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Sweet Home Alabama?: A New YA Novel Explores The Inner Lives Of Teenagers

Culture
Photo of Jen Doll by Sarah Schatz

Talking with Jen Doll about ‘Unclaimed Baggage’

"There was a kind of home in them," Jen Doll tells me, explaining what she found so appealing about reading YA novels as a teenager. "But, at the same time, that home isn't just like fluffy clouds around you—home is a place that's dynamic; it changes, and it can challenge you."

We've met on a hot, humid afternoon, the kind of sticky August day that makes you want to go back to your teenage years, back when you could spend the simultaneously fleeting and endless hours of summer vacation with friends; those were the days when nothing much seemed to happen, when you were always bored, but when it also became clear that you were no longer waiting for life to happen—this was it; this was life. So what did you want to do with it?

It's a time that's proven fertile ground for novelists (and filmmakers and television writers, etc), because of its potential to turn, in a moment, from a period of stagnation into one of kinetic energy, and now Doll has made her own contribution to the teenage-summer canon with her debut YA novel, Unclaimed BaggageThe book takes place in a small town in Alabama—not dissimilar to the one where Doll moved with her family when she was in fifth grade—and centers around the unlikely friendship of Doris, Nell, and Grant, who work together at Unclaimed Baggage, a store that sells the luggage (along with all the luggage's contents) that's been lost by airlines. (And, yes, there are real stores like this.) Much like Doll once was, Nell is a reluctant recent arrival from Chicago, but she quickly bonds with Doris, one of the few liberal, areligious, feminists in town; the two also become close with Grant, a disgraced former star quarterback, who is quietly struggling with alcoholism. They're exactly the kind of unlikely trio who wind up making perfect sense together, and who benefit from one another's different perspectives, which enable them to become more fully who they're supposed to be. 

As is the case with many recent YA novels, Unclaimed Baggage doesn't shy away from grappling with complicated topics; in addition to Grant's addiction issues, Doll explores topics like racism, sexual assault, grief, and religious bigotry, and she does so with grace and empathy (and humor), always sensitive to the gravity of the situations at hand, but acknowledging the resilience and intelligence of teenagers, making clear that, though they're young, they're able to rise to the challenge of these serious problems. 

Doll feels, though, that this is reflective of the way young adults actually are in the world today, saying, "Teenagers now have such a responsibility, and have so many challenges in life." But she also points out that they "are the ones who are, like, saving the world—and we're the asshole adults who are fucking everything up." 

Fucked up as things may be, one way adults can help younger generations is by making art that reflects society's problems, but also demonstrates an alternative to despair. Doll says, "It's weird, but it's almost like I have a duty to my old self to create something that would be what would have helped me move forward as a teenager, and that would challenge me, but also put me in a place where I could safely feel challenged."

This last part is significant, and offers an interesting distinction between how YA and adult fiction differ; whereas, with the latter, authors feel free to challenge readers without necessarily taking care of them or considering their feelings, YA authors often write with a different type of empathy, a responsibility toward the fact that their readers should be taken care of, and treated as the still-forming people they are. Doll says that YA offers young readers "a place to think about all these ideas that if we were facing them in real life might [make us] feel really scared and uncomfortable. [So then] people who really are facing those things in real life, can also read about it in a book and have a way forward through it."

Doll pauses after saying this, and laughs, continuing, "I still feel, like, just as fraught and helpless, and... I don't know, just destroyed by what's happening in the world. But I think books—both writing them and reading them—are a way to cope with the absolute despair that surrounds us." She laughs again. "This sounds really dark! But I feel like we're like going through such a hard time as people, as a country, as a universe, and YA books, like adult books, give you space to think about these ideas and hopefully make yourself a better person." 

Making yourself a better person can seem overwhelming no matter what your age, but, as adults, that concept is fraught because it's often considered in grand terms—like, how can we make society more equitable, how can we dismantle white supremacy and the patriarchy and the Trump administration, how can we change the whole world and start over. It can be overwhelming, then, because, as adults, we're all too aware about the ways in which things are bad on a structural level, and so we can't help but think about the big picture instead of smaller, more personal problems—and then we feel paralyzed, because we know how hard it will be to change the system.

Teens are different, though; in part this is because they haven't been fully disillusioned yet, and in part because everything is personal for them, and big issues are best understood through the lens of their own experience. And so while they might know that addiction is a pervasive problem, or that racism is a societal evil, they are better able to grapple with those things and try and figure out a way to enact change, because they see it head-on, in the form of their friend who blackout drinks every weekend or their boyfriend who is the target of bigotry. 

Or, actually, maybe teens aren't different—it's actually pretty universal to better be able to understand a problem by seeing it from the point of view of a singular experience; it's the basis of making the personal into the political, after all. And that's what good YA does so well, and what Unclaimed Baggage is such a great example of: offering a singular narrative that gets to the heart of universal truths. In it, Doll unpacks the emotional baggage we all carry around (she laughs, saying, the sequel will be "intergalactic... about a cosmic baggage claim"), offering examples of, if not an easy way out of the difficulties that we face as we make our way in the world, at least the opportunity to see that there is a way through them—and that this way will also lead us to friends who can accompany us along on our journeys.

This is, Doll says, what she hopes to offer young readers who come to Unclaimed Baggage consumed by questions about whether or not their world will always feel as stagnant and swampy as a late August day. Because it can be hard to see that cooler temperatures are on the horizon, and that even if things don't always get better right away, they will always get different. And that's a lesson we can all—young or old—stand to learn. As Doll says not long before we both prepare to re-enter a city that feels as hot as the inside of someone's mouth, "The thing that is maybe most important to remind people is that your world doesn't always remain as small and tight as it is at one point in life." It opens up; it waits for you to claim what could be yours.

Unclaimed Baggage is available for purchase here.

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Screenshot via YouTube

The band shared details about their new St. Vincent-produced album that will drop "you into the world of catastrophe"

Sleater-Kinney just shared more information about their St. Vincent-produced album and dropped a new single.

Per Billboard, Sleater-Kinney revealed that their new album, which they've been teasing since early this year and will be their first since No Cities To Love from 2015, will be called The Center Won't Hold. It's due out on August 16 via Mom + Pop Records. "We're always mixing the personal and the political but on this record, despite obviously thinking so much about politics, we were really thinking about the person—ourselves or versions of ourselves or iterations of depression or loneliness—in the middle of the chaos," Carrie Brownstein said in a statement. Corin Tucker further noted that the new album will "[drop] you into the world of catastrophe that touches on the election."

Janet Weiss noted that the band will "explore a different sound palette" with this album, and pointed to St. Vincent as the reason behind it. She said that St. Vincent "has a lot of experience building her own music with keyboards and synthesizers so she could be our guide to help us make sense of this new landscape and still sound like us."

To satiate us until then, the band released a lyric video for new single, "The Future Is Here," which is very grungy. Bump it, below.

Sleater-Kinney - The Future Is Here (Official Lyric Video) www.youtube.com

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This is so satisfying!

Even Jon Snow knows just how unsatisfying the final season of Game of Thrones was, and he's ready to apologize. Well, a deepfake of him is at least. A heavily-edited version of Snow's speech from the fourth episode—just before the bodies of those lost in the Battle of Winterfell get burned—now features Snow apologizing for the conclusion of the show and lighting the script on fire.

"It's time for some apologies. I'm sorry we wasted your time," Snow begins. "And I know nothing made sense at the end. When the Starbucks cup is the smallest mistake, you know you fucked up! We take the blame. I'm sorry we wrote this in like six days or something," he adds, before signaling to his peers to light the script with torches and "just forget it forever." "Fuck Season 8," he says before the pages begin to crackle and burn.

If there were more lines left to alter, we would have loved to see Snow also tackle how messy Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister's story line ended up, as well as Bran's kingship, Cersei's boring demise, and the water bottle appearance.

Watch the entire deepfake and try to heal the wounds left by HBO below.

BREAKING: JON SNOW FINALLY APOLOGIZED FOR SEASON 8 youtu.be

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Photo by Darren Craig

It premieres today, exclusively via NYLON

In LP's song "Shaken," the most recent single from her 2018 record Heart To Mouth, she tells the story of seeing her lover out with someone else—ouch. Today, exclusively on NYLON, she releases a cheeky animated music video that pokes fun at the song's heightened drama and perfectly demonstrates all the angst that comes with falling hard for someone.

"She looks at you like I used to/ And I'm just sitting in the corner sh-sh-shaken," LP sings, as the visual—with art by Maayan Priva—depicts the singer hanging out in a bar, watching the girl she likes meet up with another girl. Despite the situation's inherent drama, "Shaken" is less of a ballad and more of an upbeat bop. LP told us she loves the way "this little video captures some of the fun of the song, and its inherent comical anxiety." Sure, heartbreak isn't that funny, but our (sometimes) overly dramatic reaction to it kind of is.

"'Shaken' feels like a bit of a wild card on this record," LP says. "It's the closest I've come to writing a musical, which I hope to do one day." We heartily endorse this idea: Please, LP, give us the queer jukebox musical we crave.

Until that day comes, though, you can watch the music video for "Shaken," below.

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Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

This cameo has the Beyhive buzzing

I went to see Men In Black: International alone. Which would have been fine if it wasn't for the shock I received when I saw two specific characters on the screen. Unable to keep it to myself, I shared a curious look with the stranger next to me, who was obviously thinking the same thing as me. "Is that them...?" I whispered first. "I think… so," she replied. Then the two men in question started to dance, and we were both sure: "Yep, that's them."

It was Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois, better known as Les Twins. Fans of Beyoncé will recognize the duo as the talented brothers who often accompany her on tour and in music videos. In Men In Black: International, the two of them play shapeshifting entities—they're more like energy forces than aliens—who pursue Tessa Thompson's and Chris Hemsworth's characters throughout the duration of the film. The twins' ability to manipulate their bodies in ways that are graceful and otherworldly really helps sell them as extraterrestrials and is fun to watch.

So if Thompson in a suit or Hemsworth shirtless weren't enough motivation, here's another reason to go see it. If you look close, you can see them in the trailer below.

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL - Official Trailer www.youtube.com

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Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue

"I am honored to share this bonding experience with my own daughter"

In a heart-warming Instagram photo, Serena Williams shares the history of hair braiding and the importance of the tradition. The tennis player shared a photo of herself braiding her daughter Olympia Ohanian's hair and spoke about how "honored" she was to be able to "add another generation" to the tradition of the practice.

The photo shows Williams attentively braiding her daughter's hair while Olympia smiles, obviously loving the experience. Williams noted that hair braiding was created by the Himba people in Namibia, Africa, and that "we have been braiding our hair for centuries." "In many African tribes braided hairstyles were a unique way to identify each tribe," she continued.

Williams pointed out that braiding is a bonding experience. "People would often take the time to socialize," she wrote. "It began with the elders braiding their children, then the children would watch and learn from them. The tradition of bonding was carried on for generations, and quickly made its way across the world."

Williams closed her post with a sweet message about her daughter, saying that she's "honored to share this bonding experience" with her.

See the post, below.

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