Category Archives: Bookish

50 Years of YA, Part 1

Hey, guys!  I haven’t posted in a while.  I’ve been working on a post about my reading of Beartown by Fredrik Backman (it’s brilliant, I must say.  Everyone should read it).  However, I’m not quite ready to post about it yet.  My review has been giving me a bit of writer’s block, so I’m holding off on it for now.

Some of  you may know that 2017 is considered the 50th anniversary of the YA novel (based off of the publication date of The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton).  To celebrate the year, Booklist has compiled a list they call “Booklist’s 50 Best YA Books of All Time.”  It starts with Hinton and ends with our more contemporary literature.  While they openly admit to this not being a full-proof list, they have a number of interesting titles on it.

I love YA, like many readers, and I thought it would be fun to see how many of these books I have read and could read over the summer.  I don’t think I’m going to read all of them, but I’m going to make an effort to get through as many as I can.   As I go through this YA journey, I figured it would be the perfect sort of review to share with you.

I had read several books on the list before it was published, and I have since found lots at my local library, so I have a small list to share with you today.  More are on hold or sitting on my TBR shelf, so this will certainly be a post that will have a “Part 2” and maybe a “Part 3.”  It’s also going to be much more informal than other posts I’ve made, but I’m good with that if you are, too!

So, without further ado, here’s what I have So Far:

 

#3: The Pigman, Paul Zindel

John and Lorraine have created a game out of prank calling people, which is how they first encounter Mr. Pignati, or The Pigman, whose grief over the loss of his wife leaves him desperate for companionship.  Their adventures with and without him will have you laughing and then regretting alongside them.

This book reminded me a lot of The Catcher in the Rye, which makes sense, considering they were published around the same time.  The story is told as though John and Lorraine are typing up their account of the events, and their voices (particularly Lorraine’s) greatly resemble Holden’s.  Moreover, they’re apparent disregard for consequences easily reminds the reader of a certain high school student wandering the streets of New York and contemplating ducks…

I liked this book, but there wasn’t necessarily anything spectacular about it for me.  I think because I was part of a generation whose authors were unafraid to touch on the tough subjects surrounding growing up, I find this particular book’s approach to grief and suffering to be commonplace.  Booklist says that, when it was released, it was one of the first books of its kind to address “teen life in all its darkness and complexity.”  For a first introduction to its themes and ideas, I would say it was probably shocking.  Zindel also does a great job of not writing down to his audience; even though the teens are telling this story, they don’t offer some cookie-cutter “moral” to the story in the end, which is always a “plus” in the world of YA.

Overall, I liked it a lot more than The Catcher in the Rye, and I can see why it was included on the list.

 

#6:  I Know What You Did Last Summer, Lois Duncan

[Do you guys remember that first book you read that freaked you the heck out?  For a lot of people, it was probably that “Scary Stories” series.  For me, it was Duncan’s masterpiece.  Goosebumps for days!]

Something happened last summer involving four teens.  They thought no one knew about it.  That is, until a stranger contacted one of them, saying he knew what had happened.  What follows is a dangerous series of events that ends in a “surprising” twist that “no one” can see coming!

I’ll be honest, though–I re-read this after I saw it on the list, and I now realize that 10-year-old me had a very simplistic idea of what “scary” is.

I can certainly understand its inclusion on this list.  This was also one of my first introductions to the processing of “guilt” as a teen (or, in my case, tween), and Duncan certainly hopes to achieve an intimate understanding of what someone might go through when faced like a situation like this.  All lame-movie-making aside, the inspiration behind the threat in this book is both personified and very real fear.

It was great to return to one of my childhood favorites.  Lois Duncan’s books are all sufficiently creepy and spooky, and it’s pretty cool to see one of them featured on this list!

 

#9: Gentlehands, M. E. Kerr

This book comes with a really interesting concept–a young guy develops a relationship with his grandfather, only to find out that the same man is a wanted Nazi officer.  Unfortunately, in this particular telling, I think the actual heart of this story was overshadowed by a rather lame love story.

Buddy comes from the rough side of the tracks, and Skye is the daughter of a wealthy family who visits for summer vacation.  Their connection feels rather inauthentic, and the added drama of the hatred and distrust from Buddy’s parents toward those with “money” detracted from the overall purpose of the story (in my opinion).  Also, I always find it so difficult, and therefore weird, to tell a summer fling story from the perspective of the guy.

I liked the idea of this book a lot, and it makes me wonder if accounts like it are out there.  But I don’t think I would recommend it as anything more than a romance.

 

#11: Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden

I think Booklist’s write-up of this one says it best:

“Garden’s novel, centered on Annie and Liza’s romance, revealed gradually through Liza’s memories, has all the iconic markers of teen romance, but it was truly groundbreaking: this teenage lesbian love story was the first of it’s kind to have a happy ending.”

I really enjoyed reading through this romance.  The story moves from friendship, to general acceptance of their identities, to discoveries considering how the world perceives them (incorrectly, I might add) and who they can turn to for help.  I like the parallel that appears between them and a couple of the other characters in the story.  And, for once, the flashback really seems to balance out the storytelling elements.  This one is definitely worth the read!

 

#14: Howl’s Moving Castle, Diane Wynne Jones

That’s right, folks–the very famous Miyazaki film was first and foremost a YA novel.  The same lovable Sophie appears to help the Wizard Howl in his escapades, just as the film portrays.

I’ll be honest–I found this book incredibly boring.  I don’t think it carried the plot well, and there were several parts of the book that I simply skimmed (without losing any part of the plot).  It is, perhaps, a perfect introduction to other fantasy novels (i.e. Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan), which I also struggle to get through.  Thus, for those who more greatly enjoy this genre, it may be a brilliant execution.  I, for one, will stick with watching the film.

 

#18: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Chris Crutcher

This book was actually a required reading title I read way back in high school, almost a decade ago.  Chris Crutcher, the author, actually came to our school to talk about his books (we could pick from a list of them, and I chose this one).  The actual plot of this story has faded for me, but I didn’t feel the need to re-read it, like IKWYDLS.

The one thing I know for sure is that Crutcher attempts to address the Tough Stuff in everything he writes.  This book alone deals with abuse, body image issues, high school drama, and so much more.  The characters are very relatable.  You feel for their experiences and recognize similarities in your own life, even if they don’t reach this extreme.

I think it’s great the Crutcher’s books are being used in the classroom (as many of these are, or might be).  One of the hardest lessons most people learn in high school is that there are no easy answers to most of Life, and authors who are unafraid to point that out in their work should be included in the curriculum.

At the same time, this was a school read, so I don’t know how fun it would be to read on your own time!  Jus’ sayin’.

 

Whew.  I need a break!

More to come in the future.  In the meantime, happy reading everyone!  If you’re looking for something fun to read over the summer, I suggest YA.

 

 

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Echo

EchoThis week, I listened to the audiobook Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan.  This book had a profound impact on me for so many reasons, and the greatest treasure of this story is that it’s written for children but has the power to speak to anyone.

Echo is four stories wound into one, one of which is almost a folktale, and three of which are about three different children–Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy–and their lives during the tumultuous time of World War II.  Each story is staggered and feeds into the next one, for one epic finale that I will try hard not to spoil here.  All I will say is that the one thing holding them together is a harmonica, which mysteriously appears in each of the stories.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but this book engaged me from the first page.  In a way, the stories were timeless even as they were attached to a time period.  Munoz Ryan follows her characters closely enough that important references to significant events like the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor serve as landmarks more than important plot points.  I also think this particular novel, in using a historical setting, still has a profound message to offer to contemporary American culture.  As I was listening to the stories, some of the conversations and experiences felt by central and exterior characters gave me goosebumps, because what was said in the 1930’s and ’40’s sounds disturbingly like some of what is rising in our political climate today.  It was almost scary, as an adult reading a children’s book about people who lived during Hitler’s reign, to think about there being any parallels between that time and ours, but Munoz Ryan subtly points them out–whether intentionally or unintentionally–in the most profound ways.  Even as a historical fiction book, this story is timeless.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this book in consideration of its main genre (juvenile/young readers), is the fact that each story ends at first with a cliffhanger.  All four characters come to a time when it seems that hope is lost, and their story pauses until the very end.  And, really, the end does not directly address what happened to immediately resolve whatever situation the characters were left in.  It is set, instead, several years into the future when all three of the children are grown and reflecting back on their experiences.  I am proud of Munoz Ryan for including this in a book meant for young readers.  I think, too often, we are quick to protect children from the reality that life offers no easy answers.  This is particularly true in literature.  Books have quick resolutions–both because of the shorter texts for easier reading and because the Happy Ending seems so very important.  Munoz Ryan forgets both of these things, and writes a lengthy text full of despair and angst.  The Happy Ending is still (relatively) present, but readers have to commit to the story to get there, which makes it that much more beautiful.

The children in this book experience serious hardships in life; however, despite some of the extremes experienced by them contributed by the time period and the story itself, the messages are still relatable.  Friedrich is bullied for most of his life due to his birthmark.  While children today (hopefully) do not have to fear that they will be sterilized or sent to a concentration camp for not meeting a particular higher standard of “human,” bullying is an issue that culture is still trying to resolve.  Moreover, body image issues are a very real and present problem with people of all ages, even those who are very young.  Friedrich’s experiences are still relevant today, and I’m sure many young people have felt comforted and connected to him for what he went through.

Friedrich and Mike are also missing parents.  Mike is an orphan who feels very responsible for his little brother, and Friedrich’s mom died shortly after he was born.  In a time when broken families and single parents are a perfect example of the norm, young people must feel connected to these boys who are raised and adopted by single individuals (Mr. Howard, of course, serves as a good example of the “stepfather,” or the newer adult addition to a family).  Each of these boys experience their struggles around specific contexts, but the timelessness of belonging and love lead their stories to speak to people today as well.

Ivy’s family is transient, and she is constantly experiencing what it is like to be the New Kid.  Her story is unique due to the nature of her dad’s job (in connection with the Japanese internment camps) and her special school, but the anxiety she experiences over making new friends and going to a new school are extremely relevant.  Moreover, she has a family member in the armed forces and for the first time her life must learn how to live normally without her brother with her.  These emotions she goes through can mirror what children and young readers still experience and provide them comfort that they are not alone in what they are going through.

These struggles, while told through a child’s perspective, can also speak profoundly to any reader.  I was rooting for each of the characters to find success, to be safe.  Each segment held my attention to the end, and I desperately wanted to reach the point in the story where I would know that everything would be okay.  Each experience spoke to me in my past and present, and in so many ways brought me comfort that I didn’t even know I needed.

Your FateMunoz Ryan’s storytelling talent goes beyond just captivating characters; it shines brightly through the plot that twists and winds in several directions until, quite unexpectedly, even the mysterious folktale becomes linked to everyone else.  The coincidences are a stretch, but not unbelievable.  Everyone is brought together at the right place and right time because of powerful circumstances, and not convenience.  In every chapter and on every page, Munoz Ryan builds toward a crescendo that resounds with hope and community, reminding us that these characters endured and flourished and that they found a place they belonged.  There are many great storytellers out there who manage to make small connections between the beginning and end of their tales, and Munoz Ryan should be included among them.

One way in which the audiobook was made even better than the physical one, in my opinion, is that the music associated with each person and on each instrument was played and sung in the backgrounds of the chapters!  Harmonicas haunted the openings and closings of each Part.  Pianos and singers hummed out familiar tunes in context with the stories.  It definitely pulled you into the story more, and as a music lover I appreciated the aesthetic results.  It makes me wonder how you could enjoy this book in print without also looking up music and songs to accompany when they are mentioned in the story!

I cannot say enough that, regardless of your age, your preferred genres, your experiences, or your perspectives, you should read this book.  The message is more than timeless; it’s relevant.  The stories reflect on an important time in our country’s history (a time that has a certain amount of significance today), and yet it is coupled with just the right about of fantasy to make it magical.  Echo left a big impression on me that will resound for many books to come.

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Read. Learn. Repeat.

This weekend, I finished listening to John Elder Robison’s Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening.  This is the second book I’ve read by Robison, the first of which was Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s.

Switched On recounts Robison’s experience in a study that looked at his brain’s reaction to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS).  As someone with a disorder listed on the Autism Spectrum, he had always struggled with understanding and expressing emotions.  This treatment was designed to get him “in touch with his emotional side,” so to speak.  He had a positive, though not “cured,” reaction to this treatment, which is perhaps evidenced best by the fact that he reads his own audiobook with a certain level of inflection and intonation you would not expect from someone with Asperger’s.

This book was a stretch for me, which is why I chose to listen to it on audiobook.  The language was extremely technical, as Robison himself is most comfortable in the world of machines and electronics.  He compared his brain experience to his work in the music industry, which was interesting although impossible for me to understand.  Some of the technical jargon and scientific language was also difficult to follow.  While at times I worried this would detract from my understanding of what the memoir was trying to say, however, in the end I felt like I connected to Robison at the point where his voice took us.  The overarching message and story was very engaging and emotionally charged, as Robison expresses for the first time what it feels like to “feel” like other people do.

I personally take as many opportunities as I can to learn more about people on the Autism Spectrum.  The way they perceive the world is fascinating to me, and I want to know more about what struggles and obstacles they may be facing.  I think that we should all take advantage of opportunities to learn about people who are different.  We may never be able to understand everyone in every situation, but we can take small steps toward discovering the way the world looks to others.  For me, that sometimes means trudging through rather scientific memoirs on topics I don’t understand.  At the end of his story, Robison made me appreciate what he has gained from science’s assistance in his life; I can also understand his optimism toward future discoveries.  These are developments I don’t need for myself, but that I can rally behind and support for other people.

I’m in no way insinuating that I’m good at this all of the time, either.  In fact, I’m hardly good at it some of the time.  I really like reading books where the protagonist is just like me.  I want it to be easy to relate, and to feel like not only do I understand “her” (it’s usually a her), but also that we understand each other.

Still, reading is a wonderful opportunity to explore how others live.  That’s what we praise it for–we want to go to other lives in other worlds.  Stories like John Elder Robison’s offer people like me the perfect opportunity to do just that.

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The Week of the Two Memoirs

I love memoirs.  There’s something about reading about the human existence from a first-person perspective that can change the way you see the world.  I like reading essays written by people I’ve heard of, but I also like reading creative nonfiction on topics I want to know more about.

Thus, this week I listened to the audiobook version of Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging by Dick Van Dyke (read by the Man Himself), and I finished reading Boy Erased by Garrard Conley.

 

Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging

41yympjv-wl-_sx326_bo1204203200_It’s easy to bash on celebrity memoirs, because they are often full of phrases like, “I did this,” or “I remember when so-and-so recognized me as such-and-such.”  They also tend to be laced with lower level writing quality and riddled with hidden underwriters.  However, I don’t think it’s right to fault someone for how he/she got his/her book deal until we’ve tried out the content.  In all honesty, I prefer poor writing over underwriting, because I find it to be more authentic.  Thus, as long as a book appears to have been written by the actual celebrity in question, and I have an appreciation for said celebrity, I’ll usually try reading the memoir.

So, of course, as a lifetime “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” fan, I wanted to see what Mr. Van Dyke had to say!

The best part of this book was having Van Dyke read it to me.  There’s an additional layer of authenticity added to a writer’s work when you have the opportunity to hear his own choice of inflection on each word, and that is certainly true of this one.  Each chapter in the book has a smattering of stories (reminiscent of the storytelling habits of most of our 80- to 90-year-old grandfathers), and having Van Dyke make the connections between those tales with his words and intonation made the story that much more enjoyable.  His humor was easier to spot (or hear), and you could glimpse his sincerity in the rare moments where he got serious to discuss Truth as he saw it.

This book, as may be evidenced by the title and the age of its author (91!) is mostly about old age and growing older.  While I, at 24, couldn’t really relate to the struggles of failing health, lost spouses, and children and grandchildren, I could appreciate the wisdom Van Dyke has gleaned over nearly a century of living.  He has many nuggets of knowledge tucked between his stories that shed significant light on life today.  While he never dove deep into philosophy, he often addressed the presence of the “Big Questions” of human existence.

I think my favorite part in the memoir was the chapter about What Really Matters, based on Van Dyke’s experience.  He discusses such topics as how unproductive and unhealthy “hate” is, and how much easier and better it is to “help.”  My favorite quote from the entire book is:

I read constantly, mostly theologians and philosophers.  Among those whose book I have turned to repeatedly are Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tournier….The thing these writers have in common is that they mostly ask questions, either of themselves or others, but especially of those who claim to know all the answers.  Doubt shines through all of their writing, an unrelenting, resilient doubt that I relate to intellectually.  As I have grown older and, hopefully, wiser, I’ve come to see that there are no sure answers, only better questions–questions that get us closer to the truth about whatever it is we want or need to know.  Just knowing you don’t have the answers, in fact, is a recipe for humility, openness, acceptance, forgiveness, and an eagerness to learn–and these are all good things.

As a person of faith, this brief revelation speaks to me on a spiritual and intellectual level.  While I feel convictions about what I believe, I am most comfortable in environments that allow me to doubt and ask questions.  As someone who finds natural comfort in analysis, I prefer spaces in which nothing is known, so that I might posit my own ideas.  I am grateful to Van Dyke for sharing his own thoughts on this, and so boldly, as an important and significant reminder in this world’s current climate that none of us can surely know, and we can find comfort and understanding from that foundation.

Long story short, this is still just a celebrity memoir, but it is written and about a very significant member of American culture.  Van Dyke is a figurehead of many, if not most, of our childhoods, and his words deserve the reverence he has earned through the life that he is writing about.

 

Boy Erased

41za0h4lgql-_sy346_My experience with Conley’s story was entirely different than my experience with Van Dyke.  I had never heard of Garrard before I read about this book on Buzzfeed, and I actually selected this memoir to learn about its topic: conversion therapy.

In this book, Garrard Conley recounts his experience growing up gay in the South, and as a member of a devoutly Christian family.  He retells his story of coming out, sexual assault, and ultimately his exposure to Love in Action, an ex-gay therapy organization.  He recounts his experiences there, before, and afterward, and how these moments have impacted his life and his relationship with his family.

This book holds a special significance to me because, again, I am a person of faith.  I identify as Christian, although I hesitate to attach “Evangelical” to that anymore due to the way in which many people have warped the definition of that term to fit their political agendas in recent history.  I chose to read about someone who had taken part in conversion therapy because I wanted to understand what people of my faith have done–the damage to individuals and to the mission of Christ.  Despite my general association with the evangelical Christian establishment, I do not see homosexuality as an abomination or a choice.  Moreover, I see conversion therapy as a direct threat to the Gospel, and I think treating members of the LGBTQ community as sinners and outsiders is in direct contradiction to the cause of Jesus Christ.  However, most of my education on topics related to homosexuality and the Church have been one-sided, i.e. from the pulpit.  Thus, I have sought opportunities–like reading this book–to begin to understand the other side of this important issue.

That being said, Conley’s memoir resonated with me on a surreal level due to our similar backgrounds.  I have read reviews of his work that identified the text as too religious and riddled with biblical references that many didn’t understand or appreciate.  For me, however, these elements in Conley’s work gave me a connection to him I might not have had otherwise.  Each passage of Scripture he quotes, each reference he makes to a sermon or a statement by a church member, each prayer he prays, are phrases and statements I have heard and said in my own life.  In this way, his struggle was made more real to me.  I had little to fear in my upbringing as I heard these Scriptures and prayed these prayers; other than being a woman, I belonged in every way.  Conley, on the other hand, had everything to fear, and his references to Evangelical Christianity made that fear more palpable in my eyes.

I regret to say that, as much as I appreciated Conley’s story and ached for him in his struggles, I found his writing to be too elevated, and I felt like some of his accounts lacked real emotion.  I can understand why his writing may be in the style it is; he admires and respects excellent writers from throughout history, and his prose reflects that.  However, in a creative nonfiction way, he never reached a point where he tore into raw emotion.  He remained fairly reserved.  Again, I can understand why; this topic is so sensitive, so exposing, and as you see in the end the publishing of the book most likely ruined his father’s career.  In many ways it’s enough that he wrote the book.  However, the stories left me wishing I could sit down with him and have him tell them, like Van Dyke had, with his chosen inflections and enunciation.

That being said, the end of this book broke my heart.  Even in his reserved way of writing, Conley is revealing to his readers the reality of his situation now, after going through Love in Action.  In barest truth, he says:

I will open the LIA handbook, read a few sentences, and feel the old shame wash over me until I can no longer focus.  Once again, Smid’s voice will swallow my own before I have a chance to say anything.  I’ll face doubt, distrust my memories, spend hours trying to reconstruct scenes so charged with emotion they’ll seem impossible to pin down.  I’ll call my mother to ask for details, sit with her at a table and record her words, and nearly every time one of us will end up in tears.  My mother will apologize again and again.  I will try to comfort her, but I’ll fail, because all of it truly was as horrible as we remember it, and because it will never really go away, we will never be completely okay.  Our family will never be what it otherwise might have been.

And God.  I will not call on God at any point during this decade-long struggle.  Not because I want to keep God out of my life, but because His voice is no longer there.  What happened to me has made it impossible to speak with God, to believe in a version of Him that isn’t charged with self-loathing. My ex-gay therapists took him away from me, and no matter how many different churches I attend, I will feel the same dead weight in my chest.  I will feel the pang of a deep love now absent from my life.  I will continue to experiment with different denominations, different religions.  I will continue to search.  And even if I no longer believe in Hell, I will continue to struggle with the fear of it.  Perhaps one day I will hear His voice again.  Perhaps not.  It’s a sadness I deal with on a daily basis.

This is what leaves me angry.  Not with Garrard–heavens, not with Garrard.  With the people who claim to share my faith.  In an attempt to make someone look like our ideal model of a Christian, we have caused someone to lose his faith completely.

For all of those hurting like Garrard, I am sorry.  For everyone who has experienced pain at the hands of people who claim to preach love and forgiveness, I am sorry.  I am so sorry.

As I reached the end of this book, I realized this is a story we all should hear.  I knew from the beginning it was one I would benefit from learning, but now I recognize its even greater significance and purpose.  I don’t necessarily think everyone should try to read Conley’s book–after all, the writing is weighty at times, and I’m sure some people would have too hard of a time dealing with the graphic content at different points.  However, each person should seek out a story like his, and hear it firsthand or in writing.  Humanity as a whole needs to show more solidarity, and people who claim to have faith need to learn acceptance.  I feel blessed and broken to have experienced this memoir, and I’m proud to sing its praises in this setting.

 

As you can see, my memoir-reading spans the gamut.  This week’s exploration was particularly diverse, although each author landed on similar themes: Don’t hate, and demonstrate love.

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Fredrik Backman

Last weekend, I finished the book Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman—one of my favorite authors of this decade.  This is the third book I’ve read by him, and I’m looking forward to reading his novella, which was released in English in December, and waiting for his next book, set to be available stateside around summertime.

This was the first book I’ve read by Backman that didn’t leave me saying, “Wow!”  Because of this, I feel like reflecting back on my reading experience with him to kind of talk through why I felt this way about Britt-Marie was Here.  I’ve published a version of this post as a review on Goodreads, but I wanted to embellish it for further thought here.

I appreciated A Man Called Ove firstly for its similarities to The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson.  Both are great portraits of the elderly, and they read like a conversation you might have with your grandfather, or another aging relative.  Moreover, I enjoyed the quick wit that leapt out of very straightforward language.  Part of me wonders if this shouldn’t be attributed to the translator, but clearly Backman has an appreciation for quick and simple situational humor.  He seems like the kind person who can laugh at everyday occurrences.  Another aspect of Ove I loved was his affection for his wife.  One quote from the book that still sticks with me is, “People said Ove saw the world in black and white.  But she was color.  All the color he had.”  In this element, Backman managed to capture that part of our hearts that always breaks at the beginning of Disney Pixar’s “Up.”  It’s a huge component of what makes you invest in the man who is Ove, who might otherwise seem like nothing more than a grumpy old man.  Finally, I love how the opening chapter of this book hangs in the balance until you’ve almost forgotten it, and then, VERY near the end, you read (paraphrased), And that’s why Ove was standing in the store asking about an iPad.  All in all, Backman made you love his characters, watch their development, and get lost in love, laughter, and heartache over their general daily lives.

What I loved about My Grandmother Asked You to Tell You She’s Sorry stemmed from what I had also loved in Ove.  This story took a little longer to get moving, but it finished in perfection.  What I love about this story is how the reader is exposed to the nuances of the situations in ways that escape Elsa’s understanding.  Much like the humor hidden in A Man Called Ove, the harsh reality of life and death are tucked away in the passages of this one.  I also loved how all the lives of everyone around Elsa came together because of what her grandmother had done in life.  Each person served a purpose in the end, and the plot still felt plausible because they were all simply repaying the debt they owe to Granny.  At the same time, the reader really can’t predict everything that happens, so you’re left in this sort of awe over the results, and you can simply dwell in the emotions Elsa feels as well.  Moreover, as someone who is extremely close with her grandmother, I greatly enjoyed reading about another girl’s experience getting to know here mom’s mom.  I even appreciated the fact that this book alluded to the next, with the exodus of Britt-Marie and the promise of her own adventures.

Which brings us to the topic that’s really at hand.

I really, really, really wanted to enjoy this book as much as Backman’s other stories, but I simply couldn’t.  While the potential was there, it all fell flat.

When I first realized that there would be a story dedicated to Britt-Marie, I was pretty excited.  I felt that My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry only scratched the surface of her character.  She was dismissed, pretty much literally, throughout the entire story.  I figured she deserved her time in the spotlight.  In addition, I love when authors address mental illness and social disorders in their books by applying them to their characters.  Britt-Marie has no named disorders, but I would say it’s safe to assume she suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and perhaps some Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as well.  Moreover, several of her behaviors imitate those who are on the Autism Spectrum.  Regardless of what she is actually supposed to have—or to not have—her character spoke directly to the part of me that seeks to learn more about people who deal with these struggles.  I dove into the text with all the hope and excitement that accompanies getting to know an acquaintance a little bit better.

Unfortunately, as delightful as it was to witness her working through her situations and learning how to adapt, I felt that she still never gained any significance.  Unlike in My Grandmother…, however, she is the one who does a large amount of the dismissing.   The entire premise of the book is that Britt-Marie “was here,” in Borg, and the people will remember that she had been because the town has changed.  To be fair, a lot happens after Britt-Marie arrives in town, and a lot is going to stay different when she heads back out.  However, I felt that everything that happened probably would have still happened even if Britt-Marie had, in fact, not been there.  Unlike Ove and Granny, who drastically affected the lives of those around them (somewhat intentionally, mostly on accident), Britt-Marie remains a fairly passive character and does not strike me as a catalyst in the situations around her.  Despite her presence in the middle of the story (and the town), a lot of her encounters reveal her to still be the “fly on the wall.”  She doesn’t even manage to serve as the coach to the soccer team in the end because she has no license, so, while she supports them and takes the register, she has little influence over their actual experience.  Moreover, even in the moments where her actions do change the future, she doesn’t seem to take anything away from them.  While she has several opportunities to grow and change, she takes none of them, and is left pretty much where she started, except with a blue door on her white car—and she’s not even happy about it.

I also think that the story was lending itself toward a rather specific outcome in the end, but rather than taking the narrative to that place, Backman tried to fix his plot around a different ending that left me with zero closure.  It is clear through both books in which she is present that Britt-Marie wants nothing more than to be a mother.  And here, in this story, she is presented with three orphans in need of a mother—literally.  Two of them even become wards of the state, in need of adoption.  And the children are crazy about Britt-Marie.  Yet, in response to their need, Britt-Marie goes to Paris.

Um, what?

For the longest time, it seemed that Britt-Marie would leave Kent, get with Sven, and raise Sami, Vega, and Omar with him.  But none of that happens.  Rather, Britt-Marie is overwhelmed by her moral compass (which is mostly dictated by her age, apparently) and decides to return to the life that she has spent the last months running from.  The thought of adopting never crosses her mind, even after Sami has asked her to watch out for Vega and Omar and make sure they have a good home.  Britt-Marie really doesn’t hang out long enough to make sure this happens.  Even Sven “abandons” the children in the end under the assumption that some other set of parents, who already have children (and who, I might add, were not actual characters in this story until they come to Sami’s funeral), will step up and take over.  To me, this doesn’t sound like either of these characters at all, and quite frankly challenges my belief that the story itself should exist.  After all, if the entire plot builds to a point where Britt-Marie makes no choices and just goes on a holiday, why did she need to encounter these people in the first place?  And how dare we then attribute her presence as worthwhile on their lives?

I was also irked by the morality that trumped all behavioral elements in the marriage of Britt-Marie and Kent in the end.  Kent, clearly, has not changed.  Even as he helps Britt-Marie achieve one of her personal goals (i.e. the soccer pitch [Does that even happen, by the way?  It was never very clear, in my opinion.]), it is over and against her autonomy as an employed woman and in preparation for her to come home with him and return to life as normal.  The story tells us honestly that Britt-Marie must choose between the soccer pitch and her job.  Of course, Britt-Marie is the main decision-maker in deciding to have the field developed (again, does this even happen?), but that also points back to the problem.  Not to mention that, at least verbally, Kent is extremely abusive!  He dismisses Britt-Marie, even as she tries to explain to him why she left in the first place.  And his strict understanding of gender roles, while at one time might have satisfied her, have ceased to apply now that she’s lived on her own.

I don’t think the story gives full appreciation to the fact that this is the first time Britt-Marie has really been on her own.  She was self-sufficient when her mother turned ill, but she was not at that time also a single woman in charge of her life.  Her mom dictated her every step, and shortly after Mom’s death, Britt-Marie married Kent.  She has never had a place of her own, and rather than fully appreciating it or grasping its significance, Britt-Marie goes home.

Essentially, despite alluded-to growth, Britt-Marie has barely changed from the person she was when she fled her original home.  We could see all through “My Grandmother…” that Britt-Marie was discontent and underappreciated in that life.  She set out to escape it for some reason, clearly, but at the end of this novel she is headed back in the same direction, albeit through France instead of the most direct route.

I’m not saying that Britt-Marie should have run off with Sven, but I am saying that it should have taken more than a feeling of commitment to Kent and the thought, “You are too old to start over now” to convince her to return to an unhappy marriage.  I appreciate Backman’s moral compass in most of his writing, but here I think it overwhelmed general common sense.

The whole story was not awful.  Backman’s standbys were still present.  The book reads like you are sitting next to an elderly relative on their front porch, listening to them talk about their life.  This is perhaps my favorite element of Backman’s storytelling.  Some books beg you to turn the pages faster and devour the story in one gulp, but Backman’s books can hang out for a time without rushing you.  Many of the characters are lovable, including Somebody, who remains this sort of enigmatic antihero reminiscent of Everyman or Odysseus’ “Nobody.”  The two men in the pizza shop each day are a perfect representation of small-town living.  The town itself sounds beautiful, and the concepts at work are commonplace and comforting.  There are the expected heart-wrenching moments that leave you invested in the individuals who experience them.  When Ben scores the team’s only goal, and when Sami’s car doesn’t come back, I had actual tears in my eyes.  And, of course, small moments make you giggle and even laugh out loud.  His wit is, again, so quick and so simply you could easily miss it.  These elements of his talent were still there, if overshadowed by a storyline that lost its direction—and may have never ended up anywhere.

This review turned more depressing that I was expecting it to, or than I meant for it to be.  In the end, I’m not sad that I read this book, but I am sad that it did not turn out better than it did.  I think, for his own good, Backman should move away from similar character types—older people encountering youths and having their lives changed for the better.  Hopefully his next works will be able to stand on their own.  He certainly hasn’t lost a reader in this experience.  I look forward to taking some time in the next month or so to read through And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer.

Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details.

– Fredrick Backman, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

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Best Books of 2016

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This year, I made it through 125 books and audiobooks, which I’m pretty sure is a new record!  It was also a diverse year of reading for me, as I took on my second Pop Sugar Reading Challenge to broaden my tastes and habits.

As this crazy year comes to a close, I’m content to dwell on some of the best reading I had to accompany me through it.  They span the spectrum of children’s and “adult,” fiction and nonfiction, and I’m happy to share them with the world.

 

Ollie’s Odyssey

William Joyce

What I loved most about this book was the way the story and the illustrations blended together so well.  The plot itself is fairly dark for a children’s book, but not inappropriate for younger children.  In fact, I have a theory that this book is meant to be read aloud to a child by an adult (or older sibling), because there are elements of the story that children will understand best, but there are other parts “mature” readers will pick up on as they read through it.  Ollie is the best friend every parent would want for their child, and even the villain has a story that people can understand.  I appreciated this book so much for the ways that Joyce applied eccentricities to a simple children’s story of the real-life love of their favorite toys.

 

Unhooked

Lisa Maxwell

I love the original Peter Pan myth and legend, created for the stage by J. M. Barrie, and I also love the different ways people interpret that myth.  This book was my favorite adaptation of the year.  It’s not often that I enjoy an adaptation that messes with the good side and the bad side (I hope I’m not giving too much away there…), but this one does it well, and you experience great sympathy for the right characters at the right times.  Lisa Maxwell is an excellent author, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future!

 

The Female of the Species

Mindy McGinnis

I’ve already gushed about this book in my last post, and I still haven’t said enough about it.  An easy-to-digest story this one isn’t.  McGinnis says a bunch of stuff you probably don’t want to hear about what happens (or, at least, could happen), in high school in such a way that we cannot ignore it.  Alex is the protagonist every present and previous victim needs to know she/he is not alone.  And we, the greater populace, should aspire to be the Alex to our friends who have suffered (although perhaps without the psychopathic violence…).

This story isn’t only worthy of school reading requirements with its treatment of sexual assault and date rape culture.  It’s also just brilliantly done.  You spend the second half of the book wondering how all these different situations could ever work out to be a good thing, and then BAM! McGinnis delivers the only possible ending that could tie everything together.  You don’t feel great about it, but you feel comfortable with the knowledge that she put it together in the method that works best.  Perfect for the teen reader and the thriller lover alike, Alex will have you guessing until the very end!

 

This Is Where It Ends

Marieke Nijkamp

I read this book in a matter of hours on a Saturday.  The plot itself is a great page-turner.  I think I was most captivated by the idea that we would be witnessing this school shooting through the eyes of the shooter’s sister, along with a few other characters.  The perspectives that come from inside and outside the building, and even inside and outside the auditorium, give a plot that is at once well-rounded and scattered.  I was immediately drawn to the characters and their lives, and I was invested in how their stories would turn out.  I don’t think what Nijkamp describes is necessarily a realistic school shooting (if, of course, we want to admit to the “normalization” of this experience that makes us notice differences from actual situations).  Our shooter doesn’t act like someone on a spree, he has too much ammo, and it takes him far too long to be stopped.  Moreover, some of the deaths of different students are more from dramatic effect than for accurate representation.  However, the overall mood created in these instances does, in fact, create a better understanding of the atmosphere one might experience if put in that situation.  Another author who was unafraid to touch the social taboo and attempt to address real-life problems our culture must learn to acknowledge and attempt to overcome.

 

The Girls

Emma Cline

This book is so dark and creepy, it made my skin crawl just reading about it.  I have to admit that, while I can’t stomach scary movies, I appreciate an occasional dark and frightening read, and this one did it for me this year.  I’m too young to really be aware of Charles Manson or the women who murdered in his name, so I was mainly intrigued by this book’s premise after learning about it.  After engaging in the story, I fell in love with the rest of it.  Evie’s plight is extreme, and I found myself empathizing and distrusting her at the same time.  As the story developed, I particularly appreciated the parallelisms between Evie’s past and present.  These elements complicate the message of the story and remind us that the behavior of these women are perhaps not so foreign to us after all.  Creepy as hell, but worth the chills!

 

Adulthood is a Myth

Sarah Andersen

I absolutely LOVE “Sarah’s Scribbles,” so I was totally stoked when I saw that she was coming out with a book (and I believe she’s officially signed a contract to publish another one soon!).  I read this collection in one sitting, as well, and I found it delightful.  It includes several of my favorites from the Sarah’s Scribbles Facebook page, along with several new stories.  As a twenty-something, I find the best way to cope with “adulting” is to laugh about it, and Sarah helps you do that it the best way possible.  I can’t wait to get the next collection!

 

milk and honey

rupi kaur

I don’t frequently read poetry, but this collection really spoke to me.  I think, like The Female of the Species, this is one young women should be exposed to, to remind them of where love and relationships can lead.  More importantly, this collection reminds young women where their strength comes from, and how powerful they are on their own.  In rupi’s own words,

“from now on i will say things like
you are resilient or you are extraordinary
not because i don’t think you’re pretty
but because you are so much more than that”

 

Finding Mr. Brightside

Jay Clark

I met Jay Clark and bought his book to show support for a local author.  Much to my surprise, I was immediately swept up in the story and carried away by the characters and the plot.  The writing is simple and funny, with some elegant twists and turns through the complex relationships it reveals.  The romance feels not only possible, but real, which isn’t often something I say about a teen love story.  But you want to situation to work out for our lovebirds, and it isn’t handed on a silver platter.  Now, I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to speak with Jay about his writing, and I can’t wait to pick up his first novel, The Education of Jay Baker.

 

The Reason I Jump

Naoki Higashida

I have been interested in the Autism Spectrum ever since I studied the disability deeply in a training course I took for writing center work.  When I found this book, written by someone with autism, I couldn’t wait to read it.  Naoki’s simple expressions of his feelings and experiences are eye-opening.  The target audience is parents of people who are on the spectrum, but I think anyone who wants to understand how others think might enjoy diving in to this thirteen-year-old’s brain.

 

Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame

Mara Wilson

Other than having seen “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Matilda,” and finding her on Twitter, I didn’t know much about Mara.  However, after reading this book, I feel like she could be one of my best friends.  She’s extremely honest about her experiences growing up, both within and outside Hollywood.  She speaks to issues all young women have experienced, and even some of her unique encounters speak to me due to how we were interested in similar things when we were younger.  I also appreciated that this book did not read like a traditional celebrity memoir.  Mara isn’t trying to draw connections to her readers by speaking around her personal experiences.  Rather, she says what actually happened, and then expects you to make those connections yourself.  I felt like she was just talking with me, rather than trying to explain herself.  A great storyteller with a well-developed voice for prose.  Even those with no knowledge, appreciation, or understanding of Mara’s career would enjoy her book!

 

As I mentioned, this year was a diverse series of books from my Pop Sugar challenge.  I ended up reading some books I greatly disliked, including some highly popular bestsellers that simply didn’t speak to me personally.  Reflecting on these Top 10 Best, however, reminds me of what a great year in reading it was, and how much I can’t wait to take on the 2017 Reading Challenge for next year.

Happy New Year, and Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

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The Female of the Species

img_2409When I started this blog around two years ago, I didn’t know what it might become, but I didn’t see it becoming a series of book reviews.  Then, last night, I finished a new book.  The Female of the Species, by Mindy McGinnis.  And I can’t forget about it.  And it’s the end of Banned Books Week 2016.  And while I know this new release will (hopefully) catch a lot of attention in the near—and distant—future, someone needs to be talking about this book, now.

So, here is my 5/5 star review of The Female of the Species, the book that should be absolutely next on your To Be Read (TBR) list.

Disclaimer: This review may contain some spoilers, but my intention is not to talk about the plot of the story so much as some of the content and conversations this book has started about change that should be occurring in our contemporary culture.

I had heard about this book from some of my former coworkers at Barnes & Noble.  As mentioned in my other blog post, I really enjoy getting recommendations from booksellers, so picking the book up was more about the people who suggested it to me than what the book itself was about.  I don’t always read the “backs” of the books I read, either, because I’ve become frustrated by summaries that give away too much of the plot—or not enough, in the case of the ones that only contain celebrity blurbs.  So, quite frankly, short of knowing I respected the opinions of the other people who had already read this book, I had no idea what I was getting in to.

While the plot of this story is spectacular—a real page-turner with a handful of powerful, gut-wrenching twists—I loved this book for its approach to extremely difficult content.  Actually, “love” may be a poor choice of words.  This book is hard to think of with positive emotions for the same reason that it’s a perfect fit for Banned Books Week; if it hasn’t been challenged yet, it will be.  McGinnis unabashedly captures rape culture in an upfront, inescapable way.  It’s not romanticized.  It’s not referred to only in metaphors.  Sexual assault is identified for the horror that it is, and it is given a response.  And other elements of high school culture are shown in a garish, truthful light as well.  In fact, it is so graphic that many parents may (no, excuse me, will) baulk at it, claiming the content is inappropriate for the targeted age group.  On some baser level, I wish they were right.  I wish high school students didn’t have to be aware of the dangers the world has prepared for them.  Unfortunately, because of the environment we have currently found ourselves in, I would argue that they have to know about this stuff.  As one of my coworkers said, this book should not only be read by high school students, but also this should be a required reading book.

The reality is that this book will be challenged for the wrong reasons.  There’s booze, and drugs, and sex, and language.  And it’s all very detailed.  It made even me, a 24-year-old who works with undergraduate college students, uncomfortable at times.  But McGinnis isn’t writing about this stuff to encourage its use or acceptance by teenagers.  Instead, teenagers who read it are exposed how real and present these elements of culture are, whether they are the “fun”-filled versions, or the violent and dangerous counterparts.  Quite frankly, most students are already aware of these elements anyway.  I love this book, not because of its content, which I find disturbing and discomforting; I love this book because its author was unafraid to show high school and rape culture for what it is—frightening and inarguably real.

The Female of the Species is not only relevant for Banned Books Week, but also is relevant for other national and cultural issues we have present in our country today.  This book was published only weeks after Brock Turner’s early release from prison.  His experience facing charges for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, as well as the language surrounding him, her, and the case, has revealed the scandalous treatment of sexual assault and rape cases across the country.  Several groups and individuals have subsequently chosen to speak out about rape culture on college campuses, which is growing harder to ignore (thank goodness!).

At the same time, Turner’s situation hasn’t been the only thing drawing rape culture conversations out of the woodwork; documentaries fill DVDs and Netflix detailing recent developments, situations, and uncalled-for responses to claims of sexual assault and rape.  Moreover, more individuals are speaking out against the language that suggests women are “solely” responsible for ensuring men will not want to rape them, whether it relates to “what they were wearing” or “how they were conducting themselves.”  And we are seeing small instances of retribution and correction coming about from these changes, such as judges being held responsible for language they used toward victims in the courtroom.  Moreover, conversations are now louder on college campuses as victims and their friends refuse to be silent.  Many people are having the right conversations about what needs to change, but change at the institutional level is still negligible.

While trying not to give too much away, I just want to say that McGinnis looks at all sides of this issue in her book—when sexual assault is recognized, when it is reported, when “institutions” try to create change, and when that change doesn’t keep everyone safe.  This is the real mastery of the book, because the issues presented by a culture that “allows” men* to “take” what they believe they are entitled to cannot be ignored.  These issues are made all the more real through the multiple first-person perspectives.  We see what happens through the victims’ eyes, and through the eyes of those who try to help.  Honestly, McGinnis is pointing out how this situation is nowhere near healing itself.

[*I do want to say, quickly, that I recognize women are not the only victims of sexual assault.  In many ways, this is hinted at in the plot of The Female of the Species.  However, I believe the story is supposed to focus on the situations women—or, rather, girls—find themselves in.  This does not downplay the significance of other types of sexual assault and rape, but rather concentrates on one element to more sufficiently reveal the intricacies of the damage and darkness surrounding this single perspective on rape culture.]

This book is good because the characters are real.  While these particular victims’ stories are fictional, they might as well be borrowed from the pages of real-life accounts.  It’s good because, just like in real life, no easy Band-Aid is placed over a gaping wound.  In fact (again, as I try to not give too much away), McGinnis gives us a decently fictionalized ending that offers at least a little closure (more on this in a minute).  Even with this small element of poetic license that gives the book the feeling of ending in a “good” place, the very obvious message is that nothing is fully resolved. In the end, The Female of the Species is good because it is honest.

Spoiler Warning: the most disappointing reality check this book provides is that 99% of us don’t have an Alex.  Of course, I think both she and McGinnis would argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing.  As Alex’s part of the story wraps up, her conversation with the reader makes it clear that she understands where her choices have brought her.  And while Peekay—and Branley, and Jack—may be forever grateful for those choices, their repercussions are ever-present and irreversible.

Yet, clearly, the change that occurs in situations of sexual violence, at least in the world of this small town, is all because there is an Alex.  It is what she does that draws to light the letters, and that changes the tone of the notes in the restrooms.  She shows you what happens when rape culture becomes personal as well as public.  In the world of the book, Alex is the integral component of the reactions to sexual violence, even as she is dependent on her relationships with Peekay and Jack to bring this out in her.

In the real world, victims are not “fortunate” enough to have a girl like Alex on their team.  But this. Should. Not. Stop. Us.

We need to have the courage and confidence to defend ourselves without someone stronger than us to support us.  I think that’s why Alex’s solutions aren’t presented as the be-all, end-all in the text.  McGinnis wants us to know that we don’t need to be—or have—an Alex to try for change in the way our communities perceive situations of sexual violence.  Peekay sees that in the end.  And she is encouraged to see others responding in the same way.  This book is so important, so key, because it says that something must be done to stop the current perception and response to sexual violence.  It also says that the response may not eliminate any or all threats, and each response has a time limit in its effectiveness.  But, finally, this book says that none of this should stop us from trying.

Related to the significance of Alex is the message this title alone carries.  The name of the book comes from the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same title, in which it is said, “for the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”  This line most directly represents Alex’s character, but it also helps to communicate the all-important truth that even girls can bring about change in contemporary environment and culture.  Their voices matter, because they have an in-born, natural strength that is recognized as powerful in defense of violent attacks.

I would never say that this book is beyond rebuke.  I’m a very picky reader, and I challenge myself to find things I “don’t like” in a text, even if I find myself appreciating the rest of it.  For instance, I think the ending of this story could have spent more time addressing the fact that victims with guilt should never be blamed for their responses to their attacks.  Peekay feels responsible for most of what happens in the second half of the story because she didn’t speak up.  And while I think McGinnis shows that time and understanding can begin to heal that wound, a more important message is that this guilt, while legitimate, is completely unfounded.  Yes, all situations on sexual violence should be reported; it is the best way to combat the current culture.  However, our focus on reporting should never be so strong as to make victims feel like they have contributed to the problem if they do not voice their experiences.  Communicating what happened to them is first and foremost personal; all resulting public outcry is secondary to their own healing.  If these two elements coincide, fantastic.  If they don’t, it is not the victim’s fault.

There are also moments in Jack’s part of the story that may be construed as contributing to the mindset that men and boys “cannot help themselves.”  His perception of sex gives an allusion to the common opinions that girls are asking for the attention they get.  Of course, in no instance does he act toward a girl who has told him “no.”  Similarly, I think he is an example of how boys can be victims of sexual harassment and abuse.  His years of exposure to a certain type of girl have left him both craving immediate sexual gratification and perhaps permanently separating emotion and sex from one another.  Do I think he is a small component of an overarching sexual violence culture? Absolutely.  Do I think it makes his role with Alex and Peekay any less authentic?   Absolutely not.  He may not be a perfect opposite to Ray, but his role does demonstrate that men who enjoy sex can still perceive rape culture as wrong.

Finally, I was a little uncomfortable with the way faith is handled in the story.  Of course this is purely on a personal level.  Out of all of the characters in this story, the only ones I find inauthentic are Peekay’s parents.  To me, it feels that a pseudo-rumspringa is used purely to allow Peekay to be present in all the situations the story creates—like being able to hang out with the same people after the first “incident.”  Also, as someone who theoretically shares the faith of Peekay’s parents, I want my response to situations of sexual violence to be more potent than what theirs are.  I understand that different Christians perceive the issue of rape culture in different ways, but I have issues placing this particular response in the mix.  It doesn’t detract from the overall story—and, as I said, it enables Peekay to be present where she’s needed for the movement of the plot.  I admit this is a personal dislike of an element of the story, even as it contributes to my perception of the book’s message.  If anything, other people of faith reading this should see that they are (a) not immune to sexual violence, and (b) as obligated to respond in appropriate ways as other members of the community and its institutions.

This review took me places I wasn’t expecting, but I feel that everything here had to be said.  In the end, The Female of the Species shares with us the all-important message: one person can become the courage others need to fight back against rape culture.

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Leaving Barnes & Noble

So, last week, I left my part-time job at Barnes & Noble Booksellers to take a full-time job at a university library.  Yes, I do in fact spend too much time with books.

A job at Barnes & Noble can seriously change your perspective on books.  I realized this as I began to make the transition from bookseller back to customer.  Even as a librarian, I know my role will be different than what it once was, and I feel the need to talk about some of those all-so-important and wonderful things I learned while selling books at a brick-and-mortar establishment.

 

Book People are the Best People

Seriously.  I am completely convinced that there is something about people who read and love books that makes them super special, amazing, and wonderful.  Having a conversation with someone who loves to read is so easy, and Barnes & Noble is full of those people.  They come in to find people who love books so they can talk about the books you love and the ones they love, and it’s absolutely fabulous.

Of course, you also get people who are not book people (i.e. The Summer Required Reading Reader, The I Need Something to Take to the Airport Book Buyer, and the Where are Your Movies DVD Browser).  And, quite frankly, they usually stand out.  I’m not saying they’re terrible people, by any means.  They are just different than book people—particularly because they do not actually like to talk about books.

Such a shame.

Anyway, one of my favorite lessons I learned while working at Barnes & Noble is that book people are the greatest.

 

Selling Books is Selling Products…

…but that can be okay.  Honestly, it was always hard for me to think about selling things.  I never really wanted to entrust my favorite books to complete strangers just to make a sale.  I felt like I was betraying my favorite authors and their wonderful characters by giving them away for a couple bucks.  But, really, selling books is not an awful way to spend your time.

First of all, refer to the first lesson I learned.  By and large, the majority of the people I interacted with at my job were trustworthy of taking home my precious favorite titles, and they would most likely love and treasure them an acceptable amount (because, let’s face it, there’s no way they would ever love them as much as me!).

Second of all, the books I love and loved to sell can stand on their own.  If the person who purchases them doesn’t end up enjoying them, who cares, really?  The words have reached another imagination, and so the characters are still immortalized.

On top of that, selling books to those people who came in was my way of sustaining a real-life bookstore, complete with a door on the front, seats inside, and books you can pick up and page through before you buy them.  While ordering online is ever so convenient, it will never be the same as walking in to an actual building to buy your next read.  Being a part of the effort that keeps this type of book shopping an option makes me feel like I’m making a better difference for the future. And that is pretty cool.

 

Booksellers are Great Book Recommend-ers…

By the time I finished my stint at B&N, I had read several books recommended to me by my coworkers.  Crazy thing?  Even if we have entirely different taste in genre, they have great taste in books!

Okay, so maybe that isn’t so much of a shocker.

But really, I had never considered what a wealth of suggestions booksellers might be!  It should have been obvious, because not only do these people want a job at a bookstore, they also have managed to keep said bookstore in business.  I ended up loving to ask others what they were reading and take those recommendations to read myself.  One of my favorite parts about their different tastes, too, was that dipping my toes into other genres wasn’t so difficult anymore.  If I wanted to try something in science fiction, I could ask for some ideas.  And I was more likely to actually appreciate and enjoy what was given to me.  In the end, I ended up with a greater genre palette than I began with.  And, of course, I got to share my favorite books and genres with my coworkers, too!

And now, I know that when I’m in Barnes & Noble in the future looking for something to read, I should ask the booksellers.

 

…And So Are Customers!

Again, this one probably should have been obvious, but I was still always delightfully surprised when a customer held up a title I had never heard of and said, “Have you read this one? No!? Oh, you have to read it!  It is so good.  I couldn’t put it down.”  Being able to swap favorite titles with pretty much everyone who came to the store was amazing.  My to-be-read list is absolutely gigantic!

Which leads me to my next lesson learned:

 

You Don’t Need to Buy Every Book, Ever

Let’s face, it; my bookshelves are already overflowing with new titles, editions, and copies.

The employee discount is fantastic, particularly at Barnes & Noble.  As a fan of used bookstores for the prices, I was always delighted to get a brand new book for the price of an old one.  But I learned, a little too late, that I had to pace myself.  I don’t think there were many days I left without buying at least one book, and now I have to try and catch up with reading them!

Ultimately, I learned to only pick the titles I most desperately wanted.  Usually, this meant waiting a week or so to purchase, thus maneuvering around the “Impulse Buy.”  I also tried to limit purchases of recommendations, rather buying the books I would have picked out for myself.  This helped cut down on what I was buying while also affirming what I enjoyed reading.  Again, I still have a ton of books that are going to keep me busy for several months, if not years.  But I certainly don’t now own every book, ever, or even every book someone told me I should buy.

 

There is a Different Between Readers and Bibliophiles, but Both are Book People

Working at Barnes & Noble, I think this was my favorite lesson that I learned.  You see, as much as I LOVE to read, I don’t always want to read.  Moreover, even though I sometimes want to OWN a book, I don’t necessarily want to READ that book at any point in the near future.  Plus, reading can be extremely hard for me.  I am a very slow reader, and it takes me a ridiculous amount of time to get through anything.  Overall, I’m a bad reader.

But I love books!  I love looking at books, shopping for books, buying books, shelving books, borrowing books, ordering books online… Most of my paychecks almost always go to books, even as I only slowly get through reading them.

For a long time, I felt very guilty about this.  How could someone who loved books so much not fit the reader model?!  It didn’t make sense.  And then I started at Barnes & Noble, where I was introduced to the other side of bookselling, and it changed my perspective in so many ways.  Because, for the first time in my life, I met people who were readers, and I met people who were bibliophiles, and they were almost never the same person.

Here is my moment of identification: I am a bibliophile. Here me roar!

In my role as a bookseller, I learned to love myself in relation to my books.  I was able to more fully accept that my TBR would always grow faster than my READ.  I could eagerly purchase new and unique copies of the same book over and over.  And I could look at readers with respect rather than jealousy.  If they are able to fly through several hundred books a year, and yet they dump them for donations in the end, I can admit that I am nothing like them.  And we are both okay.

 

Working at Barnes & Noble was an intense experience, one that I would not trade for the world.  It taught me a lot about myself, and books.  Even as I move to the next chapter, I’m happy to keep this collection of stories on my shelf.

Where is human nature so weak as in a bookstore?
–Henry Ward Beecher

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So Many Books, So Little Time…But Seriously

Never in a million years would I have believed that I would face the dreaded quarter-life crisis.  I, the always-put-together, the collected, driven, intelligent agent of my own future would never succumb to such a base response to growing older–at least, that is, not until I am fifty and at the socially acceptable age to “freak out” about the approach of death.  Yet, here I sit, staring into the abyss that is not so deep, containing the “small handful” of days I have left on this earth, and I am panicked, for I have realized the darkest truth of all.

There is not enough time in my life for me to read every book I want to.

There is not enough time in my life for me to read every book I want to.

Several minutes of silent screaming immediately commenced.

Ever since my transition into high school and the ever-growing piles of required reading, I have become a half-hearted pleasure reader.  It’s not that the pleasure in reading what I want has diminished in any way; rather, it is that required reading has so often been a pleasurable read (yes, I am one of those nerds who actually liked the same books as the English teachers), I didn’t want to start a separate book of my own.  Then, of course, life always seems to get in the way of leisure time, and college taught me that it is often more important to get sleep than to read the next chapter in a book.  Besides that, what English major in her right mind has time to read half of Crime and Punishment, all of Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and a handful of Didion essays in a given week, and then wants to pick up another title?

The result of this casual attitude toward reading has led to a very long Book Bucket List.  Whereas the titles on my list used to be carefully screened for those I would find most enjoyable, my experiences with delighting in genres outside my normal “cup of tea” led to titles being added willy nilly.  The beast that is my current list causes those who see it (when I show them) to balk and gasp, because it is, after all, very long.  And yet, despite its approach to tome-status, I continue my half-hearted engagement with what I am currently reading.

Reading, as a grown up, is hard work.

And then this thought hits, and I panic because I realize that time is going to run out, and if I keep reading at a casual trot, I’ll never finish even a portion of the list I have created.

I think what freaked me out the most about my discovery of this truth is that I, in the 80 or so years I will walk this earth, will not be able to read all of the books that I want to read.  This is not simply proving that I will never make it through the books I have no intention of reading. This is proving that there are books out there that I have been waiting to read that I will never get to finish!  There are words I will never devour, sentences I will never dissect, titles I will never cross off my list, even though I want to.

So, why have I ever wasted my good and precious, short-lived time on a title I did not want to read?!?

Believe you me, after this realization punched me, I began kicking myself for every book I ever picked up for personal pleasure because someone else told me I had to read it.  If I could go back to every book I groaned over, skimmed through, or read with painstaking slowness because I could not appreciate the words on the page, I would turn to the person closest to me and say, “Here.  I have better things to read.”

This is not necessarily in reference to all of the required reading I have finished to date.  I am more so referring to the recommendations made by people over the years for “really great books” that “changed people’s lives.”  They are the ones that people insisted I would enjoy, but when I got to the last page, I would respond, “that was it?”  For so many of these, I never felt that I had spent a good bit of my time enjoying something worthwhile.

And here, specifically, is where my quarter-life crisis has begun.  When our time to craft our palette is so short in the first place, why do we waste time trying to acclimate it to others’ preferences?  Why did I ever think it was necessary for me, as a reader, to indulge in titles that gave me no sense of self-discovery?  Beyond that, why did I ever think it was possible to read the entire library?!

I guess I always assumed I would be like Matilda, finishing out one section to take on the next.  In fact, when I was younger, I was sure that I would be exactly like Matilda–I would finish every children’s book in the library, then I would read every “adult” book after that.  And, in some ways, I don’t think I ever really shook that goal.  In fact, I can think of many titles I read over the last five years that felt as though I were dragging through them in order to say I had done it, having forgotten that the point of pleasure reading is in its name.

I do not want to name any titles that came to mind here, because I don’t think that is important.  What I have deemed as a waste of my time, I’m sure, has transformed someone else’s world and his/her perception of it.  I also don’t want to create a rumored list of books that should never be on anyone’s Book Bucket List, because I think we have to have the confidence to own what we enjoy the most, whatever that may be.

What I do want to focus on, however, is the fact that this realization has led to a rather deep existential consideration of the meaning of life and its brevity for me.  As humans, we have a tiny amount of time to spend here on earth.  We have to be vigilant about how we use the days and hours we have.  We should never compromise our time to try to please someone else, particularly in ways for which the person probably will never notice.  After all, do I think anyone who has recommended a book to me that I didn’t enjoy would stop being my friend if I had never read the title?  Most real friendships would never end over something so petty.

We also cannot live for the materialism of this planet.  Of course, I greatly struggle with calling books “material,” since only their bindings keep them finite.  Books are, after all, pieces of  souls captured in tiny symbols.  They carry with them the magic of community, shared uniquely within the human experience.  At the same time, in that sense, we must embrace them as souls; instead of trying to meet every character between every page, I have to recognize the value in dwelling within those texts that speak the most to me.  Huh, that even sounds a little bit like friendship to me.

Finally, I think bibliophiles have to remember why they fell in love with reading in the first place–books change us, often for the better.  We learn about ourselves, the world, and how each defines the other.  While we should, again, never race through every copy we can find, we should be ready to pursue the knowledge, wisdom, and truth we can find in written forms.

I’m still totally devastated that I will be unable to finish my Book Bucket List before I die.  However, I have a renewed commitment to evaluating what I will read next, and how thoroughly.  Besides, I am thankful for a reminder about how important it is to embrace the lives we have.

“I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it?  Time is chasing after all of us, isn’t that right?”

Mrs. Snow, Finding Neverland

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