Saturday, December 2, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

When I was visiting Pennsylvania in October, my sister-in-law and I sat on her couch scrolling through Instagram. One of us came across the Instagram account Novels & Noms. I love book clubs, because they keep me accountable. And the idea of an online book club is appealing to me because of the convenience. Plus, I'm in critical danger of not hitting my Goodreads goal for the year, so I'm happy to use all the motivation I can get.

All that is background for how I came to stay up until nearly two o'clock this morning finishing Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.
From the first page, I liked the writing in the book. It flowed and was pretty and made me immediately invested in the characters. But I couldn't really get into the story for several days, maybe a week. 

After missing the November 30th deadline I had set for myself (it was, after all, the November selection), I went on lockdown last night. At first I was forcing myself to read, but then a flip switched when I read on paper feelings and experiences and relationships that I'd had my whole life and had never been able to articulate. I read about a mother and daughter who love each other but, for reasons neither one can articulate, resent each other? Sometimes dislike one another? At the very least, live in a near-constant state of tension. But Celeste Ng articulated it. She summed up a lifetime of fights and disagreements and misunderstandings in a revelatory way. I don't mean to imply that the story mirrored my own life. There aren't many similarities, actually. But the emotions of the story rang true to me.

For that and many more reasons, I'd recommend the book to pretty much anyone. 

But that's not actually why I decided to break this blog's silence after two years. Instead, I just wanted to put this down in writing and send it out to the world: Does anyone know if the author is a big Grey's Anatomy fan? Here's why I ask. Two of the main characters are named Lexie and Izzy. There's a Mark and a Warren. There's a horse named Jackson and a family named the Averys. Lexie's middle name is Grace. There's a neighbor named Mr. Yang. And the character that drives the whole story forward, while not really being part of everything that happens, is named Mirabelle, which in my mind sounded a lot like Meredith. Okay, so that last one is a stretch. But really. Am I supposed to believe those names are all just coincidence?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Second Star by Alyssa B. Sheinmel

"What does it feel like to be 
ready and willing 
to take on an ocean like this 
only to be told that you're 
not allowed to leave dry land?"

I picked up this book because I was captivated by the cover, but I bought it because the main character happens to share my name.

Second Star is a modern-day retelling of Peter Pan, with Wendy as the narrator. Either I've been consistently picking great books lately or my rating standards have relaxed, because I gave this book another 4/5 stars on Goodreads. I choose to believe it's the former. This was one of those amazingly written novels where there's nothing weird or distracting with the author's style, so you're simply able to focus on the story she's telling.

I want to be careful with this write-up, because I don't want to spoil anything. I loved this book so much because it was unexpected, and I wouldn't want to ruin that for anyone.

Perhaps what is most enchanting about this book is the way that it obviously embraces the story of Peter Pan without simply copying it. This book would be marvelous even if there were no Wendy, Pete, or Belle. It's a great story in its own right. It has a lot to say about grieving and growing. It teaches wonderful lessons about the delicate transition between childhood and adulthood, about how sometimes the only thing we have to keep us going is hope. Faith. Belief. Whatever word you want to attach to those times when everything around us seems to be shouting, "NO," but something deep within us quietly but consistently breathes, "yes."

The book ends in a less-than-final manner, but I think that's okay. I think the very nature of this book requires imagination and an acceptance of the unknown. And the surfing theme throughout the book teaches great lessons about doing hard things:

[O]nce you make a decision to take a wave, you shouldn't change your mind. No matter how big or how small the wave, once you paddle into it, the surest way to get yourself pummeled is to try to change direction instead of riding it out.

I really loved this book. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a quick read who needs reminded that things, people, and events aren't always what they seem. And sometimes allowing a little magic into your life is exactly what you need.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

"I smiled at the stacks, inhaling again. 
Hundreds of thousands of pages
that had never been turned, 
waiting for me."

I know I'm kind of late to the Shiver train. I've had a lot of friends read and recommend this over the years, and I always intended to get around to it. So when I met a friend for lunch this week and she gave me her copy, insisting, "Read this," I complied.

I gave this book 4/5 stars on Goodreads. While the middle dragged a bit for me, it well-written, interesting, and lovely. The narrator, Grace, is a strong heroine who doesn't allow her independence to prevent her from freely falling for Sam. And in a refreshing reversal of traditional YA gender roles, Sam depends on Grace, her intelligence, her calm demeanor, and her quick reactions in several crucial moments throughout the book.

There are some obvious comparisons that can be made to Twilight in the way wolves communicate with one another or the way the lead female character has always felt slightly out of place, like she might belong better among the supernatural. But for the most part, this book stands on its own wonderfully. I think that has a lot to do with a strong female lead, as I already mentioned.

One of my favorite aspects of this book was how assertive Grace was in her relationship with Sam. She's not afraid to make her wishes known. I loved that.

I'd recommend this book for anyone who enjoys Young Adult romances. I really don't think you even need to be especially interested in the supernatural aspects of the book. Although, if you think too hard about Grace's less-than-platonic attraction to the wolves, you might get a little weirded out.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - He's Still Our Atticus

This post was originally published on my personal blog, but because this blog has been neglected for far too long, I thought I would post it here as well. What follows is my response to the complaints of so many that with the publishing of Go Set a Watchman, the heroic Atticus of our youth has somehow changed.

"My Atticus" from Life in Limbo

I stayed up past my bedtime to finish reading Go Set a Watchman for book club tomorrow (well, technically, later today). And even though I should be getting some sleep, I can't stop thinking and feeling about this book. So I'm blogging.

It wasn't until the day of the book's release that I learned about Atticus-the-racist and Atticus-the-Klan-member. But I knew I'd still buy and read the book; how could I not? I was prepared for the worst. I was prepared to hate this different version of my literary hero. I was all set with my most dependable emotional defense mechanisms, intent on not allowing whatever happened in this book to color my view of To Kill a Mockingbird. I resolved to finish the book and quickly set it aside if that became necessary.

But all of these preparations were uncalled-for.

I don't care what anyone says. I don't care if you think that the characters evolved between Harper Lee's draft of Go Set a Watchman and her writing of To Kill a Mockingbird. For me, the Atticus Finch that I just read across 278 pages is the same Atticus Finch I have idolized since eighth grade. And I want to explain why.

I think my relationship with To Kill a Mockingbird will sound similar to most. It was required reading in junior high, and after we finished the book we watched the movie. I loved both. Like many people do, I saw my own father in Atticus. My dad, the defense attorney who taught me to believe in the presumption of innocence with a fervor that would shape my education and career goals. The man who taught with gentleness, kindness, and love. Yes, of course, Atticus was my father in so many ways.

And I think both men--the one who worked hard to provide me with a comfortable upbringing and the one in black and white print who will forever look like Gregory Peck in my mind--played a role in my decision to attend law school. Obviously my dad had more of an influence there, always talking to me about the law, sharing his love with me. But the first thing I hung on my refrigerator when I moved to Omaha, a week before starting law school, was a laminated quotation from To Kill a Mockingbird wherein Atticus extols the benefits and necessity of the jury system. I read that quote often, a near-constant reminder of why I was there, doing what I was doing.

Toward the end of law school, I had a few unsettling experiences. It might not seem strange from an outsider's perspective, but it was hard for me to handle. My dad saw me compete in and win a regional trial team competition, and the way he spoke to me afterward informed me that the dynamic between us had shifted ever so slightly. He was complimentary about my performance, as any good father would be, but there was more to it than that. He seemed to admire what I had done. He treated me like his equal. This happened a few more times. Once he called and asked me a legal question. My dad is brilliant, but he was asking me a question. I'm brand new in this profession. My dad is still my example and the embodiment of so many goals I have for myself. But in my childhood, that example seemed unattainable. He was perfect in my eyes. He was, in so many ways, a god.

As I grow older and my understanding of the law deepens, I'm confronted with the fact that my dad doesn't know everything. This is something I honestly would not have believed 15 years ago. Along similar lines, I have finally developed a social and political identity entirely separate from my parents'. My dad sometimes makes comments that startle me. I have a hard time understanding some of his political views. When we disagree, I am made more aware of his humanness. These subtle shifts in our relationship haven't led to me loving or respecting my dad any less. Instead, I respect and love him differently. I'm an adult, and a parent/child relationship looks different from a parent/adult-child relationship.

So, back to the book. I don't think it's spoiling much to tell you that Atticus can accurately be described as racist. But you know what? So is Jean Louise. I mean, it was written in the 50's. But the father's and daughter's brands of racism are definitely different.

Jean Louise is more liberal than her father; she thinks states should desegregate. She believes an individual's potential in life should not be hampered by his skin color. But at the risk of sounding like an apologist, I'd submit that Atticus actually agrees with this latter belief. He just has a more paternalistic view about the process. He has an us/them mentality and seems to think that "we" know best; "they" aren't ready for equal rights. He doesn't seem to resent the progress that has been made since the Civil War. But he does think that progress should continue at a "natural" pace rather than being forced too quickly. Jean Louise holds the simpler view that all men are created equal, and there's nothing equal about waiting for change.

When Jean Louise realizes the views her father holds, her world seems to fall apart. She feels like her childhood was built on lies; her father defended a black man accused of rape on principle but now talks about blacks like they're less-than. Jean Louise implicitly realizes that the father of her childhood looks different from her position as an adult. In similar fashion, the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird looks different from the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman. But isn't that what you'd expect? In Mockingbird, Scout sees her father as a god. In Watchman, Jean Louise grapples with the understanding that her father is human.

I don't think the two Atticuses are inconsistent. I don't think you have to abandon your admiration of one in order to accept the other. I think the two books and the two Atticuses and the two Scouts are representative of the divide between childhood and adulthood. A loss of innocence. The shedding of naiveté. And I think it's simplistic and unfair to say, "Oh, treat this as an unfinished manuscript. It's not really a companion to To Kill a Mockingbird. It shares only the barest similarities." That takes away from the beauty of Go Set a Watchman. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking book because it forces you to confront how we treat our heroes and idols and how we react when we realize they're flawed. I can't separate that lesson, which is contained between the covers, from that same lesson that is taught when we, as readers, hold Mockingbird and Watchman side-by-side and ask ourselves, "Who is my Atticus?"

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Witch of Little Italy by Suzanne Palmieri

"I knew my moment with Mama was lost. 
Everyone else was taking over. 
But then--then she turned and caught my eye, 
smiled and winked. 
A warmth, better than the summer sun, 
seeped into my bloodstream. 
She wasn't forgetting me."

Every book club in the world should read this book.  There’s just so much to it. I know with my old book club the discussion would have gone one of about a million different ways. To begin with, you have a great story. A little bit of magic, but nothing that would turn off the non-fantasy lovers out there. You have a theme of domestic violence that’s always ripe for discussion. There’s a love story, a recurring tragedy: “The day the Amores died” (though to clarify, the tragedy itself doesn’t recur, just its presence in the story), babies, mysteries, dual narrators, and the list goes on.

But what can’t be overstated is this book’s incredible theme of motherhood, which presents itself in so many forms. More specifically, you see the theme of mother-daughter relationships. You have examples of relationships that work as well as ones that don’t. You see reality in the swing between devastating regret and euphoric happiness that seems to always be waiting around the corner for mother and daughter. I found it masterful that Palmieri created a story with so many mothers when there were really only 4 main characters in the book—and three of them have the same mother! You see mothers of large families, several mothers with only one child, and even some with none. I especially appreciated the mother figures that came in the form of aunts and grandmothers, showing the complexity of motherhood that is inherent in womanhood. 

I could talk forever about the mother-daughter theme, but I’d like to briefly touch on something else I loved about this book. The entire story centers on Elly regaining her memory. (Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything; it’s right on the back cover of the book.) What Palmieri was so good at was making you feel like you were remembering things along with Elly. The story builds on each chapter that came before. Pieces of memories are shared out of context, and when they’re placed into context, you feel like you’re remembering. The author does this with her foreshadowing as well. She gives you enough to make you say to yourself, “I wonder if…” and then when it happens you think, “Ohhhhh, yeah. Now I remember. I thought maybe that was it.” I don’t want to ruin anything, so I’ll just say the best example of this was with the story about Cat. Well done, Suzanne Palmieri. Well done.

This book probably won't make any required-reading lists, but if you want to read a book that's really good for discussion, I recommend The Witch of Little Italy. And if you read it and don't have anyone to talk to about it, TALK TO ME! I finished the book nearly a week ago and can't stop thinking about it. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica

My favorite part of this book? When it ended. I hated it. I don't know that I've ever applied the term "mind-numbingly boring" to a book before, but it definitely fits here. I was on page 100 before I conceded that the book would not get any better, and since I had already invested so much I didn't feel like I could quit. Oh how I wish I had. If you know anything about me and my relationship with books, you should see a big red flag right about now. You should be thinking, "But wait. Wendy doesn't hate books." And you'd be right. As much as I'd love to write a book someday, I know I'm not actually capable of doing so. Therefore, when someone actually accomplishes that feat, I tend to respect them. I give them the benefit of the doubt thinking, "Well, it's better than I could do." I couldn't even bring myself to do that here.

My main complaint? The author is just plain irritating. I spent 302 pages festering with annoyance. The way he writes, his thought process, his personality all just grated on my nerves. The most annoying thing, though, was the organization of the book. Or maybe I should say the lack thereof. Dublanica supposedly set out to write a book about his experience as a waiter. By the title, I was clued into the fact that there would be some complaining in the book. I figured I would enjoy a funny little memoir full of stories of stupid restaurant customers that act as a microcosm of society. Instead I got a messy conglomeration of self-indulgent horn tooting and vast generalizations with repetitive and crassly recounted examples. Several times the author admits he is arrogant. Well guess what, Steve. That doesn't make it okay. Nor does it somehow make it entertaining to read about.

Another complaint? Overuse of the word "yuppies". Any time an author has a favorite word he or she uses in every chapter,  it screams ignorance. (Stephenie Meyer and "surreptitiously," anyone?) Get a freaking thesaurus. But this particular issue screams even louder considering that the term he favored no longer applies to society. I recognize that Dublanica studied psychology in college (though for some reason his book is plagued by several references to debunked Sigmund Freud theories), so he might not know this. Yuppies were a class of people (young urban professionals) that emerged in the 1980's. And the term stayed in the 1980's. People trying to revive it in the twenty-first century sound old and out-of-touch. Dublanica is no exception. 

Okay, but the actual reason I hated this book is its whiny angst. I'm aware that term is inherently redundant, but there's no better way to say it. As I turned each page I was thinking, "Get over it," or, "Cry me a river," or, "SO WHAT???" I had several professors in college say that if you ever saw that note written in a margin of your paper, "So what?" you knew you had work to do. I'm at a loss as to why this man's editor never gave him that helpful note. Perhaps he didn't have enough ink in his pen to write the note 302 times.

At this point, I'd like to digress. Forget about the book and let's just talk about jobs in a service profession. Any time you're working with the general public you risk the frustrations that accompany the masses. I feel like I have plenty of room to say this. I work as a court clerk. I literally spend every day working with people from all walks of life. I deal with the wealthiest attorneys in the state (or, usually, their runners) and homeless men. I interact with drug dealers, drug users, Mormon moms, immigrants, and Judges. Trust me, I know how taxing it can be to work with these people day in and day out. In that regard, I suppose you could say I should be more sympathetic to the plight of waiters as it appears in this book. But guess what? I'm not. The author worked in a high-end restaurant. I'm sorry, but no matter what he thinks, he did not see a true sampling of society there.

One section of his book states, "I've seen people get married and divorced. I've seen babies being born and parents mourning the loss of children. I've waited on people celebrating birthdays and  grieving at funeral repasts. I've helped people when they had heart attacks and seizures. I've witnessed customers being kind and cruel. I've met the rich and famous and the poor and common. I've spoken to nuns and priests, rapists and pornographers, criminals and cops. I shook hands with soldiers and politicians. I've looked upon the beautiful and the ugly" (192).  He just described a morning on the front counter at the courthouse. And guess what? I'm still able to enjoy my job. Dublanica acts like working with people is a curse. He's in the wrong line of work. The thing I love most about my job is how I'm able to learn from so many types of people. He acts like society is a disgusting pool of people lesser than himself. I have no tolerance for people who do nothing but complain. Make a change in your life or make your life work.

Finally, I was irritated that this entire book was about writing this book. Maybe that sounds confusing, but it's actually pretty straightforward. Every chapter he talked about his book deal, gathering stories for his book, wanting to write a book, having writers block about his book. JUST WRITE YOUR BOOK ALREADY. The way he put the thing together, it was like this agonizingly long introduction. You always felt like you knew what the book was supposed to be about but only because he told you a million times and not because you were actually able to read it for yourself.

Ugh. Like I said, irritating.

Am I being too harsh? Have you read the book? Did you feel the same as I did or did you take a different outlook? Are you familiar with the author's website Is it any better than the book? Let me know!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

"My compulsion to be always on the move began to fade. 
But I liked to go for long walks at night. 
I often walked west toward the river. 
The city lights obscured the stars, 
but on clear nights, 
I could see Venus on the horizon, 
up over the dark water, 
glowing steadily."

Apparently I'm making a habit out of starting books with a completely incorrect impression of what they're about. Jen read this book forever ago and told me then that I had to read it. That must have been in the midst of one of her Holocaust-related reading binges, because I thought this book was about the Holocaust. And yes, that error would have been easily corrected by reading anything about the book, but I make it a point to not read the summaries on the backs of books because I think they give away too much.

Anyway, this book is NOT about the Holocaust. That's particularly interesting because the book has been sitting on the shelf for nearly a year, and the reason I put off reading it is because I was never in the right mood for the heaviness of a WWII book. Turns out, it was better that I read it when I did. While I cannot relate to any of the details of this book, the story seemed to have this theme of moving on. I do not mean to minimize the suffering of Walls' life by drawing a parallel to my own, but this book did a lot to bolster my spirit. In just over two months, I'll move away from my home and family to attend law school. I had a hard enough time when I moved an hour away for my undergraduate education, and I've really worried about my ability to make a new life for myself. But reading how the Walls siblings each, at their own time, moved to New York with little more than the bus ticket that got them there and successfully created their futures, I couldn't help but grow slightly more confident about my ability to do the same.

However, there is much more to this book than the relatively happy ending that most of the children find. In short, the book is the author's story of her nomadic childhood with two parents who were selfish at their best and even, at times, entirely negligent. Her father's alcoholism combined with a sincere disdain for authority kept him frequently jobless, traveling throughout the deserts of the west and, eventually, back to his childhood home in West Virginia. Reading about all that the kids were up against--not only the horrible living conditions. the long spells with little or no food, or the inability to make friends and fit in but also the irresponsibility of the parents and apparent disregard for their children's welfare--it is remarkable that the children were able to so efficiently achieve their goals. 

As I read this book, I was so angry with Jeannette's parents. And I'm ashamed to admit I was, at times, even angry with Jeannette when she would forgive her father after he exhibited particularly devastating behavior. But now that I think back, I realize that frustration was probably because of my ignorance regarding the true meaning of unconditional love. On a very basic level, I can understand Jeannette's relationship with her father, because I too have always believed in my dad, have always seen in him my hero. Growing up, I was happiest when he was telling us bedtime stories. My dad and I have many similar interests, and I seek his approval. But if I'm being honest, it's so easy to love my dad. That love has never been tested. I've never had to forgive my dad. He has always been stable, reliable, and a perfect example of hard work and morality. Considering all of this, I am truly amazed at Jeannette's love for her father. 

I could keep going on about this book, because there's so much to digest. I recommend reading this to anyone. It is bound to change your life or at least how you view it.