Oct 27, 2008

An Abundance of Katherines

John Green, An Abundance of Katherines, 2006, Puffin.

After Colin is dumped by his nineteenth girlfriend named Katherine, he suffers an identity crisis of sorts. If he is destined to forever be the Dumpee, he believes it must reveal some larger truth about who Colin (a child prodigy) will turn out to be: a failure. After all, he has never had his 'Eureka' moment, the one which would signal the advent of his genius. The only solution to this identity crisis is to take a road trip which leads him and his best friend Hassan to the tiny town of Gutshot, Tennessee. In Gutshot Colin and Hassan find Colin's 'Eureka' moment, a factory that makes tampon strings, and a girl named Lindsey all which share an interesting story.

I couldn't tell if this book was purposely trying to be cool or not. I definitely didn't get a hipster vibe from the tone of the characters, unsurprisingly because both Colin and Hassan are slightly socially inept: still you get the sense deep down that Green was trying to work the nerd chic angle here. He couldn't make his characters without a shred of hope, otherwise even nerdy kids wouldn't want to read it. It is certainly interesting to see the balance the characters strike between nerdyness without hope and nerdyness that promises to become more.

On the other hand, Colin's constant thought and conversation tangents were half amusing, half down right annoying. However I must stress this one thing. I did not believe for ONE minute that the kids in Gutshot would let Lindsey go from freak of the week to a member of the in-crowd. I'm from a small town myself and sorry John Green but that just does not happen. Ever. Furthermore Lindsey was your stereotypical nerd boys wet dream: a hot girl who used to be nerdy once upon a time and secretly has a thing for skinny nerd boys like Colin. Why is it that in teen movies and books the nerdy girl has to be a "hot" nerdy girl? Can't she ever just be plain or so-so, or unconventionally beautiful? I felt like it sent a message that its okay to embrace your nerdyness if you're female, but only if you're pretty too. Ugh.

Oct 20, 2008

When I Was a Soldier

Valerie Zenatti, When I Was a Soldier: A Memoir, 2007, Bloomsbury USA.

In Israel when you turn 18 you enter the Israeli Defense Forces even if you are a woman.* Although Valerie immigrated with her family from France to Israel when she was 12, like her friends she will enter the IDF where she will serve for two years. Once she arrives at her basic training base she realizes that nothing has prepared her for the regimented and difficult life of the defense forces. And she must still deal with her life on the outside, knowing that she won't always be in the military.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is the interplay between society's and the military's expectations when it comes to the women serving in the IDF. Valerie and her friends have always known that they would enter the military upon graduation [unless they were Orthodox Jews or got married]. This is something which the average American female will not experience. Even though most males in this country are required to register for the draft upon their eighteenth birthday, there has not actually been a draft since Vietnam. So chances are they have not had that experience, unless they are planning to enter the military after high school graduation. As the book progresses we see the strain that Valerie undergoes as she attempts to reconcile the civilian aspects of her personality with the emerging military aspects of it. She experiences a thrill at becoming a member of the radar team who track pilots from neighboring Arab countries, listening in to them over the frequencies all day and learning practically every inch of her country and the ones that surround it.

Valerie comes to find herself at odds, she is proud of her service in the IDF but she is also counting the days until her release. She serves her adopted nation of Israel and yet yearns to return to France someday. An especially poignant scene centers around a bus trip back to the base which takes her through Gaza where the bus is stoned by Palestinians. Instead of being angry and indignant, Valerie is afraid and lets the reader know she understands why the Palestinians are angry at Israel. At one point in the book, she and many other soldiers question the purpose of the patriotic materials that make up part of their training. Some soldiers even debate the validity of Israel's occupation of Palestine with their superiors.

Although much has changed in that corner of the world since Zenatti wrote this book, at its very heart the unusual situation of a teenage girl serving in the military will be a draw for teens who want to see what it is like to live in a country where such service is required.

*You are not required to serve if you are a married woman, prohibited by your religion from serving, or have a physical or psychological reason which prevents you serving. Men serve three years and women two. (IDF)

Oct 19, 2008

Sofi Mendoza's Guide to Getting Lost in Mexico

Malin Alegria, Sofi Mendoza's Guide to Getting Lost in Mexico, 2008, Simon Pulse Teen Fiction.

When Sofi Mendoza sneaks off with her friends to a Memorial Day party in Rosarito, Mexico she doesn't expect any trouble getting back into the United States once the weekend is over. Unfortunately for Sofi, her parents (both Mexican immigrants) never replaced the green card she received at age 4 when they crossed the border. Stuck in Mexico indefinitely until her parents can get things straightened out, Sofi must go stay with her Aunt's family in Rancho Escondido. Life there is completely unlike the life she has experienced on El Otro Lado as just another American teenager. As the days pass Sofi finds herself changing in subtle ways as she discovers how her life might have been had her parents not taken the risk and brought their family to the United States. Yet Sofi is worried, will she ever return home to graduate and go to UCLA?

Malin Alegria clearly understands and has experienced for herself many of the same things her protagonist experiences in this novel. Sofi lives on the border both literally and figuratively speaking. Although her parents are immigrants Sofi's life is mainly that of the average American teenager. Her parents constantly strive to assimilate, with the stark contrast that while their ethnic identity does them no favors at work, Sofi is seen as interesting and even exotic by her classmates. This is turned on its head in Mexcio where because Sofi cannot speak Spanish and she is clearly Mexican, she is looked down upon. The bulk of the book concentrates on the irony that Sofi who has lived in the United States for as long as she can remember and is due to graduate from a U.S. high school in a couple of weeks, must now either wait to get back home legally or join the thousands of people who everyday attempt to cross La Frontera illegally. The book also has Sofi dealing with the universal experiences of being a teenager: disobeying your parents, figuring out how to get your crush's attention, falling in love, and becoming more aware of the inequalities of the world that surrounds you as well what parts of your life you should feel blessed to have.