Saturday, April 29, 2006

Land of the Lost

Anyone out there remember the Saturday morning TV show Land of the Lost? You know, the one with Marshall, Will, and Holly, on a routine expedition, their raft falls down a waterfall, they get swallowed by a rift at the bottom opened by an extremely conveniently timed earthquake, go back in time, and end up in a world where dinosaurs, cavepeople, and Sleestaks coexist, though not so peacefully?

I was only about five or six when I started watching Land of the Lost, and the fuzzy bits I do remember included claymation dinosaurs, terrible 1970s lighting, and an annoying caveboy named Chaka, but, being five, I remember I was still fascinated.

I never thought I'd see the show again, but lo and behold, it's out on DVD. I discovered this when it popped up on my " recommends" page while I was buying a present for one of my brothers. Anyway, the link Amazon so kindly provided took me to the DVD for the third and final season. Now, the 1970s were not a decade of fine, edifying television by any means, but judging from the comments, the third season took LOTL beyond normal 70s kitsch and into the land of Saturday morning crap. The comments on Amazon give a pretty hilarious glimpse at the main plot points of the final season, in case you either want to relive your childhood or are younger than I am and have no clue what I'm talking about:

* The season starts off with the death of Rick Marshall, Will and Holly's father, who is conveniently replaced by an uncle wearing the same clothes. Says Shelley: "Rick Marshall is gone and we don't know why [actor] Spencer Milligan left the show. To explain his absence, a new horrendous theme song is introduced-- written by Wayne Osmond of the famed Osmond family--the song explains how during yet another earth quake, another time shift occurs. Rick is playing with the crystals in one of the pylons when the earthquake hits and he is sucked into a time doorway. Instead of chasing after him so they can at least be in the same time period as dear old dad, Will and Holly just stare and scream for their father."

* Even though Will and Holly have been in the Land of the Lost for three years, Colette points out, "Holly is somehow still wearing the same jeans and shirt she was lost in, in spite of the fact that she's a foot taller and developing a bosom. Months/years of running from dinosaurs and climbing rocks seems to have not worn any holes in the knees or made any stains on the shirt. I bet a lot of parents wish they could buy their kids an outfit like that."

* Colette also notes a last-ditch attempt by the writers to introduce some drama: "Apparently having exhausted their store of science-fiction ideas, fantasy elements are added. These include a fire-breathing dino, a two-headed dino, a unicorn, Medusa, the Flying Dutchman, etc. The Marshalls accept this all without so much as a 'What the heck?'"

* Brewzerr, however, appreciates one of the season's new fantastical creatures: "Torchy, the fire-breathing dinosaur who is without a doubt the biggest bad-ass in the land of the lost." Given that the other badasses were claymation dinosaurs, being the land's "biggest badass" was probably not hard.

* Another notable change occurs with the show's music. W. Smith notes that "in the tradition of Greg Brady, Will picks up a banjo made out of a cantolope and a stick and sings a few romantic folk songs every few episodes."

* Eric claims the season lost all logic, citing this example: "Holly, trapped in a frozen part of the Land of the Lost, complains repeatedly about how cold she is, but she never even rolls down her sleeves!"

* So should you buy or rent the third season, just for kicks? Not according to E. Baxter, who warns, "Wow, this [season] is awful. It's bad, but not in a fun nostalgic way, just bad."

* Adds John Q., "The show was always crap."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Fruit Hat or No Fruit Hat? You Decide.

I recently finished reading Anjali Banerjee's Imaginary Men, an "India-Lit" book, for lack of a better term, that was a featured read in Target stores. I met Anjali a few years ago, when I had just sold to Kensington's now-defunct latina romance line, Encanto, and I remember her telling me she wrote romance with Indian characters and wondering whether there would ever be a market for such things.

Happily, there is now a market, as Anjali has sold two India lit books and is working on a third, and she also has a couple of YA novels featuring Indian characters in print.

As for Imaginary Men, it centers around Lina Ray, a San Francisco-based matchmaker whose own lovelife has taken a nosedive since the death of her philandering fiance. Her family, concerned about her being alone "at her age," seems to pin their own happiness and contentment on her finding a husband, so, to get them off her back and perhaps make them happy for a moment, Lina makes up a fiance. Naturally, her lie spins out of control, and she spends the rest of the book untangling herself from the mess she's created. Not to mention that she meets a bona fide prince while in India, who looks like the man of her dreams, but acts like an old-fashioned chauvinist--but maybe it's all a cover for a sensitive guy underneath who really could be "the one."

Anjali's executes a tried-and-true premise beautifully, making it new by weaving in the colors and textures of India and accurately portraying the careful balancing act all of us who are caught between two cultures have to face. The characters are vibrant and the family is a crack-up. It's charming, it's fun, I love it, go read it.

Anyway, I was telling Anjali how much I liked her book, and we started talking about whether having our books labeled "latina lit" or "India lit" helps or hurts. My first instinct in her case was that it helps--the sari-wearing figure on her front cover made the book stand out in the rows and rows of chick lit at the store. But is that a good thing for everyone? she asked. Or does stamping a book with the race or ethnicity of its characters turn off some readers?

Good question.

Don't think I'm calling readers racist. I'm talking about preferences, just like my husband's preference for non-cyberpunk, non-comedic, Very Serious Sci-Fi with Intricate World-Building and Realistic Scientific Details. Maybe some readers just want to get to the heart of the story and don't want a lot of fussy details about another country or the occasional Spanish or Bengali word dropped in to puzzle them. Maybe others don't care for plots where cultural identity plays a big theme, like I don't care for comedic historicals. Maybe some would rather read about a heroine who shares their own cultural background, the way I turn to books witih latinas (and half-latinas) again and again.

So, again, does it help or hurt a book to be labeled ethnic fiction? It certainly hasn't hurt bestselling authors like Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, but I wonder if the publishing houses even know when it applies to newer latina lit (or India lit, or Korea lit, or...) authors without tons of marketing support behind them. My friend and excellent writer Caridad Pineiro (there's a tilda over that N, just in case I can't figure out how to put one there) wrote a chick lit novel with a latina heroine called Tori Got Lucky for Pocket. I loved this catchy, memorable title, but Pocket decided to change it to Sex and the South Beach Chicas (out in September!), to make it more obvious that the book featured latina characters. Would Caridad's book appeal to more people with her first title, or with the second, actual title? Would it be better to make it appeal to a wider audience with a title like Tori Got Lucky, so that a reader who might not look at an obviously latin-themed cover might pick it up and be enticed by the cover blurb/story--and then market it in specialized outlets aimed at reaching latinas (Latina magazine, targeted newspaper and radio ads, etc.)? Or does stamping a book with a certain cultural identity make it look fresh and unique when it's lined up on a Barnes & Noble table with countless other books?

I have no idea what the answers to these questions are. Just something to ponder for the day.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Free Book Winners

The winners of free books are: Karen, Laura, and Anonymous who posted on the "O Frabjous Day!" entry. (I know, I said post on the other entries, but it was such a nice comment.)

Winners, please email me and let me know which backlist title you want (or if you want a random book from my library donation pile).

Paula Graves also won, but she said someone else could have her book. Paula, if you want a free book from my library donation pile, I have some good Intrigues in there!

Friday, April 21, 2006

O Frabjous Day! / Free Books

I think I've at least hinted before about what a sinkhole last year was in terms of my writing--between an international move, moving into our new house by myself while pregnant, being pregnant, and worrying about my husband in Iraq for six months, I didn't write a whole lot. Actually, I hardly wrote at all. So I'm overjoyed to report that I finally put a partial in the mail to Intrigue. Now it just has to be accepted, but I'll worry about that later.

To celebrate, I thought I'd conduct a little experiment, since it's been quiet here lately. The first three people (lurkers, this includes you) to comment on a blog post here (any post EXCEPT this one) can have a free book from my backlist--your choice.

And if you win but don't want a free book from my backlist, I'll grab a random one out of my library donation box.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fun with SiteMeter

In a hurry today, so I'm just going to leave you all with some interesting (and often amusing) searches that led people to this blog:

* Judy Blume lesson plans: Huh. Faked you out with the Teach for America entry, hey? Sorry.

* Remove broken capillaries in face from Honolulu: Once again, Blogspot, I don't need this. Yes, I've been to Honolulu, but as far as I know, it hasn't caused any broken capillaries in my face, so why you would lead this searcher to my online doorstep, I have no clue, other than I suspect it's some sort of vindictive, artificially intelligent conspiracy. Between this and "Fat Woman Sad," you're making me sound REALLY attractive here....

* Nigerian shoe and bag: (I have no idea why this person would be led here. I talked about Kenya the other day. Your poor geography knowledge is showing, Blogspot. Why don't you just go on Jay Leno's Battle of the Jaywalking All-Stars while you're at it?)

* How do you make a coffinette?: (Eeeuwww. You won't find out here. Creeeeeeepy!)

* "I'm saying I love you, and I'm saying it out loud.": (Line from the end of The Cutting Edge. Glad I could help.)

* cheese factory in Random Lake: (What?! Somebody actually searched for the Random Lake cheese factory?!?! That's hilarious! Although now I feel a little guilty for calling it smelly, seeing as this very cheese factory has been the source of many happy, cheese-filled childhood moments. To make up for it, here's a ringing endorsement: This would be the Cedar Valley Cheese Factory on Hwy. 57 in Random Lake, WI, and they excellent cheese curds and string cheese, and also a very nice sharp cheddar.)

* Blue Oyster Cult "sulfa jet city": (:::snort::: Um, it's "Suffragette City," and that would be David Bowie's song. Don't feel bad. I used to think that the Steve Miller Band's "Big Old Jet Airliner" was "Bingo, Jed Had a Light On.")

* sexual pages for older ladies: (Um, sorry to disappoint, but you'll find no older ladies trolling for creepy Internet pervs here. Not even sure you'll find any ladies here, as I may be too snarky to qualify....)

* that's great it starts with an earthquake: (That would be the opening line to "It's the End of the World As We Know It" by REM. Again, glad I could help.)

Monday, April 17, 2006


I once broke up with a guy in school (mutual thing) who kept getting up to change the CD while we were having our "this SO isn't working" talk. It took me a few minutes to realize what he was doing, but once I realized that he would only let one song play per CD before getting up to make a switch, it finally dawned on me that WE WERE BREAKING UP TO A SOUNDTRACK. I remember Sting being in there, but little else, since I bailed shortly after that little revelation, feeling free in more ways than one.

Anyway, I don't know how many people set life events to soundtracks in this way, but Mary at the Bandwagon posted a couple of days ago about having soundtracks for her books--lists of special songs that she would play while writing a particular manuscript, because they seemed to suit the characters and the plot, and offered her some inspiration.

It's an interesting idea. I haven't ever tried to compile an entire soundtrack for a book-in-progress. Generally, I find one song that seems to fit with a manuscript and basically kill it, playing it over, and over, and over, and over--ad nauseum, ad infinitum. Before I invested in a portable CD player (now an iPod) and a good pair of tiny headphones, I used to drive Jose nuts, as in. "Tracy, if you play that song one more time, I'm going to figure out a way to commit suicide with my TV dinner tray."

Funny thing is, I never got sick of those songs and can STILL listen to them, despite having set them on repeat for days on end.

Here's a short list of the songs that got me through my books to date (no laughing):

* Isabela's Dreams (Kensington Encanto)--Marc Anthony's "I Need to Know." This book had two archaeologists searching for the lost tomb of a Mayan queen. (I still have a stack of Mayan archaeology books in my library, in case anyone wants some details on pelota or human sacrifice back in the day.) They were, of course, former romantic partners whose love had gone sour, so the song about a guy trying to get a girl to confess her rumored love for him seemed to fit the push-pull dance they did as they worked their way toward the requisite happy ending.

* Angel, Mine (Kensington Encanto)--My agent and I pulled this book because the line was about to die, so it never made it into print. I still hope it might, someday. But anyway, I just went one song down on the Marc Anthony disk, to "You Sang to Me" while writing this one. It's a lovely song about how someone didn't notice how much in love he was until it just smacked him in the face (Anthony puts it better than that). Which worked with my widowed heroine who was afraid to find happiness again, even with the hot P.I. helping her unravel the mystery of her missing boss.

* Maximum Security (Harlequin Intrigue)--This was my darkest book to date, so the song I killed while writing it was "Bring Me to Life" by Evanescence, which hadn't been overplayed at the time. Toward the end, I started listening to the whole album, which has a nice goth feeling that matched my serial killer story.

* House of Secrets (Harlequin Intrigue)--I wrote my psychogenic amnesia story mainly to the Lord of the Rings: Two Towers soundtrack. After getting so dark in Maximum Security, I just wanted to lighten up a little, without losing all of my edge. So the soft yet by turns menacing and melancholy soundtrack worked well.

* Next of Kin (Harlequin Intrigue)--I pretty much played any Celia Cruz song I could get my hands on while I wrote this story of a pyromaniac vengeance killer. The heroine's name was Celia, and I saw her as just as much of a firecracker as Celia Cruz.

* Shadow Guardian (Harlequin Intrigue)--This was the hardest book I've ever written. I don't know why--maybe it was having to do the three books of the "Mission: Family" miniseries so close together, or maybe it was just that it was my turn to have a book to struggle with. Either way, I've blocked out most of the writing process with this one. I do remember that it involved copious amounts of pinot grigio as I did my best impression of a drunken 18th century poet, as well as a couple songs the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (terrible movie, great soundtrack)--namely Yerba Buena's "Guajira (I Love You Too Much)," despite the fact that there wasn't a guajira to be found in the book, and Wyclef Jean's "Dance Like This" (which is now the foundation of Shakira's latest hit, "Hips Don't Lie").

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Happy Easter!

I stole this from Mary's Bandwagon.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Philosophical Morning

Ten years ago, I was wrapping up my two-year contract teaching in a severely underfunded Louisiana school with AmeriCorps' Teach for America program. (At least, it was AmeriCorps back then. TFA may have lost its AmeriCorps funding due to some boneheaded federal budget cuts in the last couple of years or so.)

I once read a theory that our lives are like a clear pond of ice--when we reach a major decision-making point, a point where our lives could go in one direction or another, the ice splinters. We make our choice to follow the splinters in one direction, leaving the other behind forever. This particular theorist also asked what if we also leave behind alternate selves, who follow the splinters in the other direction. So every time we reach a turning point, we go one way, and an alternate self goes the other, living the life that might have been.

If that's the case, somewhere, another version of me is still teaching.

Don't get me wrong--teaching English in Louisiana was one of the hardest things I've ever done. For just about my entire first semester, I felt like someone had dropped me into the seventh circle of hell, and everyone there hated me. I'd walked into class spewing what was then unofficial TFA rhetoric: "All children can learn. They're all beautiful and just need someone to UNDERSTAND them. Let's all sit in a circle so our discussions can be more democratic. Peace, love, recycle."

Naturally, they ran over me like a zamboni.

I had 17- and 18-year-old crack dealers in my 7th-grade classroom who SO didn't care about lessons or homework or just being a little bit calm so other students could engage. I had even more 15- and 16-year-olds were so embarrassed to be left so far behind, they had to act out to save face. And to the others, I was an outsider. That particular community was racially polarized to the point of being shocking to a midwesterner like me, and I didn't understand why they regarded me with so much suspicions. To my black students, I was white--my Honduran half wasn't relevant--and as such, I was naturally assumed to be a vicious racist until I proved otherwise. On top of all that, the last TFA teacher who'd graced the school halls was one of those judgmental people who lectured students, parents, and other teachers about their egregious impacts on the environment and about homophobia--both terrific topics to engage in with one's students, but not in her reported shrill, hellfire-and-brimstone way. So my fellow teachers were looking at me with a wary eye, as well, waiting for me to drag a soap box into an inservice meeting and take them all to task for being so stupid as to not separate their garbage.

So yeah, that first semester sucked. And just to provide the cherry on my sundae of suffering, the principal--a whipsmart, extremely competent principal who had all the nurturing ability of a toadstool--periodically liked to walk into my room and say in her nasal Louisiana accent, "Ms. Tracy, why is it that your students are hanging from the ceiling fixtures when these same kids sit so quietly for Ms. Wiley across the way?"

"Because Ms. Wiley is seven-feet-tall, has been teaching in this community for a hundred years, and is so intimidating, I scramble into a line of students when she's patroling the halls!" I wanted to scream. But, acutely aware that the dangling, back-flipping students represented my personal failure as a teacher, I said nothing. I didn't even promise to do better, because at that point, I wasn't sure I could.

Having always been a stubborn sort, though, I physically could not bring myself to back out of that contract, and so, knowing I was stuck in that job until my two years were up or until the principal physically chucked me out, I worked myself into exhaustion trying to be better. I cut my long hair off over the winter holiday and bought a pair of trendy-yet-serious-looking glasses, all the better to peer over at students in that teacherly way--Bizarro Wonder Woman turning into frumpy, serious Diana Prince to get the job done. I poured over books on how to keep discipline in the classroom while still managing to teach imaginative lessons. I even discovered that if I morphed my midwestern-plus-two-years-in-Boston accent into the soft-yet-steely nasal drawl of a Louisiana matron, the kids responded SO much better when I asked them to sit down, or open their books, or stop trying to climb out the window and run screaming on the playground while the rest of us were engaged in grammar centers.

It was an important lesson for me. I'd always had a knack for teaching. When I was ten, I taught my friend Terri to play the piano. In high school, my handful of piano students actually grew proficient enough to have recitals. When I spent a summer in Honduras, I found it was infinitely easier to teach my cousins more English than it was for me to learn more Spanish. In college, I was the go-to tutor when freshmen had papers due--I'd even get calls at three in the morning to help them edit their papers (NOT write them over for them--just suggest how they could be better). I had thought I was a natural at teaching, and I might have been. What I didn't understand until it was nearly too late was that first you have to establish some sort of authority with your students--otherwise, they have no idea why they should trust you, learn from you, or even bother to squelch their natural exuberance to listen to what you have to teach them. And once you've done that, then you can start to have some real fun--and then it becomes realistic to shoot for a classroom environment in which all children really can learn.

By the end of my first semester, things had gotten better. And by the end of the school year, the work had paid off. Although I was still collapsing on my bed every Friday afternoon from sheer exhaustion, I actually liked my job. We did some cool lessons, had some great discussions, and even did an after-school play together that second semester. A few weeks into my second year, I loved my job.

Of course, I was still far from Super Teacher. Two years isn't enough to really grow into any job, and there is always room for a teacher to improve. I still had to fight my right-brained tendencies to foster paper explosions on my desk or to temporarily lose homework before grading it, and I had days where my lessons weren't as engaging as they might have been. I also still wonder if a handful of conversations with various students were turning points in their lives, where if I'd said the right thing, I could have prevented something awful. Did I make any sense to 12-year-old Lance when he asked me whether he should sleep with his girlfriend, and I explained why that wasn't the greatest idea in the world and why I had to tell his mom? Did I do the right thing when I turned over a note of Limeka's that I intercepted to her parents, after I read that she was thinking of "going all the way" with her boyfriend to stop him from pressuring her? Did Travis think about the potential life-ruining consequences I laid out for him when he opened his wallet and showed me the hundreds and hundreds of dollars inside that this smart, precious boy earned from selling drugs--rumor has it FOR HIS PARENTS? Could I have made a difference in those moments if I'd had more experience, been more eloquent, been a little smarter? Did my bumbling attempts sink in at all? Maybe it's arrogant to think I could have, but I still wonder.

Those things aside, we had a pretty decent year my second year. (Although I still wonder if my first-year students suffered any kind of horrible English deficiency because their first semester with me was pretty much a sinkhole.) We did a lot of in-class plays, wrote engaging stories, found fun ways to learn grammar rules in ways that would stick for that blasted standardized, annual LEAP test, and I came up with some great lesson plans, if I do say so myself. We had a lot of interesting discussions about race, about being a fish out of water, about what calling someone "dark" as an insult even if you're black yourself really means, about tolerance in general. We agreed as a group to abolish "dark" in that context, as well as the N-word, and any synonym of the word "fag." I still remember one student--who'd started the school year slinging homophobic slurs around like nobody's business--coming up to me and saying of another student, "You know that Donnie. I think he might be a little ... you know ... gay." (Donnie, at the time, had dressed up as a cheerleader for Halloween and was prancing around in his pleated skirt, doing air splits.) "Does that bother you, Jamarcus?" I asked in return. He thought for a moment. "Nah. You're right--we can't judge other people, and he's not hurting anyone." Jamarcus's parents were nice people, and I have no doubt he was also repeating words he'd heard at home as well as in my class, but still, I nearly did an aerial split myself that something I'd so often repeated in class had had an effect.

Sure, I still had a lot of growing to do as a teacher--years and years of growing before I had the authority and teaching ability of a Ms. Wiley. But I was getting there.

I had intended to keep on teaching--in Louisiana, at least for awhile, and always in schools that really needed committed teachers. But I met Jose, fell madly in love, got married, and moved to Washington state to be with him--a place where there was no shortage of teachers, particularly English teachers. Knowing that I couldn't easily get another job, I switched to magazine editing and freelance writing, and that's what I've been doing ever since. I love my job--I love pulling apart articles and putting them back together in a way that makes them stronger and more fitting for the whole. I love writing about issues that mean something to me. I love the environmental and social justice mission of the nonprofit for which I work--helping their efforts means my work still means something.

But I still think about going back to teaching. I'm not sure how likely that is. I have a great setup with the nonprofit--I work part-time, on a telecommuting basis, which means I have time for Maggie and Marin and time for writing (at least, a little). Teaching, for me, required a lot of energy, overtime, and financial resources. (One carton of paper for a YEAR? Bah!) But I can't help but wonder if I SHOULD be teaching. I have the will to go into the schools that need it most, and now I know how to survive in them and keep my professional pride intact. Do I owe it to myself to give it another go? Could I sacrifice the extra time I have with my daughters to do so?

I'm not sure. It's a question I consider all the time. It's fine to bemoan the sorry state of our school systems, but I actually have the experience to do something to help, in a small way.

Who knows what the future holds--I do know I won't go back to teaching until Jose retires from the Navy. And since that's a little less than two years away (huzzah!), I have some time to think about it.

I hope my alternate self that is still teaching still enjoys it.


Busy day today, so I'm merely going to leave behind a quote that cracked me up this morning:

"Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them, and you have their shoes. "
--Frieda Norris

Who is Frieda Norris? I do not know. If I were willing to spend tons of research time trying to figure that out, I probably could--but that would be too much like work.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Top Ten Things Never to Say to a Romantic Suspense Writer

1. "I should give a copy to my mom. She likes to read trashy novels." (So what do you like to do to express yourself creatively? Because I'd like to belittle you for it now.)

2. Any sentence containing the phrase "bodice ripper." (Let me guess--you're an unimaginative reporter who hasn't done your research?)

3. "I've always wanted to write a book. But I'm going to write a REAL one." (Whatever, dude. Let me know when someone decides to pay you for that mess.)

4. "So, like, with Fabio and sex on every page?" (NO! God.)

5. "I only read literary fiction." (Oh, I'm just too, too impressed. Has Stephen Hawking's think tank begged you to join them yet?)

6. "Yeah, I'd read your romance novel set in Latin America, but Mayan archaeology is a hobby of mine, and I'd be picking out all of the things you got wrong." (I didn't think my kneejerk response of "Die, b--ch, die" was appropriate given my nonviolent beliefs.)

7. "Does your husband do research with you?" ::::horrible wink:::: (No, actually I grab the mail carrier for that.)

8. "I'd read it if you wrote actual suspense." (I'd give you a copy to read if you had an actual brain.)

9. "Boston College would probably be really embarrassed to know that this is what you're doing with your M.A. in Literature." (In that case, YOUR alma mater must be mortified. As is Miss Manners.)

10. "Eeeeuuuuwwww!" (Generally, I believe in nonviolence, but for you, I'll make an exception. :::roundhouse kick to the forehead::::::)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Not Your Mother's YA Novels

As anyone who knows me knows, I became a HUGE worrier once I had Maggie, my 2-year-old--a condition that has only worsened since having Marin five months ago. I worry about their health. I worry about the crazy drivers in our city. I worry about their getting their licenses and maneuvering amidst crazy drivers in the future. I worry about whether they'll be bullied in school, and how we'll handle it. I worry about their pre-college education options not being nurturing or educational enough. I worry about how I'm going to make sure their wonderful little personalities don't get squashed by a teenage social system that's all about conformity. I worry about the day they'll go off to college, without me to protect them. Basically, I worry about keeping them safe, all day, every day.

So, as if I didn't have enough to worry about, along comes feminist icon Naomi Wolf with an article in the New York Times Book Review about the new wave of young adult novels. Basically, Naomi Wolf is horrified by the current state of young adult fiction for girls, and I wanted to know why. So I read her "Wild Things" article online, and I promptly became horrified myself. Which horrified me on a whole other level, as I now suspect I am really, really, truly turning into my mother this time, or Tipper Gore.

In a nutshell, Wolf takes popular YA series like the Gossip Girls, A-List, and Clique books to task for providing poor role models for teenage girls.

But first, let's take a moment to swallow this statement by Wolf for a moment:

"Sex saturates the 'Gossip Girl' books, by Cecily von Ziegesar, which are about 17- and 18-year-old private school girls in Manhattan. This is not the frank sexual exploration found in a Judy Blume novel, but teenage sexuality via Juicy Couture, blasé and entirely commodified."

Wait, wait, wait. Since when did "blase and commodified" sex become part of not just one YA novel, but a whole subgenre? Color me naive, but I always thought most of today's YA novels were as innocent, smart, and celebratory of individuality over the herd as Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries series, or the pre-Forever Judy Blume books of old, or even the Sweet Valley High series.

But I guess we're reaching a turning point in young adult fiction. Of the three aforementioned YA series, Wolf says they "represent a new kind of young adult fiction, and feature a different kind of heroine."

In particular, Wolf says of the Clique novels, "the characters are 12 and 13 years old, but there are no girlish identity crises, no submissiveness to parents or anyone else. These girls are empowered. But they are empowered to hire party planners, humiliate the 'sluts' in their classes ... and draw up a petition calling for the cafeteria ladies serving their lunch to get manicures."

So, they're spoiled, they're mean, they travel and attack in packs--rather than forging their own identities--and they're imperious with people in service positions. And these aren't the anti-heroines, waiting to get their comeupances from a slightly-nerdy-by-virtue-of-her-individuality Princess Mia Thermopolis or Margaret Simon (remember Judy Blume?) or even the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. These ARE the protagonists of the story, according to Wolf. They are the ones readers are asked to identify with, to live vicariously through.

And that brings us back to the sexual content. Color me a prude, but I have always assumed that the books shelved in the young adult section--which I started reading when I was probably about eight or nine--would never earn an R rating if made into a movie. I expect first kisses, silly stories of changing bodies (like Margaret and her friends' attempts at busting (Heh.) out of their AA-cup training bras by doing pec flys in Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.), or maybe a no-and-stop-that moment on a date. But instead, the books are "saturated" with "teenage sexuality" that's not only premature, but generally unsafe. In one Gossip Girls book, a tenth-grader gets it on in a Bergdorf's dressing room with a boy on stolen Viagra. In another A-List book, one high-school-aged girl vows, "No more stealing guys with wedding rings away from their wives just because she could. . . . No more getting wasted at parties and dirty dancing with handsome waiters . . . . No more taking E [ecstacy]."

I mean, GAH! This is the kind of thing my daughters could be reading at NINE? Shocking as it is, it's not necessarily the sexual content that bothers me most. The real problem, as Wolf writes, "is a value system in which meanness rules, parents check out, conformity is everything and stressed-out adult values are presumed to be meaningful to teenagers. The books have a kitsch quality — they package corruption with a cute overlay."

One teen reader on puts it more succinctly: "If you love fashion, celebrities, and all things girly and bitchy, you'll love these books."

Gee, because I WANT my daughters to behave like Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan.

Girls have enough pressure on them to conform when they're in school--to become or at least aspire to become "mean girls" who define others by their material possessions, looks, and ability to blend in with the crowd or to embrace a sexuality beyond their years. Do they really need that kind of pressure coming from their reading material, too? When both your peers AND your books are setting up these kinds of role models, does that make transforming into a Prada-wearing, venom-spitting sheep that much easier? Middle school is painful enough without the mean girls making fun of you from the pages of your favorite books, too. Why don't we all just go throw up our lunch, too, while we're at it?

Some responses to Wolf's essay basically told her to lighten up. I guess I need to lighten up, too, because as a feminist and a mother who wants to grow strong girls, brave girls, kind girls, anything-is-possible girls, I don't think this is the dominant model we want to be setting out for anyone--parents included. (This is, after all, the kind of thinking that leads to whacked out mothers trying to poison the head cheerleader to get their daughter a spot on the squad.) I don't believe in censorship, but I do believe in empowering my girls and teaching them to be kind, to stand up for what they believe in, to follow their hearts' desires and not what others tell them they should follow. If my girls want to be Mathletes, by God, they should feel empowered enough to be Mathletes regardless of what the dance squad thinks.

So, what to do? For me, I'll be sure to carefully watch what Maggie and Marin read at eight and nine, since apparently, this is now an issue. And when they're old enough to think more critically about what they're reading, perhaps instead of snatching the books away and making them that much more attractive, I'll simply read along with them and see if we can't have some interesting discussions about why the girls on the A-List secretly suck.

I might even have to advocate for a labeling system. I think I've officially turned tragically unhip, no "am I?" about it.

Currently listening to: Pink's "Stupid Girls"
OK, I've calmed down, and I'm not really going to advocate for a labeling system. Anything that dissuades Wal-Mart from stocking a certain kind of book is pretty much censorship, given the retail giant's stranglehold on just about every kind of market there is. It's just something else to worry about as my daughters get older....

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Pyramids Are Oh, So Fine. Egypt. Egypt.*

So we just made the fastest across-the-state trip ever to see the King Tut exhibit in Ft. Lauderdale. Maggie was still getting over the plague and Marin started showing signs of being the next in our family to succumb, so Jose freaked out about being so far from home and their pediatrician. Therefore, we went to the exhibit and then left for home a mere 12 hours after arriving in the city. However, I'm happy to report that Marin and her immune system of steel have already quashed the plague germs for the most part, and we did have a good time at the exhibit.

First of all, my cheapass husband, God bless his cute, cheap self, talked me out of buying the audio tour of the exhibit, narrated by Omar Sharif. If you go, get the audio tour. For one thing, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event, seeing objects from King Tut's tomb and others, and therefore you should enjoy it to the hilt. I was kicking myself the entire time for succumbing to Jose's cheapass peer pressure. For another, there will be plenty of annoying people with headphones hovering interminably next to the display cases with numbers indicating they are audio tour stops and preventing you from seeing what's inside. So when you finally do worm your way to one of the numbered cases, you might as well annoy the people behind you by hovering and listening to Omar's pearls of wisdom yourself.

Second, the objects that were in Tut's tomb look incredibly new, having been sealed away in a dry climate for three-thousand years. Ergo, they look shockingly like reproductions, not 3000-year-old antiquities. Ergo, I had a really hard time wrapping my head around the fact that these things were REALLY 3,000 years old and REALLY from King Tut's tomb and that I was REALLY not in the Museum Store looking at stuff I could buy. But honestly, despite my mental block, it was still an amazing experience to see this exhibit. The unique faces on each shabti figurine, the detailed semi-precious stone inlay work, the delicate hammered gold covering Tut's aunt's giant sarcophagus--it was all mind-blowingly amazing. I could have stared at just about every display for hours. Except that I had herds of audio-tourists glaring holes into my back when I lingered too long.

If you've watched too many Egyptian documentaries on the Discovery channel like I have, you know that Akhenaten was Tut's father and the one pharoah (that I know of, anyway) who tried to convert Egypt to a monotheistic religion. Akhenaten has one of the most singular and recognizable faces that I've seen on said documentaries--whether in paintings or reliefs or statues. And to see that face staring down at me in the form of a giant stone head from Karnuk was pretty amazing.

Common wisdom has always held that Tuthankamun was murdered by a blow to the head--most likely by his advisor, Eye, according to the last Discovery Channel documentary I've seen. Well, one of the big shockers of the exhibit was that researchers took thousands of CT scans of Tut's mummy in 2005 and have concluded that he was not murdered but probably died in an accident, such as a fall from a chariot.

The one disappointment was that although Tut's gold funerary mask (see the entry below)--which is probably THE most famous relic in all of Egyptology and immediately recognizable even to people who aren't as nerdy as I am--was not part of the exhibit, despite being shown in ALL of the advertisements and on the cover of the exhibit guide. Nor were any of his sarcophagi, though his aunt's was on display. Apparently, Cairo won't let these items leave the city. NOT that I can blame them, but I was still disappointed not to have seen them. Oh, well. I'll simply have to go to Egypt someday.

All in all, the exhibit was too short, a little disappointing due to some missing objects that advertisements seemed to hint would be there, but still a fascinating experience.

Coolest item: Akhenaten's giant stone head from Karnuk, as well as one of Tut's crowns.
Item I'd most want in my house: The only extant example of a trunk with carrying poles. The jewel inlay was pretty without being garish, and it'd make a great coffee table.
Jose's favorite item: Tut's solid gold dagger
Grossest item: There were no mummies on display, so the exhibit was surprisingly lacking a gross-out factor. Maybe the canopic jar that once held Tut's aunt's intestines would be the best fit here. They also had a coffinette that had held some of Tut's internal organs, but for some reason, the fact that the jar had the word "intestines" in the display overview makes it grosser.
Weirdest souvenier in the souvenier shop: The King Tut Tissue Box Cover.

* Jose came up with the title for this blog, having sung it pretty much all throughout our trip to Ft. Lauderdale. We aren't sure where it's from but suspect it's a line from Steve Martin's song, "King Tut."

Friday, April 07, 2006

Nerd Alert

We're all nearly plague-free and so we're off to Ft. Lauderdale this weekend to catch the Tuthankhamen and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs exhibit. I'll blog all about it in excruciating detail when we get back!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Tragically Unhip

So today, a sale circular sent me into a close-to-midlife crisis. Note exhibit A, above, which is from said sale circular.

I don't mean to judge anyone on her clothing, but what the heck IS this? This is in fashion now? Who would wear this? It looks like someone with a head injury did a quick whipstitch at the bottom and pulled until the whole lumpy mess gathered in. Actually, it looks like an emergency hem I did with duct tape and dental floss on a theater costume once. The truly horrifying part is that between them, the jacket (which isn't bad) and the ... "skirt" (most hideous thing I've ever seen in my life) cost roughly $2,000.

I remember bubble skirts, which is what I assume that thing the clearly ticked off model above is wearing is. My mom is a great seamstress and made a prom dress for my friend Mel that had a fitted black top and an Irish green bubble skirt at the bottom. It was cute, fun, and totally 80s, but in a good way. The difference between that skirt and this is twofold: 1) it was the 80s, so everyone looked heinous (Though seriously, Mel looked cute. I, on the other hand, wore a giant black satin bell-skirted horror and had permed hair so big, it looked like I'd taken styling lessons from the lead singer from REO Speedwagon.), and 2) it looked like someone competent sewed it, because it was perfectly bubbled and even. This dress is a complete horror show.

So, what's the deal here? Does someone out there think this is a great look? Will people actually go to this store and shell out a paycheck or two for this outfit or a reasonable facsimile thereof? Will they wear it? Will people tell them the Jackie-O jacket and homeless-person's-blanket skirt pairing looks hot? Or will passersby point and laugh?

And here's the big question: Has turning 35 forced me to cross a threshold where I am suddenly tragically unhip? Is the fact that I have no love for this skirt a SIGN? Am I doomed to scratch my head in bewildered uncertainty over the new, "loud and weird" music; the latest fashions that are just too-too revealing or bizarre; and the general state of "kids today?" Am I doomed to suddenly think pleated, tapered, up-to-my-armpits Mom jeans are the best thing ever? ("Because you're not a woman; you're a MOM!")

35 means I'm supposed to not shop at Wet Seal and shop instead at J.Jill, which actually says in its marketing materials that it caters to the "35-and-older crowd." (I shop at both, though I have to be more judicious about my purchases at Wet Seal. Thirty-five-year-olds look kind of ridiculous wearing T-shirts that say "Brad's Girl.")

35 means my music tastes are supposed to start declining. I always said it would never happen, but sadly enough, I have no idea what songs are playing on the radio right now, and what has become passe'. Once in awhile, something by the Killers or Kanye West or Coldplay will leak into my consciousness and onto my iPod, but for the most part, they're nestled in between modern folk singers (Dido, Sinead Lohan), new age/trance/classical music-to-write-by (Loreena McKennitt, Moby, OperaBabes), and stuff no one has heard of that I love (Res, Alana Davis).

I love Sting. I'll never be embarrassed to admit that. The Police rocked the free world, and though Sting by himself lost a little of that Police edge, he's still awesome. But is he going to be my daughter's version of Barry Manilow or Neal Diamond--the old white guy who sings to screaming, fainting old ladies? ("God, Mom went to a Sting concert last night. Two hours of music you could hear in an elevator!") (And seriously, I actually like old-school Neil Diamond, like "Cherry, Cherry" or "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show.")

35 means my night life is supposed to get boring. Well, OK, it's a little boring by college party girl standards, but I'd rather hang out with my so-cute-and-goofy-I-could-squeeze-them daughters than go on a bender anyday. So there.

I have no real conclusion here, other than to say that aging is weird.

Current State of Being:
* Jeans:
embroidered Lucky Brand loose fit. No acid wash, pleats, or tapered ankles (though I have observed that some doofus is trying to bring tapered jeans back. Back! Back, spawn of the devil!)
* Currently listening to: The Killers, "Somebody Told Me" (that you had a boyfriend, that looked like a girlfriend, that I had in Feb! Ru! Ary! of last year....) Next in queue is Melissa Etheridge's cover of "Refugee," which I forgot to put on my favorite cover list....
* Plans for the evening: Watch someone get kicked off American Idol. Cuddle Maggie, who has the plague we caught from Jose. Cuddle Marin, who isn't getting as much attention because she's not sick. Read When You Give A Moose A Muffin and Princess Smarty Pants for the thousandth time. Pick another book from my nightstand because I'm officially Between Books!
* Opinion of Latest Fashion Above: Horrified fascination.
* State of mind: Fairly Zen, though still plague-ridden.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Feeling Better

Wow, that was a long rant. Sorry, y'all. Anyway, House of Secrets finaled in the Beacon contest for Best Romantic Suspense, so I'm a little less crabby now. (Despite the fact that my husband brought home some sort of horrible plague and we are all disgustingly sick....)


Romancing the Blog did an entry awhile back about authors who try to market themselves in annoying ways, like hijacking email discussions to yammer on at length about their books or sending out blanket pleas to people to PLEASE buy their books because they have received news from their publishers that the book hasn't been doing all that well and are afraid for their careers (an email that seems to be going out with all the frequency and truthfulness of those annoying Nigerian bank scams).

I'd like to add that a few authors do this kind of crap in person, too, and I'm tempted to go all Edvard Munch on the next person I meet who displays such insensitive, verbal marketing incontinence, and put my hands to my head and shriek until I run out of air--regardless of how many people I'd freak out.

Let me just preface this by saying that I like talking to people. I'm interested in what people are working on, what they're passionate about, what they do for a living, who they're voting for on American Idol, etc., and as a reporter, I can always keep a conversation going because I'm not only not afraid to ask people questions about themselves, but I genuinely enjoy hearing the answers. However, there's one thing I do not enjoy when meeting new people....

I try to treat everyone I meet like a unique person who is worth getting to know. If you are going to talk to me, I would appreciate the same courtesy. But people who not only don't ask what my name is but don't give a rat's ass? WHY are you talking to me?

I'll tell you why. Because some idiots think that if they just vomit all of the details about their books over someone as fast as they can, that person is going to be so thrilled to meet a Real Live Published Author Who Deigned to Come Down Out of the Rarified Published Air and Talk to Them, that they will go running for the nearest bookstore and snap up every copy of said Real Live Author's book for herself and all of her friends and acquaintances.

Let me tell you now--it's not going to happen. Last year, I met an author who was writing the EXACT type of book I love: dark, gritty suspense. Did I buy her book? No, I did not. Will I ever buy her books? No, I will not. Why will I not buy her book when it's exactly what I like to read? Because while she approached and talked to me on several occasions at a conference, I might as well have had a bag over my head during all of our conversations that read "Marketing Opportunity," because it was obvious that that's all she saw me as--someone who could buy her upcoming books, and that's all.

I know, I know--maybe she's shy. Maybe she was nervous and didn't know what else to talk about. Maybe I intimidated her (because at 5'3", I can be wicked intimidating).

I've thought through all of those things, and I do try to give people the benefit of the doubt the first time or two. But you know, sometimes a person's complete and utter disinterest in you as a person just smacks you in the face like a clammy, wet towel. You can always tell when they see you as a potential book sale and nothing more--the flat, emotionless shark eyes; the buzzing drone their voice takes on as they go through a well-rehearsed speech about how they just wrote the Best Book, Just the Best Book Ever, It's So Good (yes, someone actually used that phrase to describe her book to me once); the utter refusal to even pretend to care about you as a person; the speed-of-sound monologues about their publisher, their BOOK TITLE, their agent, their BOOK TITLE, their covers, their BOOK TITLE, and lest we forget, their BOOK TITLE, which comes out from their publisher for $6.99 at a bookstore near you in AUGUST! AUGUST! AUGUST! Here, have a bookmark. Don't you just love my bookmarks? I have the best cover. Did I tell you my book was coming out in August? Gotta go. It was nice seeing you again, Stacy. Oh, were you saying something? Don't have time; gotta run. Bye!

And if that weren't enough, there's the way their eyes glaze over if you happen to utter a declarative sentence in the middle of such a "conversation" with a couple more words than "Oh, that's great" or "Wow."

I love celebrating other people's success. I compete with myself and no one else--publishers always have room for a great book, and if I write one, I'll get what I deserve to get. Your writing a great book and getting a great contract does not lessen my chances of writing a great book and getting a great contract. If I have the talent and marketing savvy to do it, I'll do it. And if I don't, it's my own fault and no one else's (but I'll always be happy writing category, because it's fun).

So, if you're not a jerk, I will be happy that you've succeeded. If you've succeeded more than I have, go you. I'd love to ooh and ahh over the story of how you sold or over the foil and step-back on your book cover. I'd love to hear all about your upcoming book and how the market is treating you and the prospects for your future. All I ask is that if you decide to talk to me at length, talk to ME, not to the marketing opportunity you think I represent.

I don't think this is too much to ask. So, why, WHY do some people still have to waste my time (and others'--I KNOW I'm not alone here) yammering on and on without truly engaging? (At least I know it's not something wrong with me, because this type of person can barely SEE me, much less register who I am as a person, so they wouldn't even notice if I did something annoying or socially unacceptable.)

Therefore, I have decided that I'm going to literally run away screaming the next time some whackjob hijacks a perfectly nice conversation I'm having with someone else to blah all over us all glassy-eyed about her book. No, it's not a figure of speech--I will literally scream and run away. Life is too short to be held hostage by some guerrilla marketer with poor social skills. My new rules for having a conversation without being interrupted by my personal version of The Scream are:

1) If you want to talk to me, at least ask me what my name is. This is a very basic social practice that indicates that you give a rat's ass about who I am.

2) If you want to talk to me, be interested in talking WITH me, not at me. If you're looking over my shoulder, I'll be pretty sure you're talking at me.

3) Here's the important one: You DO NOT have to ask what I write, care about what I write, or pretend that you're going to buy my books. Not everyone likes gritty category romantic suspense, and that's fine--I'm certainly not going to force the issue. But if you are going to talk to me (or to anyone, for that matter), let's have a conversation. Take a breath once in awhile and let me say something back to you. Listen when I talk. Notice that I am listening to you and am interested in what you have to say. (And on the off chance that I'm not, you have my permission to start pelting me with small promotional items or to run away screaming. Chances are, I will run after you to apologize.)

4) Do not waste my time and yours by blahhing all over me about your book at length, while making it obvious that you don't care at all who I am. When annoyed, I not only get overtly aggressive, I get passive aggressive, and I will not only NOT buy your book, I will tell my friends what a wanker you are and why THEY should not buy your book. The odds are about 99% in your favor that if you are nice to me and to my friends, I will ASK you about your book. Might even buy it.

5) If you ever catch yourself thinking of anyone as one of the "little people" who is probably delighted that someone like you would talk to someone like her, don't talk to me. Just don't. Ever.

6) And finally, don't tell me that my husband is undoubtedly going back to Iraq and will probably get shot (He won't, and he won't! Dammit.) and that everyone who goes there is getting shot and you know someone who lost an eye and a hand. At that point, you will have crossed the boundary from merely annoying and slightly rude to just being an ass.

Done now. (I'll try to be more cheerful tomorrow, because really, the majority of the authors that I know are really cool people to whom none of the above applies.)

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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