Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cottage Reading

I am soon off to my cottage for some summer relaxation. I'm looking forward to gliding across the lake on my paddleboard on calm mornings and being with family and friends. I'm also looking forward to my cottage pile of books. While top of my pile is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, my other books are slightly lighter fare. I'm looking forward to Rosa Rankin-Gee's The Last Kings of Sark and Claire Fuller's Our Endless Numbered Days. With my boys I'm hoping to read A Wrinkle in Time and T H White's The Sword in the Stone. I'm especially excited about the latter because I read so much about White in H is for Hawk which was definitely my favourite read of 2015.

As you can tell from the photo many of these books are from the library. Although I really love the library, I do feel a little guilt that I haven't

purchased most these books and supported the authors. I would love to, I really would, but there are several considerations. The first is cost. I read over fifty books a year and that  far exceeds my book-buying budget. The second issue is space. My book shelves are full. I have a small house and have considered turning a wall of my living into book shelves, by I also need somewhere for my kids' toys and other household items, like plates. I once went into someone's house to purchase a second hand table and found her dining room so inundated with books there was nowhere to eat. Whenever I feel the urge to own more books than I can store I think about that house. I like to read, but eating is important too.

I frequently buy books after I've already read them at the library. This way I know the book is one that I have to have, or one I liked so much I want to pass it on to friends.  

Here's a list of books I've had  to purchase lately:

H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald

Translatlantic -Colum McCann -I would buy this book three more times. That's how many times I've read it.  

The Children's Hour, AS Byatt -Again, a book I`ve read several times. It`s a brilliant portrait of certain kinds of families in early 1900`s England.

My Brilliant Friend and all of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series. I had planned to write a blog post about this quartet but I was too busy being sucked into her world to write. These long books have also put me way behind on my Goodreads Reading Challenge.  

Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, Peggy Orenstein- See my blog post on Orenstein`s book to understand why I had to have this work.

This is Happy, Camilla Gibb- A memoir about family from a writer I`ve always admired.

Age of Iron, JM Coetzee- One day I'll figure out how to write about the brilliance that is Coetzee.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Confessions of a YA writer

I have a confession. I like to write YA books, but I don't read that many YA titles. My Goodreads YA shelf is on the light side. It's not that I don't like the genre, I just like to read about adults. Some of my favourite books so far this year are Ha Jin's A Map of Betrayal about a Chinese spy living in the US, Jane Gardam's Old Filth trilogy and JG Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur

And then, I fell into the YA world of Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl. The main character, Cath Avery, is a very anxious college freshman. She worries about her roommate, her classes, her twin sister Wren, her mentally unstable dad and boys in general. The one thing that Cath feels good at is writing fan fiction, specifically about Simon Snow, a character attending a Hogwarts-like magic school. Cath has thousands of fans reading her online fanfiction where she creates alternate love stories about Simon Snow and his roommate Basil. Yep, that's right, she writes stories where a Harry Potter-like character falls in love with a Draco-Snape hybrid.

Another confession: I had never checked out fanfiction before. I spent an evening sucked into fanfiction, which has more than 700,000 entries just in the Harry Potter category. If fantasy isn't your thing, there's alternate versions of Pride and Prejudice, Bridge to Terabitha, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Anne of Green Gables, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I'm overwhelmed by the sheer volume of entries.

While Fangirl is heavy on plot (a lot happens in this novel, including multiple trips to the hospital) Cath's intense and personal narrative voice drew me into this story. I was rooting for her to start eating in the cafeteria (instead of eating power bars in her room), and for her to befriend her roommate. Mostly I must confess that I fell in love with the book's love interest, Levi. I've never fallen in love with a literary character before, never swooned over Mr. Darcy or Mr. Rochester. (Although I do have a little crush on Cherry Jones' character Leslie in Transparent.) And now, well, I'm in love with Levi. He's too tall, and gangly and he has a wicked receding hairline and he smiles at absolutely everyone. He's relentlessly cheerful and tells bad jokes in a way that I find annoying, but apparently endearing, since my husband has similar attributes. Levi is a knight with a rusting truck and he's endlessly patient with Cath's issues both social and sexual. I've never fallen in love with a rancher before, or a blond, or anyone from Nebraska, but Rainbow Rowell is that good.

I've got Eleanor and Park, Rowell's 2013 book, next to read and I'm certain I won't be disappointed.   

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Why Girls Should Know Sex Is Fun

Recently I attended a women's dinner where each guest was asked to talk about something that had shocked or surprised them in their lives. Most women talked about falling in love with their spouses, the death of their parents, or raising children. All except one woman, who burst out laughing when it was her turn, and said she was most surprised when she saw her first erect penis. "It was really impressive," she said.

 I was hoping for an evening of other shocking sexual firsts, but it wasn't to be. My co-dinners were all older than me by about thirty years, and they smoothly moved on to tamer topics.
I was ready for a good sex-talk (and what better than with women from a different generation?) because of the book I was writing and because of the excellent research book I'd been reading. The two had started to intertwine in my head the way good research material can subtly become part of your story. 

The book I've been working on is a YA novel called The Most Dangerous Thing. It's about a very introverted teenager named Sydney whose not so introverted sister wants to put on the play The Vagina Monologues at her school, including re-writing the cunt monologue. Sydney is horrified that her sister wants to talk about vaginas at school (or at all). She doesn't think about her body much, that is, until she starts to fall in in love with this guy, Paul. Sydney is unprepared for the sexual feeling she experiences and the book is about girls' relationship with their bodies and their sexuality. 

I had a few questions about teenage sexuality while writing this book. I wondered how girls felt about their vaginas, and if they wanted boyfriends for social or sexual reasons, or both. (My extremely unscientific research on this resulted in mixed results. Some friends I spoke to were motivated by sex, others by social desires.) Since I couldn't imagine asking the kind of questions I wanted to know about, I was thrilled to read Peggy Orenstein's new book, Girls and Sex: Navigating The New Landscape. 

Orenstein spoke with hundreds of girls across the US about their sexual experiences.
Many of the girls spoke about their sexual encounters with regret and few of them described their experiences as pleasurable. According to Orenstein's research, hook-up culture and the easy access and pervasiveness of porn has changed sexual expectation for both girls and boys. Girls are expected to look hot, but not too hot, to seek attention for their bodies but not too much attention, to walk a narrow line between slut and prude. Orenstein writes that most teen sexual activities favour boy's pleasure over girl's. Although teen intercourse rates have actually dropped, oral sex has become more common. Yet boys rarely reciprocate with oral sex on girls and boys are much more likely to rate their sexual experiences as pleasurable than girls. Some girls even rated their sexual satisfaction by their partner’s pleasure: if he was satisfied than she was satisfied.

Orenstein's book is the kind that makes people wring their hands-especially the middle section on the
Author Peggy Orenstein
Greek system of fraternities and sororities where boys throw the parties, invite the girls, serve the drinks and girls are expected to pay the boys back with their bodies. Almost half the girls interviewed for the book spoke of being coerced into having sex. However, it was the final chapters on sex-education that interested me, especially since I'll be teaching middle-school sex-ed this spring. 

I usually enjoy teaching this portion of the Health curriculum. My students pay rapt attention and have MANY questions. (It also leads to spirited chat in the staff room, especially when I bring in the birth control kit with the wooden penis.) I am always grateful that I teach in Ontario which has a sex-ed curriculum that gives students the kind of information they need to keep them safe and informed. We talk about abstinence and forming healthy relationships, but we also talk about birth control, STI's and the importance of condoms. Still, sex-ed can be a bit of a downer. I've even acknowledged to my students that I'll be covering what I call the "doom and gloom" of sex-ed, all the things that can go wrong: disease, pregnancy and unwanted sexual pressure.

Orenstein agrees that girls' sexual education often focuses on negative outcomes. We teach girls about menstruation and avoiding preganancy and focus entirely on the internal organs. In the past I have skipped over girls' external sexual organs, but why is this? We fully acknowledge that boys have sexual desires, why not girls too?


Orenstein has a new tactic for sexual education, and
Vulva puppet anyone?
it's the kind of thing that will make a lot of parents (and for sure abstinence-only adherents) freak out. She believes in teaching kids, specifically girls, that sex is supposed to be fun, that it's supposed to feel good. She believes that if we teach girls to advocate for their own pleasure by first knowing their own bodies, they'll be more in control of their sexuality and their sexual encounters. That's right, she's suggesting girls masturbate, and then choose sexual encounters that bring them pleasure. This is both revolutionary in terms of sex-education (especially compared to some US programs) and yet incredibly simple and straight forward.

Orenstein describes the Dutch model of sex-education, where parents talk to their children, not just sex-educators, but parents talk, not just about the "doom and gloom" scenarios, but about sex as a balance between joy and responsibility. I really like those two words: joy and responsibility. I can imagine starting my sex-ed lessons with those two words, and then going from there. 

For those of you seeking a little 90's nostalgia, and a sex positive message, I leave you with Salt and Peppa's 1992 hit, Let's Talk about Sex. 

And for those of you worked up about intimate justice, I insist you watch the video from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Put Yourself First recommended by Marjorie Ingall.