So Yesterday: the book of COOL.

Book of the…(week? month? depends on the next great book, I guess) is So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld. It’s about Hunter, a seventeen-year-old who’s paid to find the latest, greatest trends for mass-marketing, and Jen, an “Innovator”–one of the kids inventing the latest, greatest before anyone else . Because, of course, once everyone is wearing it, it’s just not cool anymore. Initially I thought this story was about whether an innovator (someone who invents crazy new styles) and a trendsetter (someone who steals those inventions and sells them on the retail market) can be friends. Instead it quickly blows up into something bigger: there’s a pecking order here, from global companies to mindless consumers to late adopters to the I-would-rather-die-than-adjust-to-something-new. Everyone I know fits in somewhere. And it’s a dangerous, brand-maniacal world out there.

In my opinion, what Scott Westerfeld does really, really well is take one aspect of culture and magnify it, twisting it to see what happens when it goes just a nudge farther. In his trilogy Uglies, Pretties, and Specials, it was the idea of beauty. What would happen–these books ask–if we invented the perfect formula for beautiful people? And then did surgery on everyone? It’s a fascinating series, one that asks questions about human dignity, the growing-up process, and the role of science as authority. And they’re ridiculously engrossing sci-fi novels. Maybe more on them later.

Well, in So Yesterday, he’s done it again. This time, it’s the idea of cool. Here, in almost the same New York City we have today, cool is absolutely king. Mass marketing is moving at breakneck speed, and what was IN last week is so pathetically OLD today you shouldn’t bury your grandmother in it. The main character, Hunter, is paid by companies to advertise and collect data, but he’s not paid to talk about them them–so he doesn’t. He refuses to name any name brands whatsoever in the book, referring to them obliquely instead (phones made by “a certain company in Finland”, a quote from a certain “dysfunctional father” in a television show), because otherwise it would be advertising. He makes an exception for the ubiquitous Google. (Hmmm.)

This book only increased my desire to rail loudly at the mass-media advertising constantly streaming toward my skull. I can’t even walk into a grocery store anymore without being overwhelmed by seventeen brands of peanut butter and four hundred varieties of the snack-I-didn’t-know-I-needed-but-now-I-will-clearly-die-without. It makes me physically ill. Seriously, people! …But I digress.

It was refreshing to read a book about consumer culture with brand names so conspicuously absent. I also appreciated Westerfeld’s balanced look at the ways “cool” culture develops a life of its own. I became sadly reconciled to the fact that I will never, never be an early adopter. I can’t even figure out how to work the microwave properly. (Apparently you’re supposed to take it out before the smoke starts pouring around the edges. Who knew?)

Elena's Brownie Cupcake Disaster

If this is what I can do to brownie cupcakes, don't let me anywhere near your coolness.

It’s a great book; I’d recommend it. Check it out, and the trilogy, by clicking on the pictures. (There are no links to burned brownies, sorry. But I can recommend some tips if you want to make it yourself.)

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Death by Cuteness

It’s good to be back. (School came first. There’s always excuses.)

But now that I’m back, I thought I’d give you something special for Christmas….It’s two websites! Hooray!!!! Don’t say I never give you anything.

I found some websites during my school procrastination that maybe will add to seasonal cheer. Just for fun. The first is IWriteLike.com. You copy and paste a section of your own writing, and the site analyzes it and tells you what famous writer’s style your writing is similar to. It’s cool! I don’t know how scientific or accurate it is, but fun. Apparently I write like Charles Dickens, J. K. Rowling, and a new favorite writer, David Foster Wallace.

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The second site is sort of a cute-factor motivation. It’s called Written? Kitten! at writtenkitten.net. It’s for those people who see pictures of kittens and fall wildly, madly in love with the picture, suddenly losing all muscle ability and/or consciousness to do anything beyond weeping for cuteness… You know who you are. These kinds of people scare me, mostly because I’ve never been that struck by pictures of baby cats, and also because whenever I try to pet cute, clawed things, I come away bleeding. Not exactly the reinforcement we’re going for. But if you like that sort of thing, this website gives you a fresh kitten every hundred words. 

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Say it with me: Awwww…

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Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

kitten photo credit to fuelyourwriting.com.

Hate Mail, and Other Fun Library Perks

Are you looking for adventure and excitement? Financial freedom? Ways to fix the hole in your sock? Then look no further. The library will fill that gaping hole in your life (and maybe your sock too, if you crochet creatively).

Five Reasons to Love the Library

1. Save money on books so you can spend it on the gas it takes to get to the library. Well, part of the way to the library. If you live close by, you can save that money for your overdue fines. Which leads to

2. Hate Mail. You can have your book and get attention for it! Nothing says “You are special” like a predictable stream of personalized letters sent right to you! The ever-increasing intensity of the letters is simply the librarians’ way of showing you are loved. (Or at least stalked.) Of course, you may never be able to show your face in the library again—but then, your frequent dashes to the mailbox will prove to the neighbors that you have a very special, committed, long-distance relationship.

Which you do.

Pearls Before Swine: the next step in the stalker/hatemail process.

3. Learn useless things in REAL life. Forget the Internet. You can fill your head with loads of information without ever touching a computer. Waste time endlessly and still get your exercise by shuffling through the aisles. For example, from the Non-fiction section:

  • Marshmallow is not just the fluffy confection, it is a plant that can exude a strong syrup, from which the candy was originally made.
  • You can tan an animal skin using ingredients found in your average kitchen. Assuming you store certain ingredients in your average kitchen.
  • Crocheting is not a girl thing! Boys can do it too! (Note: See picture. It is painfully difficult to make crocheting look attractive to twelve-year-old boys. Enough said.)

No, I did not just look those up on Wikipedia for examples. Yes, I just pulled them out of my head, from actual books. No, I will probably never use them again. See how much fun this is?

4. A Nap Away From Home. It’s the gift you give yourself. Curl up in that big comfy reading chair in the sun. Where else will you find such blissful quiet? Where else can you go unconscious in a public place and not be robbed?* Take my advice and drool on the furniture in peace. When your cell phone alarm blasts and you are forcibly removed from drool, chair, and premises—don’t say I didn’t warn you.

*Not responsible for any stolen or borrowed items. This is a library, after all.

5. Libraries are like speed-dating for commitment-phobes. I’ve always thought buying a book is so serious. I part with my hard-earned cash for something I’ve never read. —Is it any good? —Will I hate it? Will I wish I had my $18.95 back plus shipping and handling? What if all the recommendations were a scam, and now it will sit on my shelf mocking me forever, having made me both wiser and poorer? And that book is like a mail-order bride, lost and away from its wonderful book-family and friends, and I am rejecting it?!? Oh, the horror!! The shame!!!

Whoa, deep breath, Elena.

(Why I never buy books: the emotional strain is too much.)

Rest assured. The library will save you. (Me.) You don’t have to marry the book, just maybe go on a date with it. You are under no obligation to pay for its coffee or even walk it past the library doors. All you commitment-phobes can rest easy. (For Elena’s short list of book-speed-dating questions, click here.)

All the rest of you? You who think I’m nuts? Who probably buy books daily without a twinge of guilt? I hate you.

Unless occasionally visit your library, and then I guess we can still be friends.

Book of the Week: Ida B (and her plans for the world)

When I’m sorting through library books I’ve never heard of, and may or may not want to read, I usually make decisions based on one of three things:

1) Cover, front and back. (I’ll be as judgy as I want, thank you very much.)

2) Thickness of book. (And if the book is thick, will I feel smart by checking it out, or –deep down– will I know I’m just an incompetent phony?)

3) First four pages of book. (That’s all you get. I have a short library-previewing attention span.)

My latest greatest book passed all three tests, and it’s called Ida B. …and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World. Who wouldn’t want to read a book like that? From the back of the book:

This is what I have for lunch every single day: peanut butter on one slice of bread, milk, and an apple, preferably a McIntosh because they’re tangy with a thin skin, which Daddy says resembles me at times.

“Don’t you want to try something different, Ida B?” Daddy will say.

Well, by lunchtime I’m wide awake and I’ve already been busy doing my chores and learning and having some fun. I’ve got a list of things that I can’t wait to do in the afternoon, my head is filled to the rim with interesting ideas and plans, and that’s exactly how I want it to stay.

“There are too many things to think about in this world besides what I’m going to have for lunch, Daddy,” I say, and he looks at me like I am a true mystery.

Ida B Applewood swoops her readers into her world, where everything is exciting and interesting and half the fun of doing things is making plans for them first. She’s imaginative, insightful, and very serious about having fun. She makes stick rafts and sends them down her creek with notes asking people to write back and answer the important questions–“If this raft reaches the ocean, will you please let us know? Thank you very much.” And includes her address. She gets tired of washing her face so she tries leaving the soap on permanently. Every one of the apple trees in her orchard has a name and a personality.

I like this girl.

But then, things happen in Ida B’s life that she could not have planned for. Her family starts going through some hard times, and Ida has to go to public school, which she hates. Her parents make decisions about her life that feel an awful lot like betrayal. These problems are waaay too big for Ida to plan for. Ida B’s only solution is to make her heart small, and hard, and black. And getting back to having fun and saving the world is going to be tough to do.

I loved this book (by Katherine Hannigan) because Ida B is so real, so good at telling us about problems from a kid’s point of view. It’s so easy for me to say, But Ida B, it’s gonna be okay–but when I was Ida B’s size, her problems would  have looked absolutely huge to me. Who knows if it’s really gonna be okay?

You’ll just have to read it yourself.

E. Nesbit: The Enchanted World in Real Life

The princess is looking to get married, and she begins her search in a rather un-fairytale way: “You know, of course” (says the author) “that a handsome book is sent out every year to all the kings who have daughters to marry… only instead of  illustrations showing furniture or ladies’ cloaks and dresses, the pictures are all of princes who are of an age to be married, and are looking out for suitable wives. The book is called the Royal Match Catalogue Illustrated,–and besides the pictures of the princes it has little printed bits about their incomes, accomplishments, prospects, and tempers, and relations.” Apparently living in a fairy tale world doesn’t preclude a background check.

In E. Nesbit’s world, fantasy and real life collide all the time. A boy talks to a china cat, while a king resigns so he can catch butterflies (“My kingdom can buy a President and be a republic if it likes,” he says).

Another boy begins his story with complete honesty: “We had never seen our cousin Sidney till that Christmas Eve, and we didn’t want to see him then, and we didn’t like him when we did see him.”

It’s a world where kids can hear the wind talking, where you can breathe underwater, where animals, at least, will always tell you the truth. In my first and favorite E. Nesbit book, The Enchanted Castle, Gerry and Kathleen and Jimmy find a magic ring–only of course they don’t know about the magic until it’s caused them heaps of trouble. (But of course! Since when do magic rings come with directions?)

E. Nesbit writes quirky, realistic, and thoroughly imaginative stories. And the best part? She was published between 1885 and 1913–a hundred years ago. I would never have guessed it. Beyond the charming language that comes with reading about British schoolchildren, there’s virtually no barrier to read across. (Similar to the books of C. S. Lewis–who, incidentally, mentions some Nesbit characters, the Bastables, in The Magician’s Nephew.)

In Nesbit’s writings there’s a carefree playfulness balanced by the very serious work of being a kid. I love it, and I love how she weaves adventure into daily life (it was probably there all the time). Then Ms. Nesbit talks about the nagging feeling you have afterward. What if the adventure was all made up?  Well, she says, if you try to explain everything away, then “you are the kind of person who always makes difficulties, and you may be quite sure that the kind of splendid magics that happened to [other children] will never happen to you.”

 

These are the E. Nesbit books I’ve read (and loved) so far. All of the above quotations are from her short story collection, The Magic World.  She wrote many more, and also books for adults (which I’ve not read but I’d like to hear your review if you have).

If you like E. Nesbit, you might like:
Alice in Wonderland
The Oz series (begun with the Wonderful Wizard of Oz)
The Princess Bride
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia Wrede

And this article, talking about the American imagination and why E. Nesbit never caught on in the U.S. (a terrible thing, in my opinion). What about you? Have you read anything by E. Nesbit? Anything to recommend?

We’re Back!

As some of you know, I recently took a class on Social Media in which I blogged for credit. It was pretty great: I write posts, I get grades, everybody goes home happy. Apparently I am a creature of habit and incentive, because the end of the class has led to a deplorable lack of posts in recent weeks.

But no more! (She says with more positivity than practicality…) Here are three things I hope to change or improve in the future:

1. I hope to continue my Young Adult book-blogging project through the end of this year. They really are my favorite “category” of books, and I don’t think certain YA books get enough credit. But that’s a rant for another time… Which brings me to my next point:

2. Free For All Friday is coming to a blog post near you. Maybe. It’s where I write about whatever I want (unlike the other times, when I write about…nevermind.) Free For All Friday (or Thursday, or Monday, or…) has as much structure and organization as the name implies, so we can’t really predict it. But it’s bound to be fun!

3. Continuing with all the newness and returning-ness and happiness of this post, I’ve got a new About section. It makes up for in honesty what it gave up in zaniness*. Let it be known that, while I have always wanted to major in Underwater Basketweaving, this is sadly not the case. Sorry to disappoint. Also, it turns out Underwater Basketweaving, according to Wikipedia, does not mean the amazing full-contact weaving sport the name implies. Now I’m disappointed.

Finally, I liked this bizarre movie as a kid and haven’t seen it for years. Writing the title brought back nice memories. It could be a terrible movie for all I know, but I prefer to stay in my ignorant bliss, if that’s the case. Have you seen it?

*The original zany bio went something like, “Elena is a dramatic figure, often seen kayaking the Nile on her lunch breaks…Blah blah blah, hubris, hubris.” It was spectacular. I was spectacular. Unfortunately truth is stranger than fiction, so we’ve opted for the boring in hopes of being taken seriously. (Take that, all you unbelievers.)

Most Unusual Books In The World

"Words Create Worlds" by the Anagram Bookshop in Prague

Sometimes the most unique art comes from twisting one established form into something completely different.  In this case, a book becomes entirely unreadable. But then, that’s not the point.

Today I’m excited about this photoglut of art made from books. (“Photoglut” is a snazzy word that I thought everyone knew. Nope, turns out it’s coined by Stupid Ugly Foreigner, a funny and fascinating blogger. Pretty soon “photoglut” will come into common usage because it’s awesome.)

We use books so often, for everything—they become so throwaway. Martin Frost adds some mystery with his fore-edge scenes. Sometimes the paintings are not visible unless the book is open.

Brian Dettmer has no problem with slashing books. In really cool ways.

With a name like Robert The, he’s simply got to work with words.

An unknown artist thinks outside the box/book/bird…

Edit 6/6/11: Thanks to careful reader Jason Smith for noting: the above piece is not by Donald Lipski (now attributed correctly as anonymous). But Donald Lipski can, in fact, be found here with many more sculptures of books and other interesting things. One of his famous “book” sculptures is called “Good as Gold”—check it out, it’s cool. 

 

My favorite, Su Blackwell.

What do you think? Comments are welcome!

(This is an understatement. I sit at my desk anxiously refreshing the page in the hopes that you’ve left a comment.)

(This is only a slight exaggeration.)

(Help! Don’t leave me to drown in my own self-corrections!)