Me Vs. Me

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Acne, height, hair, skin, teeth, and weight are all features that conflict teens throughout their young adulthood. Mirrors become an asset and an enemy within the transition from child to teenager. The self-conscious behaviors like checking the mirror every second or trying every diet fad arise due to peers, family and media. Images of small framed women and men with flawless skin, nice clothes and money can be a deadly mixture when it comes to the self-worth of young minds.

In life there are a lot of factors that hold us back from following our dreams. In the case of Ever Davies being 302 pounds is what she feels sets her back from living her life. “Skinny” is a novel about teenage obesity and dealing with the voice in one’s head telling them the negative thoughts they feel others have of them. The text has a plot that is similar to Cinderella but instead of the fairy godmother coming to the rescue, Ever is on her own with her tormenting inner voice. The voice that tells you that you aren’t good enough, small enough, tall enough or pretty enough to be noticed by the cute guy or make friends with the in crowd. The voice creates an imaginary finish line that can never be reached.

Cooner does an effective job at presenting “Skinny” as the internal voice that each reader can relate to. Although this is a young adult novel, adults can relate to issues of being self-conscious. The inner voice Ever refers to as “Skinny” torments her about this every second she gets and points out the thoughts of Ever’s peers and yells them in her ear. Can the negative voice that torments us within be silenced or does it just get stronger with age? Sooner answers this question with elaborate snickering from Skinny at those moments when you don’t think anyone can be kicked down any further. The sight of italics lets the reader know Ever will be verbally abused in some way like, “God, she takes up so much space. Just look at those thighs. I can’t believe her fat is touching me” (Cooner 43). “Skinny” is the internal agony that keeps persisting until Ever is forced to address her directly.

Ever falling out of the chair in front of the whole school assembly is what sets her in the direction of getting gastric bypass surgery. Ever said, “The sound of the crash echoes. The speech stops. The chatter stops. The world stoops. All eyes focus on the fat girl sitting on top of the crushed remains…” (47). The scene was delivered well in a way that leaves the reader wincing and feeling as if they fell out the chair with Ever. Cooner’s simple diction, small words and short sentences strike like knives force the readers to want to protect themselves from the embarrassment. 

“It’s s simple solution, really. Girl loves boy. Boy loves girl. Girl gets fat. Boy leaves. Girl cuts her stomach up into a little bitty pouch to get boy back” (47). The sentence structure of the text is really easy to follow and allows the reader to read the whole text very quickly, which is appealing in the YA genre. It only took me about a day and a half to read from cover to cover. Despite Ever being depressed about her weight, Cooner still finds moments to add light humor or wit that makes the reader relate when it comes to embarrassing adolescent moments. Jammed words like “Don’tcrydon’tcrydon’tcry” are read as if Ever is repeating them very fast and smashing them together successfully displays panic and hurried thoughts to the reader.

Ever’s weight is the main complications of the novel and she hopes to resolve her self-consciousness by getting this risky surgery. The text wasn’t overly preachy about being for or against gastric bypass surgery. Weight loss is a complicated subject to approach especially when it comes to young adults because pointing out this surgery could just be viewed as going the easy route to some. Rather than being aggressive in trying to prove the dangers, the text explained through, Ever’s eyes, the process and how it’s not an easy road to living once the surgery is over. With details of delirious moments in the hospital and striking pain trying to walk, the reader is filled in that Ever doesn’t just wake up skinny once the surgery is over. Cooner does a great job at displaying that weight loss is not an easy journey and even after losing weight there is still a long way to go. After the surgery Ever is still faced with her interval voice and actually resisting the temptations that caused her to gain weight like chocolate and eating dinner.

The voyage for Ever’s weight loss continues at the beginning of chapter 10 which displays a chart logging Ever’s starting weight, weight loss, type of exercise done, and inspirational song for the week. The chart in each chapter is a great addition because it allows the reader to follow along with Ever through her journey. Pop culture references also appear a lot in this novel from the Jessica Simpson platforms Whitney wears to the fall ball to the inspirational songs Ever picks each week during her weight loss journey. The references serve to connect the audience together with well-known songs that have shaped music. The mention of Dreamgirls helps bring the audience even closer together because of the musical’s recent film version. The songs represent struggle and strength that are common topics that many can relate to.

The characterization of Ever becomes confusing at some points. Ever is very confident about her singing voice throughout the text.  I enjoy the confidence that Ever has about her singing talent but it also annoys me because if she feels so strongly by her singing voice I feel like she can quiet her internal voice that judges her. Weight is the shield that keeps her from shining on stage. The text’s climax occurs when Ever finds the weight and stature of an elephant to be positive which shows that her image of being big is changing. Cooner uses the elephant to turn the text into a positive body image and a powerful force that can’t be overtaken easily. At this moment Ever begins to transform herself.

Another weak moment of the novel is the typical romance story. Although, I did find the romance to be adorable I could have lived without girl finding herself AND the boy of her dreams.  Without spoiling the text, I will just say that Ever is the Cinderella of this fairytale and must have a prince in terms of typical young adult novels. “Because you are, and have always been, beautiful” are words that most girls would love to hear. With so many empowering moments in the novel I felt like the romance just weakened them.

            “Skinny” does a great job at approaching the issue of weight by showing that it is not an easy road and that options for weight loss are different for everyone. Cooner creates a protagonist that doesn’t have another individual antagonizing her but rather creates a protagonist who is also their own antagonist. I would recommend this book to others because despite the typical romance, the text left me wanting to read it again because of the great strength and encouragement to jump over hurdles affecting one’s life. 

Every Day

Did you ever want to live in a different body?  What if you’re not guaranteed the same body every day?  David Levithan creates a whole new, yet familiar, world in Every Day that long time Levithan fans and new readers alike will relish.  Every Day is a contemporary novel that navigates the tight, socially constructed maze of gender to an end that offers a whole new idea about what makes a person a person.  This contemporary story does not render itself as a stereotypically moralizing tale lecturing young people that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts.”  Rather, this novel searches for satisfying answers about sexual attraction and the authenticity of human identity – questions that I think are of great importance to anyone in any stage of life.

The novel, narrated by a 16 year old non-gendered spirit named A, explores the challenges of life in multiple bodies that live through an array of teenage experiences: finding good friends, avoiding bad friends, jealousy, drug use, sex, suicide, the straight edge lifestyle, living with a smothering or loving or abusive family, the personal desire for freedom, the effects of depression, finding personal happiness, religion, and of course, love. The novel addresses just about everything with unrepentant honesty.

The narrative immediately startles the reader with a cognitive dissonance about the authenticity of gender and the body.  A, a non-gendered spirit, lives in a new person’s body every day for exactly 24 hours.  This reality is something that A cannot escape and has always known about his or her existence.  A’s characterization puts the reader in an interesting position of interpretation: A simply has no gender.  This is tough for us as readers because in the English language we only have masculine and feminine pronouns to describe people.  The most important thing to understand is that A is not interested in “typical” boy things or girl things and is not confused about his or her own sexuality or gender  – A is interested in what is interesting to A.

After grasping the fact that A has no gender, we are hit with another complication. What can make A’s identity more complicated despite the fact that A has no gender? Because A falls in love with Rhiannon, a heterosexual girl who is quite attached to her emotionally abusive boyfriend.  The plot revolves around A pursuing Rhiannon whilst in different bodies.  While the plot heavily employs a romance aspect, which is typical in YA literature, it is refreshingly different.  The reader will have to identify with or react to A in a much different way than a “normal” relationship between two explicitly gendered and typically heterosexual teens in YA literature.  Furthermore, the prose in this novel is straightforward and not convoluted with flowery language.  This style is essential to getting the message of the novel across since it is already hard enough to fully grasp the fact that A has no gender.  The language is very realistic and concise, but descriptive enough to successfully illustrate A’s intense feelings.  Furthermore, the pace of the book literally depends on what kind of day A is having – which is interesting because the novel really does seem to draw you into the everyday life of A this way.

I found Rhiannon’s character to be believable, despite the fact that she seems to fall for A and accepts A’s identity fairly quickly.  Rhiannon’s inner struggle to know what A initially “is” and what A “is not” and what A actually “seems to be” back to what A actually “is” pulled me through an empathizing and startling journey of what is real and unreal about human identity.  It does not seem to matter the gender of the reader because the reader will empathize with Rhiannon’s discomfort and confusion on not knowing who, or what, A is.  I certainly was confused.  This is what makes the novel so effective and memorable: regardless of whether or not we identify with Rhiannon’s gender or sexuality, the reader can empathize with her confusion throughout the novel.  We as readers and Rhiannon are conditioned on how we “should” act around an outwardly gendered body, but most certainly not a non-gendered body, let alone a spirit.  Each reader will have a different interpretation of A’s “true” or “initial” gender that is guaranteed to be challenged or changed at least a few times over the course of the story.

Even though the climax left me reeling from shock, the resolution of the book did not satisfy me because it didn’t answer my questions about A’s life.  The narrative gives the reader enough insight into A’s life at the moment, but nothing about A’s future or whether or not A can somehow change his or her life.  However, I am satisfied that I know what A wants for Rhiannon and what Rhiannon wants for A.  This book was not written to resolve gender issues, so it is unfair to harshly criticize the fact there were things left unanswered.  A’s life may be confusing, but A’s humanity truly shines through the spirit despite lacking a true body.  Overall, Every Day is a greatly written stand-alone book that is relatable and accessible to any reader.

“Cloud Atlas Charts New Territory Between Men and Women”

Adams on Reel Women: Cloud Atlas charts new territory between women and men with Halle Berry and Hugh Grant

By Thelma Adams | The Reel Breakdown – Mon, Nov 5, 2012 2:45 PM EST on Yahoo.com

I was belatedly watching “Cloud Atlas” at my local Cineplex, catching up on movies that I hadn’t seen because, thanks to Hurricane Sandy, I no longer had my Manhattan to upstate NY umbilical cord. I hadn’t read all the reviews when “Cloud Atlas” premiered in Toronto because, as I recently told Steven Gaydos, executive editor at Variety, “I see the movie and then I decide.” But this was a case where the gaseous critical response to “Cloud Atlas” had wafted in my direction, a skepticism and negativity reflected in Rotten Tomatoes’ stingy 63 percent fresh. So, I’d postponed seeing an adventure that was completely radical among contemporary American films in the gleeful, optimistic way it played musical chairs with male and female, young and old, and future and past. By creating a movie that starred Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Huge Grant and blurred the boundaries between men and women, the Wachowski siblings (Andy and transgender Lana), and Tom Tykwer, adapting David Mitchell’s genre-busting best-seller, took some major risks. And they created an entertaining, ambitious movie that went beyond feminism to an all-embracing humanism that wasn’t naive enough to believe that evil didn’t walk the earth in wingtips or stilettos or bare feet.

Oscar winner Berry portrays six characters,. In two key roles, as a crusading journalist in 1970s San Francisco and as a futuristic space traveler on a rescue mission, she gets not one but two unapologetically independent female characters. Both are proactive in fighting for good. In old-school terms, these characters are self-reliant rather than dependent on men. It’s also likely that in other eras, their souls existed in male form, which adds to their complexity. They are good not because they are female but because they are righteous. And Berry, at one point, crosses the gender boundary, sporting a Fu Manchu mustache as a man.

The same fluidity exists in taking the charming image of Grant, the boyish romantic hero and constantly remaking him as a villain in six very different roles, from man of the cloth to corrupt capitalist to cannibal chief. The movie constantly turns sexual images inside out, male and female. Take a chatty Oxbridge toff and put him in extreme horrifying war paint atop a similarly painted pony trolling for the other, other white meat, and you’ve undone his image forever. And that’s a good thing. Through cracking the surface of the male romantic comedy lead, you liberate the actor underneath.

All these years, Grant has typically been playing accepted versions of himself when he was capable of playing a cannibal. Who knew? What all this shape-shifting means — and there are many more examples — is that the boundary between actor and actress also disappears. Hugo Weaving can be a gun-wielding assassin in the Seventies, or a latter-day Nurse Ratchet in wig, white uniform and sensible shoes in contemporary England, and he’s still rotten to the core. Either way, for Weaving, it’s all an act.

In the “Cloud Atlas” universe, the us-versus-them split that often characterizes Hollywood discussions about women is beside the point. In the six narrative threads braided into the film, the boundary is not between male and female but between good and evil. Those who enslave, exploit, or degrade are not restricted to a specific sex (or age or race), and they write their fates with their actions. It’s up to those who salvage, fight against injustice, and create to remake the world every day and in every generation. The chaos between these elements, the dynamic, is what makes all the variety that is life in the past, present, and future. Today, you may be a sister fighting bitterly with another sister (I am!); in your next life, you might be married to that person (eek!). The trick is to resolve the conflict and to understand that the battle isn’t between male and female but between darkness and light, extermination and survival.

Looking back at the mixed reception “Cloud Atlas” received when it premiered at Toronto, I understand that it’s easy to laugh at the awkward prosthetic teeth worn by Hanks as he switches from one character to the next, or the silly Jar Jar Binks dialect he speaks in a postapocalyptic future. But that’s a distraction from the movie’s core intelligence. Susan Sarandon, who plays a variety of characters, including a New Age-y abbess, has a key snippet of narration where she says: “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” In an original interview for Yahoo! Movies last August, Sarandon explained: “Everything good and everything bad earns you your next phase of life. ‘Cloud Atlas’ takes place over different time periods, genders, and colors and still connects somehow. … What you do in one life counts to form the future.”

What makes this 21st-century movie count in contemporary culture is the extraordinary way in which “Cloud Atlas” connects men and women and radicalizes sexual politics in film.

Every Day

What if you woke up this morning and found yourself in the body of another? Today you might be a drug addict. Tomorrow you might be a hulking football player. Who’s to say who you’ll be next? Everyday’s world functions around this very premise: day-to-day journeys through the eyes and lives of others. A, the main character, has no other choice. A has no body, no assigned social category. Rather, A must float through through the universe, inhabiting the bodies of others, inhabiting their lifestyles, their inherited memories, their relationships with people. A must traverse across space after a day’s duration, and in this way, the readers find themselves in a new world with each new chapter. Although the author restricts each different body to a different chapter, the reader nevertheless finds themselves immersed into the lives of each character in the same way that A must accustom themselves to each novel experience. Given the limit of keeping one life a day per chapter, Levithan structures a book palatably broken into stages, with each chapter potentially appreciated in isolation as would a collection of short stories. Ambitiously, A assumes a variety of personalities, all representing a different young adult trope under the umbrella of human development. A inhabits the bodies of the beautiful and the damned, the depressed, the ignored, the sheltered, the immense, the inhibited, the tainted, the drugged. In this way, Every Day offers insightful measures about the way individual beings approach the same physical, psychological, and social issues.

I felt like the central conflict battled the boundaries of the flesh (body) with the freedom of the individual inhabiting the body (mind). The two take a Cartesian division, and A’s self-awareness highlights this struggle, “when the body takes over the life… when the body’s urges, the body’s needs, dictate the life.” The delivery of this story needs no dissecting or central lens. Despite the hectic nature of A’s life, A nevertheless enforces structure and sense to their thoughts, the only attainable form of order in their case. The author, it appears, writes in a way that a bodiless being would write: clearly and with a general scope of things. Above all, Every Day poignantly and straightforwardly teaches us to find value in the heart of personhood, transcending their body and loving them for who they essentially are. “In my experience, desire is desire, love is love. I have never fallen in love with a gender. I have fallen for individuals. I know this is hard for people to do, but I don’t understand why it’s so hard, when it’s so obvious.”

Disbursed throughout, A lends a philosophical understanding of the world in terms of temporality, more so than the average life-term can provide. For the young-adult demographic especially, A’s rapid life-stages mirror the struggling transition from child to adult. On the other hand, however, this book also acknowledges the many roles that everyone must play in society, the difficulties of being tied to a single body. These confessions take the reader to an alternate, virtually impossible universe; A gives us the opportunity to float across perspectives in a way that redefines empathetic understanding. Given A’s other-worldly limitations, however, finding and maintaining love becomes the prime struggle in terms of plot. When A falls for a bodied human, Every Day becomes an ongoing fight to maintain a linear narrative amongst the chaos of disbursed tales. A refuses to give up their love, however, and so love comes to play a critical key in merging A’s world with the world we live in.

Although many of this book’s moments of wisdom closely relate to experiences in the real-world, A also exposes the reader to a critical perspective that lies outside the limits of our consciousness.With moments like “Normal people don’t have to decide what’s worth remembering… I have to decide the importance of each and every memory,” A both alienates and forces self-reflection about the work of memories. Despite A’s unusual situation, Levithan nevertheless makes each story a relatable segment of humanity, connecting the reader and A with moments like “I have to remind myself that normal people feel this way, too: The desire to take a moment and make it last forever.” At the same time, A’s system of entering bodies limits the agency of the body at hand. I found myself curious about whose body A would inhabit next, how he would reconcile this with his journey for love. There are a few unexpected plot twists that somewhat satisfied the trajectory of the text, but I personally felt that it could have been left more abstract, like A’s composition. In hindsight, however, I definitely recommend this book to readers looking for a fresh perspective as well as to those who want to push the power of fantasy to its limits while still being in the realm of the modern world.

– Kyra Huete

Do Not “Forsake” Me, Oh My Darling

Think The Hunger Games meets Lord of the Flies, and you will have a general idea of The Forsaken.  Lisa M. Stasse’s debut publication follows in Suzanne Collins’ footsteps as a dystopic novel for young adult readers.  I think fans of sci-fi would most enjoy the book, male and female alike.  With a strong, engaging plot and an interesting vision of the future, this first installment of Stasse’s trilogy shows potential.

Her book is set only 10 to 20 years from our present, thus the author’s dystopia immediately threatens the reader.  The protagonist, orphan Alenna Shawcross grows up in a superpower called the United Northern Alliance, formed by Mexico, Canada, and the Unites States in the face of economic failure.  In Alenna’s present, people are given thought-pills to keep them docile, and forced to wear earpieces at all times that play classical music and pro-dictator propaganda on government demand.

At sixteen, Alenna must now undergo the Government Personality Profile Test, a test that identifies potential murderers, rapists, thieves, and psychopaths.  “Because of this test, crime has virtually been eliminated in the UNA.”  Or so Alenna believes.  If a teenager fails they are deemed an unanchored soul and abandoned on an island, which its inhabitants call “the wheel,” where the average life expectancy is eighteen.  It will come as no surprise to the reader that Alenna goes in to take the test and wakes up on the wheel, in the midst of a civil war between the two factions of surviving teenagers.  This is where Alenna’s story truly begins: she must choose between the two tribes of teenagers, and decide whether to fight to survive on the island or fight to escape it.

Stasse’s prose is straightforward, with no attempt at being fanciful.  The sentence structure and diction are simple, sometimes bordering on cliché.  The prose makes sense for a young girl who has to compartmentalize her feelings growing up in a society that strips its inhabitants of their voice. She cannot allow herself to face the tragedy of when her parents were taken away by the government.  She absorbs and evaluates events around her as they happen, taking in the facts: “I shouldn’t be here.  I’m a normal, decent member of the UNA.  I’m no different from any of the other orphans or kids at my school.  This is insane.  How did I even get here?  There are no tire tracks or roads.  Was I tossed out of a helicopter?  Doubtful.  I don’t have any broken bones.”

So is The Forsaken a success?   Perhaps I read too many books and have become jaded.  One encounters generic tropes too often, and can easily become bored.  Oh look, it’s another dystopic novel, with another damaged female that falls in love for the first time and has to fight for survival.  I was not truly interested until about twenty pages in, when Alenna lands on the island.  Her characterization was not strong, and the world of the UNA seemed like just another cold, controlled environment.  The rules and conventions of the UNA are clear, but the setting lacks mood.  Until I am placed on the island with Alenna.  From then on, I begin to understand her character, and I can easily visualize the lush, hot terrain surrounded by unknown dangers.

The author gives her auxiliary characters complete and believable personalities. The two other primary female characters in the novel, Gadya, the impulsive female warrior and Rika, the strong-willed pacifist are both girls that female readers could look up to.  The males too, have strong characters: Viedman, a charismatic leader and shrewd strategist, or David, the small but cunning rebel.  They treat the girls as equals, valuable to their society, which are great models for future gender relations.  The exception to the strong characterization is Alenna’s love interest.

I had two big problems with the novel: one being Liam (the love interest) and the other being the author’s social issues.  Liam does not jump off the page, as he should.  Alenna is the narrator, so the reader should see him through her eyes and swoon with her.  Besides being attractive and nice, I don’t see any reason why she should be infatuated with him.  Why does she feel this connection to him?  I don’t know.  Liam’s character is not particularly distinguishable from another love interest in another novel, and feels like a YA convention, as though publishers forced the author to create a love interest.

The number of social issues addressed also flaws the novel.  So many different ones are addressed, that I find it difficult to figure out what was the most important point the author is trying to make.  What is the moral of the story?  What is she cautioning the reader against? Is the problem misuse of government control? Power in general? Is it about gender? Women’s rights? Misuse of technology and science?  Then towards the end, the novel was moralizing and the narrator was spelling out Alenna’s issues, and explicating how she had grown from the beginning.  This dumbs down the novel. I do not like to feel like the narrator thinks I am stupid.

Despite these flaws, the book has fantastic pacing and a gripping plot.  From the moment Alenna is deposited on the island, it is nonstop action and adventure.  There are obstacles to overcome and mysteries to solve.  The most interesting characteristic of the novel was the part that machines have to play in Alenna’s world, but I can’t say more, because I don’t want to spoil anything!  Their involvement in the conflict and resolution were genre defying for me.  They added an enticing sci-fi element to the novel.  The climax and its resolution are well worth the wait.  I voraciously read through the last hundred pages, shrieking and cringing in suspense.  It is their inclusion, which separates The Forsaken from The Hunger Games and Lord of the Flies.   My insides turn at Stasse’s vision of the future.  On these factors alone, I would say that the novel is a good start to what could be a fascinating trilogy, and I await the next installment.