Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post [2012]

Emily Danforth’s debut young adult novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, got several positive reviews in the mainstream media (I heard about it from NPR, but it also got a coveted starred review from Kirkus). Miles City, Montana native Cameron Post is twelve when her parents are killed in a tragic accident near Quake Lake. Because she had just kissed her best friend Irene (and liked it), Cameron feels a certain amount of responsibility for their deaths, as well as relief that they will never find out. She withdraws into a world of video rentals and creative activity centered around decorating an old dollhouse with scraps and pocketed mementos. In high school, she strikes an uneasy balance with her grandmother and conservative Christian aunt while pursuing her own small-town rebellions. . . and the friendship and attention of the beautiful Coley Taylor. When the sexual tension between Cameron and Coley comes to a head, Cameron ends up at God’s Promise, a conversion camp for gay teens. There, despite the restrictive environment, she begins to address her feelings about the loss of her parents and come to some kind of peace with herself.

There’s a lot in this synopsis that I’ve left out: the importance of Quake Lake to Cameron and her family; Cameron’s boy/friend; her first fling and lesbian know-it-all friend Lindsey; little details about the town and the landscape of Montana; Cameron’s friends at God’s Promise, including Jane Fonda and her prosthetic leg; the early 90s references; the process of the conversion therapy . . . the book is not easily summarized, which is one of its strengths. It’s a complex narrative that weighs in at around 500 pages and apparently could have been much longer (great interview, scroll down for a mention of a “lesbrarian”). Danforth deftly weaves the threads of setting and plot together in such a way that the book’s length feels justified--a slow burn--rather than oppressive.

The story is set in the author’s home town, and Danforth calls the work an “autobiographical novel.” It’s clear from the detail that her Miles City is grounded in the real Montana, even as she adapts it to suit the needs of Cameron’s story. The chronological setting of the book is also intriguing. It opens in 1989 and follows Cameron through her first few years of high school. This mirrors my own experience almost exactly; I graduated from high school in 1995. The internet looms large due to its absence--if only it were a few years later, the reader thinks, Cameron could see the larger community of people that awaits her outside the boundaries of her world. Lindsey provides a glimpse of that wider world, from her liberal Seattle enclave, but wider acceptance will have to wait until Cameron comes to terms with herself and finds her own place.

It’s interesting that Miseducation was blurbed by Sarah Waters; the scope of Danforth’s work sometimes recalls the narrative sweep I loved about Tipping the Velvet, although the novels have very little in common. They are both lesbian coming-of-age stories, and Cameron and Nan are similarly out of their depth as they make their way through an unsympathetic and sometimes hostile world. Danforth leaves the ending somewhat open--Cameron has done some of the work she needs to do, especially where her parents’ deaths are concerned--but the book left me with a “what happens next?” complaint. I would like to spend more time with Cameron as she continues to grow up, and I wonder what’s next for Danforth.

Grade: A

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

I spent a lot of time half-thinking the title was The Miscegenation of Cameron Post, which . . . is a completely different book. Spellcheck does not like "miseducation" as a word. Of course, spellcheck doesn't like "spellcheck" as a word, either. The title recalls the album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which I haven't thought about in years.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sports I Love: College Basketball Tournament Time

It's March, which means it's time for college basketball tournaments. I'm not nearly as invested in bracketology or "being right" about likely winners as I am in watching good games and finding someone to root for. Because of its single-elimination format and the difficulty of seeding 64 (or more) teams, every game has a potential for surprise and upset. Players appear in the limelight who have never graced the national stage before. Dynasties are toppled and legends made. Announcers throw stats around. Cameras zero in on people's parents in the crowd. In terms of thematic appeal, March Madness gets a bit closer to the fuzzy-focus backstories of the Olympics than NBA games typically do. Another appeal of the tournaments (both men's and women's) is their finite nature. They're not a season-long commitment. If you want to, you can tune in and out, and pretty soon it's baseball season.

Last week, my father and I watched NCAA tournament games in the same room for the first time since . . . 1995, probably, since that was the year I graduated from high school. We watched, we rooted, we stayed up too late, we said nearly identical things at the same time. He proved remarkably accurate when guessing the home town of various corn-fed-looking Indiana University players. For me, the real appeal of March Madness is the narrative, both the one being created each year and the one that we, as fans, bring to the table. As a family policy, we root for the University of Kansas because my mother went to undergrad there, and we root for Indiana University because my parents went to grad school there and first met there and after enough years of rooting for IU you start to feel like you've always rooted for IU, although now it's easier to root for IU without reservations, since Bobby Knight has nothing to do with the team. I remember the excitement of the 1987 championship, even though I was ten at the time. I remember (more bitterly) the fact that I was under anesthesia for surgery for my broken elbow the next year and missed the 1988 title game, which Kansas won.

After years of watching, I've developed a patchwork quilt of teams that I root for (I do my best to try not to root against teams, with the exception of BYU and Duke and North Carolina), both on the men's and women's sides:

Utah: I root for all University of Utah teams and have since I was a wee lass.
Tennessee: I love Pat Summitt. I hope that last night was not her last game as a coach, but if it was, she's created a fabulous legacy.
Connecticut: I don't love Geno Auriemma so much, but his teams play solid basketball, and where I live you can see them on regular TV.
Notre Dame: Their coach is named Muffet McGraw. Plus my relationship to Knute Rockne has somehow translated into rooting for all ND teams?
Rutgers: Coach C. Vivian Stringer is kick-ass.
Stanford: Coached by out lesbian Tara VanDerveer, consistently excellent team.

Utah: See above.
IU and KU: See farther above.
Gonzaga: John Stockton went to school there (and his son goes there now).
Wisconsin: I went to graduate school there, and somehow that translates to me rooting for the men's basketball team and the football team, but that's it.

Further Breakdown:
After these options are exhausted, I will root for:
  • Anyone from the Big 10 playing someone not from the Big 10
  • The underdog
  • Whoever has better uniforms
  • Someone playing BYU or Duke or UNC
  • Whoever has a better mascot
  • Both teams
As I look at this list, I realize that it's usually more about the coaches than the kids on the team; they're likely to be consistent year after year, even if they end up moving to a different school at some point. I enjoy seeing tournament standouts in the NBA or WNBA, but I think of the teams as belonging to their coaches rather than their players. In any case, I never have any trouble finding something to root for, because that's how I thread myself into the narrative. And if I can do it with my father groaning and cheering at my side, so much the better.

Other sports I love: badminton, football, baseball, figure skating, tennis, and soccer. Consider this post an addendum to my earlier post on basketball, since that one gives a better picture of my history with the sport.