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10 (Mostly YA) Books That Changed My Life.

If you’ve been following my blog for even a little while, then you know at least two things about me: I studied English at university and I am the kind of person who will happily lose sleep over characters and plot twists. You see, I’m a lit lover through and through. As such, I owe a lot of what I know and love to the lessens that I’ve learned from printed lines on bound pages, the stories that changed my life.

On that note, here’s to literary game-changers and the marvelous people who create them.

Thank you!

——

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

By the time I graduated from kindergarten in 2000, I was a voracious reader and everybody knew it. But, somehow, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which I didn’t read until 2001, feels like the book that started it all for me. It was the book that made me delve into fantasy and science fiction, the book that gave me a fan community to become immersed in, and the book that taught me how to do life. But, more than anything else, this was the book that led to a series of books that transformed my generation and made us all believe in magic.

Each of Rowling’s characters taught me something about people and the lives we all must lead. In Hermione, I learned that intelligence, loyalty, bravery, feminism, and drive can take you far. In Severus, I learned that everyone can change, some causes are worth living and dying for, and a good person is not necessarily a nice person. In Dumbledore, I learned that pursuing the “greater good” sounds lovely in theory but, people will get hurt along the way (i.e. Ariana and Harry). And, in Harry, I learned that love can change everything.

The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn

I haven’t been able to shut up about The Bar Code Tattoo since I ordered it through a Scholastic sale in 2004 when I was 10 years old. I even read a bit from it in a YouTube video because it was “the first book I could get my hands on.” (I totally didn’t edit out the time it took me to find that book in particular…) I have quite literally been blabbing about this book for years—I even got a tweet back from the author after I mentioned the renewed relevance of the “big brother is watching you” plot line in modern-day America.

Ultimately, in the primary character, Kayla (hey, that’s 71% of my first name), I learned to seek the truth with determination and work to create the life I wish to lead. However, as my introduction to dystopian fiction, Weyn is also responsible for teaching me to be aware of the world I live in, to question how today’s decisions will affect tomorrow’s conditions, and to discover my own identity instead of letting my community define me.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Uglies_book

Uglies is a story with many layers. Mostly obviously, there is snazzy technology à la science fiction and a dystopian world with Big Brother government, which is fascinating and terrifying all at once. Underneath all of that though, there is an ongoing discussion of the big problems that plague humans regardless of time and space: personal identity, individual freedom, and conceptions of beauty. You know how English teachers and professors always tell students to “unpack” or “bleed” the text? I could write a 20+ page paper “unpacking” this story. This tale never comes up empty.

Westerfeld said (through the character of David) that “what you do, the way you think, makes you beautiful,” and that statement resonates with me more every day of my life, particularly as I begin to bridge the gap between being a student and a professional. Whenever I question who I am or what I’m doing, I remember that I’m no different from Uglies and the characters within it—there is a whole world inside of me just waiting to be unpacked.

I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

I grew up with a mother who studied psychology. What this means is that I’ve spent my entire life listening to impromptu psych lectures, as well as having all of my choices and ideas psychoanalyzed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly been interesting—as a child it was awe-inspiring because, well, my mother is undeniably a brilliant woman—but, I didn’t truly understand the concept of psychology until I read I Am the Cheese (and The Chocolate War immediately thereafter) around the beginning of middle school.

The psychological journey of Adam (aka Paul) led me to consider the core differences between people and how our experiences can define the past, present, and the future equally. In Cormier’s story (stories, really) I found perspective. As a result, in Adam’s pursuit of his father, I also became closer to my own mother, gaining a better understanding not just of why she would study psychology, but also why she considered her psychology-related knowledge and experiences to be eternally relevant.

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

In only 383 pages of print, Dessen tackled familial relationships, eating disorders, sexual assault, anger management, high school dynamics, friendship, and so much more. Then, to make the story all the more important, Dessen showcased the metaphorical power of silence and the human inability to quiet the heart. The story doesn’t rely on a grand setting, a large character collection, or even sublime escapades; instead, the author just conveyed what it means to not think or judge, and instead “just listen” to what your heart is saying.

Music wasn’t precisely the point of this book yet, somehow, this book intrinsically altered my relationship with music. Music was just the tipping point of the lessons this book taught though. Through Annabel, I learned that secrets are heavy to hold, truths can be hard to share, and people are not necessarily the “characters” they portray to the rest of the world. Through Owen, I learned that music can be an escape or a channel, depending on which you need, and the truth should be shared, even if you have to “rephrase and redirect” to get your meaning across.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

For most of my sophomore year of high school, I spent every spare second I had in the library or reading a novel in an empty classroom. I carried a veritable library of ARCs in my backpack and I talked publishing with my journalism teacher (who became my yearbook supervisor). In the midst of that odd situation, I discovered the then-newly-published novel Paper Towns by John Green. I loved that book like it bled and breathed, but mostly I loved the world it opened me up to in its fleeting references: Walt Whitman’s poetic skill and the utterly intoxicating “Song of Myself.”

Whitman spent 400 poems trying to define and describe life before ultimately coming to the conclusion that people are large and “contain multitudes.”  In the sage conclusions of a long-dead man and in that time of intense personal growth, Whitman’s words enabled me to be comfortable with being a bit “odd,” living life like a “dance” when the “fit” of change was “whirling me fast.” Not to mention, it was Whitman’s poetic encouragement to explore one’s self that led me to create a blog called “mylifeinverse” or “my life in verse,” despite the fact that I don’t generally write poetry.

The Confessions of St. Augustine by St. Augustine

In this single book, often touted as a building block of the Christian faith, St. Augustine managed to make absolutely everything in life—every experience, every thought, every desire—seem like a mortal sin. More than any other book I’ve ever read, Confessions pissed me off and made me wish for a time machine so that I could go back to ancient times and deliver a punch in the face to the author. It was simply infuriating to see an author turn life overall into something so thoroughly ugly in the name of defending religion and ethics.

Despite all of that, St. Augustine’s Confessions taught me about the manipulative power of religions (not that all religions are manipulative), the diversity of moral and ethical systems, the tedium of entirely introspective and self-deprecatory works, and the ability of authors to make readers feel like they’re being castigated. That being said, this is the only book I have ever thrown away—quite literally, it went into the trash bin—and I don’t even feel guilty about it.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Susan Cain rose to fame as a self-proclaimed “public introvert” who utilized her incredibly astute observations about her own nature to tell the world (in a TED talk) about the superpowers of introverts and bring about positive vibes regarding the more “quiet” portion of the population. Where the majority of self-help and introspective self-analytical literature characterize introversion as something one must compensate for by adopting the seemingly superior characteristics of extroverts, Cain successfully presented introverts and extroverts as separate but equal.

As a young woman just finishing up my undergraduate degree and an undeniable introvert, Quiet spoke to my experiences with and worries about existing in a predominantly extrovert-positive world. I wouldn’t be nearly as confident about the very real and very necessary role I can fill in a work environment—particularly in the extrovert-oriented career field I’m aiming for—if I had not read this book at precisely the time that I did.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Just like The Bar Code Tattoo trilogy and Uglies trilogy, Divergent is the first novel in a dystopian trilogy with a badass female main character and slightly less important, but amusing and often game-changing, minor male characters. There are certainly strong feelings of girl power in Tris’ gradual and hard-fought transformation from the meek and compliant person others want her to be to the curious and brave person she truly is “on the inside.” And, well, what 21-year-old young woman doesn’t need a bit more girl power in her life?

Throughout my life I’ve always been told to “be myself” and “live for me” but, it wasn’t until I read Divergent that I began to understand that who you are can change, whether through sheer force of will or evolutionary circumstances, and you’re no less you for changing. Tris made me excited to transform from what I was as a child and a teenager, by upbringing or some sort of default, and become who I want to be. In that character I found the courage to make myself new while always remembering the past.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

If someone wrote a story about my first year of university, it would read much like Cath’s tale of college confusion, without the lovely (yet delightfully and realistically flawed) boy, twin sister, and supportive roommate. In essence, my first year of university, during which I lived on campus for a semester, was a roller coaster of success and failure, topped with discomfort regarding my degree choice and a complete inability to engage with people my age. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience until I reevaluated the situation, charted a new course, and started (sort of) fresh…just like Cath.

Rainbow Rowell provided me with someone who was comfortingly familiar, who struggled and learned to carry on in the same ways that I did as a new university student. This darling author and her characters validated my love of fan culture and fanfiction, reassuring me that fanfiction is real fiction and there is a beautiful community filled with wonderful people who enjoy being fans just as much as I do. Even more importantly, Cath taught me that, in being my awkward and untraditional self, I’m not losing out on anything but instead finding my own, different adventures.

——

If you’re feeling talkative, comment below with the books (YA or otherwise) that have changed your life!

Fandom, Fanfiction, and Fangirling.

 

When the last Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, came out in July of 2011, a community of readers and movie-goers simultaneously mourned the end of the series and celebrated the very existence of the series. For days before the London premiere, fans of the series gathered in Trafalgar Square and the surrounding areas, enduring rain and poor attitudes for even a single glimpse of Harry Potter Queen J.K. Rowling and the cast of the film.

There was little to gain from attending the premiere aside from memories, experience, and, for the lucky few, an autograph or two. Fans dressed in homemade and store-bought Hogwarts robes, wielded wands, ate Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, read and reread the books, watched and re-watched the films, and enjoyed the company of others who were just as dedicated to the books, movies, and wizarding world. For a few days, people who spoke a common language (spells) and held common interests (he-who-must-not-be-named needed to die, duh) were together. Common ground is a powerful thing.

Even those who were not in London were able to get in on the action. Worldwide, fans tuned in to live online broadcasts, posted their excitement and worries on messaging boards and chatrooms, did everything else the London-goers did, but with testy Internet connections and crowded feeds instead of a downpour and crowded streets. Children, students, employees, parents, and people from every other age group and walk of life were represented by IP addresses, screen names, and handles. World wide web (i.e. wizarding world web), indeed.

Somehow, the memories, the experience, the chance to mourn and celebrate collectively, was enough to make attending the premiere (virtually or physically) totally worth it. By the end of the day, every fan could understand what Neville Longbottom meant when he said “Yeah, we lost Harry tonight. But he’s still with us.”

That day? Those feelings? The experience? That is what fandom is for the fans within it, and it extends far beyond the world of Harry Potter.

Scientifically, or perhaps linguistically, fandom has been defined by Princeton and Merriam-Webster (for who knows what reason) as a noun referring to a subculture of people who share a common interest or attitude of being a fan. Socially, fandom is much more than a definition, it is, as Hannah Carter of Fandom Wanderers puts it, “an amazing thing, with amazing power” that incorporates and affects innumerable people in a broad span of places.

“I’m just really active in the fandom.”
“What the fuck is ‘the fandom’?” (Rainbow Rowell)

In a way, the fandom and their activities often break or breach the “fourth wall” of art, literature, and film. The fourth wall, which is typically referenced only in relation to film, theater, and television, is the figurative division between performers and their audience. As Aja Romano of The Daily Dot states in the article “The Crumbling of the Fourth Wall: Why Fandom Shouldn’t Hide Anymore,” this wall is supposed to insulate performers from the harsh judgment and sometimes real-life repercussions of a performance.

In all honesty though, the fourth wall doesn’t insulate anyone.

In all honesty, the fourth wall doesn’t exist. At least, not while fandom thrives.

Fans and the fandom overall are a dominating force. The reaction of fans, not critics or reporters, can make or break a film in the short and long-term.

For example, The Mortal Instruments: City of Ashes (2013) was a box office flop and, as a result, production for the second film has (reportedly) been put on hold indefinitely. Critics felt that TMI had the same ingredients as seemingly every other fantasy franchise, but, perhaps more importantly, book fans weren’t ready to become franchise fans. The Mortal Instruments film was, in all honesty, the product of a toxic mix of improper casting, faulty plot lines, and boring scene arrangements. The numbers didn’t turn out at the box office; the fandom didn’t approve. But, it’s possible that future fans will.

Psycho (1960), The Shining (1980), and Fight Club (1999) were famously poorly reviewed by critics when they first came out in theaters. But, in the long run, all three became cult classics with active fandoms that are still more than happy to cosplay Crazy Jack and Marla Singer. While one-shot films have decidedly smaller fandoms than those of franchises, their fans can still hold their own. Critics serve a purpose, sure, but in the end it is not their word that guarantees or destroys the potential for a film’s success, it is the fan reaction.

The fans, the fandom is important. It or they are the make it or break it factor.

Fans participate in their given fandom(s) in a myriad of ways. Creation of fan art, literature, and music, along with blogging, cosplay, and conventions are quite common. However, writing and reading fanfiction seems to be one of the most popular methods of participation.

Fanfiction.net was launched in October 1998 is currently the largest and most popular fanfiction website in the world with over 2.2 million registered users reading and posting stories in more than 30 languages. The majority of fanfics (i.e. fanfiction stories) posted on fanfiction.net deal with the characters and worlds of books, including Harry Potter, Twilight, and Percy Jackson and the Olympians. 

“The whole point of fanfiction is that you get to play inside somebody else’s universe. Rewrite the rules. Or bend them. The story doesn’t have to end. You can stay in this world, this world you love, as long as you want, as long as you keep thinking of new stories” (Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl).  

In fanfiction, the sky is the limit. Writers can correct wrongs, give minor characters a moment, and even create backstories for the canonically one-dimensional. There are non-canon and alternate universe (AU) fics where major features of a work are altered, and there are canon fics where details are the same and the story explores the grey space before, between, and after books. There are crossover fics (i.e. two books/series meshed together), slash fics (i.e. fics wherein characters of the same sex are romantically linked), and limes/lemons (i.e. explicit fics), as well as the self-explanatory angst fics, sad fics, bad fics, and dark fics.

In the realm of fanfiction, there are people to answer to. There are fans of fans and fandoms of fandoms, if you will. There are beta readers, commenters, voters, bloggers, readers, writers, co-writers, writing buddies, forum friends, and chat pals…it’s a whole community, a whole world that coexists with that of the original creator and their creation. It is a whole community that actively demolishes, or disproves, the fourth wall.

“There are other people on the Internet. It’s awesome. You get all the benefits of ‘other people’ without the body odor and the eye contact” (Rainbow Rowell).  

Fanfiction is but one feature in the subculture that is fandom, but it is an important one. It is a medium wherein Luke Skywalker can be unrelated to Princess Leia, Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape can have the redemption they deserve, Rose can be the Doctor’s forever companion (*intergalactic swoon*), Bella can end up with non-sparkly Jacob, and Kirk and Spock can get to together in every way (*wink wink*). It is a medium wherein anything is possible for anyone. It is a medium wherein people can discover over people through the things they love and cherish.

That’s what makes fandom and all it involves somehow significant and worthwhile: the people within it.

Often when people talk about fandom, they forget that the word references genuine, real people and a state of being. It’s easy to cast the fangirls aside, especially when there are minorities that take fandom to the extreme (e.g. Bieber fans cutting themselves and shaving their heads in his name, threatening Kim Kardashian “for him,” taking over Twitter and ridiculing those within other fandoms, etc). But, we can’t forget and we can’t let anyone else forget because people, no matter who they or what they love, are important.

“You’re not a book person. And now you’re not an internet person? What does that leave you?” (Rainbow Rowell)

The fandom world isn’t just online, and it isn’t something that pales in comparison to “real life.” It’s the seasoning, the spice on top of a piping hot serving of life–fandom is something extra, something wonderful, something worth exploring. It is an unbreakable bond with people all over the globe, it is passion that can turn to positive action, and it is an identity that is as real and significant to fans as their last name or hometown.

Fandom is a bit like family.

It is crazy and trying. It requires devotion and inspires bravery. It is a part of us and we a part of it even when we are not actively participating. It acts as a support system and maintains accountability. It is a voice and a channel for ideas and concerns. It works to unite the divergent and incites the discovery of common ground.

Don’t make fun of fangirls; they’re incredibly brave to throw themselves into something with no promise of tangible returns. Don’t dismiss fanfiction; it is proof of passion, of dedication, of skill. Don’t demean fandom; this subculture has a purpose that is in no way sub par.

Fandom is a force.

Determination & Motivation

Every year marks the beginning of thousands, and likely billions, of new years’ resolutions are made and committed to memory–at least, they are for the first few weeks of the year. Many resolutions will likely result in futile struggles towards nearly unattainable goals, and others will simply be forgotten before they are even begun.

“I want to be rich by the year’s end.” “I want to find love in the next twelve months.” “That lovely job will finally be mine this year.” Goals are an important part of every individuals’ system of self esteem and motivation, but at some point, we all have to be realistic about what we wish to achieve.

You may not be worth your weight in gold or at the same economic level as Bill Gates, but perhaps you could save, invest and be smart about your money this year, so that, at the conclusion, you have some money to show for your efforts.

You may not find your true love or experience that connection of a lifetime, but perhaps you could apply yourself more thoroughly in your social life, so that you form more meaningful relationships with people, and end the year on a better social foot.

You may not get that new job or finally be promoted to that prized position, but you could still work hard and make sure that the higher-ups at least notice your efforts. This is the reality of most new years’ resolutions: they are too broad and/or completely unobtainable, but there are revised goals that can be achieved.

This year of 2012, my primary goal revolves around fitness, strength, and nutrition; however, Rome wasn’t built in a day and I cannot expect a goal to be achieved, even if it is reasonable, without some effort. And so I am tackling each aspect of my resolution, beginning with fitness.

The fitness and strength portions of my goal comes at a relatively important time in my career and education plans. For the past few months, it has been my aim to join the United States Navy as a Naval Officer upon my graduation from college in two years, but the fact that that is two years away does not mean that I can put off preparing. In order to join any military force, you must be physically fit and strong in more than one way. So, since the don of the new year I have begun my own physical training.

As I mentioned before though, this beginning also comes at a perfect time in terms of my education because just this semester I am participating in a course entitled “Community & Personal Health.” From the course already, we’ve discussed personal fitness, community involvement, the different realms of health and wellness, and soon we’ll move on to even more convenient topics.

In regards to the nutrition portion of my resolution, that bit may be a bit more difficult for me to stick with. Determination, however, is a powerful thing, and I am quite the determined person. Will power shall carry me through, I am certain.

My plan is simple. Over the course of this 366 day year, I will commit myself daily to becoming a better physical specimen in nearly every way. Sure, I have more slight goals, and at the start I dreamed of bigger endeavors for this year, but this is my achievable goal that I crave to make reality. You see, resolutions are all about what is realistic and what is not. What is possible and what is not. And at the end of it all, you’re simply pushing your own boundaries, seeing how far that stretch out.

Each day, I will be exercising in manners that I have never stuck with before. During the middle years of my high school career, I devoted myself to running. During my junior year, I became a vegetarian. During my senior year, I wondered at what could happen if only you committed yourself to something long enough. Now I am making commitments and sticking to them.

Running, to begin with, is now my main hobby. Whenever I feel myself falling back on the typical teenage habits of social networks, Internet browsing, texting, or simple couch potato-type activities, I gather my wits about me and channel my energy into a run. Some days, I find myself capable of walking and running for miles without rest. Other days, my body aches from the days’ activities that have recently passed. Yet, nearly every day, I win the internal battle of coercion and find myself running yet again.

Along with running, strength and weight training will become part of my daily plan. Since I remain a military dependent, I have access to a gym, indoor pool and other fitness devices. I will be sure that the workers at each of those places will tire of me before I will tire of them.

Vegetarianism is a different matter. For nearly two years, I was a devoted vegetarian, even excluding eggs and fish from my diet. Sadly, I must admit that the teenager in me fell back far too often on pizza and cheese sandwiches for my nutrients. During that same time though, I discovered the power of other foods, primarily fruits, vegetables and grains. It’s a wonder how much you notice about yourself and the way foods effect you when you cut certain food groups out. While I will not be returning to my past vegetarian mentality, I will be incorporating healthier eating choices into my daily diet.

Perhaps it’s foolhardy to attempt so many changes over the course of a single year; however, the goal is not meant to be completed in the course of the year, but rather to learn the level of devotion necessary to bring myself to my best physical condition possible.

And so, this is the nature of my own year of devotion, as I prefer to call it. Good luck with your own!