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NerdCon: Stories, Day Two

When I got to the convention center on Saturday, Friday felt like it had been a practice round. Now I knew where the bus stops were and the layout of the venue. I knew that a water bottle was unnecessary and to sit near the aisle unless you enjoy feeling trapped. I also brought a better tote bag. (Well, my free NerdCon tote broke while I was waiting for the bus on Friday, but I probably would have brought a different one anyway.) And perhaps most importantly, I caffeinated early.

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The mainstage shows on Saturday were on point. John Green opened the morning show with his own explanation for why stories matter, and it was probably my favorite talk of the entire event. He spoke about stories as the only way to be someone other than ourselves and how escapism can be valuable. I’ve actually given some thought to why I think reading is important, and my answer is that it teaches empathy. Apparently John Green and I are on the same page, which pleases me to no end. There was also a rapid-fire Q&A with some of the guests and a poetry reading. How many events are there where a poetry reading gets massive crowd support? And hello, Dessa Darling was one of the performers. (Dessa is a member of Doomtree, a popular Minneapolis hip hop group, and a solo artist. She’s rad.)

My first panel of the day was No Pressure: How to Keep Creating Once You’ve Technically Succeeded. Not a problem for me currently, but an interesting topic featuring some of the most interesting guests at the convention. We’re talking Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Dessa, and moderator Patrick Rothfuss. Hearing about creative struggles and insecurities feels more personal than most topics discussed in a convention setting. It didn’t hurt that every member of the panel has an excellent sense of humor. Seems odd to say that the panel least applicable to me was also the best, but that’s what I’m sayin’!

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My next panel was going to be Is This A Kissing Book?: Writing Sex, but instead I felt the might of the Patrick Rothfuss fandom. When I left the main auditorium, there was already a loooooong line outside the smaller auditorium where the aforementioned panel was taking place. Were many of them waiting to see their bearded overlord and not interested in kissing at all? It seems probable. After a few hopeless minutes in line, I decided to scrap it and take the hour to eat lunch and head to the Rainbow Rowell signing. And oh my goodness, am I lucky that I got there early.

Hank Green and Rainbow Rowell had the same consecutive time slots for signings. The first session was full long before I got there, and despite the fact that we weren’t supposed to line up until one hour beforehand, people were already loitering for the next session. It was definitely the most “yuck, there are people everywhere” moment of the convention for me. I was getting anxious on behalf of the volunteers being stared down by a crowd of impatient fans. However, I met some nice female comrades while waiting in line, plus running into a former coworker from the bookseller days.

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This signing needed to move along faster than the one I attended two years ago. We were near the end of the line, and it was almost time for the afternoon mainstage show. Once again I was thankful for my pre-written note to give her. We did still manage to have a brief but ridiculous exchange. When I approached the table, she said, “Are you Courtney?” My expression was utterly shocked because I was thinking, There’s no way she remembers me from two years ago, right? This woman meets thousands of fans, after all. Then I remembered that I was wearing a nametag. Well, we had a nice chuckle about that, and I scored some awesome Simon Snow pins.

I was originally planning to hit up one more book signing—Maureen Johnson, after the mainstage show—but after the battle to get to Rainbow, I was rather wiped out. I decided to just enjoy the show, and if there was room at the Maureen signing afterwards, so be it. (There wasn’t.) The highlight for me was a mock debate between two teams of guests on such vital topics as: would you rather fight a hundred duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck? Few things are more entertaining than watching people get worked up over ridiculous arguments. The afternoon ended with a couple thousand people singing along to a Paul & Storm song about Game of Thrones.

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I left the convention feeling inspired about my own creative work and grateful that so many other people appreciate good stories and storytellers.

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NerdCon: Stories, Day One

Bright and early on Friday morning, my fellow nerds and I flocked to the Minneapolis Convention Center to hear from some of our favorite storytellers. Although the crowd skewed toward teens and young adults, there were people of all ages in attendance. I saw more cat eye glasses and brightly dyed hair than you would find in a random sampling, as well as an abundance of nerdy T-shirts.

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Each day opened with a mainstage show, followed by several time slots for discussion panels and book signings, then another mainstage show in the afternoon. Hank Green kicked off the Friday morning mainstage by explaining why he organized the convention and why he thinks stories matter. There were separate (but hilarious) history lessons from the musical comedy duo Paul & Storm and games played with some of the guests. Book people are generally a decent sort, but it was nice to start off on a positive note with the whole group.

Next on my agenda was the Stephanie Perkins signing. Remember how I love her? For signings they set up a room with four sections of chairs. In theory, after a guest’s section was full, the signing was closed. This was my first exposure to the popularity of fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss. He was signing at the same time as Stephanie, and there were a bunch of people who couldn’t even get in. We were a more subdued group on the Stephanie Perkins side of the aisle. That made it possible for her to take photos and chat a bit with each person.

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My biggest mistake was probably not caffeinating beforehand. I found myself a little surprised and awkward when I actually met her. Thankfully I had written a card to give her so that I wouldn’t feel pressured to be brilliant on the spot. She’s a very sweet person, not to mention adorable. I had her sign my copy of Isla and the Happily Ever After because it’s the only one that I have in hardcover. Her inscription is a reference from the book. I was a little frustrated with the dim lighting in the signing room, but they rectified the situation the next day.

In the afternoon I went to two panels. The first was the Nerdfighter Q&A with Hank and John Green, which was mostly silly but also touching at times. Maureen Johnson moderated with her dry sense of humor, pretending to get angry if the men would go off on tangents. There were running jokes about An American Tail and the fact that John owed Maureen a dollar. In one of the serious moments, John got choked up talking about how much he appreciates the support from the community that’s built up around the Vlogbrothers videos.

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My second panel was the “So How Do You Make Your Money?” panel. This topic may have been a little broad for a one-hour discussion, or else it just wasn’t what I was expecting. At least I got to see Hank Green and Stephanie Perkins at close range. Stephanie talked about how she felt pressured to write serious fiction when she was studying creative writing in college, even though her true passion was for children’s literature. I definitely felt that pressure as well, although a lot of it was self-inflicted, so I was hardcore relating to her story.

When I was planning my NerdCon adventure, I intended to go to an event during every time slot and probably stay for the evening performances. The problem with this plan is that it ignores basic needs like eating and rest. Being an introvert, I get exhausted by crowds after an extended period of time. After the afternoon mainstage show, I decided to head home. I went to everything that really mattered to me, and I needed to rest up for the bananas day that was Saturday.

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Best of 2014: Book Edition, Part 1

I followed my reading goal of two-books-per-month again this year, and it was difficult to narrow them down to ten favorites. That’s what I call a good problem to have. Enjoy numbers 10 through 6!

10. Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire is a companion novel to Code Name Verity. The protagonist changes, but some characters reoccur. During World War II, young American Rose Justice travels to Britain to volunteer as a transport pilot. However, bad luck in the air over France lands her in Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp. I’ve read a lot about World War II, but Wein does a fantastic job of showing the camaraderie that can arise between people in desperate situations. Rose and her fellow prisoners make a pact to “tell the world,” and by writing this book, Wein helps to fulfill her character’s promise.

9. Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green & David Levithan

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First and foremost, Will Grayson, Will Grayson is hilarious. John Green’s writing always has a dose of humor, but this novel made me laugh out loud more than any other. When two Chicago teens meet, and are both coincidentally named Will Grayson, the hilarity ensues. One Will Grayson is struggling with his sexuality; the other is struggling with his general apathy and a flamboyantly gay best friend named Tiny Cooper. Tiny alone is worth the price of admission, but the novel boasts a delightful cast of characters.

8. Longbourn, by Jo Baker

Longbourn

A novel about the servants from Pride and Prejudice could have been an epic failure, but not in the capable hands of Jo Baker. Longbourn only deepened my understanding of the world surrounding the classic story, while also providing compelling characters of its own. If you enjoy the “below stairs” aspect of Downton Abbey, consider this a more sophisticated version. And if you think that Jane Austen is all people sitting around in drawing rooms, then the uncertainty of a servant’s existence might better suit your fancy. (You can read my full review here.)

7. The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides

After years of good intentions, I finally read The Virgin Suicides. Now I understand what all the fuss is about when it comes to Jeffrey Eugenides. His writing style is a bit off-kilter, which is perfect for this story about a family of teenage girls cloistered by their parents. It’s a downright Hitchcockian example of the male gaze to female object, or as the wise John Green might say, “failing to imagine others complexly.” And aside from the English major speak, it’s just a beautifully written novel. (You can read my full review here.)

6. Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects

Just like the work that came after, Gillian Flynn’s first novel cuts to the bone. Camille Preaker is a reporter sent to her Missouri hometown to investigate the murders of two girls. The assignment forces her to rekindle a relationship with her mother and the teenage half-sister she never really knew. These women all demonstrate Flynn’s bravery when it comes to creating female characters with a healthy dose of menace about them. Sharp Objects is small town depravity as seen through Camille’s mind, which is as twisted as the rooms of her mother’s Victorian house. (Click here to read further discussion.)

Let’s do this one more time tomorrow!

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Quick Takes on Teen Romance

In my By the Book post, I mentioned buying three YA paperbacks to enjoy this summer. Overall I was pleased with my picks and wanted to share some brief thoughts on each. There’s a heavy dose of teen romance here, but also some great stories about how we love our friends.

Forever

I bought Forever because it’s a classic teen book (and because I like the new Judy Blume covers—not that I’m swayed by packaging or anything). Since its publication in 1975, this book has been controversial for its frank discussion of teen sexuality. Even by 2014 standards, the sexuality was more explicit than most contemporary fiction for teens. That’s not to say that the situations are sensationalized or exploitative, just very matter-of-fact. Actually, Blume’s whole writing style is straightforward in the extreme: heavy on the dialogue and light on the description. Although Forever won’t make its way onto my list of favorite teen reads, its honesty makes me glad that the book exists.

Anna and the French Kiss

Sometimes I worry that I will lose my ability to find joy in a simple love story. Then a book like Anna and the French Kiss reminds me that I am still perfectly capable. The book’s premise has wish-fulfillment written all over it, but Perkins delivers it with enough good humor to seem plausible. Anna is sent by her newly-rich-and-snooty father to spend her senior year at a boarding school for Americans in Paris. (One of my favorite details is that Anna’s dad is clearly a spoof on Nicholas Sparks.) Life in Paris has its challenges, such as her adorably British, inconveniently taken new friend. Anna and the French Kiss is a well-crafted romp, and I can’t wait to read more from Stephanie Perkins.

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I became a John Green fan in 2011, yet somehow I let three years pass before reading this book. Was I turned off by the presence of a co-author? Could be, but I shouldn’t have been. This is the hilarious story of worlds colliding when two Chicago teens named Will Grayson meet. Each author writes chapters from the perspective of one of them. Although I found John Green’s chapters more appealing initially, I soon became interested in both characters, especially at hints that the two storylines would soon intersect. And really, if one Will Grayson has a physically imposing gay friend named Tiny Cooper, who happens to be writing a musical autobiography, you’ve captured this girl’s attention.

Ah, teen fiction. Sorry I’ve been neglecting you this year. Thanks for still being awesome.

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Best of 2012: Book Edition, Part 2

These five books are so wonderful that most of them have already been mentioned on the blog. Still, they each deserve another moment in the sun. Here are my favorite books of 2012!

5. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is not a thriller that you can enjoy and then forget about the next day. More likely you’ll to want to reread it searching for clues and tell all your friends. This story of a disappearing wife and her suspicious husband moves beyond the thriller genre to be an all-around stellar book. As I said in my original review, it’s part mystery, part thriller, part relationship drama. You may think you know where it’s going, but you’re probably wrong. There’s more to Gone Girl than meets the eye.

4. The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

This is Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, and I can only hope it’s the first of many. (A synopsis can hardly do it justice, but I tried.) I have rarely seen such intricate, beautiful writing in contemporary fiction. It is a novel of juxtaposition: darkness and light, sweltering heat and bitter cold. From Mabel’s first description of the unsettling silence of the Alaskan wilderness, I felt immersed in her claustrophobic world. The Russian fairy tale influence infuses the story with magic. The Snow Child is lovely from start to finish, and I was sad to see it end.

3. Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

If I were to write an English paper about Sweet Tooth, it would be challenging just to pick a topic. Should I write about its exploration of the relationship between reader and writer? Should I analyze the complex narrator Serena Frome? I got to do that a bit in my original review, but there’s so much more I could say. Ian McEwan lays his characters bare in a style that keeps me fascinated. In terms of quality, Sweet Tooth is right on par with Atonement. A few spy-versus-spy plot twists and a surprise ending are just icing on the cake.

2. The Prisoner of Heaven, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

When I compliment the beauty of Eowyn Ivey’s writing, the only rival on this list is Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The Prisoner of Heaven is a continuation of both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game. I was a little nervous to read it since The Shadow of the Wind is one of my all-time favorites. As it turns out, I should have had more faith in this incredible writer. He wisely focuses The Prisoner of Heaven on Fermin, a colorful secondary character whose story is not fully revealed in Shadow. Barely scratched the surface might be a more accurate description. As Fermin tells his story with characteristic wit and wisdom, the reader learns how the characters of all three novels are connected. If you’ll pardon me the pun, I was in heaven.

1. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

John Green has become one of my heroes. I’m revealing my bias when I say that it brings me so much joy to see him succeed as he has with The Fault in Our Stars. This book is proof that young adult novels can be both respected and beloved by more than just teenagers. Hazel is the truest of narrators — she just happens to be sixteen and have cancer. I often tell customers that this book has everything to offer:  laughter and tears, romance and tragedy. We don’t always want our fiction to savor so strongly of real life, but I think the best fiction usual does. If you haven’t already, please read my blog post about it. The Fault in Our Stars is worth your time, I promise.

The Fault in Our Stars

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No Fault in These Stars

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books . . . which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.

In a recent video blog, John Green said that he wanted The Fault in Our Stars to make readers “feel all of the things.” That is, it cannot be easily categorized as a sad book because it has moments of humor and romance and irreverence. But ultimately, it’s a novel that deals with Big Questions, and I can’t talk about it without getting all serious on you.

The Fault in Our Stars is about a pair of teenagers who meet at a support group for kids with cancer. That’s the one-sentence synopsis that John Green has been using, and it’s perfectly accurate and free of spoilers. But it should be mentioned that this book has little in common with a certain genre of weepie novels about cancer. I mean, I never read Lurlene McDaniel in middle school, but I can only assume her books are of the sort that John is rebelling against. (Anyone who publishes a book titled Don’t Die, My Love should be regarded with suspicion.) Hazel and Augustus aren’t symbols or martyrs; they’re normal kids who have been dealt a bad genetic hand.

What gives John Green the authority to write about young people with cancer? Well, he worked as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital in his younger days and has been trying to use the experience in a novel ever since. Hazel, the novel’s narrator, is concerned with many of life’s Big Questions. Seems perfectly natural when you’ve been terminally ill since the age of thirteen. What I love is how John intertwines Hazel’s soul-searching with an examination of the relationship between reader and text.

Okay, that sounds incredibly heady, but the topic is approached in a manageable way. Like, you don’t have to be a nerdy English major to enjoy this book — I promise! The theme presents itself this way:  Hazel is obsessed with a book called An Imperial Affliction, which is also about a girl with cancer. Green invites the reader to think about how we use made-up stories to make meaning in our own lives. As a creative-type person and a lover of media, I can strongly relate to using books and movies and music as a lens for figuring out the world. Who hasn’t latched on to a certain song or album because it precisely fits how they’re feeling at that time?

John Green isn’t arguing that it’s wise to take any piece of art as the be-all, end-all in our search for meaning. But he does portray it as innately human to look for a point of connection with something outside of yourself. This is his greatest novel to date. If these are questions that interest you, or even if they don’t, I would recommend it without reservation. It might make you cry, but it will do much more than that. You may even FEEL ALL OF THE THINGS, which is satisfying in itself, I think.

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John Green, John Green

The reasons why I love John Green could fill many a blog post. He’s a talented writer who chooses to work in the young adult genre. His books are highly intelligent and full of literary and historical references — no talking down to teenagers here. He clearly loves and respects his wife. In college he was an English and religion double-major, and as scholars of Courtney lore know, religion is the one major that briefly tempted me to abandon English.

But I admire him most for the way he uses technology to connect with fans. As previously mentioned, he does a series of video blogs with his brother Hank. However, the brothers don’t just use the videos as a way to promote their respective careers. The videos have served as a rallying point for young people who share John and Hank’s passion for books, the environment, and general nerdiness. He proves that a novelist can do so much more than just, you know, write novels for publication. They can be a catalyst for positive change in the world! And isn’t that an exciting possibility?

 

I read my first John Green novel, An Abundance of Katherines, this fall. Naturally his other two books were on my Christmas list. Because I’m rather neurotic about such things, some planning had to take place before I could dive into my small stack of new books. I wanted to spread out the John Green love, maybe read one of the books and then a different author in between to cleanse my palette. After all, I wanted to give each book a fair shake.

Then I completely caved. I started with Looking for Alaska because it was John’s first novel, and then read Paper Towns immediately afterward. Winter break turned into an utter John Green binge. I don’t think either book suffered too harshly from the close proximity to each other. Any author has common threads that run through his or her body of work. To me that has the potential make reading more, not less exciting.

For instance, John Green is interested in a common problem of personhood: accepting that other people are as real and complex as you. His main character tends to put someone, usually a girl, on a pedestal, imagining her as an adventure or a mystery or an answer. It shouldn’t be too big of a spoiler when I tell you that she is invariably human. But since this is a universal and complex problem, he could easily spend his entire career grappling with it and still have more to say.

My friend Gabe once told me that first novels are the most autobiographical. I have no other source to cite on that, but it seemed reasonable to me. It certainly seemed to be the case for John Green. As he himself will tell you, Looking for Alaska is about a boy from Florida who goes to a boarding school in Alabama and is obsessed with the last words of famous people. Word for word, this could also describe the life of young John Green. Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines are less obvious in their autobiographical points, but any Vlogbrothers aficionado (that would be me) can recognize places where art is imitating life. And at least for me, as an English major and writer, that kind of insider knowledge is fascinating.

I should mention that John Green’s latest novel was released last Tuesday. It’s called The Fault in Our Stars, and my need to possess it grows ever stronger. I’m not just being a fangirl here, although admittedly that’s part of it. John Green is currently my favorite example of what being a young adult novelist can mean. Naturally I have to know what comes next!

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