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Review: Mindy McGinnis’ “Not a Drop to Drink” and “In a Handful of Dust”

I always love when I come across a book or series with a female protagonist who is a total badass, and I’ve quickly learned that I need look no further than Mindy McGinnis and her YA books.  She creates these epic protagonists who you wish existed in real life (but only if they were on your side…).  For those of you who follow me on Instagram (@waitingforthesecondstar), you know how obsessed I was with McGinnis’ books during the month of October.  Her terrifying plot lines and tough-as-nails teenage girls were the perfect combination for Halloween reading.

During this time, I read Not a Drop to Drink and In a Handful of Dust, two companion novels that tell the story of Lynn and Lucy, a couple of girls fighting to survive in a world where fresh water is hard to come by, and even harder to protect.  The books were some of my favorite for the year, and so I wanted to put out a more formal review than what I usually post on Goodreads.

Mindy is a local author for me.  I have met Mindy three times, and she is spectacular.  I absolutely love going to see her at signings.  I adore her work because she’s unafraid to challenge gender stereotypes in her texts.  She’s also unashamed to go “there,” wherever “there” might be in a particular book (if you’ve read anything by her, you understand how dark and twisted her books can be!).  But in person, she’s super down-to-earth and fantastic, and I know I’m going to be a lifetime fan.

I’m going to split this review between the two titles, reviewing them separately.  I gave each of these books 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.  They are an excellent companion set focused on girlhood and growing up in a world that’s just gone wrong.  And while they’re shelved in the teen books, they’re definitely worthy of a crossover.  Not for the faint of heart, these twisted tales will make your skin crawl and your heart break.

So, shall we?

 

not a drop to drink

Regret was for the people who had nothing to defend, people who had no water.

Lynn knows every threat to her pond: drought, a snowless winter, coyotes, and, most important, people looking for a drink.  She makes sure anyone who comes near the pond leaves thirsty, or doesn’t leave at all.

Confident in her own abilities, Lynn has no use for the world beyond the nearby fields and forest.  But wisps of smoke on the horizon mean one thing: strangers.  The mysterious footprints by the pond, nighttime threats, and gunshots make it all too clear Lynn has exactly what they want, and they won’t stop until they get it…

With evocative, spare language and incredible drama, danger, and romance, Mindy McGinnis depicts one girl’s journey in a barren world not so different from our own.

Not a Drop to Drink follows closely the story of Lynn, a teenage girl who lives with her mom in the middle of nowhere, next to a precious pond of fresh water in a world where faucets don’t work and cholera is a constant threat.  Lynn’s mom has raised her on the idea of “shoot first, ask questions later,” and the closest she’s ever been to other humans has been through the scope on her rifle.  A terrible accident leaves her alone, and she has to reach out to her only neighbor, a man she hasn’t spoken to since her mom helped him get his foot out of a bear trap nearly a decade before.  And a set of city-slicker strangers will challenge the cold-hard shell of Lynn’s heart, forcing her to open up and take a chance at love in a world without hope.  Suddenly, with a very real threat just miles away, Lynn has far more to protect than just a pond.

This is a book that I would describe as “reads slow but has a lot going on.”  Sometimes, you pick up a book and the pages seem to turn really slowly, but you get to the end and you realize everything that happened and suddenly the book feels far more complex than you originally thought. (It’s kind of like feeling like a single day of the week drags by, but then Friday shows up before you expect it and you realize the week as a whole went by really fast.)  That’s how this book was, with everything that happened coming about in a matter-of-fact way.  The plot was chilling, action-focused, and it utilized characters as pawns in its game (so don’t get attached to anyone!).  And one of my favorite parts of McGinnis’ writing is that she takes these shocking moments and states them in such a straightforward way.  It adds to the darkness, the bleakness, and the horror.

Some of the events in this plot are somewhat predictable, but not in a bad way.  For instance, I had a pretty good idea who may show up in the final pages, and I was right.  But, that didn’t take away from the scene wherein Lynn meets this person, and what goes down is totally bone-chilling.  And, on the other hand, some moments were straight-up shocking!  Like, where did that come from?! So those moments helped to balance out the more obvious ones.

(Seriously.  Do NOT get emotionally attached to these characters!)

Honestly, I appreciated the fact that McGinnis was able to *remove* some of her characters from the plot, and she did so in such a way that it wasn’t overly emotional.  This wasn’t a John Green-esque bedside lament, but a “necessary evil” in the face of a dystopian future.  Most people find dystopian novels where no one dies to be unrealistic, and I have to agree, so I am so happy (is that demented of me?) that someone died in this one.  At the same time, I was equally happy that there is a companion book, because our two main characters–Lynn, and Lucy–had become so important to me.

(Okay, so you can get mildly emotionally attached to Lynn and Lucy, if you want to.  Just…you’ve been warned).

I also love that these books take place in Ohio, because it’s great to be able to imagine fields like the ones around where I grew up, and a city like the one I live in now.  Lots of books I read are set in other areas I’ve at least been to, but it’s definitely a neat experience to read something set where am.

There are several key characters in Not a Drop to Drink that I think really carry McGinnis’ novel to its conclusion.  Of course, there’s Lynn, a cold-hearted girl forced to grow up and do things no young person should have to.  I know some people have issues with her coldbloodedness, but characters like this are staples in McGinnis’ work.  You’re likely to find at least one terrifying woman whose sense of justice leaves everyone on edge.  I say embrace her, because we have far too many male characters in popular culture who would do the same thing, and we accept them with no questions asked.  This is the kind of subversive writing that I love, and Lynn is an excellent protagonist for a world where the girls get to be the badasses.

Stebbs is Lynn’s neighbor, and older man with a bum leg from his run-in with the bear trap.  He serves as the compassionate foil to Lynn and her mom, building the gap between the girl and the newcomers, Eli, Lucy, and Neva (these are the city slickers with no sense of living in the wilderness).  As a male character in a female-dominated text, I think Stebbs is excellent.  And he serves as an adorable grandfather figure throughout the series.

Eli is a sixteen-year-old boy who fled a nearby city with his brother and sister-in-law and their daughter.  Eli’s brother was killed before the trip really got started, and so Eli is trying to take care of his family.  He’s not as capable as his brother would have been, though.  I love Eli’s character, because he is so dependent on Lynn (again, some awesome challenges to gender roles here).

Lucy, Eli’s niece, is the instigator for melting Lynn’s cold heart.  She’s a seven-year-old girl with an earnest desire for life, and she is wonderful.  In this book, she’s largely treated as a child who’s still learning about the world.  It’s in the sequel that we get to see into her view (so more on her later!).

Neva is Lucy’s mother, forced to leave the city because she was pregnant with her second child (a dark world calls for dark laws).  After tragedy strikes her pregnancy, she’s never quite the same, but she manages to be a great mother one more time.  Neva is a definite foil to Lynn’s own mother, and while she is perhaps the most frustrating character to read, she’s again an awesome addition to the struggles that this small band of humans face in the wake of several tragedies.

Several awesome themes come out through this book, that I can’t stress enough for being so awesome.  The first, as you can probably guess by what I’ve said so far, is the heavy emphasis on motherhood and sisterhood.  I was often reminded of the work of Fannie Flagg while reading this, because so much time and energy goes into establishing powerful connections between women.  And men, because of their nature (usually faceless brutes coming to steal water from Lynn and robbing people on the road blind), are often seen as the “other,” for a fresh take on who our heroes should be.  The men we like in this story are kind and compassionate, containing many characteristics that may be somewhat effeminate, and they never upstage the women.  The bonds between women are powerful, and this book chooses to highlight that.

There’s also a heavy emphasis on the idea that family doesn’t end with blood.  Lynn ends up essentially adopting Lucy, and Stebbs becomes a great protector for the little family.  These relationships are key in a world without anyone else, but it also displays the important message that families look all sorts of different ways in the real world, too.  Again, an awesome element of diversity and inclusion.

You also get a really great glimpse at a dark, dark world.  Anymore, readers of YA frequently take comfort in worlds that seem more hopeless than our own.  This book certainly provides that kind of a perspective.  And yet, it’s handled with such taste.  Innocence is still preserved in the integrity and honesty of the characters.  This would be an easy thing for McGinnis to leave out, and yet it’s there, and it’s beautiful.

And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, this book tells a story of a girl who learns how to save herself.  Lynn is the leader in this outfit, and she directs Eli, Stebbs, and others along the way.  When fate threatens to intervene and turn her world upside down, she’s the one that tells it, No.  Whether this was intentional or not, I think it’s greatly important, because this is another book out there for young women to read and remind themselves that they are powerful.

Not a Drop to Drink is an excellent girlhood, dystopian story with a unique premise and challenging conclusion that leaves you begging for more.

Fortunately…there is more!

in a handful of dust

The only thing bigger than the world is fear.

Lucy’s life by the pond has always been full.  She has water and friends, laughter and the love of her adoptive mother, Lynn.  Yet it seems Lucy’s future is settled already–a house, a man, children, and a water source–and anything beyond their life by the pond is beyond reach.

When disease burns through their community, the once life-saving water of the pond might be the source of what’s killing them now.  Rumors of a “normal” lifestyle in California set Lucy and Lynn on an epic journal west to face new dangers: hunger, mountains, deserts, betrayal, and the perils of a world so vast that Lucy fears she could be lost forever, only to disappear in a handful of dust.

In this companion to Not a Drop to Drink, Mindy McGinnis thrillingly combines the heart-swelling hope of a journey, the challenges of establishing your own place in the world, and the gripping physical danger of nature in a futuristic frontier.

This book is told with a closer eye on Lucy, and it begins in a community that’s been established around Lynn’s pond and Lucy’s dowsing abilities.  When polio strikes that community, and Lucy may be the carrier of the disease, Lynn and Lucy have to leave the town altogether.  So, they set out for California (from Ohio!) and take on all the perils between here and there (ha! Because I’m in Ohio).  Lucy is confident with Lynn at her side, but as their journey wears on, she has to learn how to find strength from inside herself.

The plot of this one seems to move more quickly, perhaps because the girls are actually travelling.  This plot was also far less predictable, as so many of the things and people they encountered as they went along were shocking, terrifying, revolting…aye!  There was also more focus on character, since it was just Lucy and Lynn for a lot of the book, and this read very much like a coming-of-age story for Lucy.  She’s now the age Lynn was when they met each other, and she admires Lynn’s strength, but she knows she doesn’t want to live like Lynn.  For these reasons, this was my favorite of the two books.

And for that reason, the ending of this one nearly ripped my heart out.

(Do. Not. Get. Emotionally. Attached…I think you get the point.)

This one also had me sobbing at different moments from the writing alone.  McGinnis powers up the prose, for sure.  I felt so much of this, physically and emotionally.  I was raw and reeling for over 24 hours after finishing it.  This writing really built into the settings, and you feel like you’re crossing the mountains or the desert with the girls.

Character names are somewhat less important to this plot (or, rather, more important, because naming anyone would give a good bit of the plot away), but I can summarize some of the themes I noticed in character placement and why I enjoyed them.

This book is still very female-driven.  Many of the men are Bad Guys or accessories, and the two girls are the main carriers of the plot.  I like this because it remains consistent with the first book.  However, McGinnis also provides some more devious women in this book, some girls and grown-ups as bad as the men.  (And, there is one spectacularly wonderful man who helps to counteract some of the darkness from the other men!)  This complicates the plot, I think, and adds an edge to what McGinnis has created.  Girls are now reading and thinking about what type of girl they want to be, just like Lucy is thinking herself.

Several themes repeat themselves in this text.  For instance, sisterhood and motherhood are brought right back to the forefront.  Lucy treats Lynn like a mother, and they set themselves apart from almost everyone they encounter.  There’s an inherent distrust of anyone else that stems from the world they live in, but this blatant fear creates a fierce bond to exemplify the pure strength and resilience of women when they work together.

Survival is a more significant element in this book, because life-sustaining substances are harder to come by.  There’s also a fascinating interplay wherein Lynn has become the kind of person she would have shot, no questions asked.  Also, Lucy is wrestling with more than physical ailments, as McGinnis takes a good stab at anxiety and “adulting” fears.  There’s also an underlying theme of what makes an appropriate way to survive, because in this text many people are encountered who do things the wrong way.  And hope is personified in the other side of individuals who show up with good things.

And finally, as I mentioned above, this book is about becoming yourself.  As I said, some readers take pretty serious issue with Lynn.  She’s cold, man; ice cold.  So this story is of a more human character, Lucy, who admires Lynn’s strength and yet wonders what her strength will look like on its own.

In a Handful of Dust is a spectacular sister/mother/daughter story of survival and self-discovery, with just the right amount of darkness and hope to keep the pages turning.

 

Put these two together, and you have a super kickass masterpiece.  These books won’t be right for everyone, and yet I can’t praise them enough.  We need more books like this, where women take on a role that men would normally fill, and then make it their own.  And we need more books that offer hope in unusual forms, heroes in unusual capes, and families in unusual sizes.  I’m so grateful to Mindy for writing books like this, and I look forward to reading more of them.

 

Cheers, and happy reading!

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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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Listen Up!

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks.  Most of my time in February and March has been set aside for working on my final master’s project, which isn’t a thesis but might as well be based on all the time and energy I have put into it… Anyway, having such a large project to complete by April takes up a lot of my would-be pleasure reading time, and when I’m not working on my paper and try to read I feel guilty for not working.  Thus, the only way I can feed my reading habit and stay on top of my project is to listen to audiobooks at points where writing and editing aren’t an option–say, in the car or at work.

I know audiobooks aren’t always the most popular book format in the reading world.  For instance, whenever I tell people I listened to Harry Potter (read by the fantastic Jim Dale, who is phenomenal in all things but in particular his renditions of children’s books), I’ve had some people tell me that I haven’t actually read the series.  On the other hand, I have had many of my fellow audiobook lovers share some of their favorite aspects of audiobook listening.  I fall firmly on the side of pro-audiobook, particularly as it relates to reading.  I’m a very slow reader, and I don’t like to read really long books (and, as previously stated, no reading time).  However, when I listen to audiobooks, the story continues on even though my eyes would have given up, and I can stand to “sit through” very long and important texts.  I listened to Watership Down in January and liked it a lot, although I know myself well enough to be confident that I would never have actually sat down and read the story in print.  Thus, I love audiobooks because they broaden my reading focus and allow me to experience certain books and series I would have otherwise continued to ignore.

For me, there are certain types of books that lend themselves to audio format.  First and foremost is any book read by the actual author.  These can be fictional stories, although they are most often memoirs, which are the second best kind of audiobook to listen to.  The third best type of audiobook to listen to, in my humble opinion, are children’s books and YA.  If you have a YA memoir read by the author, you’ve hit the jackpot! (We Should Hang Out Sometime was great!).  After these typically spectacular and wonderful audios come those which are read by talented storytellers, like Jim Dale.  Will Patton is another of my favorite readers; he’s done many Stephen King books and adds the perfect gritty texture to the already creepy stories!  Unfortunately, unless you follow a voice actor through his or her entire repertoire and listen to books marked as read by them, this is the hardest type of book to find.  It is still very worth it, though, when you do come across those gems.

I tend to go back and forth with what I listen to a lot of time, and so my previous “reads” are all over the place.  For instance, last week I finished the audiobook for Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland.  This book is the perfect example of a reading by a great storyteller.  Robbie Daymond has been voice acting for (literally) decades onscreen and on tape, and his talent shows through in this book.  From the first few sentences of the story–which were very well-written, I might add–Robbie had me hooked to the content.  However, I unfortunately lost touch with the characters and the plot, and didn’t enjoy the ending at all.  For a YA, the characters behaved more like adults.  It wasn’t just that they were experiencing Adult Things, as does happen when people grow up; it was more like the story became unrelatable to most teenagers in the emotional responses and behaviors of the protagonists.  I have a full review of this book on my Goodreads if you would like to hear more about my opinions.  They aren’t as important here as the fact that this book represents what I love about audiobooks: fun, lively reads brought to life by talented voices.

I really do love listening to YA, but I have to say that my favorite type of audiobook is the memoir that is read by its author.  After Our Chemical Hearts, I jumped into With My Eyes Wide Open: Miracles & Mistakes on My Way Back to KoRn, written (co-written) and read by Brian “Head” Welch.  This book, his second, chronicles his life after he found Christ and *converted* to Christianity.  He also talks extensively about his daughter and their relationship through some pretty serious stuff.  I love rock and metal music, Christian-based and otherwise, and so Brian’s story has been one I’ve followed since it began.    Listening to this audiobook, I was brought to tears multiple times by Brian’s stories, his daughter’s struggles, and his faith.  The power of his words, being read by him, was unreal.  I was also so pleased to hear him speaking to the need to diversify contemporary Christianity.  He addresses it from the music perspective, hoping that people will become more accepting of different genres in this particular niche.  Brian’s words expressed an honest, straight-forward understanding of the gospel.  Listening to his audiobook was an intimate experience for me, the perfect expression of why I love audiobooks and what they can do to and for reading.

Following With My Eyes Wide Open, I listened to Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, written and read by Jenny Lawson.  This memoir couldn’t have been more different from Welch’s, other than the fact that both of them address mental illness in their stories.  While Brian had me crying, Jenny had me laughing hysterically! (Seriously.  I listen to my audiobooks in my car, and I got some pretty weird looks from fellow drivers, who were obviously wondering, “What is wrong with that weird girl alone in her car?  Why is she cackling like mad for no reason?”)  Jenny’s entire persona comes through her work anyway, so listening to her read her book made it feel like I was watching her speak live, or talking to her one-on-one.  Her stories were so delightful, even though their subject matter was very heavy.  She left me wanting more.  An audiobook should entertain you and challenge you to think about the world in different ways.  Lawson’s stories do just that.

These are just three of my most recent audiobooks, but I wanted to share them with you.  There’s something really special about listening to someone’s creation.  Plus, I love being able to “read” even when I don’t have time to follow words on a page.

If you’ve never tried audiobooks, let me challenge you to pick one up. I recommend Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for those who are Hogwarts fans.  Otherwise, find a book by an author you love and go for it.  You won’t regret it.

 

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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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