A Year In Shelving, part 1

I have been hesitant to use this blog for anything other than its intended use, but a couple of weeks ago, I changed my mind.   This is part one in an ongoing series of posts about THE LIBRARY at the tiny high school where I work.  Last week, in my year-end review, I said some things to my director about what the library is and what it isn’t, and I realized only when it was coming out of my mouth that this might be the only time I’ll ever get to carefully curate a collection of books for other people to read.

May, 2014

The new English teacher and I have been given the library, which up until this summer has been a series of metal rolling shelves that sit at the back of the auditorium.  The books might be relevant and well-selected, but there is no way any student knows this right now.  More often than not, the shelves are shoved together so no one can get to the stacks at all.  Students spend their lunches making out between the shelves and then leave their P. Terry’s wrappers at the feet of Steinbeck and Woolf. It’s not their fault.  It’s no one’s fault that our school needs to grow and that we are creatively sharing classrooms and space.  We’ll grow soon enough.  Right now, though, the books are non-existant to students and teachers alike.  My goal for this year is to make the books in the back of the room re-appear.  Like magic.


The first phase of this magical transformation is the development of a student-to-student recommends section.  I’ve gotten a ton of great books, and I definitely feel an obligation to have read most of the books on the shelf so that I can make suggestions and (if necessary) defend its honor to parents and staff.  The good news is that  a lot of kids still love Vonnegut, Salinger, Lee, Lovecraft, O’Henry, and Walker.  I also figure I’m safe with all the John Greenes and the JK Rowlings, which basically jump into backpacks and read themselves to the kids.

I’m not an avid reader of young adult books, but not for any good reason.  I’ll still go back and read my favorites (S.E. Hinton’s Tex, Zindel’s The Pigman, Kerr’s Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!, Bloom’s Blubber, among others) every now and again, but I’m usually reading those books because something weird just happened and I’m sad.  I should, as a teacher of young adults, keep up with what they’re reading.  But when I get home at night, usually the last thing I want to do is open a book detailing the dramatic adolescent undoing of somebody or other.  More likely than not, I’ve just spent the last 10 hours of the day with actual teenagers.  I am also currently co-parenting two teens, so at any moment in my life, the chance of a real-life undoing is very high.

There are quite a few YA books on the list that I’m working my way through so I can make real recommendations, but for the most part, I’m looking at the stack* without much hope.

*While I didn’t make it through the stack, I did read quite a few of the students’ recommendations, many of which were not YA-specific.

The Monsters, real and imagined

In this past week, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina. Both feature women with a need to escape prisons created by men.  There’s a certain amount of violence associated with both movies, a certain amount of sexual and physical ownership that the women characters must both endure and work to subvert. Angela Watercutter at Wired addresses Ava’s problematic mode for escape, and its mistaken feminist identity.

Both movies have their male champions – Caleb in Ex Machina and Max in Max Max – but their roles are complicated and less than heroic.  This nice guy persona has been nicely unpacked by Jacob Hall in a terrific article about feminism in these movies:

“Because we see the movie from his [Caleb’s in Ex Machina] perspective, we miss that his falling in love with Ava — his instant, desperate affection and desire to spring her from captivity — is almost as shallow and dangerous as Nathan’s more overt misogyny. To Caleb, Ava is still an object; a symbol of sex that needs to be saved, not a sentient being who deserves to make her own choices. Nathan created women so he could own them and control them. Caleb is just seeking permission to do the exact same thing.”

So Caleb dies because he is just as dangerous as Nathan, ultimately.  Max bows out because “The times are changing and men like him are being left behind.”

What struck me as strange, however (especially in Ex Machina), is how uncomplicated both Nathan and Joe are. While Immortan Joe’s cartoon brutishness is played for laughs and squicks, Nathan’s off-putting intensity belies nothing at all.  He appears cruel and controlling in the beginning, and dies cruel and controlling at the end.  Oscar Isaac, of course, is such an arresting actor that I’d probably watch him in a Transformers movie.  I kept waiting, though, for Nathan to crack open and reveal something more nuanced – evidence of a truly brilliant mind, or a truly sinister mind, or both.


Instead, there are a few strangely weightless conversations about consciousness and existence, and one mountain-top admission of drunken, apathetic nihilism.  This is where the film breaks down for me.  He’s easy to discount, easy to dismiss as drunk and crazy and completely avoidable.  Apart from his role as the creator and owner of what is essentially a fictionalized Google, he’s a jacked, drunk, mad scientist in a lab-castle on a hill in the middle of nowhere.

I expected him to be insidious, smarter than me, smarter than Caleb, smarter than Ava, even.  I expected him to be the Promise Keeper Baptist Youth Leader of my youth who successfully enticed my smart, sweet friends into his control and then tried to have sex with them. The desire and wind-up of the truly nefarious.

I suppose I should end this by saying something about how I’m just glad that I’m able to write about mainstream movies and their differing feminist perspectives, but I’m not going to do that because remember the ’90s?  We were like: things are totally changing for women on the radio and in the movies and on the TV.  And that was 20 years ago.