King Dork

I am clearly not one of the cool kids in the literary world.

I, um, kind of. . . hated this.

I couldn't even finish it -- and it bothers me to post about something I couldn't finish, but damn, the fact that I couldn't finish it must mean something. Yes, the protagonist has a unique, realistic voice. Yes, many of the band names were funny. Yes, there are moments of agonizing truth in the author's depiction of high school life (though the inanity of what passes for curriculum troubled me a bit).

But. But. It's -- how do I say this? -- boring. Mind-crushingly BORING. Every moment, every thought, every bit of meaningless minutiae (sp?) in this loser's sorry life - gaaaaaaak. Snore. The Catcher references were kind of funny, but the crazy-ass secret code subplot with his late father's high school library just made no sense. (Too much Chasing Vermeer, with its indefensible reliance on coincidence and randomness above all.) And his relationships with his family, with his friend(s, sort of) -- no substance, just talky talky talky talk blah blah blah.

So despite all of its fabulous reviews, I just can't concur.


King Dork by Frank Portman. Delacorte, 2006. 352 pages.


Well, then.

Apparently "sorry" isn't good enough for Random House. If the extent of the borrowing/stealing/unintentional similarities between Opal Mehta and Sloppy Firsts is as great as they report, they've made the right move. I do still wonder what will become of the wunderkind: perhaps a year's sabbatical is in order?

PW follows up its article with what may be the dumbest question I have ever read:
"Does plagiarism hurt an authors career--or should it?"

Um, YES. Rule of law, people: you breach, you suffer the consequences.

How Jessica Darling Got Appropriated

The Boston Globe has a front-page story about the unfolding plagiarism accusations against Kaavya Viswanathan. Apparently the Harvard sophomore has stated that Megan McCafferty's novels (Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings) were favorites of hers in high school, and that she must have internalized some of the language and style in her own book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. No word yet on whether McCafferty's publisher will accept the apology, or whether there's more drama ahead.

I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, appropriating another author's work as your own, regardless of intent (or lack thereof) is never okay. And I would be lying if I claimed I felt no small twinge of schadenfreude, since, as has been demonstrated, I am jealous, petty, and small.

On the other hand, Viswanathan seems, at least on the surface, to be genuinely flummoxed and ashamed. Here's a high school kid who loves to read and write, who's given boatloads of money and shuffled off to a packager to produce a buzzworthy debut while she's still a teenager, all the while trying to negotiate the transition to the pressure cooker environment of a top college. I can't help but feel a little sorry for her.

So what's the lesson here? Was Viswanathan so stressed by the expectations placed upon her that she ripped off one of her favorite books? Did her publisher and the media in general put her on too high of a pedestal? What responsibility do Alloy Entertainment (her packager) and Little Brown (her publisher) bear in the whole affair? Should they have been more rigorous in their fact-checking? Were their production schedules so tight that there wasn't time for a full vetting?

More to come as more information emerges, I suppose.


Mo Willems, I love you

Those of you who have small children should already know Mo. The two-time Caldecott-Honor winner now has nine (?I think) books to his credit, each a gem. The Munchkin loves her some Pigeon and Bunny. To wit:

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (Hyperion, 2003) is Mo's Caldecott Honor debut. The title says it all: this is a brilliantly interactive picture book starring an irrepressible pigeon who reeaaaalllly wants to drive the bus. Won't you let him? Curiously, although Miss Munch knows, loves, and recites this book, she has never let loose with one of those big "NOOOOO!"s that the author and publisher seem to expect from their audience.

The first sequel, The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! (Hyperion, 2004) is a lesser work, but has its moments of brilliance as well. La Munch frequently asserts, "Dat PIGEON hot dog!"

The second sequel, and Mo's latest, is Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! (Hyperion, 2006). Following the format of the other two, the reader sees Pigeon (clutching his own Knuffle Bunny, see below) resisting bedtime with all the force and persuasion of a good little toddler. Replacing Pigeon's standard climactic tantrum with a room-filling yawn is a stroke of genius.

Last but not least in the Mo Hall of Fame is one of last year's Caldecott Honors, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (Hyperion, 2004). It took the Munchkin a little while to warm up to this one, but once she did, she was hooked. Knuffle Bunny is a slice-of-life tale of one girl, one stuffed bunny, and one ill-fated trip to the laundromat. The language and action is pitch-perfect (find me a better example of "going boneless," I dare you), and the resolution, though predictable, is heart-warming.

A word of caution: These books are not for the shy parent. Mo's background is in animation (he's a former writer for Sesame Street, among others), and one must adopt a certain theatricality to get the most out of these books. But they're worth it.

Mo is also a certified Hot Man of Children's Literature.

Also by Mo:
The Pigeon Loves Things That Go! (Hyperion, 2005, board book)
The Pigeon Has Feelings, Too! (Hyperion, 2005, board book)
Time to Pee! (Hyperion, 2003)
Time to Say Please! (Hyperion, 2005)
Leonardo, the Terrible Monster (Hyperion, 2006)


How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life

Okay, so I finished it. It was not bad: a decently frothy read, not too much mental energy expended, and the author did a nice job weaving in cultural details (both Indian/Desi and New Jersey high school) without going overboard or devolving into the didactic.

But . . .

I am the wrong person to read this book. Problem #1: It is written by someone who is both younger than I *and* more successful (despite having the same opportunities/education in general). I cannot be an objective reader when I finish every chapter thinking, "Okay, at the time in your life that you were writing this, I was watching Animaniacs and pretending to understand The Fairie Queene."

Problem #2: In a previous post, I mentioned the Fictional Harvard problem; it continues throughout the book, though not quite in the same way. The geography gets better, but the portrayal of Harvard is so relentlessly positive that it felt unreal. Harvard is the perfect place! For nerds! For princesses! For hippies! Come to Harvard and be happy forever! I have my own biases, but this utopian idealization would have bothered me no matter where it was set.

Minor things: Very little was surprising, plot-wise. I was annoyed during the pre-frosh visit section, where Opal was astonished and surprised by things like the dorms, the square, the food, the classes. Someone who has been polishing herself for Harvard for 17 years would've done that kind of research (and hello: the dorms are pictured in the admissions materials). The interactions with the dean of admissions felt contrived and implausible. And the naivete of Opal and her parents about friendships and popularity seemed like a stretch: they're intelligent, driven people, sure -- but they have friends, too, and Mrs. Mehta's keen understanding of the Indian social scene in their neighborhood makes it unlikely that she would be so dense when it came to Opal's popularity and the pitfalls of HOWGAL.

Still, I must admit: I liked Opal. Not all the time, and not always a lot, but I did care enough to want to see her have a happy ending. (Sidenote: I wasn't sure whether to be impressed with my prescience, or just resigned, to discover that Opal does, in fact, drink Scorpion Bowls.)

Bottom line: A good choice for summer reading, but don't expect much more from it.

How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life by Kaavya Viswanathan. Little, Brown, 2006. 320 pages.

UPDATE: The Harvard Crimson published an article suggesting that Viswanathan's novel bears a few striking similarities to Megan McCafferty's 2001 Sloppy Firsts. (AP article, via Boston.com)



Currently drowning in work and life, I have been unable to commit to a book for the last week. I have filled some of the emptiness with Newsweek and Redbook and the aforementioned trashy magazines, but books are just not doing it for me. Something about the absence of immediate gratification (read it! done! move on!), perhaps.

I have been trying to get into Julia Scheeres's Jesus Land for the past several days, and, Lord help me (really), I cannot. Now I'm trying Kaavya Viswanathan's How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, and already I am annoyed. It is not enough that the author is a lovely Harvard sophomore currently (perhaps) blowing her six-figure, two-book advance on Scorpion Bowls at the Kong, but she has also fallen victim to the dreaded "fake Harvard" disease, wherein authors are pressured (I assume) by their editors or, more likely, their marketing departments to make their Fictional Harvard read like Imagined Harvard, rather than Real-Life Harvard. Case in point (from the first page, no less):

"By the time we got out of the car and began walking toward the sign that said Byerly Hall: Admissions Office, I was at nineteen. [. . . .] In Harvard Yard, the grass grew a brilliantly bright and fertilized green."

Okay. If you are walking toward a [mythical] sign that says "Byerly Hall," you are not in Harvard Yard. Byerly Hall is in Radcliffe Yard, a short jaunt up Garden Street, and if you go to Harvard, YOU KNOW THIS. Drives me batshit crazy.

Anyway. No more time for ranting; not even more time for reading, alas. Maybe next week I'll have something more interesting to share.


I killed Princess Diana.

I was not even in Paris in 1997 -- but I do read trashy magazines. My husband, BS, claims that, by buying and reading these magazines that rely on paparazzi shots, I am personally responsible for the culture of celebrity stalking that allegedly led to her death, not to mention the steady decline in moral values and loss of respect for the right to privacy that are hallmarks of our age.

I just like the mindlessness, really. US Weekly, Life & Style, and InTouch are my usual choices. I can't get behind Star: to me it'll always be on the level of National Enquirer. (I am a charter subscriber to Entertainment Weekly, too, but that, of course, is highbrow celebriporn.)

I always buy them at the airport, which prompts BS's constant question: "If the plane goes down, is this what you want to be the last thing you read on Earth?" Forgive me, Lord, but I have a hard time believing that You'll make Your final judgment about me based on my mostly-innocent, slightly-prurient interest in the mating lives of famous people. Besides, when one travels with the Munchkin, one needs to pick reading material that can and will be destroyed.

I think about my trash habit when the major awards are announced (like tonight's Pulitzer for fiction, which went to Geraldine Brooks's March -- a book I tried but failed to read) or whenever I read about "literary" authors making a stink about popular books on bestseller lists. The idea that a person can only read "good" literature, or that a person who reads (or writes) popular books (Freakonomics, Blink, etc.) can never truly be considered erudite, strikes me as utter crap. When Shirley Hazzard raised a big stink a few years back about Stephen King's lifetime achievement award at the NBAs, it made me vow not to read any of Shirley Hazzard's books (especially The Great Fire, with that terrible jacket that makes the title unreadable. Eat Fire? Huh?) This, of course, is a petty and small reaction, but I am a petty and small person.

Don't get me wrong: I'm no literary slouch. I wrote my senior thesis on Shakespeare; I've read most of the big-name poets and scribes from the 15th century on. But I resent the implication that my trashy magazine habit (or my Janet Evanovich habit, or my Louise Rennison habit) makes me a literary lightweight.

Pop culture has a vital role in the larger society, by connecting us to strangers through shared experiences and a shared set of cultural touchstones. When I work at the circ desk and a patron comes up with a Sue Grafton novel or one of Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries books, I can make a connection with that person. To me, it's a community service to keep up with the latest pop culture and pop lit. Trashy magazines are just one part of that equation. Since we don't watch a lot of TV in our house, how else can I keep up with pop culture?

(And okay, I do enjoy feeling just a liiiiiittle bit superior to some of the dippier celebrities out there. So sue me.)


The Hypochondriac's Pocket Guide to Horrible Diseases You Probably Already Have

The title really says it all. This pocket (really, it's about 4.25" x 6.5") guide to horrible diseases would make a great gift for someone with an odd sense of humor. Each entry features a brief description of the disease, a list of symptoms, how it's diagnosed, the prognosis, tips for prevention, treatment options, and in most cases, a short extra fact. Distinctive B&W line art accompanies each entry: the illustrations* look like they sprang from an old-timey medical journal.

A few samples:
"LEPROSY. In which your hands and feet go numb and eventually fall off. [...] Prevention: Cleanliness is key. Always wash your hands thoroughly after shaking a coworker's gangrenous stump. Also, do not incur the wrath of God (just in case)."

"MYIASIS. In which maggots crawl around beneath your skin. [...] Prognosis: If you take nothing else away from this book, take this: Having maggots inside of you, eating away at your soft tissue and squirming around a lot in a disgusting manner, is not good for your body."

It's a reasonably quick read, though ripe for skimming: the kind of book you might, say, leave in your bathroom for guests to peruse at their leisure. I would not, however, suggest giving this to someone who actually is a hypochondriac. You wouldn't want to encourage them.

*Point of Irritation: I couldn't find a credit or source for the illustrations anywhere in the book. Presumably that means either the author drew them (unlikely?) or they were gathered from public-domain or otherwise old medical texts (also unlikely?). Publishers, give your artists and designers credit!

The Hypochondriac's Pocket Guide to Horrible Diseases You Probably Already Have by Dennis DiClaudio. Bloomsbury, 2006. 208 pages (incl. index).


Um, hi.

This is a work-in-progress. My goal is to keep a log of what I'm reading at any particular moment, as well as to sharpen my reviewing skills. When you write enough flap copy, you get pretty good at encapsulating a plot, but you don't get to include your own reactions to a book. This is my venue for those reactions.

My intent is to post about once a week. I typically read two or three books a week (in 2005, for example, I read 150 books). I read lots of YA and middle-grade, as well as your garden-variety adult fiction and nonfiction.

Sometimes I am funny.

I'll also keep a list of my daughter's current favorites, for anyone out there who needs something to read over and over and over and over again to a baby or toddler. (Something that doesn't suck, of course.)

Welcome to my bumpy beginning.