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Happy #NationalBookLoversDay! Disney Book Tag

Hello, Book Lovers, and Happy National Book Lovers Day!

I’m spending the majority of my day at a virtual library conference called SLJTeenLive.  I am enjoying hearing from YA authors about their books and what they’re reading.  It seems to be one of the best ways to spend a day dedicated to book lovers!

I also thought it would be fun to honor the day with a Book Tag.  I’ve never done one before on this blog, and it seemed like the perfect way to highlight some of my all-time favorite works, as a lifelong book lover!  I stumbled across the Disney Book Tag a few weeks back.  It’s categories highlight some of the best titles I’ve ever read, and I can’t wait to share them with you!  I hope you enjoy.Image result for disney book tag

The Little Mermaid:
A Character Who is Out of Their Element

Wonder

Wonder, for me, is the uncontested winner for this category.  Auggie is thrown totally out of his element when he goes to school for the first time.  His classmates, even, experience some of the Little Mermaid syndrome as they learn how to relate to him.  This book has a powerful message about bullying and acceptance.  I can’t say enough about how much I loved this story and its characters.

 

Cinderella:
A Character Who Goes Through a Major Transformation

Ranma

I thought I’d be a little humorous with this one and name the Ranma 1/2 manga series.  Ranma, the main character in this story, has fallen into the Pool of Drowning Girl during his martial arts training.  Thus, every time he gets splashed with cold water, he turns into a girl!  And every time he gets splashed with hot water, he turns back into a boy.  Absolute madness ensues in adventures galore as he uses his curse to get out of bad situations.  Absolutely hilarious and adorable, this is one of my favorite manga series.

And, you have to admit, fluid transgender modifications make for a fairly large transformation!

 

Snow White:
A Book with an Eclectic Cast of Characters

Coville

I feel like any fantasy series is a good fit for this category, but I wanted to honor one of my favorite stories from my childhood: Bruce Coville’s Unicorn Chronicles.  With all of the mysterious and wonderful characters that usually appear in a fantasy world, this series is captivating.  Cara is one of my favorite female lead characters ever, and I loved reading about her adventures in Luster.  Also, if I could have my own Lightfoot,  that would be pretty cool!

 

Sleeping Beauty:
A Book that Put You to Sleep

Hook

Most of my followers know how much I love Peter Pan, so you may realize how painful it was for me to add this book to my DNF pile.  The film Hook is one of my favorites, but the story version was too long and detailed to hold my interest.  I know Terry Brooks is a huge and important name in fantasy literature, but I found this work unreadable.  Rarely, if ever, do I say that the movie was better than the book.  But in this case, I’ll go even further–don’t bother reading the book; just enjoy the movie!

 

The Lion King:
A Character Who Had Something Traumatic Happen to Them in Childhood

Perks

Spoiler Alert!  But not really–it doesn’t take long when reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower to figure out that Charlie has experienced something traumatic in his past.  The Big Reveal of what that was shook me the first time I read this book, and it inspired me to write my senior thesis on this title in my undergrad.  To date, Charlie is one of my favorite characters, and in many ways I consider him a friend.  I am grateful to the story Stephen Chbosky tells through him.

 

Beauty and the Beast:
A Beast of a Book that You were Intimidated by,
but Found the Story to be Beautiful

Anna Karenina

I actually signed up for a class because Anna Karenina was on the syllabus, and I knew if it weren’t required reading, I would never make it through the entire book.  I’m so glad I took that class, too, because this ended up being one of my favorite classics of all time.  The story is beautifully written and hauntingly memorable.  If you haven’t experienced Tolstoy, I beg you to give him a go.  And if you really want to dive in, push yourself to read this amazing story of love and betrayal.

 

Aladdin:
A Character Who Gets Their Wish Granted, For Better or Worse

Down with the Shine

This is another sort of ironic inclusion, because the premise of this book is essentially be careful what you wish for.  I spent the entire time I read this book wondering if it was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, because it combines a very literal experience with satirical extremism.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s sort of both.  (And, while several people have their wishes granted, I can think of one specific young man who asks for an enhancement to his anatomy in the form of a metaphor, with hilarious and disastrous consequences!)

 

Mulan:
A Character Who Pretends to be Someone They Are Not

Thirteenth Tale

Another (potential) Spoiler Alert!

If you haven’t yet experienced the mystery that is Vida Winter’s life, you need to read this book.  The plot twist at the end is totally mind-blowing.  I’ve read this twice, and I bet if I read it a third time I would discover even more hints toward the revelation of the mystery.  This is such a great book for people who like to try and solve the riddle, and a perfect fit for this Mulan category.

 

Toy Story:
A Book with Characters You Wish Would Come to Life

Peter Pan

I mean, do you even have to ask?  I would love to meet Peter Pan in real life.  I feel like we would have a blast reading books together.  And I’d love to go to Neverland, even if at this point I would have to be a pirate or an aborigine (because, unfortunately, I’ve Grown Up).

 

Disney Descendants:
Your Favorite Villain or Morally Ambiguous Character

Mindy

So, I’ve never experienced The Descendants, but I like the connection this category makes.  And this book cover is actually a stand-in for another of this author’s books, The Female of the Species.  My sister has my copy, so I couldn’t snap a picture of it today.  However, in terms of a villain/morally ambiguous character, you needn’t look any further than Alex.  The Female of the Species opens with the line, “This is how I kill someone.”  And the story that follows will haunt you and challenge you on your ideas of morality and justice.

I just received Not a Drop to Drink in the mail this week, so unfortunately I haven’t been able to read it yet.  If it’s anything like her other book, I know I’m going to love it–and perhaps it has its own ambiguous character to inspire us!

***

So, that’s it!  I had a lot of fun working through this challenge, and I’m so happy to have mentioned so many favorite books on this very special day.  Celebrate today in your own way: by reading a new book, picking up an old favorite, tweeting a favorite quote, or visiting a bookstore.  And if you have favorite titles to meet these categories, let me know!  I’d love to hear your ideas, too.

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Manga Review: Library Wars

Library Wars

Last week, I finished Library Wars, a manga series by Kiiro Yumi.  This is only the second manga series I have ever finished (I’m still working my way through Ranma 1/2, which is a little longer, and I’ve read a handful of stand-alones in between).  I found the series through another bookstagrammer’s (The Paige Turner) vlog.  As a librarian, I was intrigued by the title, and I was super excited to read an action-packed adventure about my profession.  We don’t get a lot of kick-ass representatives in our field–other than The Librarian(s), who are more like archaeologists than actually information professionals.  I couldn’t wait to see how this plot portrayed us.

In the near future, the federal government creates a committee to rid society of books it deems unsuitable. The libraries vow to protect their collections, and with the help of local governments, form a military group to defend themselves–the Library Forces!

This book is the next chapter in the conversation started by Fahrenheit 451.   The Library Forces are actively fighting against censorship and for the right to information–hell yeah!  I think what I loved most about this series from the beginning was how accurately it approached librarians.  Word for word, it represents a normal day in the information field!

Okay, okay, so maybe the National Guard-esque protection force is a bit of a stretch, but many libraries are in constant battles over banned and challenged books, as well as the rights of their patrons to information and to privacy.  Taking it to the violent level is of course great for its entertainment value in these books, but perhaps some of the valiant action scenes from real-life are more imagined than acted out.  (We’re still kick-ass, though.  Jus’ sayin’.)

No, the more accurate representations of librarians come when Iku and her team have to help in the stacks.  Yes, librarians do spend an inordinate amount of time finding books for patrons, and the system is a little bit like learning to read a map.  Kasahara’s struggles were amusing, but I’ve had identical conversations with student workers that Dojo has with her on her abilities and efforts.

The relationship between Dojo and Kasahara is also handled well.  I have to admit that the trope found in many mangas, in which the guy and girl like each other but won’t admit it, rubs me the wrong way.  I’m not big on romance, and I don’t appreciate when coincidence pushes into the realm of impossibility in terms of almost-slips and missed opportunities.  Yet this relationship was very tasteful.  The author works to shape an infatuation that began before the two knew each other, but the interest was modified when each discovered the other’s personality.  While I did grow sick of some of the situations concerning romance and attraction, the actual affection found between these two (and other couples in the series) was fairly tolerable.

This series was also a first for the author, and that comes through in the earlier books.  It’s around the fourth or fifth volume that the plot really hits a stride, and you can begin to get to know everyone outside of the general story.  At one point, I thought there were giant plot holes in between two of the volumes; then, I realized I had skipped a book!  Whoops!  At times, I do think the subtleties to some of the illustrations are difficult to follow, but the artwork is beautiful.  In the animated form, I’m sure everything is communicated for successfully.

I highly recommend this story, particularly for those who are deeply invested in political issues surrounding privacy, censorship, and information ethics.  It’s not really a bibliophile’s book–very little reading, if any, occurs in the entire series.  However, if you find yourself appreciating your right to read and learn what you want, you will most likely appreciate this manga’s characters for the work they do to get that freedom for their world.

Again, give it a couple books to pick up before you give up on it.  You won’t be disappointed.

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50 Years of YA, Part 2

Second verse, same as the first…let’s get to it!

 

#22: The Facts Speak for Themselves, Brock Cole

I had never heard of this book before taking on the challenge of reading these 50 YA titles, but after reading its description I knew it would be one of the first I picked up. This book begins with Linda, our protagonist, giving a statement about a murder suicide that she has witnessed.  This book is her personal account of what brought her to that scene.

The premise of this story is far more intense than its actual exposition, but that doesn’t stop the plot from being absolutely chilling.  Linda’s young life is so traumatic; she goes through so much at such a young age, and in the end she sounds so numb to whatever awaits her in the future.  Incredibly dark and gritty, this book demands to be included on this list, if simply because I’m sure parents and conservative groups have been challenging and banning it since its publication.  I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but you really grow attached to Linda’s voice as she tells this story.  So many times, I wanted to reach through the pages and give her a much-needed hug.  This is a very honest look at where American culture can lead when the American Dream fails.

My one big critique on this book has to do with Mom.  I am so sick of weak maternal figures in YA literature who are incapable of caring for themselves or their children.  I totally get that this is Real Life for far too many people, but I think this version of the teen story has been told.  I would like to see more self-empowered mommies in these books from now on.

 

#30: Looking for Alaska, John Green

Okay guys; I have a pretty big confession to make:

I am NOT a John Green fan.

That being said, I understand why, if we are including Green on this list, this was the book that was chosen.  I have to admit that this one left a pretty deep impression on me, and not just because it was one of the first audiobooks I ever listened to, and I was still getting used to how having a voice actor read to you can really bring a story to life.  Several books have been written on this topic, but few so directly address the questions without answers that accompany a traumatic death.  I recently finished All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, and I can see how her approach to teen suicide is slightly different than Green’s, and that each has an important message to send to those who may be wondering or struggling or recovering.

Not my favorite inclusion on this list, but I can at least appreciate what the list creators were going for by adding it.

 

#31: American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang

This was one of the first graphic novels I ever read, and it is still one of my favorites!  I have heard Yang speak twice now, and his passion for his work is what makes me love his comics so much.  The fact that this one gets personal and works at describing some of the ongoing prejudice present in adolescent culture makes it that much cooler.

I think what makes this book unique is the portrayal of the many different hats children of immigrants must wear, and how complicated fitting in can be.  The content isn’t exactly new, but it’s a fresh set of eyes, and in a unique format from what most coming-of-age books are.

Plus, who doesn’t love a book with a Monkey King in it?!

In all seriousness, this is a great starter graphic novel for those getting used to the form (it reads left to right, so if manga freaks you out for its different layout, this is a good baby step!).  It’s also good for all ages to get a peek into what growing up Chinese American might be like.

 

#45: Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell

Confession Time #2:

I hated Eleanor & Park totally and completely, and after reading it I had written off Rainbow Rowell.

So, when I came across this title on my list of 50 YA Books, I was not excited to read it.  But I saw that a copy was available immediately through my library app, Overdrive, and I thought, “Oh well, might as well get it over with.”

Now? I am so glad I gave this book a chance.

Around the middle of the first chapter of this book, I realized how closely Cath’s experience during her first days at college resembled mine.  Immediately, the narration of her anxiety began to speak to me, reaching out and bringing comfort to a time in my life that has been long over, but had left some discomfort yet unsolved.  In the end, I discovered that this particular Rowell novel tells an important story of what anxiety, depression, and grief can look like–for different people and in different ways.  Reading this, I felt understood without feeling like the happy ending was sugar coating my own struggles.  At some points, I knew Cath would be okay because I had been there; in others, it seemed that her experience was telling me the same thing.

I always read others’ Goodreads reviews when I’m most of the way through, or finished with, a book, and I saw a lot of backlash against this title for its treatment of fandom.  I have to say I agree with them–I actually really hated the Simon Snow parts.  I had trouble following them, and really didn’t care what happened to whom.  [The inclusion of a wizard in this plot also pretty much cemented my belief that Rowell cannot come up with an original story if she tried…Romeo & Juliet, Harry Potter…].  I don’t know much about fandoms because I have never dived all the way into one, but I respect these readers’ opinions on how it was portrayed.

My counter to that, however, is that I don’t think that fact that Cath’s identifying with a fandom is what’s important here.  Instead, I think Rowell just picked something out to be the example of a crutch or obstacle brought to college, or the cusp of adulthood, from someone’s childhood.  Those of us who have started “adulting” have realized that certain aspects of who we were ten years ago don’t fit into the mold of who we are becoming.  We have to make the difficult decision to dump this thing that is a huge part of us, or to modify it to fit us as we change.  Cath’s struggles with her writing and her fanfiction display this–her molding of her old self into the new.

In the end, I misjudged Ms. Rowell, and I’m grateful that I gave her another chance.

 

#50: Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Perez

Yes, this book is the “last” on the list (because it was published most recently), but it is not the last one I will be reading!

The whole time I was reading (read: listening to) this one, I had a hard time remembering that it is YA.  Think of everything that gets a book on the banned list, and you’ll most likely find it in this story.  Dark, traumatic, and with a brokenhearted ending, this book brought me to tears and filled me with anger.  I think the most important lesson this fictional story has to offer is that This Could Be Real.

It’s rare to find a YA title so hopeless, and yet I think young people who read this will feel empowered because the author chose to show them the Truth, in her eyes.  This is not an easy read, for sure.  But it’s a story that should be celebrated for what it captures.

 

That’s all I have for you today!  I’m working on another book from this list right now, and I’ll put another list on here when I’ve caught up a bit.  Until then, happy reading everyone!

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Echo

This 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.

Munoz 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

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

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

 

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 OdysseyOllie'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.

 

UnhookedUnhooked

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 SpeciesThe 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.jpgThis 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 girlsThe 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

 

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 honeymilk 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. BrightsideFinding 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.

 

Reason I JumpThe 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 NowWhere 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

The Female of the SpeciesWhen 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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