Get Fit Lit

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESFitness motivation comes from many sources. We all cast a sly glance to the side in the gym to see how much weight our neighbor is pressing. We scour fitness magazines and websites for images and ideas that inspire. We set goals and log progress, sometimes electronically monitoring our every move and heartbeat.

A new source of motivation for me is Young Adult Literature (YAL). Literature for teens emerged as a cultural force with the popularity of Harry Potter novels at the turn of the twenty-first century and exploded with the Twilight rage in 2005. Many readers criticized the novel’s main character, Bella Swan for being weak, whiney, and in need of rescuing. I was one of them. Bella was uninspiring, not at all a role model.

It’s 2014, and we’ve come a long way, baby.

Look at two of the most popular series in YAL now: Divergent and The Hunger Games. In these series, the female protagonists dominate, and their physical determination and strength drive my own workouts each time I return to the books. Take, for example, Tris Prior, the heroine in Divergent. Tris begins her life in Abnegation, one of five factions in a post-disaster Chicago. She makes a surprising choice to change factions and move to Dauntless, a group her father has described as reckless hellions. After a few weeks of training in Dauntless, performing physical feats she had never thought herself capable of, Tris notices changes in her body:

“I try to pull a pant leg over my thigh and it sticks just above my knee. Frowning, I stare at my leg. A bulge of muscle is stopping the fabric. I let the pant leg fall and look over my shoulder at the back of my thigh. Another muscle stands out there.

I step to the side so I stand in front of the mirror. I see muscles that I couldn’t see before in my arms, legs, and stomach. I pinch my side, where a layer of fat used to hint at curves to come. Nothing.”

shailene-woodley-tris-priorTris’s accomplishment is what many of us aim for. She didn’t choose to join Dauntless to lose weight or get in shape. She made a choice about the kind of life she wanted to live, one full of challenge and adventure. The by-product was strength and form. When we hear about “lifestyle choice” instead of “diet,” Tris is a perfect example.

katniss-01Another YAL heroine, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, motivates me the way my Crossfit friends do. Katniss finds strength to provide for her family after her father dies and her mother withdraws into a coma-like state of depression. Katniss crawls under the fence that separates her dystopian society from the wild forest beyond, reclaims the bow and arrow her father had used to hunt game, and spends hours tracking animals, climbing trees, and collecting wild greens to feed herself and her mother and sister. Her daily routine mirrors training for competitive field archery, where almost every muscle in the upper body needs strength and endurance. Exercises recommended to improve archers’ skill include pull ups, push ups, bench press, overhead press, front and lateral raises, triceps dips, and core work. The list covers the basic moves weight lifters choose for upper body development.

Katniss, like Tris Prior, adopts the exercise regime not to lose a few pounds, but to survive, or in other words, she, too makes a lifestyle choice, since the alternative in The Hunger Games is starvation and death.

When I plan my active rest days, I consider what I can do to keep my motivation high. Yes, I take my dogs for a walk, or I play on the playground with my children, but active rest days are also a time for me to refuel mentally. Books with physically strong heroines allow me to relax and rebuild muscle and strengthen my resolve to push harder the next day. I don’t begrudge Twilight fans their admiration of Bella, but when I’m looking for inspiration to get out of bed and hit the iron at a quarter of five each morning, I want to be “Dauntless.”



Looking for more Fit Lit? Try these:

Pride and Prejudice (the original 5K racer, Elizabeth Bennet treads through fields to help her sick sister Jane)

Dune (Jessica Atriedes and Chani the Fremen adapt to life traversing the desert planet Arrakis)

Little House on the Prairie (Caroline Ingalls homesteads alongside her husband; her physical strength is subtle, but watch for all the hard work she performs daily)

Z for Zachariah (Ann Burden survives on her own after a nuclear holocaust)

Percy Jackson (Annabeth Chase is hardcore)

The Lord of the Rings (note for Eowyn, a warrior princess)

Julie of the Wolves (Julie/Miyax, an Eskimo teen, travels the frozen tundra alone)

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50 Writers on 50 Shades of Grey

50 on 50

What a great idea!

Start with the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, and then find fifty writers with interesting perspectives on the books to add a little something to our understanding of it. 50 Writers on 50 Shades of Grey is such a fantastic idea, one of those that makes you wish it were your idea.  I am really jealous of editor Lori Perkins.

Yet, I was disappointed, too.  There are some fascinating approaches to the trilogy here.  What I really wanted was an academic approach to the books.  Granted, there isn’t much academic about Fifty Shades. It is about as low as a brow can go. But, as a cultural artifact, it is fascinating. Begun as fan fiction that heightened the sexual energy of Twilight, Fifty Shades quickly established its own online readership, which led to publishing houses bidding for rights. I read the trilogy at the urging a friend and after hearing about it, well, everywhere.  I was immediately struck at how much it reflected the structure of a Victorian novel, or more specifically, an Austen novel. Anastasia Steele starts the novel as innocently as any Austen heroine, having completed college while retaining her virginity. Skip ahead a couple of books, and you’ll find the heroine has overcome enormous odds to marry and start life with a charismatic wealthy man.  The first line should have been, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Dom in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a Sub wife.”

I read 50 Writers looking for a feminist conflagration of all the domestic fluff that filled the few pages around the BDSM sex. Most of what I  found was contextualization.  Lots of BDSM experts were consulted on whether Christian Grey played fair in the Red Room. It was really interesting. Section headings include “Erotic Fiction,” “Romance,” “Sex,” “BDSM,” “Writing,” “Fanfiction,” and “Pop Culture.” Each entry is short — most are less than ten pages — and several address very similar problems or themes, like how to define the books (romance? erotic fiction? just plain bad fiction?). Each entry ends with a short biographical paragraph on its author’s expertise in an area. For example, “A Queer Leather Reluctant Support of Fifty Shades” was penned by Sassafras Lowrey, who apparently prefers the gender-neutral personal pronouns “ze” and “hir” (I don’t care for any of the gender-neutral pronouns currently offered up, even though I have long believed English should adopt some.), and who has written BDSM novels and facilitated LGBTQ workshops.

The Amazon reviews of 50 on 50 are divided and the critics are all right. It is still a worthwhile read, though. It has been fascinating to observe publishing change in the last decade.  It isn’t all good, and Fifty Shades is a good example of how popular demand driving the marketplace results in drivel.  However, maybe we will see other doors open, too, like the ones that give us new perspectives on topics we wouldn’t explore otherwise.

silver tie 2

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Olly Olly Oxen Free: Heroes Proved, Oliver North, and Playing Hide and Seek with the Truth

heroes proved

In July 1987, my family went on vacation to the Red Apple Inn on Greers Ferry Lake in Arkansas.

red apple shoppingThese folks seem to be having fun shopping near Red Apple Inn.  I don’t know where they shopped because this place is the boondocks.

The location is picturesque and quiet.  By quiet, I mean isolated. I was 20. There was nothing to do. Nothing. We watched tv. A lot.  I’m sure the idle time off work seemed great to my dad, but to me and my younger sisters, this didn’t start out as a memorable vacation. In fact, the only thing I remember about it is watching the Iran-Contra hearings and being a bit star struck by Oliver North. He was hot in that military authoritarian way (if you are into that kind of thing). He had a hot secretary, Fawn Hall.

fawn hall 80s

It is a culturally accepted fact that women think men are more attractive if they have already attracted a hot chick. Not that anything went down between Ollie and Fawn. He still got the benefit of her beauty being attributed to him.

All of this is to explain why I picked up North’s latest fiction, Heroes Proved. I wanted to connect again to that moment in 1987, when North was an interesting figure. Once I figured out what sort of book this is, I finished it as an act of punishment upon the 1987 me. Shame on me for being so naive back then.

The novel takes place in 2032 (with a few flashbacks to earlier times about now), when the whole country has gone to liberal hell. The Constitution is bastardized, Christians are persecuted (really persecuted not the way some pretend to be in the US now), and even the Eagle Scouts have been disbanded.  The Eagle Scouts, by God!  The GD, sacred Eagle Scouts. There is technology run amok on the MESH, the book’s version of the Internet. We finally get the first openly gay National Security Advisor. Silly people in 2032 continue to refuse to admit that fossil fuels are just dandy, that we have “more than enough coal, oil, and natural gas to supply our own needs” (346). To cement all this evil, a woman is running for the presidency. A wicked witch of a woman. Her deceased husband was president before her.  Her colleague Vic Foster attempts suicide.  (Get it…Vic Foster, not Vince Foster. See, he changed the name just a little bit.) She swears (off screen so readers don’t have to violate their eyes with those words) like a sailor, although since she has no respect for our military, she wouldn’t care for the comparison.

I wonder how Oliver North feels about Hillary Clinton.

The writing is heavy handed, like beating the reader over the head with an anvil Acme Road Runner style. The technology, like video phones, has to be explained, not just to the reader, but to the characters, like maybe they don’t know how to use the devices we’ve been told are ubiquitous.

foil hat

A character actually uses aluminum foil to cover the tracking implant in his foot.  You know, those tracking implants Obama is requiring of everyone.

If you took all the Internet conspiracy theories about Democrats and put them in a novel, this would be the result. Sorry, Ollie, I liked you better when you shredded paper than when you started writing on it.



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City of Bones Should Be Buried

city of bones

I chose The Mortal Instruments for my inaugural CBR read because it was glaring at me from the Walmart shelf. Since I’ll be teaching adolescent literature in the spring, I’m trying to catch up on the genre. When I taught junior high English, I read a lot of YAL (young adult lit) and adolescent lit. When I left the public school classroom to pursue doctoral studies in nineteenth-century British literature, I stopped reading as much YAL, although I stayed in the game a bit as major players appeared on the scene — Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.. So, here I am catching up.

I started with Ender’s Game, which I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of and read before.  (Loved it! Reading it aloud to my second-grader now!) Then, I moved to Divergent, against which I have a few complaints, but overall enjoyed.  Since City of Bones is ubiquitous, I wrongly assumed it to be in the same class as these other two.  Narfna wrote a fabulous and cutting review of the novel in CBR 4. In addition to pointing out the bad writing and superficial characterization, Narfna criticizes the book for too much — and ethically dubious — pastiche. Although I didn’t know about any of the accusations of plagiarism when I started reading, I definitely read feeling like this was a copy cat.  It has the same feeling as when I taught junior high and gave a bad “creative writing” assignment the last week of school before Christmas.  Many of the results were barely disguised imitations of popular television shows, movies, and YAL novels. I wanted to comment on the papers, “Yes, I watch 90210, too, and I know already that tough, stoic Dylan will fall for inexperienced new girl Brenda, even if you renamed them Jared and Lauren.”

Still, there’s an awfulness to this novel that plagiarism/pastiche/lazy writing only begins to describe. As Narfna notes, Clare started the novel as fan fiction, I guess thinking, “Gee, what the world needs is an author to explore teenage goths in New York.” Young Clary had no idea that strict  mother was actually a Shadow Hunter until her mother is kidnapped and she must seek help from the bounty hunters of Idris to save her.

There were lots of terrible elements to this book, the worst of which was lack of character development.  Clary begins the novel unbelievably unaware that her best friend Simon wants to be more than friends.  Even though Simon confesses his love halfway through, by page 615 she still calls him for favors and feels just a little guilt and awkwardness that she can’t return his feelings.  She grows none — NONE — in 600 pages. Character growth is the point of novels, not listing a series of (pseudo)cool-sounding, fantastical events.

The writing, too, is bad, just bad. For example, when Jace, the would-be love interest despite the possibility he is Clary’s brother, sees Clary all dressed up like a goth skank for the first time, Clare (I know the similarity between the author’s last name and the protagonist’s first name is annoying) writes, “His eyes ran up and down her lazily, like the stroking paws of a cat.” Not good imagery. My mind gags a little to consider the sexual gaze in terms of a cat’s paw.

One redeeming factor is the treatment of latent homosexuality. Clare nudges the reader to dislike Alec’s parents for not being open to his homosexuality.  We sympathize with Alec for harboring secret desire for Jace, knowing it will be unrequited. We hope he will develop a relationship with Magnus Bane (even though his name sounds like an innuendo). Maybe he does in the sequels. I don’t care enough to find out. The characters evoked nothing in me. This was 600 pages of torture, and I’ve read some really dry works before (Reference dissertation on nineteenth-century British literature: Most of what I read was fun.  Some was drudgery.)

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Starting my Engine for the Cannonball Read

One of my favorite websites, Pajiba, began the Cannonball Read six years ago, but I’m just now hearing about it. I love the allusion to Cannonball Run, the 1981 Burt Reynolds vehicle everyone talked about but there was no way I’d have been allowed to see. I love the idea of a book race.  I’m sure I’ll never run a marathon, but I’m pretty confident in my ability to read a whole bunch of books and have an opinion about them all.  I’m realistic about what the semester will do to me once it gets going, but then again, I should be reading a lot anyway, you know, for work and all.  So, here goes. I learned to dive through sheer force of will and having committed to it already in a way that couldn’t be withdrawn.  That worked out well.

Who knows, maybe Burt had a book somewhere on that bearskin rug…I kind of doubt it, but we can hope.

burt reynolds

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