Review: Eleanor and Park

eleanor and parkTitle: Eleanor and Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 325
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: lovely local library
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I’ve heard so many good things about Eleanor and Park, so I just had to see for myself – plus, one out of two main characters is a cute half-Korean boy? Sounds like good times to me. (Also, all of Rainbow Rowell’s books have the sweetest covers! Is it sorcery?)

What I loved about the book is that it wasn’t what I expected. From all the hype and rave reviews I’d read of Eleanor and Park, I thought the book was a light and quirky love story — nope. Eleanor and Park have completely different families and lives, but their meeting on a bus (definitely not a stereotypical love-at-first-sight meeting) throws them into each other’s path.

Eleanor and Park’s alternating perspectives give the book a sense of balance. Park might be an outcast for being Korean, but that’s not the end of the story. While Park has a loving (though imperfect) family and a upper-middle class upbringing, Eleanor lives in poverty with her struggling family and abusive stepfather. The stark contrast between Eleanor’s life and Park’s is a strong reminder that oppression and privilege come in many different forms.

Sometimes, though, Eleanor’s view of Park and his cultural identity felt a bit irksome at times, and I had to remind myself that characters are allowed to grow. I read through the book, waiting for Eleanor to grow out of her problematic assumptions and point of view — and I’m not sure she ever did. The portrayal of Park’s family felt a bit off, as well. There were times when I began to question whether it was Eleanor herself who was ignorant and borderline racist, or the book itself that was problematic. (Edit: In retrospect, yeah, it was pretty problematic. No denyin’.)

To be honest, the sudden jump from tentative friendship to full-on romance was almost jarring. I felt that the emotional intensity of Eleanor and Park’s relationship inexplicable and a bit too much. (Then again, I find most romantic expressions trite, so I might just be a cranky cynic.) But, when I read the book in the context of Park’s comment about Romeo and Juliet, I found myself almost believing in Eleanor and Park’s grand and star-crossed love.

Recommendation: Just skip it.

Further Reading:
Rainbow Rowell’s post Why is Park Korean?
Clear Eyes Full Shelves: Review: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
A relevant take on racism: Angry Girl Review: Eleanor and Park
Ellen Oh: What’s your opinion on Eleanor & Park?

[Edit]:
In which I try to express the importance of asking questions (and not being afraid to call books out on being problematic): Is Eleanor and Park racist? And Other Questions to Ask

 

No More “Surpise! It’s Diversity!”

Contrary to the title of this post, I like surprises, especially plot twists. I like a surprise where I can scream then giggle like a little girl and surprises where my heart flutters in joy. The surprise I’d like to stop having is the “Novel Diversity Surprise.” Now, you might be thinking, isn’t that a good thing? No, it’s not. Here’s why.

My good friend Haneen surprised at a book's diversity.

My good friend Haneen surprised at a book’s diversity.

Earlier this summer Lee & Low Books, in connection with the Cooperative Children’s Book Center released a graphic of the dismal diversity in children’s literature. That conversation is still going some 2 months later. Clearly, most children and young adult literature reflects the dominant culture, with characters of color (both main characters and secondary characters) practically non-existent. In last month’s essay, I noted that authors need to also create diverse worlds as that is the nature of the world we are living in. Here is where the “Novel Diversity Surprise” comes into play. As an avid reader, I constantly read books that do not reflect the world I’m accustomed to and am used to accepting the “default” – that of the dominant culture – that when I read a book that has an actual diverse world, I’m surprised.

I’m surprised to see a Black character, a Latino character, and Asian character in a novel where I wasn’t expecting them to be. A thrill runs through my body when I see characters that look like me or people I know in a novel where I wasn’t expecting them to be. I am thankful for the author to include characters of color in a novel where I wasn’t expecting them to be. Do you see a theme occurring here? I’m reading a book, expecting to find only one hue color and instead find a variety. Yay! Let’s do the happy dance! *Sarcasm*

But no. See, the thing is, if publishers, book sellers, etc. encouraged the selling of books with diverse casts, and if more writers from the dominant culture wrote books that reflected their diverse world, I shouldn’t be surprised when I read the book. Diversity in literature should be the norm, not the exception to the rule. Many writers of color often write books where diversity is represented, because that is how we experience the world, but many writers from the dominant culture fail in this arena. And when writers from the dominant culture include diversity in their books, it’s is seen as a novelty, something special. A surprise gift.

This surprise gift needs to come to an end. Having a diverse world (shoot even diverse universe for the SciFi/Fantasy people) should not be seen as unique and special; it should be seen as the norm. No, not seen as the norm; it needs to become the norm. Until such time, I’ll continue to be on the hunt for books that reflect diversity in all forms and raise my eyebrows in surprise when it comes.

Guest Post: E.C. Myers

We’re excited to welcome E.C. Myers, recent winner of the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy for his YA debut, Fair Coin. In addition, E.C. deserves additional medals for being a thoughtful and super fun author, and we’re delighted he had the time to stop by and guest post. Read on!


myers_coinsOver the course of writing and selling my first two books — we’re talking over the course of many years, because that’s how publishing rolls — diversity in YA became more important to me as a reader and as an author. When I first drafted Fair Coin, I envisioned the protagonist, Ephraim Scott, as half Puerto Rican and his love interest, Jena Kim, as half Korean; but aside from a few oblique character descriptions, readers might not have realized it. Ephraim’s friend Nathan is Jewish, and Mary and Shelley are Latina, but again, these began as insignificant details — details that were perhaps only there for me, the writer.

Eventually, I decided that just wasn’t good enough.

As I became more aware of how few multicultural YA books there are, I realized that the diversity in my own stories was almost invisible. There’s a simple reason for that: Growing up as a half-Korean boy, I didn’t define myself by my mixed heritage, and so I figured it need not be a big deal for Ephraim or Jena either. (And I certainly didn’t want to include stereotypical characteristics just to bring the point home: “Look! You can tell she’s Korean because eats kimchi!”) But even though I considered myself simply “American,” whatever that means, from the outside, many people saw me as Asian — and that might not be a bad thing in fiction, when there aren’t many Asians at all.

It took me a while to realize I could give my characters richer backgrounds and make them more visibly from other cultures without making the books about their heritage. I could be nuanced without rendering their heritage invisible, by conveying their different upbringing in their perspectives and how they approach situations and each other, not just what they eat, how they talk, or what they wear. The characterizations were deeper for it, and I hoped there would be readers out there who would see some of their own unique experiences reflected in them — and see Latino and Asian characters who identified as such, as part and parcel of their personalities.

I did tweak Fair Coin before publication to emphasize the characters’ backgrounds more, but diversity isn’t something you can just shoehorn into a book. I had more freedom in writing Quantum Coin and tying it in more organically to the plot. Ephraim’s Puerto Rican father reappears in his life, giving him a glimpse of how different things would be if he’d been raised by him instead of his mother. And we also see Jena’s immigrant relatives and some of the unfortunate impact of racism on her and her Korean family.

I’m more committed to including more people of color in my fiction from here on, but I’m still learning that the degrees must be dictated by the nature of the story, rather than the other way around. The science fiction YA manuscript I’m working on now is very multicultural, because it makes sense for that world, but that also means that diversity is also a given for those characters. (If only!) Mainly, I’m determined to look for opportunities to include more characters from different backgrounds and with each story, question whether the protagonist can be of another race, gender, or sexuality before simply defaulting to white male. And that’s the least we can ask of any writer: To consider more varied perspectives in your fiction and challenge yourself to do better than what you’ve done before.


ecmyersE(ugene).C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and a public library in Yonkers, New York. His debut young novel Fair Coin won the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy and its sequel, Quantum Coin, just released recently. He blogs at ecmyers.net and is on Twitter @ecmyers.

New Release

I just finished reading this unique romance. I’ll be reviewing it on August 28th so check back for more feedback then.

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If You Could Be Mine By Sara Farizan

(Algonquin Young Readers)

Summary: In this stunning debut, a young Iranian American writer pulls back the curtain on one of the most hidden corners of a much-talked-about culture.

Seventeen-year-old Sahar has been in love with her best friend, Nasrin, since they were six. They’ve shared stolen kisses and romantic promises. But Iran is a dangerous place for two girls in love—Sahar and Nasrin could be beaten, imprisoned, even executed if their relationship came to light.

So they carry on in secret—until Nasrin’s parents announce that they’ve arranged for her marriage. Nasrin tries to persuade Sahar that they can go on as they have been, only now with new comforts provided by the decent, well-to-do doctor Nasrin will marry. But Sahar dreams of loving Nasrin exclusively—and openly.

Then Sahar discovers what seems like the perfect solution. In Iran, homosexuality may be a crime, but to be a man trapped in a woman’s body is seen as nature’s mistake, and sex reassignment is legal and accessible. As a man, Sahar could be the one to marry Nasrin. Sahar will never be able to love the one she wants, in the body she wants to be loved in, without risking her life. Is saving her love worth sacrificing her true self? — Cover image and summary from Goodreads

Author Interview:

Book Review: Long Division

long divisinoTitle: Long Division
Author: Keise Laymon
Genres: Literature/Contemporary
Pages: 267
Publisher: Bolden
Review Copy: Purchased from Amazon
Availability: On shelves now

 
I’m a Doctor Who fan, but I will admit that the timey-wimey stuff often gets me confused. I loved time-travel stories but I’m usually left scratching my head at the end because I just can’t make it work the linear way my mind wants me to. This feeling, this confusion, is what I had at the end of Keise Laymon’s debut novel. This is not a reflection on him as a writer, but everything on me as the reader.

 
While I was reading the novel, I enjoyed the adventures of the two main characters, both named City Coldson, but divided by 28 years. Long Division is a novel within a novel, and I wondered at the end if 1985 City was real, and not a character in a novel, or if 2013 City was real and not a character in a novel. I really hope that sentence makes sense, but if it doesn’t, that’s the complexity that is Long Division. The ending is a bit vague with the answers, leaving the reader to make up their own minds. I’d like to think both City Coldsons were real, but that would mean…oh my…*scratches head*

 
Moving on, Long Division is a novel about teenagers making sense of the racial inequalities in their world, as well as learning to be responsible for one’s actions, both positive and negative. Because it is a novel with time travel in it, the reader experiences life in 1964, 1985, and 2013. Making each of these time periods distinct, and the characters interactions during each of the time periods, is what Laymon does best. For example, I was a tween in 1985, therefore a number of the references 1985 City makes, how he speaks, is very true to the time period. Conversely, 2013 City reads just like one of my students. Laymon does a good job capturing the myriad of thoughts teenagers will have in a given moment.  This oftentimes led to some hilarious inner monologues and exchanges from both of the young men. Both 1985 City’s and 2013 City’s section are given to the reader in first person, so we are privy to the boys mixture of deep and mundane thoughts. And just like regular teens, these thoughts can go from deep to mundane in the blink of an eye. It was usually at those moments that I laughed the most.

 
The novel takes place over a series of days, but both 1985 City and 2013 City make the transition from boys to men in that short period of time, coming to understand the complexity of the effects of one’s decision and how it can have a lasting impact. I won’t give it away, but there is a moment towards the end where 1985 City has to make a decision that no adult would want, but he handles it with a maturity and grace that is absolutely beautiful.

 
Lastly, Long Division is not a novel where you can sit back and relax. You have to pay attention; notice the social commentary that Laymon drops subtly all throughout the novel. It is a very different type of Young Adult novel, but is one that teens are capable of finding, discussing, and examining the deeper meanings behind the words presented on the page. It is a novel that respects the teenage mind, while challenging them at the same time.

 

Recommendation: Get It Soon

Mini-review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

ariTitle: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author:  Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Pages: 359
Genre: contemporary, romance
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: the lovely local library
Availability: February 21, 2012

Summary: Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: When you read a lot, you realize that there are books — and then there are books — the sort that you want to throw at your friends and scream “READ IT! I HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS!” This is that sort of book. The plot, characters, style — everything about Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is done so well. You really get to know the two protagonists, Aristotle and Dante. There’s friendship, romance, family — everything you could want. The only teensy problem I had was with the ending, which felt sort of rushed and a little forced. But, aside from that, it was wonderful. Talk to me and I will gush about this book for ages.

Recommendation: Buy it now! It’s such a beautiful story.