Archive for ‘book reviews’

August 10, 2011

June Reading Round-up

June…

Came in like a lion, went out like… Harry Potter.

This is woefully overdue. I hope I remember any single thing about any of these books. Please don’t fault me for fudging weird details.

1. The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

This was one of my “trapped on a plane” books! But what a great book to be trapped on a plane with! I really enjoyed this book for three reasons. Reason #1: Eustace Conway – “The Last American Man” – is damn interesting. He kept hundreds of turtles in his backyard as a child. He left home at 17 and lived in a teepee while he put himself through college. He rode horseback across the United States with his brother. Much like my affection toward Unlikely Memoirs, I also like Unlikely Biographies… even though these two imaginary genres have kind of an inverse relationship. Unlikely Memoirs are normal people writing their life stories in interesting ways : Unlikely Biographies are profiles of people who are relatively normal (read: not famous), but have fascinating lives nonetheless.

I am getting confused.

Anyway. Reason #2: Gilbert’s biography walks the line between capturing Eustaces’s cool, fascinating-ness and showing the dirty-underbelly that make humans HUMAN. The book spends a lot of time commenting on the effect Eustace has on others – he’s incredibly charismatic – but Gilbert also talks about his character flaws that keep him from getting everything he wants. For this reason (and other more obvious ones), this book reminds me of John Krakauer’s Into the Wild – which is a high compliment!

Reason #3: Say what you will about Gilbert’s writing tone – I know it rubs people the wrong way – but I absolutely eat it up. Reading this book is like your best friend telling you about this amazing person they met. There’s an intimacy and definite passion in her writing. She could probably write about dirty socks and I’d want to read it. But to each his own!

National Book Award Finalist 2002

2. That Summer by Sarah Dessen

The first on my endeavor to Re-read Every Sarah Dessen Book in order. I’ve actually read this one at least twice, so I’m more familiar with it than others.

Everyone (myself included) talks about how reading one Sarah Dessen book is like reading Every Other Sarah Dessen book. Her books do have a similar aesthetic, often follow a particular narrative structure (messed up girl meets boy, boy helps girl not be so messed up), and share locations and characters. True true true. But re-reading these older titles, I am suprised by how non-romancey they are, or at least how the “heart-throb” love interests take a backseat to other stuff going on in the foreground of the novel.

This book, Dessen’s first, doesn’t even HAVE a love interest, really. The narrator, Haven, is a bit preoccupied with her older sister’s ex-boyfriend, but never in an actual romantic capacity. This story is all about Haven’s relationship with her older sister, and both sister’s reactions to a parental divorce. There’s a kind of spooky side plot about a local girl who became famous as a model but who had a mental breakdown and had to move home, too. A lot more than just boy-meets-girl.

3. Carrots ‘N’ Cake by Tina Haupert

I generally like books by bloggers. I don’t know what this means about my literary tastes, but I really do enjoy the “blogging” writing style, whatever that is. I like seeing how the writer’s personal style changes when confronted with a longer form of prose.

I whipped through Dooce’s It Sucked and then I Cried over one Christmas break, loved Girl’s Gone Child‘s Rockabye as a First Book After the Semester’s Over, savored Orangette‘s A Homemade Life while vacationing in DC, and am slowly giggling my way through Pioneer Woman‘s awfully silly Black Heels to Tractor Wheels.

However, I am not sure that Haupert’s blogging “personality” really translates well to book form. It could be that she keeps a food/fitness blog and not a personal blog, but I was disappointed in the lack of narrative in her book. It’s a fine book – well written and a lot of interesting content – but what it boils down to in the end is really basic fitness information aimed at those who are just embarking upon fitness journeys. No eye opening info, for me anyway, and not enough narrative content to keep me interested.

I will still continue to enjoy Haupert’s blog, but I just don’t think I’m the right reader for this particular book.

4. All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

I told you about how when I visit my parents, I can always count on an unexpected book to grab my attention, usually from its abandoned position on a coffee table? Never a book that another family member is reading, of course. That would be mean!

Ahem.

Anyway, there is a second book phenomenon that I almost forgot about when I was at home in May: my mother’s occasional influx of Advanced Reading Copies! Yay librarians!

This was an ARC written by an author who wrote two other books I’ve enjoyed – Elsewhere, a book about the afterlife, and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, a book about what would happen if your memory from age 11-17 and what you would think about yourself.

All These Things I’ve Done, however, is a dystopia.

Big suprise, right?

I am about dystopia-d out, but I brought this all the way from Michigan to Boston so I thought I might at least try to read it. The dsytopian premise was interesting – class/power structures had gotten out of hand in America, and the government has stepped in to regulate, but of course have regulated some other stuff too, like declaring a prohibition on coffee and chocolate. The narrator, Anya, is a part of a mafia family that owns an overseas chocolate factory, but her parents have both died and left her and her two siblings in the care of their dying grandmother. Anya is kind of on the fence about her family – she loves them with fierce loyalty, but at the same time, their illegal doings eventually got her father killed – but she is managing to care for her siblings without involving herself with them too much. Things become more complicated when she is accused of poisoning her ex-boyfriend with a bar of tainted chocolate. And of course, things become even MORE complicated when she falls in love with the new kid in town – the District Attorney’s son.

There was some horrible cliffhanger in anticipation of a trilogy. I have completely repressed it from my mind, apparently. Which also could speak to my overall opinion of the book: it was a fine book, but had some annoying patterns. I didn’t really buy Anya’s switch from hating Win to conducting a torrid affair. I thought that her attitude throughout the book was kind of haughty and not particularly endearing. And can we write some more standalone books, people? Not everything needs to be a trilogy. And not every author needs to write a dystopia.

I am awfully testy.

5. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

I think that I could read this book every year for the rest of my life and be happy. This year, I read it at just the best time: June, when the farmer’s market is about to open, when you can finally spend some time outdoors, when you can actually start eating fresh, local produce instead of dreaming about it.

The first time I read this book, it was February in Michigan. Don’t do that.

For those who are behind the times, this is a book about feeding your family with locally (and often personally) grown food as a way of life. It is one of my favorite books because it is exactly the kind of life I wish I had. I would like nothing better than to become Barbara Kingsolver, ASAP.

Also, can I plug the audio recording of this book for a moment? Read by the author. It makes for a personal, lovely, listening experience.

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

So, I got this notion about re-reading all the Harry Potter books in anticipation of the movie.

Spoiler alert: I haven’t seen the movie yet. (whuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuups)

Anyway, I have read this first volume the most – probably four times now – and I am always shocked to remember exactly how much it reads like standard juvenile fiction. New kid comes to a new school, finds adventure, happy ending!

Never a bad read, but always feels like grunt-work to get through to the longer novels.

Side story: in an attempt to acquire the most random, unmatched collection of this series, I bought a copy of this book for 50 cents at a thrift shop.

What I didn’t notice – my copy ended on page 179.

7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling

The action picks up! Harry’s second year of school, and things get a bit more interesting, thematically and plotwise. I like how Rowling introduces the idea that Harry being a celebrity at school doesn’t necessarily mean he is well-liked. I also liked how Tom Riddle’s back story become relevant to the story.

Again, Adventure —>Dumbledore spends way too many pages telling Harry what everything meant about what just happened to him —> Gryffindor Wins The House Cup!

I don’t even remember if they actually did win the cup that year, but they might as well have. Happy Endings all around.

I also liked the orchestra of musical saws at the ghost party.

8. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

I am not really up on my HP research, but I would be willing to wager that this is the book where Rowling was like, “Hey, I think I’m really onto something here. Let’s turn this into something epic.”

The time turning plot really annoys me because I think the book/movie is going to be over BUT THEN IT’S NOT. wtf.

I did, however, cry when Harry sees himself and thinks its his father.

That is just so sad.

8 books read in June

(Oh, not too shabby.)

63 in 2011

January |February| March | April | May

June 3, 2011

May Reading Round-up

Oh, May.

You were a treat.

I read a lot. I read a lot of books I really enjoyed. I read a lot of books that I really enjoyed and then wanted to read more.

All around, a fun month for reading!

1. Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson

My last “on-syllabus” book of the semester, but also the first “on-syllabus” book of my grad school career that had me completely at hello. Maybe there are books you read that make you want to give the book a hug, or maybe, a smart, mature book might leave you wanting to marry a book, but this book made me want to eat it. And it would taste like candy.

Actually, that’s a fairly accurate description of many of the books I read in May!

But anyway, the story begins with Amy’s family dissolving. Her father died in an accident, her twin brother was shipped off to rehab, and her mother decided to take a new job in Connecticut, leaving Amy behind in California while they sell one house and buy another. When it comes time for Amy to join her mother, it also seems like a great way for Amy’s mother to be rejoined with the red Jeep she left behind.

One problem: Amy doesn’t drive. Enter romantic interest: Roger. An old family friend finishing his first year of college and spending the summer with his father in Pennsylvania, Roger needs a ride and Amy has a car that needs driving. Amy’s mother has their route calculated and hotel reservations made along the way… but of course, what kind of book would it be if Amy and Roger didn’t decide to take off on their own?

Hijinks, emotional arcs, likable side-characters, make-overs, road trip playlists, local food indulgences, and tortured flirtation ensue.

Devoured it.

Loved it.

2. Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

This is one of those quintessentially “YA” Young Adult book. One of the original Printz Honors, I feel like this book could be voted Most Likely To Show Up On Your Children’t Lit Course Syllabus. I, therefore, have read it three or four times before, and at least once when I was an actual teenager.

If you are one of the two people on this planet who have not read this novel, it is quite good, I think, and here’s what you need to know:

John’s parents are divorced. He lives with his mom and takes the train into Boston to visit his Dad’s bachelor pad on the weekends. His father ignores him and goes on dates, his mother weeps about her divorce and doesn’t show John any affection. John has one friend who is kind of a loser and spends too much time representing a heteronormative, nerdy kind of teenaged lifestyle.

John’s life sucks, so why not recreate yourself a little? John writes a zine (aww…. how nineties is that!!) under the name “Gio,” and gets the attention of another zine-writer, Marisol, who lives in Cambridge. Marisol is gorgeous, challenging, mercurial, and a lesbian. Of course, John/Gio falls in love.

The whole “girl falls in love with gay best friend” is almost a narrative trope at this point, but I can’t say I’ve heard of a story about the reverse other than this one!

2000 Printz Honor

3. Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi

I picked up this book for two reasons.

Reason #1: I used to watch Ally McBeal in high school, and I remember clearly all of the hype about the show’s actresses, including Portia de Rossi. Supposedly, the environment on the set was toxic: Calista Flockhart was clearly a too-skinny freak of nature and the show dressed her to accentuate her thinness, so the rest of the female cast felt like they needed to be gaunt to compete. I hoped that de Rossi’s memoir would be an insider account of what was going on there, in the cast of an only moderately successful television show, that seemed to formally usher in the stick-figure-body aesthetic of the late 90s and early 00s.

Reason #2: I heard it was actually a decent read, not obviously ghost-written or trashy.

I was right about #2, for sure. The back cover has blurbs from Jonathan Safran Foer, Jeanette Walls, and Augusten Burroughs for goodness sake! This is not your average celebrity memoir!

I didn’t find what I was expecting with #1, but what I found was equally interesting. This book really is not a Hollywood tell-all but a memoir. De Rossi describes her childhood in Australia, her career as a model that segued into acting, and her struggle to identify (inwardly and outwardly) as a homosexual woman.

By the time she made it onto the cast of Ally, she was already heavily into disordered eating, habits that developed when she was a young, aspiring model that her peers and parents seemed to approve of (or at least look the other way from). Hanging out with Calista Flockhart and Courtney Thorne-Smith and Lucy Liu didn’t drive de Rossi to anorexia, but the pressure of being a working actress in LA, with frequent costume fittings and sample-sized clothing, and with the means to over-exercise and seek professional help from a nutritionist, it was easier for de Rossi’s already present disorder to escalate quickly.

She barely mentions her female costars in this book, but she so clearly portrays this kind of pandemic Hollywood attitude toward women’s weight and appearance that it is easy to imagine that Flockhart and Thorne-Smith and Liu could have easily had similar personal experiences that kept them losing weight during the show’s filming… and contributing to whatever effect that had on women watching their show from home.

Anywaaaaay, super interesting read that I breezed through in an afternoon. I found myself very invested in de Rossi’s life and career and worried for her health, and I was glad to know that in Real Life, she was doing okay.

And yes, I’ve been watching Ally McBeal reruns on Netflix. It’s kind of like Grey’s Anatomy with lawyers!

4. Made for You and Me by Caitlin Shetterly

I picked this up from one of my favorite places to hear about quirky new books: NPR’s weekly “What We’re Reading” report.

And while I was reading it, I realized that when it comes to narrative non-fiction, I have a really big soft-spot for books like Shetterly’s.

I think I might call them “Memoirs by normal-ish people who have done little noteworthy other than craft their particular life experience into an interesting story.”

And this is why I don’t get mad when 20-somethings write memoirs. For me, a memoir isn’ about the destination, it’s about the journey! If you can take me on a journey, I love you.

Anyway. I loved this book. The journey Shetterly takes you on is one from New England to Los Angeles and back again. Caitlin gets married and she and her husband decide to pursue their lifelong dream of moving to LA and living as working artistic-people. However, the move is neither cheap nor smooth (as very few moves tend to be), and their savings is pretty much shot… just in time for the Great Recession to swing in to eliminate the middle-class day jobs the two were hoping to acquire to pay the rent, and for Caitlin to get pregnant…. and if that weren’t enough, she develops hyperemesis gravidarum and can’t walk across the living room much less find a job or work.

So the thirty-something couple and their new baby end up moving back to Maine… and moving in with Catilin’s mother. But that’s not really the point. The point is that Shetterly takes you on this very American journey of hope, pursuit of happiness, and the nuclear family… when she fails, you can see how thousands of other American families can so easily fail even when they are doing everything right… but also that we are all kind of in this economic rollercoaster ride together.

Her story could be anybody’s story, but in a good way.

5. Bumped by Megan McCafferty

My awesome roommate pre-ordered this book for me for my birthday in March! This is one of my favorite methods for gift receiving – I would gladly forgo a gift on my actual day of birth in exchange for an Amazon delivery on pub day! It’s a little like Christmas!

I have waxed poetic about my love of Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling oeuvre before.

I had mixed but generally positive feelings about Bumped, which is McCafferty’s first “straight” YA novel, as well as a departure into the oh-so-trendy world of futuristic dystopia.

The dystopian premise: every adult gets a disease that renders them sterile. All procreation lies on the shoulders of the teenage demographic… so of course, the whole system becomes heavily monetized, with babies being purchased, adoptions and surrogacy brokered by the powerful and rich, and the more fertile you are, the cooler, most popular, and closer to celebrity you become!

I didn’t have any problems with the story itself. The premise was interesting with lots of surprising and thought provoking details, and the main plot clever and snappy (two twins, separated at birth, meeting for the first time: one who lives in a private, religious cult that favors traditional attitudes toward procreating such as “marriage” and “don’t sell your baby,” the other a popular overachieving girl with a contract to bear a child for a high-powered couple as soon as they find a suitable sperm donor).

But I am, sadly, getting a little bored/overwhelmed with the poor, beat-int0-the-ground dystopia.

Similarly, the recent influx of built-in-trilogies. Can’t we just write longer books instead of spreading out the goods intentionally?

I’ll be excited to read book 2, though, whenever it comes out…

6. What Happened To Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

What to say about a Sarah Dessen book that hasn’t already been said?

Janssen wrote a pretty solid review a few months ago. I stand by everything she says about this novel and the whole “Sarah Dessen” aesthetic.

There’s just something comforting about her novels. Everything you want out of this book, you will get. So while some people might find her novels formulaic, I delight in finding out exactly how she plays with the formula with each successive book, and how her knack for creating likable, three-dimensional characters and rich settings (although they are always suburban?!? who can do that?), make me, the reader, seduced into her novels.

Another win for Ms. Dessen.

An aside for fellow Dessenophiles: this is the THIRD book that Jason has appeared in as a significant minor character… what is it about that boy? Do you think Sarah Dessen has a soft spot for the old nerd? Do you think he’s having some kind of multi-book storyline that will end up with him as a love interest two or three books down the road? I’m so obsessed with this…

7. Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin

Okay, at this point in my summer-break reading, I’m not even pretending to be a literary-type person.

Whatever.

This is chick lit! It’s been turned into a RomCom! It’s got a lot of silliness and betrayal and sex and consumerism!

I liked it.

This is probably like saying “I like eating Krispy Kreme donuts.” Of course you like eating Krispy Kreme donuts! They are deep fried in fat and covered in sugar! Your body was made to like eating Krispy Kreme donuts!

I ate a book donut in May and it was good. I put the sequel on hold. I was a little disheartened that the book ended with the protagonist kind of “falling into” the resolution of her love-triangle, but all in all I thought the conclusion was an interesting way to end the novel. Is it too much to ask for a female romantic protagonist who isn’t either A) totally confident and outgoing and take charge or B) completely mousy and ineffective and doesn’t DO anything?

I guess I can’t eat a bunch of donuts and expect them to be better than… something that’s not just a donut.

8. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Do you ever get into a reading mood? When you just want to read a certain type of book or books about a certain topic or maybe the same book over and over again?

Maybe it’s just me.

But I hope you like books about running, because that’s what I’m in the mood for.

That being said, I really liked this book for many reasons other than the fact that it is a book about running. The author is a well-known writer of fiction in Japan, so he can craft a sentence for sure. And I loved the Not-Western-ness of some of his attitudes and of his writing style in general. Refreshing.

But above all, this is one of those kind of meandering, philosophical books that has you reaching for a pen and paper to jot down quotes that say something so perfectly, something you never thought anyone else ever thought about except for you.

For example, this quote that has nothing to do with writing but everything to do with life (and maybe YA fiction):

Sixteen is an intensely troublesome age. You worry about little things, can’t pinpoint where you are in any objective way, become really proficient at strange, pointless skills, and are held in thrall by inexplicable complexes. As you get older, though, through trial and error you learn to get what you need, and throw out what should be discarded. And you start to recognize (or be resigned to the fact) that since your faults and deficiencies are well night infinite, you’d best figure out your good points and learn to get by with what you have.”

Good stuff. The book is structured as short essay-type pieces that revolve around Murakami’s experiences a long distance runner, but yeah, it’s not all about running. Don’t worry. Try it anyway.

9. Hush by Eishes Chayil

Okay. I am pounding out a whole system of weird reading philosophies here, but bear with me. Along with reading moods, I think people have “hot topics” that they just can’t resist. Ever. Sometimes, the topics just come to you: my mother has read more books about mountain climbers than 95% of the population, but very rarely chooses to read a book just because it’s about mountain climbers. She reads them because somebody recommended the book or because it’s about something entirely other than climbing mountains but somehow is also about climbing mountains, et cetera.

Anyway. One of my hot topics for reading/documentaries/Dateline specials?

Secluded religious communities that hold onto traditional ways of life in spite of all the 21st century America happening around them.

So, basically, stories about fundamentalist Mormons, the Amish,

and Orthodox Jews!

Hush is an intense young adult novel about life for young girls in extremely Orthodox communities. The kind of child abuse that occurs in this novel is by no means unique or even prevalent to this religious community, but the religious beliefs regarding women, sex, marriage, and the pressure placed upon a family unit to be godly, to be pious, to be normal, creates a kind of strange environment in which severe child abuse gets swept under the rug. Young victims are ignored or silenced and perpetrators are never confronted and can continue to abuse other children.

It’s a vicious cycle. This book is not only an “insider’s look” at a religious community that still thrives today, slightly outside the focus of the average American, but also calls attention to this systemic problem and calls for action to be made within the communities themselves.

2011 William C. Morris Award Finalist

10. My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel

File this one under “Trying to Read Those Children’s/YA Books Everyone Has Already Assumed I’ve Read.”

Also file this one under “Weird Books That I Don’t Quite Appreciate Because I’m A Modern Reader With Modern Expectations.”

This is Zindel’s “problem novel” about abortion. I read it a few weeks ago but don’t remember much about it other than the fact that female low-self esteem was usually followed by this random older guy appearing to take the offending (and desperate) girl out on a date… where they found this guy and decided he was worth speaking to was a mystery to me: his character is basically Generic Offensive Asshole.

I guess when you are feeling down, this is what you get, ladies. A Generic Offensive Asshole to punish you for making bad decisions.

11. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

See: Reading Mood… but also see: Reading Candy! This book was awesome and I ate it right up in like, two days.

This book is…

- One part Intro to Ultramarathons. Running 50 to 100 mile races might not seem like the most interesting topic for a book, but it certainly attracts a very interesting breed of person and McDougall does a great job of capturing the many interesting characters who have found and excelled at the sport. (Spoiler: they are all kind of crazy)

- One part History of People. Running, McDougall posits, is an innately human thing to do. He gathers the data and research on primitive running cultures and examines how they run, why they run, what they eat, how they live, and talks about how those choices keep them free from injury and able to maintain superior athletic performance. I now want to run around barefoot all the time and eat chia seeds.

- One part Epic Adventure. McDougall does a story on the notoriously elusive and skilled runners, the Tarahumara. In digging into the jungles of Mexico to find them, he meets a random crazy ultramarathoning white dude who has earned the Tarahumara respect… and who also wants to bring some of America’s best ultramarathoners down to the jungle to have an epic 50 mile race. Somehow McDougall and this Crazy Guy convince some of those crazy characters to travel down into Mexico (while avoiding food poisoning, falling off cliffs, and Mexican drug cartels) and compete against the Tarahumara.

They pull it off in the end, but the path to get there is pretty ridiculous.

I really just want to buy this book for people. I don’t know why, but I do.

12. Bossypants by Tina Fey

I read this book from start to finish last Wednesday while I sat in various airports for various lengths of time!

I’m not sure I have much to say about it, though. This book is getting a lot of good press and for good reason. Everyone wants Tina Fey to be their best friend, and here she is, telling you about her life and making you laugh.

My favorite part is when she writes about 30 Rock, and how she wanted to write a really popular, accessible sitcom that would make a lot of money… but for some reason, 30 Rock just wouldn’t have it. It just became weirder and weirder.

That just makes me smile.

13. Good Eggs by Phoebe Potts

When I was planning out books to bring with me for my trip to Michigan, I had this feeling that I would find at least one good book lying around my house. Probably a book I hadn’t heard of, or maybe one I’d been meaning to read that would just appear on a kitchen counter…

This was that book! And it was really good!

Remember how I like “Memoirs by normal-ish people who have done little noteworthy other than craft their particular life experience into an interesting story?” Here’s another one! AND it’s a graphic novel!! Best day ever!!!

This actually did kind of remind me of Made for You and Me, but in reverse. Where Caitlin is an artistic New England girl struggling to find a place in the world after she gets married and becomes unexpectedly pregnant, Pheobe Potts is an artistic New England girl struggling to find a place in the world after she gets married and becomes unexpectedly infertile.

I’m glad I spotted this book hiding on the bottom level of the end table sitting next to the chair in my parents’ family room.

 

13 books read in May

(you overachiever, you!)

56 in 2011

 

January |February| March | April

May 2, 2011

April Reading Round-up

And thus, with the passing of the month of April, so passes the end of the Reading Semester.

I still have a paper due next week (let’s not talk about that QUITE yet), but the Required Reading segment of the year has ended for now.

May and June will be spent in reading repose.

(Except for the impossibly-Type-A part of me that already has books that COULD end up on July’s syllabus showing up on the library’s hold shelf. Oy.)

For those of you keeping track at home, my semester’s syllabus prescribed 61 books this semester:

I only missed five, (but missing this one pretty much didn’t count.)

1. The Heart is Not A Size by Beth Kephart

This book was alright, but just alright. It’s the story of two best friends – one steadfast and plain, one flighty and fashionable – who take a summer service trip to Juarez, Mexico. The Flighty Fashionable friend is anorexic, natch, and the steadfast and plain one has to find a way to help her after a confrontation throws a wrench in their friendship.

I’m sure it was a fine book, a nice, quiet read, but it’s hard for nice, quiet stories to stand out when you are reading 2-4 books a week for extended periods of time.

On another note, I realized weeks after reading this that I met Ms. Kephart, briefly, at the YA authors “speed dating” event at ALA last summer! She was perfectly nice and I made a (apparently forgotten) note to pick up one of her books.

2. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

I really love this book. I have read it SO many times (Maybe 6 times? It only got my hands on it in late 2007, so this is kind of a lot), but each and every time I sink into it like an over-stuffed couch. With pillows. And I basically never want it to end.

Such a favorite of mine. Love love love Frankie.

2009 Printz Honor, 2008 National Book Award Finalist, 2008 Cybils Winner – Young Adult Fiction

3. Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan

I had some problems with this book, but overall, it was an enjoyable read.

Okay, commence light-spoilers:

The plot of the novel revolves around one young protagonist, Blake who is in a pseudo-love triangle with his lovely girlfriend, Shannon, and this girl in his photography class, Marissa.

So it’s like, “duh, Blake and Marissa are probably going to hook-up” the entire book. Whatever. There are no new stories in the world, I can handle a little predictability.

Two problems:

1) The novel also hinges on this depiction of Blake-as-Miserable-Nerd who JUST found the beginnings of love with Shannon, and he’s so happy to finally  have a girlfriend. So how am I supposed to believe that this kid who can’t even figure out how to talk about maybe losing mutual-virginities with Shannon – the girl who already adores him – can suddenly Lothario his way into bed with Marissa? And then, afterwards, he lounges around in the nude taking sexy photographs of her?

That is just way too slick.

2)…. and WHAT THE HELL! WHO TAKES NAKED PICTURES OF THEIR SORDID AFFAIR WITHOUT EXPECTING TO GET CAUGHT?

When I got to that part, I literally threw the book down. I didn’t want to read the rest because it was just going to be painful and awkward and obviously end very, very poorly.

Other than book-throwing, I suppose it was alright.

2010 William C. Morris Award Winner

4. Jumping off Swings by Jo Knowles

I liked this book a lot when I read it the first time, and it even made my Best YA Fiction Reads of 2009.

Everything I said it that previous review still holds true. Refer accordingly.

5. Going Bovine by Libba Bray

I was a little miffed when most of my classmates were either neutral or negative about this book.

I read it last summer and while I enjoyed it, I also walked away with the feeling that there was a LOT going on in the book that I couldn’t possibly grasp in one reading.

My classmates read this as “Libba Bray, you need a better editor,” aka “This book was about 200 pages too long.”

Well, phooey on them.

For those of you who haven’t read it, the story is fairly unbelievable – teenage boy contracts Mad Cow, is approached by an angel in his hospital room who tells him he has to find a time-traveling mad scientist who needs to save the world AND, conveniently, can cure him. Commence epic road trip/hallucination/Don Quixote retelling.

I liked the epic feel of this heavy, lengthy novel. I haven’t read Don Quixote but it reminded me a lot of a childhood favorite of mine,  Gulliver’s Travels, with visits to strange “societies,” road blocks, and heavy satire. And I didn’t think the novel READ long – Bray’s writing here is light, quick-moving, banter-y…

Phooey on you naysayers! I bet you all liked Jellicoe Road, too.

2010 Printz Winner

6. Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers

I liked this book more than I thought I would.

Which is how all raving book review start, right?

Anyway, the book has two interwoven storylines. Here’s the quick-and-dirty:

Jacob is seventeen and visiting Amsterdam for the first time, on his own, in order to meet the woman – Geertrui – who saved his grandfather’s life in WWII and visit his grandfather’s grave. On the way, he befriends Geertrui’s grandson, deals with his fictional-love-affair with Anne Frank – one of Amsterdam’s most famous residents – and questions his sexuality.

The other story is Geertrui’s: she writes the story of her own teenage girlhood, during which WWII fighting ravaged her home village, killed her parents, and drove her from her home. During this time, though, Jacob’s grandfather – a wounded British soldier – fell under her care, and they fell in love in the short time before his death.

I wasn’t a fan of Jacob’s seemingly random, destination-less  jaunts around Amsterdam, and Geertrui’s story started out a tid-bit historical for my personal tastes, but in the end, I was satisfied by how the stories worked together and felt that the novel had DONE something, had GONE somewhere by the end of the book.

This reading experience is probably a metaphor for Jacob’s own journey to Discover A Stable, Adult Identity, but I’m going to save those academic-y proclamations for my one-final-paper, thanks.

2003 Printz Winner

7. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

I may or may not have started an in-class uprising about this book.

You see, I read it when it won the Printz in 2009…. started it, read the middle, finished it, and said “eh.”

(Actually, I said FRANKIE GOT ROBBED! But anyway…)

A lot of people really liked this books. Blog people. People in my program who read widely, read for quality, and generally have good taste. Friends of mine without a lot of literary pretension. People on the Printz committee. So while I wasn’t looking forward to re-reading a book that I really didn’t like the first time around, I was hoping that a re-read would be all I needed.

Nope. Still didn’t like it.

This probably warrants a longer post, but the evidence:

1) Needlessly confusing, especially names of characters. Too many! Ack!

2) I didn’t give two rips about the narrator, the annoyingly moody Taylor Markham (and I am really not easily annoyed by narrators)

3) Major plot-line (territory wars between boarding school students, military school students, and townies) that was pretty dumb and didn’t really end up mattering at all.

4) Jokes that just weren’t funny

5) Side characters that served no purpose

6) Side plot about a rampant serial killer that ended with “Oh, they found out who he was. He was a postman. Moving on!”

Okay, I’m stopping myself. I just really couldn’t get into this.

Oh, and FRANKIE GOT ROBBED!!!!

2009 Printz Winner, 2008 Cybils Finalist – Young Adult Fiction

8. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

And now, moving on to a Printz committee that knew what they were doing.

This is an awesome graphic novel with three stories:

Story #1 is a piece of Chinese mythology about the Monkey King who tries to become a God by mastering kung-fu and kicking a lot of immortal butt.

Story #2 is about a Chinese-American kid who moved to the suburbs and tries to fit in with his White Bread Classmates and Teachers who think he can’t speak English.

Story #3 is an imaginary, incredibly racist television sitcom about a White Bread Teenager’s boisterously Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee.

Somehow, these stories become a single story. It is a completely awe-inspiring ending.

2007 Printz Winner, 2006 National Book Award Finalist, 2006 Best Books for YA Top 10

9. Hold Still  by Nina LaCour

The last session of my YA class (which I will attend later today) will focus on “New Voices in YA,” so I’m assuming the four novels we read for class were cherry-picked for their Newness and their Promising-ness.

And, true to form, this was one of the few books that I read this semester that I REALLY, unabashedly enjoyed.

Like 4 out of 5 books read for class this year, this is a book about a tragedy. Caitlin’s best friend, Ingrid, kills herself after silently battling with depression. Caitlin is blindsided, but suddenly regretful of her every life choice and unable to move past her complicity as Best Friend. The book follows Caitlin around as she learns to relate to other people – even if they might disappear on her, even though she might wrong them – and find a stable place to be again.

It’s all about grief and recovery, which sound kind of boring, but the writing and the honest tone made the book so, so readable. I’ll be keeping my eye out for LaCour’s next move, for sure.

2010 William C. Morris Award Finalist

10. The Brothers Torres by Coert Voorhees

Don’t let the scary tattoo-cover fool you…

this is just your run-of-the-mill YA Book For Boys.

Quite similar to Flash Burnout, actually.

Both books feature Tension Between Brothers – specifically, Awkward Younger Brothers and Cool Older Brothers.

Both books have  strangely romance-centric plots… all roads lead to the High School Dance?

But in case you forgot this was a Book for Boys, The Brothers Torres has a lot of foul humor!

I’m fine with foul humor, I just prefer Jokes That Are Actually Funny.

And after reading Jellicoe Road and this one, I’m beginning to think that Jokes That Aren’t Funny are the BIGGEST deal-breaker with me and a book.

I can read a lot of mediocre/crappy novels and find SOMETHING redeeming in them, but try crack a joke that feels forced? I’m done.

What can I say – I’m a woman of strange aesthetics.

10 books read in April

(right on pace)

43 in 2011

January |February| March

March 31, 2011

March Reading Round-up

Even though I have a week off for Spring Break, March is usually a fairly light reading month for me. Maybe because a week off from school means a week off from my syllabus? But heck, who am I kidding, I am having trouble even attending to my obligatory 2-novels-a-week quota.

Ah, well. Some months are lean, some have books of plenty, their reading cups runneth over, et cetera. Take it easy, Jessica, it will all get read, in time.

1. Alice in Charge by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

I read my first Alice book in 5th grade, when Alice was a year ahead of me. Now, 10 years later, Alice is finally a Senior in high school, and Lester – her epically older, working on his Masters since I was in middle school, brother – just turned 24.

I am now the most epically old person alive.

Anyway, this year, Alice is going on (underplanned, heavily misguided) college visits, helping a friend report unsavory teacher-student relations, and investigating an undercover hate group that has targeted her friend, a refugee from Sudan.

But, most importantly, she’s pining over Patrick, who has started college a year early (what an idiot). Ah, sigh, Alice and Patrick, Patrick and Alice. Some things just don’t change in 10 years.

2. Real Live Boyfriends by E. Lockhart

I wrote about how much I enjoyed reading this book, but I didn’t go into much detail as to why.

Here’s the quick and dirty: E. Lockhart’s books, without fail, remind me of the sheer complexity of attempting to maintain a romantic relationship with another human being, the triumphs, the pain, the importance of keeping at it. They might be considered “romantic comedies,” but they never sell a single character or interaction short.

These books make me want to hug them. Like, actually hug.

3. Split by Swati Avasthi

Return of the Syllabus… but I really enjoyed this book. The novel begins with Jace knocking on the door of his older brother, who he hasn’t seen in a number of years and who isn’t expecting him for a visit, much less to move in and stay awhile. Christian is miffed, but he understands, since he ran away from the same home years before to escape the domestic abuse of their father… who is a District Judge. The story focuses on Jace adapting to a new life while trying to reach out to the mother he left behind, trying to relate to a similarly emotionally damaged brother, and dealing with a bit of a secret past that could come back to haunt him.

I found this to be one of those books that zips right along, the pages flying by for a few days and when you are done, you don’t feel floored (or prone to book-hugging) but just satisfied.

2010 Cybils Winner – Young Adult Fiction

4. The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin

We read this book for class alongside Split, which turned this class period into a Domestic Abuse Extravaganza!! (These books are pretty much all super depressing this semester)

This time around, we have a crazy, occasionally violent mother. Nikki has three kids from two different fathers, and this novel is a letter written from the oldest (Matthew) to the youngest (Emmy). Matthew and his sister Callie have done a great job of keeping Emmy safe from Nikki’s crazy outbursts and drunken rages, but Matthew still secretly hopes that somebody – a Knight in Shining Armor – will show up and save them all, even though he’s not sure that Nikki is really “all that bad.” Matt and Callie see a strong, kindly stranger in their neighborhood and decide that he is the One, and they hunt him down and find his name and address. However, Nikki finds Murdoch first and seduces him, and when their romantic relationship fizzles, Nikki turns her rage towards him.

I’d read this book a few years ago and I definitely enjoyed the re-read, but unlike say, Split, the end of the book felt a little scrapped together, a little disconcerting. Well, the whole book was a bit disconcerting, but I didn’t close the novel feeling resolved – I left feeling a little lost, a little confused… and all the more glad that I have a pair of mentally balanced parents.

2006 National Book Award Finalist

5. Stolen by Lucy Christopher

I’ll say this first – this book has me all sorts of riled up, for a number of reasons.

I feel like I don’t want to spoil much, but I’m going to anyway. In chapter one, the narrator – Gemma – is drugged and abducted at the airport and flown against her will and her knowledge to the remote deserts of Australia where her captor has spent years building a little homestead for the two of them to live.

The novel has two storylines, then:

1) Gemma tries to escape

2) Gemma falls in love with her captor

The second story line bothered me, but it mostly bothered me because it was really obvious that the story line was SUPPOSED to bother me.

I don’t like feeling manipulated…

but I suppose it DID make me think, right? And also we talked about Colonialism in class – Stockholm Syndrome = the oppressors tricking the oppressed into wanting to be oppressed – which I thought was crazy-interesting.

So I’m torn.

2011 Printz Honor

6. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

It was a BPL miracle: this book was getting a lot of hype in the media/blogosphere, I went to put a hold on it, I WAS NUMBER FOUR IN LINE.

Anyway, last week when I was recovering from my terrible illness, I missed out on 12 hours of work on Thursday and thought I would go onto campus and do a little extra on Friday. But first, I had to walk to the library to drop off my overdues and pick up my holds.

The bags were really heavy, though, and I forgot my caffeine in my fridge, and walking a mile was a little exhausting. I did not make it to work on Friday – I made it back onto the couch and read through this book in the span of an afternoon.

I found the book to be not much at all like the media portrayed it – it wasn’t a parenting polemic, it was a memoir. It wasn’t a “This is How You Should Raise Your Kids,” this is “This is How I Raised My Kids and It Kind of Worked and Kind of Didn’t.”

The book revolves around her two daughter’s music lessons and skills – they are both highly advanced musicians because Ms. Chua lorded over their hours-a-day practicing and arranged for them the best lessons available – so I naturally handed this one off to my boyfriend.

However, I didn’t expect him to eat it up like he currently is…

more about THAT later…

March 2, 2011

February Reading Round-up

All-syllabus, all the time.

At least I’m getting more reading done than I was last year at this time, what with The Semester of the Picturebook weighing me down. And I’m actually caught up with my reading to the point that I *gasp* picked up a JUST FOR FUN book yesterday! And I might have time to finish it! Yowza!

January

1. Trash by Andy Mulligan

This book is much more action-y than I usually like, but I did like this book. It has a strangely dystopian-feel, but maybe that’s because the kids in the book make a living digging through the trash of the rich and selling what they find. It seems hard to believe that kids like this really exist in the world, that communities like this exist, but they do. These kids get in and out of a fair amount of trouble when they find some trash they shouldn’t have, and they end up doing the whole Fighting Off the Evil Opressors! thing throughout the novel. Really engaging.

2. Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz

I love me a good addict memoir, but this fiction is just as good. Alex is in rehab, but he doesn’t remember why. Actually, he just doesn’t want to remember why, so he doesn’t. But if he wants to leave, wants to stay sober, wants to return to the real world, he has to work with his therapist, with his friends, and with himself to figure out what’s worth remembering from his past and what’s worth returning to.

3. Boy Toy by Barry Lyga

I read this book when it first came out, a few years ago. I thought it was pretty good, whatever. Read it again, and suddenly, I felt like a big fat creep. This could be because I’m currently enrolled in a graduate program, that besides from being freaking AWESOME, it also requires that I think about what it means to be an adult who wants to read about teenagers, and the inherent creepiness about the whole process. ANYWAY, the book is about a 13-year-old kid who has affair with his 24-year-old social studies teacher. Five years later, he’s 18 and she’s being let out of jail on parole, and he’s finally forced to dredge up the past and figure out what exactly happened in seventh grade.

The difference between my two readings of the book? When I first read the book, I was 22. Now, I’m older than his teacher.

Insert squeamish faces and noises and feelings in the pit of your stomach.

4. Fell by M.E. Kerr

This was one of my favorite audiobooks as a kid. Yeah, I listened to a lot of Books on Tape while I played with my Legos… what’s it to you? Anyway, I’ve heard this story a lot, but I’ve only read it a couple times in print. This time around, I was surprised that there was a lot that my mind had inflated – I knew the story so well, I was sure of this EPIC nature of the book, that scenes went on longer, that the plot moved slower. Nope. This is a lean, fast read. It’s about a boy, Fell, whose girlfriend stands him up at Prom. Angry, he backs out of her driveway too fast and runs into her neighbor’s car, an accident that ends up changing his life when the neighbor offers to get him out of his struggling single-parent home and take a place at a prestigious boarding school under a false name. I also wrote a paper on this book…. which was probably not very well executed. Urgh.

5. Surrender by Sonya Hartnett

I brought this book home in the summer, thinking it looked like a nice literary, edgy read. I never got around to it… THANK GOODNESS. It popped up on my syllabus, and I first found it…. dense. A lot of description. It wouldn’t have been what I wanted to read over the summer…. and then, close to the end, it becomes completely horrifying. I don’t even want to get into it, but jaw-dropping, eye-covering, horror. 2007 Printz Honor.

6. Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers

No offense intended to Mr. Myers…. but how can you write a book like Monster and then KEEP writing books about kids in prison? I can’t read a single book about a kid in prison without comparing it to Monstermuch less another book written by Walter Dean Myers.

So it was good, fine, yes. But no Monster. 2010 National Book Award Finalist.

7. Nothing by Janne Teller

Just when I thought I couldn’t be more horrified by a book (See: Surrender), more horrifying books come along!

This is one of those books that you’ll find yourself trying to explain to every person you meet. It starts off with a bunch of seventh graders, one of whom decides that life is meaningless, climbs up a tree, and proceeds to harass everyone that walks by, screaming at his former friends for continuing to live when there’s really nothing to live for. So the rest of the gang want to prove him wrong and shut him up: they start to gather a pile of things that have meaning, to show their friend. Only, the things they put on that pile…. oh my good Lord. This book was so disturbing, but I do feel I’ll have to read it again, someday, when I’m done being horrified. (And want to be re-horrified?). 2011 Printz Honor.

8. Punkzilla by Adam Rapp

No one in my class seemed to like this book, but I was quite fond of it. Punkzilla is a fourteen-year-old runaway who has gone AWOL from military school. He’s living a questionable, drug-laden, crime-driven lifestyle in Portland when he finds out his older brother – also estranged from their parents – is dying of cancer, so he sets off across the country to see him before he dies. The novel, however, is told in letters. Letters Punkzilla sends to his brother, which may or may not have been sent, while he’s on the road. Letters he’s received from his parents and family and friends. Letters that are non-chronological, unreliable, and hard to decipher. What really got me was the last letter – after an entire novel about this really troubled, confused kid, the last letter is an older one, sent right after he left military school: Punkzilla – or Jamie, which is his real name – used to be a totally normal, kid with normal-league problems. WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM IN PORTLAND? Gah! Also, I’m fairly certain this was edited by my internship supervisor at Candlewick. *smile* 2010 Printz Honor.

9. Inexcusable by Chris Lynch

I heard about this book a lot, but never actually read through it until it -duh- appeared on my syllabus. The premise: the narrator, Keir, has raped his friend Gigi. The rest of the book: him explaining himself. So based on that, I thought the novel would be pretty salacious, pretty ridiculous, pretty over the top, whatever. But it wasn’t. I was reading, feeling like there would be some revelation at the end of the novel, that there would be some explanation that would make Keir’s actions make sense. But there wasn’t. So the whole book becomes, then, Keir trying to figure that out for himself – that there’s no explanation. Some things are inexcusable, and not just things that people do to him, but things he’s done to others. It’s a bit of a mind-trip, and really compelling. 2005 National Book Award Finalist.

10. Sorta Like A Rockstar by Matthew Quick

My roommate kept asking me if this book was any good. I kept answering “Yeah, it’s okay. It’s more like something we would actually read for fun.” I’m still trying to figure out what that means, exactly, other than 1) Not so literary 2) Kind of silly/fluffy 3) Not so depressing. Well, I mean yes, the book is depressing, and I *may* have shed a tear at the over-the-top Hollywood ending, but it’s nothing like.. oh… Nothing. It’s basically the story of a really plucky homeless girl who is really into Jesus and befriending the kind of people who nobody wants to befriend, and whether or not true tragedy can or should break your faith in God or the goodness of life or your eternal optimism. A nice way to round out the month. I flew through the last half of the book.

January 31, 2011

January Reading Round-up

There was a lot of reading going on this month, 95% of it Required Winter Break Reading of Young Adult Classics.

Wait a second. Make that 100%.

What does this mean? That I should have been keeping a Death Count. Seriously, people are dying/going crazy/trying to kill themselves all over the place in historic YA!

1. Forever… by Judy Blume

I forgot how much I FREAKING LOVE this book. It’s 200 pages of amazingly raw first romance, gratuitous drama, and of course, sexy-sex. RALPH!!! Judy Blume is my hero.

2. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

I was assigned this book for my Reading class in 7th grade… and I remember very clearly not finishing it on time and failing a reading test because I didn’t know what happened with some fire at the end of the book. I felt a little better when, 13 years later, I still didn’t quite understand what happened with that fire. I mean, I get it now, but it took me a few read throughs. Other than that, I was disturbed by how annoyingly didactic this novel is. “If you just go to school and save your pennies, you can rise out of poverty and racism and oppression, kids!” “Be one of the GOOD black people (Logans), children, not the BAD black people (T.J.) 1977 Newbery Medal.

3. Unleaving by Jill Paton Walsh

Rich, pages-long descriptions of the ocean. Thick, pages-long conversations between professors and students about the meaning of life and morality. If that’s what you’re into. Titled after one of my favorite poems. 1976 Boston Globe- Horn Book winner.

4. I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier

Did I tell you that Robert Cormier’s daughter works at my school… and last semester, she worked withe ME for a few weeks? How bizarre, how bizarre. Much like this book! A psychological thriller with two competing timelines. I’m not sure I figured out what was going on by the end of the book.

5. The Language of Goldfish by Zibby ONeal

Really enjoyed this book. It’s a short, delicate story of a stressed out 13-year-old girl, a budding artist, who can’t figure out how to grow up and may or may not be going crazy. I wish I had time in my busy reading schedule to give this one another read-through.

6. Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Read this one during my hellish day of air transportation. A certain classmate of mine *cough* Kristina *cough* hated it and called the main character silent, self-pitying, and self-loathing. I suspect this particular classmate is not an oldest child with gorgeous, spoiled younger sisters. 1981 Newbery Medal

7. Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

Love, love, loved this book. I wish that 95% of people writing mainstream, heterosexual YA romance/high school stories right now would read this and take extensive notes. It’s really pitch perfect.

8. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

A literal coming-of-age novel. Each chapter is an unfolding of Annie John’s life in Antigua, beginning with early childhood memories of idolizing her mother, through the social challenges of high school, and ending when she boards a boat for college off the island. Pretty readable, but I wasn’t in love.

9. House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

I read this using my patented, completely ineffective method of Wii Reading. Meaning – Read 10 pages, play one level of Donkey Kong Country Returns, Read 10 pages, play one more level. Consequently, I don’t remember much about this one.

10. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

This is a book about teenage soldiers in the Vietnam War. I expected it to be vaguely horrifying. It was. But I did not expect to actually enjoy the story. I did.

11. Remembering the Good Times by Richard Peck

Okay, there wasn’t anything WRONG with this book, plot-wise, content-wise, whatever. It was fine. However, all three main characters suffered from acute Dawson’s-Creek-itis, constantly waxing poetic about the Difficulty of Life, the Strength and Duration of their Friendships, the Horror of Growing Up. The three main characters are constantly running around talking about how close a friendship they have, how the three of them grew up together and have an unspoken bond of eternal trust. However, all three characters seem to have forgotten that A) They met A YEAR before the book’s main plot takes place and B) THEY ARE FOURTEEN. THEY ARE TOO YOUNG TO BE TALKING LIKE THEY ARE 50 YEARS OLD. /rant

12. Stotan! by Chris Crutcher

I forget that I like Chris Crutcher’s books so much… but there you have it. I do. Teen male camaraderie at its finest, and sports so well-rendered you’ll forget you hate sports.

13. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Yet another case of the I-Swear-I-Read-This-Book-But-I-Really-Can’t-Remember-Anything-About-It. I was dutifully impressed, however. So impressed, I would prefer not to write a paper on this book. Unfortunately, the syllabus begs to differ.

14. I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson

Ever read a book whose plot relies on some character revelation midway through the novel, and then you read it again and catch all the foreshadowing you missed in the first half of the book? Yeah, that happened here. Such a sad, sad book.

15. A Step From Heaven by An Na

Lyrical prose, vignette-style narration, depicting the suckiness of family life as a new immigrant. 2002 Printz Winner.

16. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Reading this for the umpteenth time, still tickled by Anderson’s wit and Melinda’s survival tactics. Will be spending a significant chunk of the semester thinking and writing and presenting about this novel… 2000 Printz Honor.

May 7, 2009

five books

1. Labor of Love by Cara Muhlhahn

This author was featured prominently in the documentary film, The Business of Being Born. I highly reccommend this film to anyone who plans on giving birth at some point in the future. We watched it twice. However, I do not highly reccommend this memoir. Cara is a competent, energetic midwife. She has a lot to say about her chosen field. She does not have an entire book’s worth of things to say. Granted, it is a personal memoir, but this is not a book about her practice – it is about Cara’s life journey, which has very little to do with midwifery and, in my opinion, isn’t terribly interesting. Maybe I’m picky, but I didn’t really want The Cara Muhlhan Story. I wanted A Midwife’s Story.

So watch the movie. Read this article. And if you want to read a book about being a midwife, pick up something else.

From me, this book will get a C -

2. The Last Summer (of You and Me) by Ann Brashares

Ann Brashares’s first step into the waters of adult fic… but she’s just dipping her toes, don’t worry. The characters – two sisters and their mutual best summer friend, Paul – are in their early twenties, not too far from the Sisters of Those Traveling Pants which are solidly Young Adult. The book takes place on Fire Island, the summer home of their youth, which puts the focus on their younger selves, relating more Stories Past than Stories Present. This is a book teens would like. This is a book that reminds me SO MUCH of one of my all time favorite reads, Summer Sisters – another “adult” book written by a YA author natch. It is similar in setting – Fire Island vs. The Vineyard – and spirit – themes of innocence, first love, loss, and indelible friendship.

This was a good book. But not great.

You get a B.

3. The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

This was everything I could want from a cookbook. I like looking at glossy pictures of fancy meals with expensive ingredients as much as the next girl, but whenever I hunker down and cook one, even one of RachRay’s “30 minute” meals, I end up flustered. It just takes too many trips to the store, too many unexpected difficulties, and Too Much Stress! How am I supposed to cook EVERY DAY? Which is where Alice Waters steps in. The first half of this big-honkin’ book is narrative about different meals and ingredients and preparation methods. The second half is recipes. Easy, delicious-sounding recipes, that are S-I-M-P-L-E.

I don’t need to know how to make Spanish-Style Chicken with Crispy Chorizo and Chimichurri. I do need to know how to make a white sauce. How to bake bread that actually rises. How to make kale taste delicious. This seems like an awesome wedding gift. I mean, if I don’t get a copy when I get married, I’ll be pissed. Okay, I probably can’t even wait until that hypothetical day of matrimony.

A+!

4. The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp

You’re going to pick up this book, read the first few pages and go “National Book Award Finalist???!! Um. What??!”

This is the smarter, funnier, more subtle older brother of Spanking Shakespeare (my two cents can be found here). Our narrator, Sutter Keely, is a senior slacker, teen alcoholic with a taste for the ladies. He pals around with his pothead best friend, when he’s not busy sipping on a 7&7 or irritating/sexing his voluptuous girlfriend. There are parties. There is romantic drama. There are teenage hijinks. This is not the stuff of a NBA-Winning Novel. But read on, friends, read on. Underneath Keely’s narrative hides The Truth About The World – that life isn’t as hilarious or forgiving as you want it to be, that nothing can cover up your deep pain, and change is not always possible.

The ending broke me in two.

This book deserves its award, and a solid A.

5. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

This is a book for English majors. For literary analysts, for symbol-lovers, for philosophers.

I am at least one of those, and I am still  having trouble finding what to say about this book. I’ll tell you about the part I liked most. You see, the narrator was researching a book. This is his story about his research on the man who invented the atomic bomb. A story about the writing of another, entirely different story. Weird, right? But the even weirder part is that somewhere during his research, our narrator has found a new religion. He peppers his narrative with the words and practices of Bokonon – a religion which the readers have no concept of other than what is presented on the page. Therefore, the book becomes not just a story about a story, but a story about Religion As A Whole. People As A Whole. Life As A Whole.

I didn’t get it. I wanted to get it. I wanted to look up the symbols and the meaning when I was on page 3, because I could tell there would be a lot.

I didn’t get it. But I loved it anyway.

Shouldn’t expect anything less than that from Mr. Vonnegut, right?

A

April 21, 2009

me & Jessica D

The year is 2001. I am a newly minted high school junior. I have a driver’s liscence and a car. I have two inseparable best friends. I have just quit my oppressive library shelving job as well as the tennis team. After seeing a book cover in a few magazines of choice – I am REALLY into magazines – I hunt it down and read it.

And am face to face with myself.

Jessica Darling lives in rural New Jersey.

I lived in rural New Jersey for thirteen years!

Jessica Darling is positively DISTRAUGHT when her best friend moves and leaves her, connected by letters.

I was left by my best friend, and we corresponded for years.

Jessica Darling is sarcastic, witty, and such a cynic.

I am sarcastic, occasionally witty, and despite my best efforts, remain a cynic!!

Jessica Darling is a Brain in a school full of idiots.

I am going to graduate valedictorian, and have been referred to by more than one classmate as That Smart Girl!!!!

Jessica Darling’s middle name is Lynn.

SO IS MINE!!asdkrjek!!!!!


Sloppy Firsts is about Jessica Darling, a high school sophomore whose best friend, Hope, has moved to the Midwest after her brother dies of a heroin overdose. Jessica is left alone, friendless except for a crew of bubbly, backstabbing cheerleaders and Scotty, her two-week-8th-grade boyfriend who still holds a candle. Her parents wish she was more like her older – and more  vapid – sister, she hates the track team but runs every night to fend off insomnia, and she’s so stressed her period has left the building. Only a strange relationship with the class druggie/man-whore – and best friend to Hope’s deceased brother – soothes her nerves, while simultaneously threatening any life-balance Jessica has left.

I fell in love with the book hard and fast. I had my own copy by Christmas. I could tell you the publication date for the second book. When I stumbled across Megan McCafferty’s professional bio on her website, I was stunned to find a snippet from my own, imagined CV: a high achieving student, working as a magazine editor and writer for YM ( I think), Cosmo, until she decided to write crossover books for teens and adults.

So I did what any fan-girl at the cusp of the Internet-era would do: I sent her an email expressing my admiration for her work, my uncanny similarities to her book’s heroine, and asking her career advice.

I was stunned when I got a personal response. The author of my Newfound Favorite Book wrote ME an email! She gave me sound career advice that I did not take (go to New York to get into publishing, or whatever city will support your job choice – much more important than your particular major), and although I am GLAD I did not pursue my high school career fantasies of Being Megan McCafferty, I still remember that email fondly.

Fast forward to the summer of 2003. Jessica (me, not Darling), is about to graduate. She has one less best friend, a long distance boyfriend, a college scholarship, a minor part in her school musical and enough stress to sink a few ships. Instead of waiting for the library to stock the sequel, Jessica drives herself to the bookstore and secures her very own copy of Second Helpings, and digs right in.

Second Helpings: Having determined that her ill-fated “relationship” with Marcus was a Huge Effing Mistake, Jessica Darling hopes to spend the rest of her life avoiding him – starting with a summer writing program and ending when he fails to show up to the first day of Senior Year. Instead, Jessica struggles to make her college choice – go with her parent’s wishes to keep her out of a post 9-11 NYC or sneak into Columbia? But when Marcus returns just in time to make friends with her new boyfriend, she can’t avoid Marcus – or her feelings – any more.

One thing I love about this series is the intentional throw-back feel of the narrative. Ms. McCafferty has stated that she wanted to write a book that felt like a John Hughes movie, and guess what? This girl likes John Hughes movies. The ending of Second Helpings is just as magical as any 80’s classic in a way that is so-romantic, it can only be found in teenage life.

There was a long haul between books 2 and 3, but worth the wait. Jessica was finishing her final week of her third collegiate year, hanging on by the slightest of threads. There were two concerts to perform at. There were papers to stay up all night writing. There were exams to kill her off. She would be leaving for a weeklong writing course on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan. And there was a boyfriend she had broken up with, but hadn’t left behind. Somewhere in there was the release date for Charmed Thirds. Shortly before this whole debacle, Jessica and her soon-to-be-estranged boyfriend went to her local independent bookseller to procure a copy, only to find out they’d never heard of the series and of course had not purchased any copies.

Uhhhhh……

So exams happened. She made it until Thursday afternoon, where she sat at her desk at work and made plans for the evening – it was a gorgeous day, and she was DONE! There would be drinking, she thought. She would be going out to the bar for one last night with her ex-boyfriend and some mutual friends. He was not returning to school the next year. Of course she would go out with him.

She emailed him about the plans, and he showed up fifteen minutes before the end of her shift.

“Wanna go to Midland?” he said.

“What for?” she asked.

“So you can go to Barnes and Noble and get that book you wanted.”

Well that’s certainly one way to a girl’s heart.

It was all a charming ploy to get back into her good graces, she realized later, as he suggested they also take in a matinee showing of Stick It, but it worked. She had her book. She read it mostly while on Beaver Island, when she wasn’t busy mulling over her boyfriend dilemmas, writing short-short stories about lighthouses, or napping with her forehead up against a van’s window. When she went back for a re-read, long after reuniting with the boy, she counted 5 dead gnats squished upon the pages.

Charmed Thirds is probably my favorite volume of Jessica Darling’s life. Marking a departure from the usual format – Jessica only writes during her school-breaks – as well as the familiar high school landscape, this is a book about growing up and finding your own way. Her collegiate adventures are varied – an internship that seemed perfect but turns out to turn her stomach, how to be a long-distance girlfriend to someone who doesn’t have a history of keeping it in his pants, and how to find friends and security in a city that would rather you have neither? Can you come out of college ahead, even if you’ve lost everything you thought you wanted?

The last chapter of this book brought me to tears. Granted, I was going through a similar College Relationship Struggle, but when I read it again, when the waters had cleared somewhat, I cried again.

August 2007. Jessica is a newly minted college graduate, and has just found a Real World Job (albeit part time). Things with her boyfriend are getting rocky again – oh, the differences between a Type-A-Female-College-Grad and a Free-Wheeling-Male-Still-In-College – and she is more than ready to sit down with her literary friend, Jessica Darling, for a reunion.

In Fourth Comings, Jessica is living The Life – she’s working (albeit struggling to pay rent) in The City, living with her best friend, Hope, and Marcus is back in the same time zone. But maybe their relationship isn’t quite in synch – when Marcus proposes, Jessica finds herself at a loss. Can she be a wife when her life feels so far from Settled Down? Shouldn’t she be jumping for joy at this point? Can her life in the city slow down enough to be committed to a 20-something who’s just NOW starting college?

Needless to say, I was feeling JD’s pain. But was so happy to find out that even though Ms. McCafferty threatened every book to be the last – and it seemed that she wrote books 3 AND 4 with this in mind – there would be a fifth.

Which brings us to the present. Not much has changed for Jessica-Me in the past year and a half, including my desire to run out and buy The Next Jessica Darling book on Day One. Jessica has finally surpassed me in age and experience. I have been the high school brainiac. I have felt far from my friend even when I am near them. I have been the long distance girlfriend, the confused collegiate, the surly friend.

Perfect Fifths: After a long separation, Jessica and Marcus are reunited in the most inopportune way – Jessica is late for a plane, Marcus is on his way home, and neither of them have spoken or seen each other for ages. They are far from the teenagers they were when they met, but the anxiety upon meeting brings it all rolling back, to both of them.

This book was Out There in terms of format – Third Person?? Inside Marcus Flutie’s head??!!??? Haikus???!!

But I loved it.

I didn’t think I would love knowing Marcus from the inside out. But I loved it.

I didn’t think I was much of a Jessica-Marcus fangirl. Maybe my descriptions  haven’t made it clear, but these books are about A LOT more than just Jessica and Marcus and their tangled relationship. It’s about Jessica and her parents and how they fight to communicate and understand one another. It’s about how even Hope, her best friend, can surprise and sadden her. It’s about how the girl you never thought you would really like – Bridget, the pretty, popular one – is really a complex human being and it’s YOUR fault for not adequately realizing her. It’s about what happens to all of Jessica’s high school friends. It’s about Jessica’s sister, the ditzy, blonde Bethany. It’s about Len Levy, the nerd turned Jessica’s first real boyfriend turned spurned lover. It’s about how your whole life unravels in front of you, and only makes sense looking back. And did I mention THEY ARE LAUGH OUT LOUD HILARIOUS!??

It’s not just about Jessica and Marcus and OhMyGodWillTheyGetTogether?!?

But I didn’t realize how much I’d invested in the two of them until Perfect Fifths.

I didn’t know how cool it would be to see my name in the Acknowledgments section in the back of the book either :-P

I’m sad that there will never be another Jessica Darling book, but I’m happy I got to see her on into adulthood. I’m happy that, unlike me who is still stuck between Book Four Jessica and Book Five Jessica, our heroine finally found a place for herself in the world. I’m happy I’m free to read and reread and reread until I get cataracts and can’t see.

This series will always be one I emulate, one I aspire to, and one I hold near and dear.

Thanks, Megan. It’s been a fun ride.

Megan McCafferty Online | Retroblog | Indiebound Link


April 15, 2009

A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

This book is part of the fairly new phenomenon of Bloggers Writing Books. I’ve long been an advocate of Blogs By Book Writers (meaning they wrote the books first) I’m not sure how I feel about this new clashing of media. I read Gluten-Free Girl by Shauna James-Ahern because I liked her blog, particularly, this story. The book I found good, but not transcendent. A very foodie book, which is probably transcendent for those who suffer from Celiac Disease, but despite my interest in food, I am not interested in the differences between Amaranth flour and Rice flour, nor will I go into debt over a bottle of olive oil. THAT BEING SAID, I did finish Gluten-Free Girl in less than a day – very engaging, well-written, and interesting – even to a  non-foodie, non-gluten-free girl :-)

Anyway. The point I’m trying to make is, I picked up Gluten-Free Girl because of Shauna’s blog.

But I picked up A Homemade Life because it was chilling on the table at Barnes and Noble, and I brought it home later from the library because I’d heard many-a-good word about it. Only after I read a few chapters, got sucked in, and hid it from myself until vacation did I notice the ornate red text running under the author’s name:

“The creator of Orangette”

I’d never read Orangette before this book, but I have definitely added it to my blog reading list (which recently warranted the creation a Foodie category, btw). This book is a treat. It’s a great example of how blogging can beget good writing – it’s full of personal essays that lead the reader toward a recipe, a recipe that played a role in the author’s life. The recipes aren’t fancy – nothing so strange that you’d need a picture to ease you into eating it. Riffs on home-cooking, mostly. Banana-bread with chocolate chips and candied ginger. Her late father’s potato salad. But really, the recipes were second billing to the stories. Scoops of the author’s life, some amusing, some tragic, some romantic, some fanciful, some heart-wrenchingly sad. It’s a book about food for people who like life more than they like food, really.

Loved every page of it, and handed it directly to my mother. It’s just that kind of book.

Kind of makes me wish every one of my favorite bloggers had a book like this to show off with.

Author’s Blog |Amazon Link

March 26, 2009

slow reading

It’s a slow book month this March.

Other than In Defense of Food, nothing’s really grabbing me and insisting that I pay attention. At best, I’ll read while I eat, or at the gym, or while I’m waiting for something. At worst, I’m forcing myself to flip pages.

Humph.

I read Prom for probably the 3rd or 4th time, trying to read for interesting writerly bits. I think I enjoy this book more on audio – it just reads well aloud with a good voice actress. Also – trying to read LHA for writerly expertise is like studying a wall to figure out how it stands up. It just DOES. And it’s such a great wall, you don’t want to start pulling bricks out just to figure out how they fit together!

Speaking of Better On Audio – The Princess Diaries as read by one of my many girl-crushes, Anne Hathaway? Yes, yes YES. This book is a lot more charming than I recalled. Definitely worth a second try.

My boss has been pushing this book since I first arrived at this lovely library, so I really felt it my obligation, as her faithful employee, to give it a shot. I assumed it was going to Knock Me Out Of My Socks. It did not. But I found it a pleasant read, if not awe inspiring. It’s my opinion that a lot of Adult Type People like it because of the English teacher, who is this archetypal Tough-As-Nails-But-Really-Loves-Education kind of character… but I found her to be… um… undesirable. FYI, in my book, a teacher that forces you to read and therefore eventually appreciate Shakespeare is not your friend.

Last month’s Graphic Novel that I forgot to read in February. Features comic shorts from lots of different artists, all featuring a slice-of-life story from the dreaded Middle School. The first time I’ve read a Graphic Short Story and it was a little off-putting – like 90% of short stories, the endings just ENDED, leaving you to tie together the strings of the story. I wished the art was a little more visually pleasing, but other than that, it’s worth a read.

Got this book for Christmas a few years back. Thought it was going to be a great match – I am a person who loves books AND a person who wants to write them! Of course I would like to know how to Read Like A Writer, especially since I am trying to cultivate a Book Study Habit.

That being said, the title is somewhat misleading. Or maybe I just don’t want to be led in Ms. Prose’s particular direction.

If I were to name this book, it would be How To Do Close Reading, as is useful for Writing English Papers in College.

I’m sure reading classics and such will indeed help your writing. But this is not a How To book – this is a Let’s Read Some Excerpts of Books That Do A Good Job Of Certain Things.

Fun, but D-E-N-S-E, and not precisely what I’d call helpful for my particular needs.

A creepy fairy tale. Not sure whether I liked Book or Movie more. What do you think?

Typical Jodi Picoult – twisty plots, multiple narrators,legal drama, medical maladies, and characters SO realistic and off-type they are almost unrealistic. This one is about a death row prisoner who is performing miracles behind bars, the young Catholic priest who serves as his spiritual adviser (who also just happened to cast the last vote in a hung jury that sentenced his advisee to death), the mother of the prisoner’s victims, whose surviving daughter is going to die from a congenital heart defect unless she gets a transplant, and the ACLU lawyer who is challenging the prisoner’s lethal injection so he can die and donate his heart to said child.

Enough said.

Out of all the aforementioned books, I think I liked this one the most.

Even though it broke my heart juuuuust a little.

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