"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton
This is where I chronicle my reading life. I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.
American Girls by Alison Umminger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Probably wouldn't have read this book if not for my book club, but I found it to be an enjoyable enough read nonetheless.
Generally I don't like movies set in Los Angeles or around the movie industry because a) I've been to L.A. and it was the most soul-sucking place I've ever experienced; and b) a lot of times movies set in and around Hollywood have an element of "wish fulfillment" when it comes to the idea of stardom/fame/etc., that I find to be off-putting.
This book did have a bit of the latter, particularly in Anna's somewhat far-fetched romance with a teen star of a cheesy, Disney-channel-esque show and all her opportunities to hang with famous peeps (some of whom were not so glamorous close-up). But what redeemed this aspect of the book was that it also did not shy away from Hollywood's seedier side -- the difficulty of finding and keeping work as an "unknown" actor, the emphasis on looks, the dysfunction that often accompanies fame, the lengths women must go to to remain thin and beautiful, and yes, the overall soul-sucking nature of it all.
Ultimately, what I liked best about this book were its themes about the way our culture perceives women, from Anna's sister's run-in with pornography (I got the sense that there may have been more of this than the book let on) to Anna's musing over the youth and beauty of the "Manson girls," who she is researching for an indie film for her sister's creepy ex. I expected the Manson murders to play a bigger part in the story, but instead they ended up contributing more to the overall themes rather than standing as plot points on their own. I wish more attention had been given to the throwaway line about how the Manson cult was deeply embedded in racism, though.
At times this book felt like it had too much going on -- Anna's family drama (which she fled to Los Angeles to escape), her romance, her crumbling relationship with her best friend back home, commentary on Hollywood and our looks-obsessed culture. But it could definitely serve as a good antidote to the stars so many Americans still get in their eyes when they think about L.A.
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The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Marianna Mayer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I think I might have read this when I was a kid, but I reread because a friend in my book club said it had been her favorite book when she was growing up.
Illustrations are gorgeous and Mayer is excellent at adapting fairy tales -- I still long to find her adaptation of Aladdin that I fell in love with when I was young. What surprised me in this adaptation was the emphasis on the feelings and experience of the boy who uncovers the princesses' secret. I always thought of this as a story about sisters and their illicit adventures, but this version makes it the male "rescuer's" story. I wonder if that is the way the story is traditionally told or if that was the focus of this particular telling.
At any rate, it was a little discomfiting. As a kid I certainly never noticed how creepy the idea of a boy going invisible so he can spy on a room full of girls/women was! But the strangeness of it all is one of the things that still makes this a rich and compelling fairy tale to me, regardless of how it is told or who is emphasized.
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I fell off the wagon of uploading my book reviews for the end of 2016, but I'm starting fresh in the new year.
Sacred Wilderness by Susan Power
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book was divided into several different story "sections" -- one that took place in present day and followed an older Native American woman who was employed by a wealthy couple as a cook/housecleaner and others that delved into the stories of the main characters' ancestors.
I loved the way this book blended Native American and Catholic spirituality (which is what drew me to the book), particularly the Virgin Mary's intuitive understanding that all beings who forged a path of peace were sacred and would have been "friends of her son." Mary's manifestation appeared in both the historical and the modern timelines, and I liked her portrayal in the historical one better; she felt just a touch too "woo-woo"in her modern incarnation, and I kind of felt as if the privileged, unemployed middle-aged woman she was sent to "awaken" was not really deserving of the honor. On the other hand, her appearance to comfort a grieving mother and clan leader in the historical storyline seemed a much more worthy visitation.
The historical writing was incredibly beautiful and evocative. The modern writing I found to be a little stilted in places, but I liked that it lent some greater insight into the politics of being American Indian and living in the current culture. This is something I still strive to find a deeper understanding of, especially since moving to a state with a significant Native population that still remains mostly a mystery to me.
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It's been ages since I posted here due to life stuff (read: I got pregnant), but I'm hoping to make this book blog active-ish again in the new year. I am starting with this fun and low barrier-to-entry reading habits survey. :)
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #38: A book about an anti-hero
This was a light read, but not shallow. It had just enough heart and smart cultural commentary to be substantive despite its sometimes breezy tone. The relationship between Blackheart and Nimona was super sweet, and any potential weirdness in the adult male/teenage girl dynamic evaporated when it became clear that Blackheart was gay. I also liked the shameless meshing of traditional fairy tale elements - kings, knights, market days - with modern communication like news alerts and video chats. And the question of who is really the villain in any given system is always worth examining - Blackheart had a sense of "honor" and a personal ethics that belied his moniker.
I would have liked to have known more about Nimona's actual backstory; the gist of it was there but the edges remained a little blurry. The ending felt a bit abrupt to me as well, although the epilogue took the edge off.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #50: A book originally written in a language other than English
Yes, this is a deeply unsettling book.
The artwork is garish and creepy, nightmare-like, really. There is far more going on than either the cluttered, overlapping images or the text will say. There are no easy answers, and ultimately I gave this book four stars instead of five because I was left with a few TOO MANY questions. [Like, was panther an imaginary friend Christine used to work through past or present trauma? Was he a psychotic break, her own psyche setting out to harm her, a brush with schizophrenia? Or was he really a being from another world come to seduce and molest her (along with his creepy friends)? I also had the uncomfortable fear that Panther was really her father coming to visit her in the night, and that she "coped" by imagining him as an actual predator -- a panther -- or that he coaxed her into thinking of him that way. This is the interpretation I like least, and I wish I could shake it, because I really want to believe that Christine has SOMEONE safe she can turn to.]
This is a book best read in the light of day, although that won't be enough to keep you from filling icky. There's just a better chance you'll be able to shake it off by bedtime.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #49: A Book with a Great Opening Line
This book has intrigued me since it first came across my desk when I was a teen services librarian -- I remember my intern taking it home the day it was processed and reading it all in one night. But I put off reading it until I could no longer put it off (my book club was reading it.)
So, why the resistance to a book that caught my attention right away? I was afraid that it would be "gimmicky," that the actual story would never live up to the stories promised in the creepy vintage photographs scattered throughout. Within the first few pages, I was pleased to find that I was wrong -- the prose is actually very good, and the storyline is strong enough to stand on its own. The photographs become a delightful perk, pushing the book into the realm of "experimental" or "mixed media" rather than the sole reason for the book's existence. There were times when the usage of photos felt a little incongruous -- places where they were used as "illustrations" without any explanation of why a photograph of that thing would exist were a little off-putting to me.
I liked the first half of this book better than the second. The beginning section is so atmospheric, with the descriptions of the bombed out, empty house, the rainy island, the creepy mummy in the tiny museum. Some people may find this slow to start, but I wanted the anticipation to go on and on. I liked the mystery more than its resolution.
The second half of the story doesn't take a nosedive or anything. It just gets a little jumbled, with a bunch of characters bursting into what has been mostly a solitary journey for Jacob, a somewhat questionable romance, some skewed parental interactions, and a lot of different plot points jammed together into a mostly coherent puzzle.
I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have a feeling it will focus on the "peculiar" children and rush through the opening, which would be a shame. It also makes me somewhat less inclined to read the follow-up novels, since they'll probably more closely resemble the second half of the book than the first. I invite those who have read them to make a case for or against continuing the series!
Yesterday I finished reading Panther by Brecht Evens. It's an artsy graphic novel that can be read in about an hour -- a deceptively short amount of time, considering how impossible it is to shake once you've read it. In my exploration of the book, I'm going to give spoilers, so if you want to read it unspoiled (it will only take an hour, after all!), you should come back to this post later.
Panther begins when Christine's cat dies. She is heartbroken; this is not her first traumatic loss. Later in the book, we learn that her mother "left" the family and may have committed suicide. Christine is a sad, lonely little girl living in a big house with her father who seems to be basically a good guy, but I'll come back to that later.
The night of her cat's death, Panther emerges from Christine's bottom drawer. He is shifty from the beginning, always changing his story and backtracking to make Christine happy. And she is mostly delighted with him. But the book's sinister undertones are unsettling to the adult reader. In one image, Panther has his nose buried in Christine's crotch, "sniffing" her out in a game of hide-and-seek. In another, he tells her she's not "a little girl" anymore as he massages her back after trying to coax her to get the key to her room from her dad so she can have privacy. (This whole "key to the bedroom" thing kind of creeped me out all on its own. Why would you need a key to a child's bedroom? Is she locked in at night?) Christine never discovers it, but Panther devours her stuffed dog, who had been attempting to warn her about him. When she notices the dog is gone, Panther replaces it with what basically an "evil twin" -- a lookalike full of dangerous and unsettling suggestions for "games." The night of Christine's birthday party, the dog is the ringleader in a "game" that ends with the Pantherland gang stripping Christine down to her underwear while she cries and begs them to stop. Afterwards, Panther attempts to comfort her by urging her to snuggle up to him and "pet" him while he keeps her warm. The book ends without "connecting the dots" of its troubling implications in any concrete way. What seems clear to me is that the book is grappling with the slippery connections between trauma, abuse, and imagination -- but the lingering question is whether the potential creation/imagination of Panther was a coping mechanism for Christine to deal with real-life abuse, either past or present, or whether the entity of Panther itself was given too much power and ultimately became the abuser.
These are the possible interpretations that emerged for me upon first reading. (I had to return the book to the library, but I would not be surprised if additional meanings or interpretations emerged if I could spend more time with it.)
I couldn't help but think of Tulpamancy as I read the book -- because Tulpas are "real" and "separate" people to their creators, I don't think I am the only one who harbors an insidious fear of what might happen if a Tulpa "goes bad," bringing its host with it. In fact, Panther could be read as a cautionary tale of just that sort.
But it could also be read as a demonstration of the only thing some people have to fall back on when their real life is too hard to bear: imagination. And no matter how scary that gets, it's still a safer place than reality.
Regardless of interpretation, Panther is one of the most haunting explorations of that line between fantasy and reality that I have ever read.
Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Read Harder Challenge Item: Read a book about feminism or with feminist themes
This book tackles the evergreen topic of interest in feminist circles of "balancing work and family." While it treads a lot of familiar ground -- the cost to a woman's career when she prioritizes care-giving, envy of the Scandinavian countries that have this all figured out, etc. -- I liked that it framed the dilemma as a problem of "undervaluing care," and that it called on both women and men to change these cultural values. I also appreciated that it held women to task for valuing caregiving behaviors and tendencies in men, challenging readers to root out their conscious or unconscious biases when it comes to the assigning worth to an individual based on earning capacity.
I also appreciated that the book at least attempted to lay out some potential solutions to the problem, although I fear it may rely a bit too much on asking the government to take over the work of caregiving in various ways. It also purported to be a book for "all caregivers," but it really did focus on women (and men) in professional fields, giving the barest mention of working class families before once more ignoring their particular needs and challenges for the rest of the book. So it remains a book primarily for the "more privileged" workers -- those who have some kind of sick time, those who may have the option for flexibility and some leverage with their employers, etc.
As useful as this book can be in challenging caregivers and potential caregivers to give serious thought to how they might combine work and family life, I can't help but feel the people who REALLY need to read this book are the business owners and the bosses, those who can make a real impact on changing work culture one company at a time.
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This is a good "fat book" for people who are intimidated by "fat books" -- because it is divided up into six different stories, it doesn't feel long. I think the book is best enjoyed by just letting yourself sink fully into whatever story you are currently in, rather than stressing out about how they all fit together. I liked the nods from one story to another and the overarching themes in the book. Of course, I liked some of the storylines more than others. I had trouble paying attention during the Luisa Rey storyline, probably because I don't particularly like "genre mystery," and I think I missed that story's significance to the whole.
The others, which range from historical fiction to dystopia and post-apocalyptic, all held my attention fairly well, although aside from Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish was my least favorite. The futuristic stories were my favorites.
Although each section has its own "voice," the book somehow manages to pull off a cohesive overall tone. There is no doubt that Mitchell is a masterful writer, although this book's experimental style isn't going to be for everyone. Although I enjoyed the ride the stories took me on in the first half of the book, I found the second half to be somewhat lackluster in comparison -- each story seemed to be building to another one that was even more compelling, so going through them again in reverse felt like something of a deflation. It was also disorienting, since I had kind of lost track of minor characters or plot points in the earlier stories by the time I returned to them.
I went to the movie when it first came out, and I liked it. But there is no doubt that the book delves much deeper into characters and themes, and ultimately weaves a richer tapestry.
I've put off writing this review for weeks because this is one of those books that it is hard for me to be articulate about.
The experience of reading this book is claustrophobic at times; this is an interesting juxtaposition with the fact that its central characters are immortal or nearly so,which seems like it should lend itself to a feeling of "expansiveness." Instead, despite her immortality and her incredible shape-shifting and healing abilities, Anyanwu spends much of the book "trapped" by Doro due to her reluctance to put her children in danger or subject them to his manipulations.
Despite her entrapment, Anyanwu never feels totally "powerless" -- even as a prisoner, she loves those around her even when they appear abhorrent or unlovable. She's an almost Christlike figure and embodies the idea of "feminine strength" that persists no matter how much the world tries to control or break her down.
I really hated Doro.
Other references I read to this book made it sound like a love story between Doro and Anyanwu. It's more of a "love-hate" story. There's a whiff of Beauty & the Beast in the idea that perhaps Ayanwu's strength and goodness can save or change Doro throughout the centuries. I feel conflicted about their relationship and the book in general. It is not an easy book to read because it offers no easy answers to subjects of consent, dominion, sex, or history. The historical details are vivid, which is not really pleasant in colonial, slave-driven America. I wish the questions this book wrestles with were not still so relevant today.
Last weekend my husband and I attended NerdCon: Stories in Minneapolis. The first session I went to was titled "Mental Health in Young Adult Literature," and it was presented by Amanda MacGregor with Teen Librarian Toolbox -- a GREAT resource for those working in teen services or anyone who cares about YA lit. (This session made me miss my days as a teen services librarian so much.)
MacGregor talked a lot about how common mental illness is among teens (and the population in general -- up to 25 percent of us will experience mental illness firsthand in our lives) and the importance of its presence in teen literature to show teens who have mental health struggles that they are not alone, and to foster greater compassion in those who don't struggle personally. She stressed that it's important that YA lit neither stigmatize nor romanticize mental illness, and that it show that help is possible. A work of fiction may be the first time a teen encounters someone who has a mind that works the same way as their own.
MacGregor shared her own lifelong struggle with anxiety, and she shared writing from YA authors who had written about mental illness, many of whom had personal experience with the mental health issues faced by their characters.
I agreed with MacGregor about the importance of portraying mental illness in a sensitive way when writing for young audiences, and I found myself examining my middle-grade novel through that lens.
Authors often talk about writing the book that they wished they'd had when they were young. I did the same, and much of what my protagonist, Maddy, goes through, I also experienced at her age. That includes my first brush with depression.
I struggled with depression throughout my adolescence, encountering it for the first time when I was about 10 years old -- from there it would come and go in waves, hitting its apex when I was 16; I finally found relief when I was prescribed antidepressants to treat my chronic migraines.
My novel opens with Maddy's suicide attempt; later in the book she experiments with self-harm. She is also the victim of bullying, to which, I would argue, depression is a natural response. She is never clinically diagnosed -- I have never received a clinical diagnosis, either. She does encounter the concept of mental illness through her father, who falls into a depression after he loses his job. Because his depression interferes with his ability to contribute fully as a parent, Maddy's mother pushes him to get help, and he does. So Maddy is aware that depression exists, and also that help exists for it. She even wonders briefly if she (and her mother) should get treatment. But she never sets foot in a therapist's office, and she finds other ways to heal.
I have no doubt that adolescents struggling with mental illness fall through the cracks all the time. Part of it is that we just expect teenagers to be "moody" or "difficult." As an adult or a parent, I'm sure it's difficult to discern when a teenager's struggles are a natural result of the seismic hormonal and social changes of that age, and when they signify an underlying chemical issue that should be professionally or medically treated. And often, teens themselves do not have the vocabulary to name what they are experiencing -- or the agency to ask for help.
In light of MacGregor's discussion, I find myself questioning whether it is irresponsible to portray mental illness without explicitly naming it in books aimed at children. Part of the challenge is that mental illness exists on a spectrum and is somewhat subjective, despite the existence of diagnostic questionnaires and the DSM-V. Although I, as the author, can diagnose depression in my main character, a reader could argue, based on the events of the story, that she has schizophrenia and/or dissociative identity disorder. I don't agree with either of those diagnoses, but I certainly wouldn't try to talk a reader out of that interpretation.
So the state of Maddy's mental health, while described in some detail in the book, is never named. This wasn't a decision I made consciously; and now that I have become more conscious of it, I'm resistant to changing it. Primarily this is because, unlike books such as Challenger Deep or Every Last Word, my novel is not ABOUT mental illness. Some of the characters in it are afflicted, just like some of the population is. Up until this point, I've always felt that what's important is for young readers to recognize themselves in the feelings and experiences of a book's protagonist -- not necessarily that they have names for all those experiences.
But I'm having trouble thinking of similar books for young people that portray mental illness without explicitly naming it. It seems like characters in YA novels are either diagnosed with a named mental illness before or within the course of the story, or they are assumed to be mentally healthy. Does the genre have room for middle ground? And if it does, do you know of books that occupy that space?
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #39: A book set in a place you'd like to visit
After discussing some of the book's flaws with my book club last week, I realize I may have been a bit generous in awarding it the elusive five stars. But despite its weaknesses, while I was reading this book I did not want it to end -- this happens rarely even when I am enjoying a book, and that tends to be what bumps it into five-star territory.
While I agree that Rosie is a bit of a manic-pixie-dream-girl, and while I do think she's a bit on the self-centered side, and while I had such a hard time picturing her even though she WAS described, she didn't really get on my nerves or interfere with my enjoyment of the book. The most fun aspect of this book for me was Don's "voice" -- I loved the unusual way he saw the world and the various adventures and misunderstandings that arose from this. Not only is the book a sympathetic portrayal of someone who is on the autism spectrum, but it also underscores the ways that neurotypicals and those with different brain types are very much alike. All of us have certain ideas that we are unwilling to be flexible about, and all of us feel pretty clueless when it comes to understanding love.
Overall, this is a "feel-good" book that would make a delightful romantic comedy -- and this coming from someone who isn't a huge fan of romantic comedies. What I liked about this as a romance is that the misunderstandings and tensions that arise in Don and Rosie's relationships are not manufactured for the sake of plot -- instead, they arise naturally from the way that their minds work differently. Thus, it's not one of those books where all the tension would be dissipated if the characters would just TALK TO EACH OTHER ALREADY. Talking to each other, with their differing communication styles, is often part of the problem.
I like that Don's relationship with Rosie made him more "open" to new experiences and "flexible" in the way he lived his life, but I think the criticism that he was expected to change "too much" is valid. Rosie probably could have learned a thing or two about being organized and methodical, too!
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #24: A "Between-the-Numbers" book of a series
This was pretty much what you'd come to expect in a J.D. Robb book, except shorter. There is no who-dun-it because Eve knows who the killer is -- an escaped convict that she put behind bars three years ago. The tension instead comes from the fact that Eve as well as a close friend are both on his "hit list" and she must find him before he kills the others on the list and without losing her own life.
The book was fine -- prose, pacing, plot pretty much on par with the full-length novels. I was annoyed that a book so short still had to waste pages on sex scenes that did nothing to advance plot or character, but mostly I rated this book three stars because it followed the J.D. Robb formula TOO well. I was hoping the shorter form might give her the opportunity to try something a little different, but this is just a miniature version of what she's been doing all along.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #25: A Book Whose Main Character is in a Profession that Interests You
This feels like two different books smashed into one: the first half is something of a memoir of Cutie's experience in the priesthood, while the second half is essentially his rant about all the things that are wrong with the Catholic church, which he mostly attributes to the celibacy requirement for clergy.
This has a bit more of a "celebrity memoir" feel to it than I usually like, and the writing in the first half feels a little labored, clunky, and obligatory. I didn't realize that Cutie was such a public figure, so his need to tell "his" side of the story and his many references to how the media and those around him perceived him felt a little bit overly defensive to me. If you're looking for a love story, you will be disappointed -- he goes into very little detail about the relationship that was ultimately the last straw in his decision to leave the Catholic church, probably out of respect for his wife, whom he characterizes as a "private" and "shy" person.
The book picked up steam (and interest) for me after Cutie stopped acting as an apologist for why he remained in the Church for so long and instead dissects all that he sees to be wrong with it. There is nothing incredibly new here, although there are a few interesting insights, such as his belief that the Catholic church has been so silent in speaking out against dictatorial governments because it is itself a dictatorship. The idea that all of the Church's problems stem from the celibacy requirement is a bit of a stretch, but he makes a compelling argument for it nonetheless. I liked having the "insider look" behind the veil that is the Catholic hierarchy and appreciated that Cutie's role as an outsider allowed him greater than priests still within the system are afforded. I felt a bit uncomfortable with how Cutie seemed ready to give priests accused of sex abuse the "benefit of the doubt" as well as his conflation of homosexuality and predatory sexual preferences, even though he claims to be an ally to the GLBTQ community.
As a memoir it's a little stiff and wooden, and it's not the greatest treatise on the failings of the Catholic church. But I'm still glad to welcome Cutie among the chorus of dissenters calling for change in an institution that too often does more harm than good to its adherents.