nick writes a novel about his father. Though broken and disgruntled, the men charge through their respective stories, reeking of cheap vodka and poorly made leather jackets.

The script is smart and quick-witted. Little direct dialogue is taken from the book, but the events - particularly the homeless shelter where Nick works - are still vividly captured. As characters, Nick and Jonathan make a great pair of stubborn relatives - both convinced that the other is the reason life blows in "suck city." As actors, Dano and De Niro are good together. Dano's gangly awkwardness is simultaneously comical and natural in contrast to the nonchalant De Niro. But Julianne Moore dominates. She plays Dano's badass single mom, and her performance alone is a reason to see the movie.

Being Flynn was directed by Paul Weitz and hits theaters this week.

(My review is also featured in the March 14, 2012 issue of The Stranger)

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Monday, March 5, 2012

Book Review: Donovan Hohn's "Moby Duck"

Writer Donovan Hohn uses Ernie’s Sesame Street “Rubber Duckie” tune in his latest, Moby Duck, to introduce a bizarre news event of 1992. In January, a shipment of toys was en route from Hong Kong to Tacoma, WA when the ship was caught in a storm. Much of the cargo – including 28,800 plastic animals (most notably, 7,200 rubber ducks) – fell overboard in the accident. The occurrence was never reported (due to liability). Then, starting in 2003, rubber ducks began showing up on the shores of Seattle, different beaches throughout California, Alaska, and, somehow, Maine. One way or another the ducks not only survived, but ended up on beaches all over the country, then later, the world.

Hohn was a high school English teacher when he first heard about the rubber duck phenomenon. While he had never before worked in the fields of science, oceanography, or environmentalism (nor knew anything about beachcombers), Hohn became obsessed with the string of events that led to the rubber duck spill, as well as the accident’s aftermath.

He writes in both a fiction and non-fiction manner. On the one hand, Hohn explains the trials and tribulations of one wide-eyed explorer of the unknown, “a near-sighted, school-teaching, would-be archaeologist of the ordinary,” but also examines the intricate details of oceanography, polyethylene (the most commonly used plastic), and other chemicals that have slowly been poisoning the earth’s water supply.

The style and subsequent editing of the book is puzzling, however. In some ways, Hohn transforms an incredibly dry subject (for some) into a thriller, a mystery, and an action-packed drama. But his sentence structure is a bit like Yoda from Star Wars:

“I also liked them because I have since childhood found natural history more enchanting than nature, whatever that was.”

The book itself is also unnecessarily long. Hohn’s discoveries are interesting, and the reader appreciates a quick explanation of the fancy science jargon, but the story feels like Hohn never decided whether to write a book about his life or a book about neat scientific things. There is too much of both.

The quirky one-liners are worth it, though, and Hohn’s story is, of course, extraordinary. Plus, aside from the bizarre sentence structure, the man can definitely write:

“Wildly out of scale and dyed a lurid, maraschino red, the beaver seems altogether out of place in this menagerie, a mammalian interloper from somebody’s acid trip.”

More than, anything, however, Hohn’s story feels real. On top of the many complications he faced on his journey, Hohn was on the brink of first-time parenthood when he began his research. His struggles with parenting, paired with his fear of sharks and complete submission to the unknown, makes his writing relatable, as well as memorable.

Moby Duck was published on February 28, 2012 by Penguin Books.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On the Prowl for Queer Youth Space

In Seattle, the Capitol Hill area is well-known for its LGBT community. Gay-friendly bars, clubs, bookstores, theaters, music venues, and events scatter the blocks along Pike and Pine. Rainbow flags flutter from many windows of both businesses and homes. But in the welcoming community, a group of individuals feel out of place: young adults.

As a recent article on states, "With so much of the [Seattle] community based in spaces with age limits, alcohol, or costly admission, many events and networking opportunities systematically exclude youths." While more and more youth are coming out at younger ages, fewer and fewer have a central place to celebrate pride in Seattle. Thus the Queer Youth Space project began in 2009.

Unlike the nearby Lambert House - "a safe place for queer youth ages 22 and under", which has provided shelter and resources for struggling LGBT teens since the 1980s - the QYS seeks a place for social community building and events. Kyle Rapinian, who was eighteen when he began the project, set the ball rolling.

After a three-hour forum in 2010, where fifteen youth met to discuss the space problem and related issues, Rapinian set up weekly meetings to put together the QYS goals, set a plan, and begin the resource search. From there, the "Three Wings" idea became official. Three Wings (TW) refers to the name of the coveted new free center for young adults, and was named for the three main goals of the space itself:

1) Cultural Activism Lab: a venue for different kinds of food, art, and culture, and rooms for performances, classes, and community events.

2) Wellness Collaborative: a set of resources (like counselors, peer advisors, academic assistance, and health/legal guidance) to address problems for LGBT youth.

3) Research & Education Institution: a collection of leaders who promote and advocate necessary change in the community.

Mainly, however, the QYS group wants to fight boundaries and open doors. As their website states: "Physical space allows us to challenge entrenched heterosexism in more powerful ways. What the space's form promises to be is something very special and very queer: a space that (by definition) cannot be measured, traced, or pinned down."

In June 2010 (after a 60+ page proposal), QYS was awarded a Large Project Fund grant and the hunt for space began. Since then, the group has tried to obtain at least eight different facilities, but have been met with bad luck, unyielding landlords, buildings lacking wheelchair accessibility, and other frustrating issues.

But Rapinian and company haven't given up. The search continues and the plan hasn't changed. Once a space is secured, the group believes it will only be a matter of months before Three Wings is open, free, and available to "provide queer youth with opportunities to build communities."

To donate to the Queer Youth Space project, click here.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Book Review: Harvard Lampoon's "The Hunger Pains"

For readers sporting "Team Peeta" t-shirts, The Harvard Lampoon's The Hunger Pains might produce a few more laughs, but even those without extensive knowledge of Suzanne Collins' now infamous Hunger Games trilogy can enjoy the outright ridiculous humor in the February 2012 novel.

Because the book is written in jest and parody, commenting on the novel's literary merit would be equally hilarious. But the creativity of the characters, plot, and setting more than make up for any boring sentence structure. The book follows Kantkiss Neverclean, a klumsy, scatterbrained, foolish teenager, who was involuntarily volunteered to compete in the yearly Hunger Games (a competition that began as a hotdog eating contest). She and Pita Malarkey (an obese and whiny Pillsbury Doughboy) are shipped to Disneyland and forced into the games. Effu Poorpeople (an upscale version of Effy Trinket) and Buttitch Totalapathy (a gambling-crazed Haymitch Abernathy) accompany the tributes on their journey.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Hunger Pains is the total tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Take President Mark Bernette, for example (yes, as in the incorrectly spelled name of the British producer of Celebrity Apprentice and Survivor). After the President assures the tributes that they can leave at any time, an officer rushes to whisper into Bernette's ear. The President then turns to the crowd, clears his throat, and laughs. "Sorry, sorry, I was thinking of something else. You can only leave if you die."

Alright. Let's be honest. Some parts of the book are overdone and cease being funny after the 300th reference. The most looming example? The way Kantkiss can't decide between Pita and Carol (a.k.a. Gale). Yes, the allusion is very funny, particularly because of the ongoing subtle love triangle in the real Hunger Games trilogy. But twice a page for an entire novel? Not funny anymore. The novel's shining aspects lie in actually subtleties, the various settings, the secondary plots, the character names that are off by just one letter (the Peacemakers from Games are the Pacemakers in Pains. C'mon, that's hysterical). In that way, the book is worth the read.

This isn't the first full-length novel Harvard Lampoon has published. While the company is most known for its long-running humor magazine, HL has also released such roll-your-eye classics as Nightlight (based on Stephanie Meyer's Twilight trilogy) and Bored of the Rings (based, of course, on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings). Harvard Lampoon has not announced any upcoming book releases, but will continue to publish five issues of the HL magazine annually. Past HL writers include comedians/writers Conan O'Brien and Andy Borowitz.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book Review: Peggy Orenstein's "Cinderella Ate My Daughter"

When Peggy Orenstein began her writing career, she wanted to help mothers prepare their daughters for an overly feminine culture. For years, she visited high schools, grade schools, and Girl Scout meetings to spread the word on avoiding gender stereotypes. But then Orenstein had a daughter of her own. In her latest, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, Orenstein inspects feminine culture from a mother’s perspective, and speaks to the challenges of pursuing strong, independent images for girls across America, particularly for her own daughter, Daisy.

In Cinderella, the author looks at Disney Princesses, American Girls, and Barbies, all of which were originally rebellious counter-culture icons compared to the typical feminine images of their day but, over time, have only succumbed to the same old media-induced gender stereotypes. While Barbie first exemplified a strong, independent woman – a fierce and sassy flight attendant, nurse, and police officer – she now faces the problem many women continue to endure: “struggling to fulfill all the new expectations [society has] for them without letting go of the old ones.” In this way, Orenstein’s writing has a great sense of balance. She points out the red flags in girl’s activities and role models, but plays Devil’s Advocate as needed. Without being accusatory, the author presents the simple facts of why most so-called positive media heroines (like the tomboy Dora the Explorer) have ultimately given a negative or confusing message to girls (like when Dora became a princess anyway and started saying things like, “Vamanos! Let’s go to fairy land!”).

One of the most powerful aspects of Cinderella is the way Orenstein draws connections between genres, products, role models, and ideas. The author compares the way young girls play dress-up (in frilly dresses and boas) to emulate Snow White to the way young adolescents dress up (in mini skirts and fedoras) to emulate Miley Cyrus. And the main difference between the Little Mermaid and Rapunzel, according to Orenstein? The former literally gives up her voice for a man while the latter attracts a man with only her voice. MIND BLOWN.

Not to mention the statistics the author pulls to emphasize her horror – there are currently 26,000 Disney Princess items (pencils, t-shirts, dolls) for sale; pre-teen girls now spend over $40 million a month on beauty products; there were 12,000 injections of Botox administered to girls 13 to 19 in the year 2009 alone. Orenstein has built up a powerful argument regarding the detrimental relationship between the media and young women.

But girls, Orenstein discovers, are not the only ones set into rigid gender roles. In many ways, boys are stuck in just as many identity ruts. The author reminds readers that few serious role models exist for boys who want to dance, wear pink, or aspire to be a Disney Prince (or Princess). And, as Orenstein’s four-year-old daughter points out, “Did you know that girls can choose all kinds of things to wear, but boys can only wear pants?” While the author briefly touches on this double-edged sword of gender identity in the media (and, by extension, real life), she succeeds in teasing the reader with information, but doesn’t expand on her findings. Cinderella could surely continue for an additional 50 pages analyzing the effect of girly-girl culture on growing boys.

Overall, though, Orenstein powerfully dissects that tricky fine line of girly culture. Does removing Disney Princesses protect young girls from giving in to gender stereotypes, or teach girls that femininity – dresses, dolls, the color pink – are inherently bad? The author seeks to prove not only to Daisy, but to every toddler, tween, and teen out there that there are no “behavior[s] or toy[s] or profession[s]” that are unattainable for the female sex, nor “mandatory for [the female] sex.” Throughout Cinderella, Orenstein encourages gender-neutral freedom of choice for both girls and boys, be it the love of tutus or football jerseys.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter was published on January 25, 2011 by Harper.

(Look out for an extended version of my review in an upcoming issue of The Stranger)

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How They Met: An Interactive Social Experiment

In 2010, artist and director Ian Bell wanted to bring out the raw truth of day-to-day life in his city. He wanted people to experience Seattle through different eyes. The result: Seattle Confidential: Spill the Beans, Seattle!

To start, Bell set up dropboxes all over the city (physically and electronically) for people to both fill out survey questions and submit performance pieces based on a particular theme. Answers and submissions remain anonymous which, Bell hopes, will encourage more truthful material. "Seattle Confidential is...very personal in nature, like peering through a window into what defines ourselves and our city," Bell said in a recent press release. Before each new event, Bell collects responses and chooses the top writing samples. Then a group of the city's best actors perform the pieces in a staged reading-type setting and Bell presents the survey data, giving the audience an honest look at some fellow Seattle-ites. In this way, Bell refers to Seattle Confidential as "part interactive social experiment, part voyeuristic theatre event."

"How We Met," the newest theme in the quarterly series, was Monday, February 13. The evening featured seven unique stories ranging from an ex-prostitute's encounter with a former client to a man bereaving the loss of a good friend. In between segments, Bell presented the survey answers to questions like "Worst place to pick up a date?" and "Best place to have sex?" In an odd twist, the night's MC also asked audience members to take out their phones for live polling, and the room watched a projected graph of responses. For two hours, audience members read each other's answers, saw a snapshot of seven writers' lives, and wondered who among them just wrote "I'm Batman" on the screen as their favorite pick-up line.

"When you collect anonymous written submissions and surveys from the community, add local actors, plus the live electronic polling of the audience, you have a show that is uniquely and completely by Seattle, about Seattle, and for Seattle," Bell said.

Seattle friends - make sure to check out the Seattle Confidential website in the upcoming months to fill out survey questions or submit a writing piece.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Seattle Spit: Queer Spoken Word

In the second most literate city in America (according to CBS), it isn't difficult to find book signings, author readings, used book sales, and slam poetry. One of the area's most cherished monthly events is Seattle Spit, a queer spoken word open mic.

The free monthly evening of poetry, short stories, and performance pieces is entering it's ninth year. The night usually starts with a featured artist, followed by an open space for anyone to get up on stage. The latest Spit showdown, February 9, featured Broch Bender, an incredible trans-poet, producer (Robin Hood Is So Gay), published author (Hello My Name Is Broch Bender and Truth 1), and all-around badass. Bender read several pieces, including a gut-wrenching narrative about his late grandfather and a sexy true-life tale of a white water rafting experience with a (questionably gay) tour guide named Steve.

"Seattle Spit is designed to foster and encourage grassroots Queer community through spoken word, creativity and conversation," Bender told Seattle Gay News. "Events like this one are important for community-building in a supportive, friendly, Queer environment."

In the past, featured artists have included Ann Tweedy and Betsy Iverson (I'm Home: What It's Like To Love A Woman) and Cedar Adison Smith, who, when performing at Spit in January 2012, read a poem about refusing other people's ideas of gender. "I am not both," he said to Seattle Gay News. "I am not one or the other - I am just other."

Do yourself a favor and check out Seattle Spit on Facebook or in person, the second Thursday of every month at Wildrose, easily one of the best queer bars in town.

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Book Review: Emily M. Danforth's "The Miseducation of Cameron Post"

The young adult world has seen more than enough vampires, wizards, and post-Apocalyptic America. It has seen the typical coming-of-age stories and predictable coming-out stories. Emily M. Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post is both a coming-of-age and coming-out tale, but not typical, predictable, and there are definitely no vampires (well, except for this one scene, but it’s quick and painless).

In Danforth’s 1990s rural Montana setting, you get what you expect. Some kids being kids – breaking into broken down buildings, getting high in the woods – and some conservatives being conservatives, complete with the Gates of Praise worship center, the old-fashioned school dances, and God's Promise, a LGBT “treatment” facility where “the opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality. It is Holiness.”

But Miseducation is not about the protagonist, Cameron’s, cliché struggle with being queer, or at least not entirely. The book inspects the raw parts of acceptance, healing, and moving forward. Cameron isn’t just answering the questions “Am I gay?” or “Who am I?” She must deal with her parent’s abrupt and Final Destination 2-like death, followed by a series of frustrating friendships (some of which turn into relationships). She’s an immediately relatable female Holden Caulfield, but Danforth has created a unique character, a girl who walks out on arguments she doesn’t like, who finds great joy in Bubblicious gum, who turns to every VHS tape she can find for life advice, for “something official to show [her] how all of this should feel.” Danforth's book is straight out of a young adult's stream of consciousness. Her descriptions are teenage awkward and totally accurate:

"Grandma stooped over with a yellow rag, sprinkling out the cleanser, that chemical-mint smell puffing around us, her son dead and her daughter-in-law dead and her only grandchild a now-orphaned shoplifter, a girl who kissed girls, and she didn't even know, and now she was cleaning up my vomit, feeling even worse because of me: That's what made me cry."

In a refreshing way, the author avoids the "religion is so ridiculous" plotline, although uses the appropriate humor to get her point across. Yes, it's absolutely bogus to get sent off to cure your gayness, but the protagonist eventually gets to a place where she can relate a crazy Bible-thumper's faith to her own peace from a mountain jog. My only complaint is the momentum in the book's final section. The narrator kisses another girl, discovers her parents are dead, and hits the ground running (in all senses of the word). But the plot slows way down once Cameron arrives at God's Promise. Other than that, the book is absolutely worth it. Miseducation is real and gritty, and a gem in both the YA lit and queer fiction worlds.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post was published on February 7, 2012 by Balzer and Bray. The book is Danforth's first novel.

(Look out for an extended version of my review in an upcoming issue of The Stranger!)

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Building Literacy Through Graphic Novels

For years, teachers and parents have attempted to get teens more interested in books. There may be a simple solution, however, to making reading easier and more accessible to learners: graphic novels. As Paul Gravett, London-based journalist and comic guru, says, "images and text arrive together, work together, and should be read together." By coupling elaborate illustrations with written word, recent talk among educators centers around the positive effects of graphic novels on literacy problems.

Young readers cite any number of reasons for avoiding books - boredom, little action, or lack of concentrated imagination. "Since struggling readers often complain that they can’t see or visualize text," states Caroline Derksen of the Williams Lake Tribune, "the graphic element of these books helps readers connect and comprehend the material in a way not possible with traditional literature."

Graphic novels like Brian Ralph's Daybreak (2011) Vera Brosgal's Anya's Ghost (2011) take readers on journeys through aesthetically beautiful story lines, settings, and events. The plots feature characters of all different backgrounds, races, and socio-economic lives. Readers can both relate to and imagine the scenes in graphic novels. The genre's audience has expanded in recent years, in fact, or rather gone back to basics, after a whirlwind of steps in multiple directions.

When comic strips began appearing in newspapers in the 1890s, they spoke to a largely adult audience because those were the folks reading the paper. During the rise of the first comic books in the 1930s, the genre trickled into a younger audience and the criticism of comics began. Adults insisted the reading material was no good for youth and had no literary merit, according to a 2009 article in the University of Illinois news journal. In the 1950s, the genre swung back to a mainly adult crowd - the cheap comics became boring and the good comics became too expensive for kids to buy. "Comics became incredibly tame," says Carol L. Tilley, a professor of library and information sciences at U of I, "and the more sophisticate comics were direct sales to adults from the comics publishers."

Everything changed with the graphic novel. By taking larger literary plots and combining stories with illustrations (picture book-style), readers of all ages have the opportunity to embrace literature in an entirely different way. Young learners, teenagers, and adults have begun to choose the latest Frank Miller creation over spending an afternoon parked in front of mindless media.

"Graphic novels can serve as an intermediary for a teen [or adult] who would rather be watching television than reading a book," says author and librarian, Michele Gorman.

Graphic novels will continue to bleed into mainstream culture, whether it be through big screen adaptations of V For Vendetta or Constantine (both originally GNs) or the newest copy on the library shelf. Either way, the genre is here to stay and making a positive impact on audiences.

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Book Review: Leslie DuBois's "The Queen Bee of Bridgeton (Dancing Dream #1)"...And Why Free Ebooks Are A Great Idea

I have to be honest - when I downloaded this free ebook at the Kindle store, I forgot about it; nothing about the title or cover enticed me enough to read it. More than that, it was free, so I didn't expect anything spectacular. After finding the download recently, though, I couldn't put it down.

The Queen Bee of Bridgeton tells the story of Sonya, an African American dancer living in a broken down neighborhood. Sonya's sister, Sasha, is the academic of the two girls. She gets them both enrolled in the city's top college-prep school - Bridgeton Academy. But Sonya can't wait to get out of there. Her dangerous neighborhood and the snooty school are places she has never fit in. Then Sonya realizes something strange is happening at school. Pranks begin to pop up, and not the harmless "Girls Have Cooties sign on your locker" kind of prank. Sonya finds another girl crying and naked in the stairwell - the stranger has been abused, her car has been vandalized, and she transfers to another school the following day. Suddenly, Sonya can't be invisible anymore. And she can't keep quiet.

Structure: 4.5 out of 5 stars

What starts out as a story about a lost teen quickly turns into a gut-wrenching drama with a few honest to goodness gasp-out-loud surprises. The author has written Sonya's life in two parallels - her battle to steer clear of her neighborhood (literally her past and present) and her fight to not succumb to the typical teenage life at her high school. To counteract these struggles, Sonya excels at and embraces her ballet career. On the street or in the hall, she may be a nobody. But on stage, she is everything.

Of course, a gentleman caller gets involved - the misunderstood basketball champ, Will. Then things get topsy-turvy when Sonya's life goes haywire and her enemies become friends and her friends become enemies and she doesn't know who to trust. Great plot, even if just a touch ultra girly at times.

Character: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sonya is a great role model for YA readers. She admits she isn't the best at school and she doesn't know how to make friends. She's awkward, self-conscious, and unsure of her strengths and weaknesses. But by God, she can dance. Sonya throws her unknowns, her hopes and dreams and wishes, onto that stage. It is the one familiarity in a big world. I appreciate the way the author uses dance as a metaphor throughout the novel, and not in an obvious way. DuBois takes care in crafting Sonya's character, and her interactions with Sasha, her mother, Will, and the folks at school. The author provides depth, desire, and remains consistent.

In a similar way, Sasha blows it out of the water. Her personality has been particularly crafted, with just enough foreshadowing to prepare the reader for later chapters.

Will, on the other hand, I had a hard time trusting. He makes a huge character shift and the protagonist accepts him without a grain of salt, but the reader doesn't. I needed more reasons to believe in his intentions.

Voice: 4 out of 5 stars

Not only is Sonya a great role model for ladies, but her voice is pure and true. She doesn't hide anything from the reader. To round out her character, though, I would have liked to see more self-doubt, which would have made her arch more powerful. The elements Sonya despises - her neighborhood and her school - remain negative areas of her life, while dance remains the one saving power. If the author had messed with the protagonist a little, made her really struggle with those positives and negatives, it would make her voice and character more believable.

The Queen Bee of Bridgeton was published in March 2011 by Little Prince Publishing, and is the first of a dance series. DuBois's second installment, The Devil of DiRisio (Dancing Dream #2), was released in September 2011. Like the first book, Devil had a short-term free stint in the Kindle store. As such, the author notes that book sales have worked in her favor after the free runs on Amazon.

Don't make the same mistake I did and write-off those free ebooks just yet. It turns out that publicity - and subsequent sales - often skyrocket for authors who release their novels at $0 charge for a few days. But more about that another time...

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Learning Fact From Fiction - Or Simply Fictional Facts

In today's society, kids have access to current events through a variety of means: television, radio, podcasts, movies, books, social media, Google. But a recent trend in literature poses an interesting way to get youth informed of past events - alternate histories.

"Alternate History" (also known as allohistory, counterfactuals, or simply AH) is a genre of literature that describes factual historical events, and then branches into fiction. Traditionally, these works have been aimed at an adult audience. Hilary Mantel's 2010 Wolf Hall, for example, explores Henry VIII's drawn out divorce with Catherine of Aragon and marriage with Anne Boleyn, but then inspects a somewhat fictional portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, here a blacksmith's son who becomes the king's right-hand-man and ultimately fixes Henry VIII's marriage.

Children's historical fiction has been around in a similar fashion. Picture books and Early Reader chapter books about wars, famine, and slavery have been written for children as supplemental history lessons. For instance, Cynthia Harnett's The Wool Pack looks at 15th century English wool traders and features "sympathetic child characters who navigate the bewildering politics and restrictions of their...time in [an] utterly absorbing story," according to The Guardian. Or, a more accessible example: Disney's version of Pocahontas. Let's be real - John Smith got a little too much credit.

But the YA trend is very new. While dystopian fiction has dominated the young adult world for several years, some critics agree that YA alternate histories are the new big thing. A panel of YA AH authors - Scott Westerfeld, Holly Black, and Cassandra Clare - met in 2009 to discuss the up-and-coming genre.

Westerfeld has penned over 20 science fiction novels. His most recent Leviathan trilogy portrays a different kind of World War I that explores Darwin's ideas on human selection and the subsequent conversations on genetic engineering through robots designed specifically for war. When asked about the attraction to AH, particularly for teens, Westerfeld explained in a Boom Tron article that "one of the chief pleasures of alternate history is being able to recognize so much of the world as familiar with one jarring thing that's changed." For the Leviathan trilogy, factual history takes a drastic turn when Darwin not only theorizes evolution but also discovers DNA in the 1860s, which leads to a series of different fictional events.

Similarly in Ben Jeapes' The New World Order, a familiar English civil war rages throughout the books pages, but the use of repeater rifles and machine guns make an early entry into history, followed by an obviously sequential alien invasion. As such, facts turn into fiction while still holding the semblance of truth.

Many YA authors have embraced the new genre, so a slew of new AH books are on the way. Taylor Anderson's Iron Gray Sea will be released in July, followed by Harry Turtledove's Coup DdEtat in August, just to name a few.

Vampires and post-Apocalyptic America will continue to fill library shelves, but it looks like alternate histories might make it into just as many readers' hands.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Review: Kristan Hoffman's "Twenty-Somewhere"

Sophie, MJ, and Claudia met in college and part ways post-graduation to pursue their individual dreams. Sophie secures a position with one of the biggest advertising firms in the country, MJ heads to a prestigious science graduate program in England, and Claudia moves in with her boyfriend while she finishes her first novel. But the three girls face circumstances they never imagined and must successfully navigate through all the unexpected, gut-wrenching, and sometimes inappropriate events. Kristan Hoffman’s Twenty-Somewhere, a 40-episode ebook, accurately portrays the self-identity, panic, and enthusiasm many post-grads feel as they enter their first year of true adulthood.

Structure: 4 out of 5 stars

The author weaves the three girls’ stories together and dedicates an equal amount of literary real estate to each one. Chapters vary lengths and intensity and flow nicely. The plot is realistic and full of sarcasm, much like the typical post-grad experience. While the story line follows a consistent pace, I would have enjoyed a bit more depth to the script. Relationships and jobs are certainly challenging for everyone - the author has built up the right momentum to extend those two aspects of life into more treacherous waters. Perhaps the sequel could do so?

Character: 4 out of 5 stars

I was glad to see the author present three strong female leads. Claudia's strength as a character takes 3/4 of the novel to appear (she spends a big part of her time relying on her boyfriend), but then finally takes control of her own future and her character beautifully transforms. Overall, the women offer unique stories. For Sophie, MJ, and Claudia, their careers, respect, and happiness come first and all else comes second - a refreshing set of protagonists. However, the author takes a turn when Sophie quits her job and decides to indulge in fashion instead. This is not entirely a step back - Sophie demonstrates her expertise and control in the fashion industry - but I felt like the author emphasizes a somewhat stereotypical obsession with cute clothes rather than a sharp sense of marketing. Likewise, both Sophie and MJ take a small "boy crazy" shift for several chapters, but then jump right back. Apart from those moments, the women are champion female leads.

Voice: 4 out of 5 stars

Because all three girls have stories to tell, all three voices get limelight. The author did a great job making the characters sound similar enough to be former college roommates, but still distinctive enough to be identifiable. There are also sections of the novel where secondary characters, like Claudia's slightly crazed fan, Michelle, pop up via email and therefore even more voices get explored.

Twenty-Somewhere was published in 2010 as an Amazon ebook, and hit #9 on the Kindle list of free ebooks during the 4 days it was free. Read more about Kristan Hoffman's experiences with ebook publishing here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Book Review: Sharon Sala's "My Lunatic Life"

Tara Luna already has her typical teenage problems – friendships, relationships, identity, and being the new kid in the high school. She also has her fair share of unique issues: Tara can see ghosts, non-Sixth Sense style. And, to top it off, she’s also psychic and can’t tell anyone for fear of being called crazy. But then Tara stumbles onto a deadly vision, a kidnapping, and a murder mystery in her new town and suddenly she must start talking or other people might feel the consequences. Sharon Sala’s My Lunatic Life, the first in her new Lunatic series, brings the reader some big-time adventures in a small-time town.

Structure: 3 out of 5 stars

Readers discover Tara’s gifts in the first few pages and just go with it. The author offers some of the stereotypical obstacles in the teenage protagonist’s way – the trio of rude cheerleaders, the cryptic mixed-signals from the bad boy, the struggles to fit in – but then also a slew of craziness, including a dead body, an unforeseen friendship, and a fire. While I enjoyed the twists and turns, I found some of the plot too easy for Tara. As challenges arise, the book’s heroine always has the solution and, if anyone questions her, she tells the simple truth: “I’m psychic” or “I’m talking to a ghost.” Even if characters don’t believe her with that one line, they do after the next few lines she says. I find it hard to understand that no one questions her abilities, nor tell others about her gifts. If the author presented more conflict with her powers, the story would run much more smoothly.

Character: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tara has spent her entire life on the move, and her subsequent tough persona is quite satisfying. She doesn’t tolerate any nonsense from anyone, including sassy classmates, the popular crowd, or even the authorities. The readers love learning about Henry and Millicent, Tara’s ghost friends. Because of the protagonist’s psychic powers, the reader also enjoys the brief but telling information snippets Tara sees in the students, teachers, and friends around her. Through the main character’s head, we discover past experiences and quirks about all secondary characters.

But I didn’t know enough about the closest folks in Tara’s life – how did Henry and Millicent find the protagonist, and what are their respective stories? Why is her Uncle Pat always on the move? How did Tara herself react when she realized her powers? I like the author’s unique use of exposition, but it needs further development.

Voice: 4 out of 5 stars

In a similar way to learning character stories from Tara’s visions, the reader also hears multiple character voices, even though the story is only told from the heroine’s perspective. As the protagonist, Tara has a strong, distinctive voice, albeit it often floats into a slightly stereotypical teenage girl voice (using phrases like, “so not cool,” etc). These slips somewhat detract from Tara’s power as a fierce female. In the same way, the voice of Flynn O’Mara (Tara’s boyfriend) will shift from passionate and gentle to nonchalant and rough, almost as if the author wants to make sure readers remember Flynn is still a teenage boy. As a strong secondary character, Flynn’s appeal would intensify if the author had consistently made his character fiercely sensitive throughout.

Overall, My Lunatic Life is a quick lighthearted delight. The book was published in August 2011 by BelleBooks in the UK. The next novel in the installment, Lunatic Detective, was released shortly afterwards in November 2011.

To read more about author Sharon Sala, check out her website.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Real Life of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I've often scoffed at the crazy plots of "transportation" films. No way do that many unique personalities meet on the same mode of transport, tell stories, exchange snacks, offer help, and bond over the literal and metaphorical bumps in the road.

But I'm on Day Two of a cross-country Amtrak train trip. I've met an ex-Marine, a Coast Guard, a blogger, a retired banker traveling the world, a Chemistry student, an angry bartender, two men from an oil rig, a mother in search of her son, a singing waitress, and a man who is about to walk the length of the United States (yes, on foot). I've witnessed strangers share baked goods, assist with dead cell phones, and keep watch over carry-on bags while others are away from their seats. I've helped the woman next to me take photos of the passing Montana horizon while the elderly couple to our left discuss salmon fishing. In twenty-four hours, I've somehow been deemed "that writer from Car 14" and have been extremely honored and humbled to have people shake me awake from a nap to tell me about a short story idea I might like. In front of me, a man named Aaron has become "the Internet guy" and strangers have walked into our car to ask him about changing trends in technology (even now, as I write this blog post on my iPhone).

I've eaten the best veggie burger of my life seated in a dining car passing Williston, North Dakota. I've been offered someone else's jacket when the power/heat went out at 3am. I've successfully changed my clothes in a bathroom smaller than my toaster oven. But more than that, I've met the melting pot, the one that so many presidential campaigns have referenced. Those people of every gender, race, religion, and background are contained within three sleeper cars, five coaches, two dining cars, and a lounge, but the gang's all here.

A man from Champagne talked to me last night as the sun set outside the lounge window. He said, "I'm tired of politicians claiming they know Americans. Want to know the real America? Ride an Amtrak or a Greyhound. Those are the people of the United States and beyond. Those are the stories politicians need to know."

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go play cards with a recently converted Buddhist and her two marine biologist friends. We will collectively tweet Newt Gingrich when we're done.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Saving and Supporting LGBT Bookstores

Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York.

Lambda Rising in Washington, D.C.

A Different Light in Hollywood, CA.

In 2009, all three independent LGBT book retailers went out of business. Each store was a beacon of hope for its neighborhood, and provided both physical materials and a safe space for the community to which it catered. The Huffington Post writes that, overall, "LGBT bookstores have played a big part in cultivating our history, serving as resource centers for queer and questioning youth and fostering relationships." When the three stores announced they were going out of business, though, it was only the beginning.

In the past three years, queer bookstores in several major cities around the world have had to throw in the towel. Most recently, Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto, currently the oldest LGBT book retailer in existence, had to follow the unfortunate growing trend. The store went up for sale two weeks ago and may be facing its last days, according to an article in Queerty. Several other sellers are on the out-and-out as well: Outwrite (Atlanta), Calamus Bookstore (Boston), Prinz-Eisenherz Buchladen (Berlin), and Libreria Complices (Barcelona), just to name a few.

The most frustrating battle facing all independent bookstores, LGBT and otherwise, is, of course, big name retailers like Barnes & Noble and Readers fear that losing so many queer indie bookstores to larger outlets will not only be a loss in local shops and important books, but also a sense of community. When the Oscar Wilde Bookshop closed, the New York Times spoke with the store's fifth and final owner, Kim Brinster, who said, that "in 1967 Craig Rodwell, started this landmark store that not only sold Gay and Lesbian literature but also became a meeting place for the LGBT community." Queer book retailers have been crucial in the literary and social world and are now, as puts it, "one of the nation's best endangered species."

Buy local. Buy independent. Go to any of the bookstore links in this article to help save LGBT bookstores from going out of business.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review: Marion Dane Bauer's "Am I Blue: Coming Out From the Silence"

In 1994, sixteen authors contributed unique and, at times, bizarre coming-of-age stories to a collection called Am I Blue? Coming Out From the Silence. Marion Dane Bauer edits this delightful collaboration, which features settings ranging from a hidden beach cove in the 1950s (James Cross Giblin’s Three Mondays in July) to the fantasy world of female warriors (Jane Yolen’s Blood Sisters) to the terrifying parent-teacher conferences of a conservative high school (Nancy Garden’s Parents’ Night). Each story empowers youth in a way that honors the book’s dedication: “for all young people in their search of themselves.”

Structure: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The short stories vary lengths, themes, and plots, but overall contain effective individual layouts. Of the sixteen tales, only two stuck out as underdeveloped pieces, and even those don't lack powerful content.

Characters: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Again, overall very strong. The characters in C.S. Adler’s Michael’s Little Sister and Marion Dane Bauer’s Dancing Backwards in particular offer potent perspectives and interesting archs. Protagonists throughout the book offer first and third person narratives. I would have liked to see a few of character stories extended – M. E. Kerr’s We Might As Well Be Strangers was far too short to get me involved, and Ellen Howard’s Running characters, Terry and Sheila, needed to see a more satisfying conclusion. Otherwise, the collection offers an abundance of sassy role models, frustrating parents, empowered teens, and unexpected heroes.

Voice: 5 out of 5 stars

Across the board, readers can engage with each character’s unique voice. Stories are joyful, angry, shocking, and endearing, but generally very commanding. Readers have the opportunity to be inside sixteen incredible protagonists’ heads, and every minute is worth the read.

Am I Blue? was published by HarperCollins in 1994 and is the first published queer youth anthology.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Book Review: Deborah Blumenthal's "The Lifeguard"

When sixteen-year-old Sirena discovers her parents are getting divorced and she is being shipped to Rhode Island to live with her Aunt Ellie for the summer, Sirena assumes she'll lie low and feel sorry for herself. But then Sirena finds her way to the beach and walks into the lives of Antonio, an eighty-year-old Brazilian painter, and Pilot, the bizarre lifeguard. Coupled with the ghosts she encounters in her aunt's attic, Sirena's summer turns into anything but ordinary.

Structure: 3.5 out of 5 stars

The author sets up what would be an incredibly stereotypical story: teenage girl falls in love with cute boy at the beach. In combination with the book's cover, the reader might expect just another romance. But Blumenthal throws in a couple of strangely satisfying twists. A robbery, a storm, an old wives tale, and a mysterious past, just to name a few. The plot shifts and thickens with each chapter.

As a reader, though, I felt unprepared for a couple of Sirena's discoveries. The author needs a touch more foreshadowing in earlier chapters. With more build-up, a few crucial moments would feel surprising instead of unsettling. I was also a bit confused at times about what was reality and what was a dream. While this could certainly be the author's choice, I didn't feel it worked well throughout the book. Overall, though, the book flows at a nice pace.

Character: 4 out of 5 stars

Readers embrace Sirena as a protagonist. She experiences pain from the divorce, confusion from Pilot, determination from her painting, and much more. Sirena is honest, kind, and passionate. At times she jumps emotions, however. A word or gesture from someone else will often change Sirena's entire perception, and I didn't always follow her feelings. But she is a strong, spunky girl who doesn't take no for an answer.

Similarly, Aunt Ellie is fierce and fascinating. I would love to know more about her background, childhood, and beliefs. Same goes for Sirena's best friend, Marissa, whom the reader meets through sporadic written correspondences between the two girls. A great cast of characters. If many are fleshed out further, the book can fully transform.

Voice: 4 out of 5 stars

The reader gets roughly 85% Sirena's voice and 15% Marissa's voice. Both girls face challenging summers and inform each other of such. While both characters come to realize new traits about their respective careers and relationships, the reader yearns for more than just surface emotions. What questions does each girl face? What inner turmoil does each one battle? The reader also learns about Pilot solely from Sirena's thoughts about him, but not much from his actual dialogue or voice. The relationship between the two would carry much more weight and tension if the reader engages with Pilot directly. All three - Sirena, Marissa, and Pilot - embody distinct character voices and intrigue the reader. A bit more from each would help the reader understand each personality better.

Blumenthal has published many novels for children and adults, and The Lifeguard is her second YA book. It will be published in March 2012 by Albert Whitman & Company.

For more on Blumenthal's work, check out her website.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Sherlock Holmes With Whiskers

Throughout the recent rave over Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows, another feisty detective is on the prowl. Fictional protagonist Tori Trotter is witty, sophisticated, and detail-oriented. Also, Trotter is a cat.

Seventy-five-year-old author and illustrator, Barbara Stretton, proud owner of seven cats, has been working toward her Tori Trotter series for years. She just released the third book in the installment called The Case of the Lurking Lion, where Trotter solves the mystery of a ghost feline outside of a local hotel. The series is targeted toward middle-schoolers and "cat lovers of all ages," according to today's article in Greenwich Citizen.

This delightful new series promotes quick-thinking, surprises, and a cast of unique characters, including Trotter's ridiculous sidekick, Scout, and a Maine Coon cat named Muffy. With all the slightly condescending middle-school reads out there, the Tori Trotter series is playful, smart, and doesn't take itself too seriously. Nor does the series' author.

"When I was assigned to write a guide for Bruce Hale's first Chet Gecko book," Stratton says of the equally lovely gecko-in-trenchcoat detective series, "I was struck by the hardboiled detective's voice and said to myself, 'I can do that. But my detective would be a cat.'"

To read student and teacher reviews of the new Tori Trotter series, check out the author's website.