Book Club Thursday

Postcards From the Edge

Carrie Fisher drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra.

But in another world, Carrie Fisher died with cocaine, heroine, and ecstasy in her system.  She self-medicated for her mental illness and lost the fight to addiction.

Fisher was a brilliant actress, but she was also a brilliant writer.  Her first book, Postcards from the Edge, proves this.

From the very beginning, Postcards is…uncomfortable.  It follows Suzanne as she is hospitalized for her addiction and goes into recovery.  Once she leaves the hospital, it shows her recovery and attempt to re-assimilate into the real world.  Her writing came from a place of pain, from someone who has experienced it before.

The format – part diary, part third person – emphasizes the tone.  The diary entries are a place of reflection, a day-to-day log of her time in the hospital with other addicts.  It simulates for the reader how she feels she belongs there.  When she leaves the hospital and the story is told in third person, it emulates her outsider status.  This section also shows how hard recovery can be.

At first, it was hard to get immersed in the story, because of the awkwardness.  But after a few chapters, that became the appeal.  That, and Suzanne, who is an appealing character it’s easy to relate to, especially if you also suffer a mental illness.

Rest in peace Carrie, and thanks for the story.

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Once and For All

Sarah Dessen has been my favorite author since I was fourteen.  I’ve read all of her books and get the new ones as quickly as I can.  Her latest, Once and For All, is obviously written by a different person, a Sarah Dessen who’s grown and is reacting to the world around her.

Louna has seen a lot of marriages come and go, courtesy of her mother’s wedding planning business.  But its hard to believe in true love because, if you only get one, she’s already lost her chance.  But Ambrose believes in second chances and wishes, and he hopes to make Louna believe in them too.

I enjoyed Once and For All, though the quality after the magic of her writing in Saint Anything was slightly disappointing.  It is clear she used this writing to work through her grief about recent news events.  I don’t fault her for this – it’s what writing is for – but it did affect the story’s cohesion.

The chapters alternated between the main story and flashbacks of Louna’s life before. It worked for Louna’s character, revealing crucial information about her past in a format that allowed the reader to know her as she is and what made her that way.  It shows the ways tragedy can affect a person.

Unfortunately, trying to write two love stories in one book distracted from the main plot.  Neither romance was as immersive as most of her books are.

Despite this, the characters are as charming as ever, including William, Louna’s mother’s gay business partner, and Louna’s best friend Jilly.  I mention them by name because they were my favorites, and every scene they appear in feels like hanging out with a friend.

Overall, I did enjoy Sarah Dessen’s Once and For All…I just wouldn’t recommend it as anyone’s first Dessen novel.

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The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet

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Tell the Wolves I’m Home

This is going to be a little different than other Book Club Thursday posts.  This is the academic essay I wrote for my Columbia University application.  I was asked to write a response to a recent book I had read.

I believe no two people ever read the same book; we each bring our own experiences to our readings. If you’ve never lost anyone, for instance, Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home may not speak to you as loudly as it does me.

Brunt’s story handles loss beautifully. Like grief, the book starts out heavy, almost too heavy to read, and becomes lighter as it goes. The first-person narration allows the reader to traverse the grief process as the main character does, but its true brilliance is how it includes her family’s grief as well.

Finn, the man whose death starts the story, creates a painting also titled Tell the Wolves I’m Home, prompted by his AIDS diagnosis. When he asks his niece to sit for it, he simply says it’s because she and her sister are “at the right age” (pg. 106). Since it’s clear by the time it’s completed that he painted it because he was dying, it can be inferred that he has gone from denial to acceptance during its creation (pg. 1). In his final days, he asks his partner Toby to add five buttons to the portrait, sending him and his nieces on their own journey through the five stages of grief (pg. 42; 183). June, the narrator and youngest niece, begins to understand its purpose when she finds a wolf in the painting’s negative space. Her uncle, the artist, taught her to see what wasn’t there through the things that were, just like she could see her uncle’s absence in the rest of her life (pg. 114-115).

June, her sister Greta, and their mother Danni are all mourning Finn’s death, but they have lost other things they must grieve for as well. As they pass through the five stages of grief, the portrait undergoes its own changes.

When it is first brought to the girls’ home, shortly after the funeral, Danni is not ready to remove it from its black garbage bag wrapping. Thinking of Toby, she says, “Just thinking about him…You’d think things would turn out a little bit fair.” (pg. 26). As the book progresses, it becomes obvious she blames Toby for the AIDS that killed her brother and her brother’s insistence on “coming out” as gay, even banning him from the funeral. She is in denial, believing she can separate her brother from his sexuality.

Eventually the painting is put into a safety deposit box, but June and her sister Greta are given keys so they can view the painting whenever they want (pg. 104). June doubts Greta will go, so she’s surprised when she sees the painting again and realizes Greta has done something to it. She has added the outline of a skull to her hand in the portrait (pg. 130).

At this time, Greta has been offered a role on Broadway. While her parents see it as a “dream come true,” she sees it as an early end to the childhood that was already cut short by her skipping a grade (pg. 283). Only sixteen, she feels cheated. She becomes irritable, pushing away her friends, drinking too much, and ignoring the things she once loved. These symptoms and the skull she added to the painting signify her depression as she mourns her lost childhood.

In response, June paints gold strands into both girls’ hair so they look more alike. June and Greta were close until June developed a close relationship with their Uncle Finn. When Finn dies, June feels truly alone. She is mourning all the love she’s lost, both Finn’s and her sister’s. With Finn gone, she begins to go to Greta’s parties and play rehearsals, even trying to accept some of the horrible things her sister says about Toby. The whole time, she is bargaining: “If I give up my singular claim on Finn,” she’s asking, “Can I have my sister back?”

But Greta felt the loss of their relationship before June did. She has already reached anger and changes the portrait again, painting her lips red. June finds she “looked fearsome” (pg. 268). It reminds her of the day her sister destroyed all the gifts Finn and Toby gave her and inspires her to think of the words from Requiem: Dies Irae, day of wrath (pg. 269).

With the destruction done, the girls are able to work through their grief together while their mother’s simmers privately. She cannot move past it until the portrait is removed from its safety deposit box.

At first, seeing what the girls have done, she gets angry. But this explosion sets events in motion for the family to finally reach acceptance. Seeing another side of Greta and Toby, truly, for the first time, Danni realizes she has to accept it. She can’t change what the girls have done to the painting any more than she can change what their grief has done to them. Toby, the love of her brother’s life, is going to die alone if she doesn’t welcome him. And Finn is gone. When she chooses to accept these things, Danni, a great artist herself, adds her own touches to the painting: a silver necklace for June and a birthstone ring for Greta (pg. 349).

Finn was a great and famous artist, and a museum offers them a great sum to display his final work, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, but it must be professionally restored first. When complete, only Danni’s changes remain, but June swears she still sees the buttons’ shadows
(pg. 355).

Loss leaves us all changed. Though the world may only see the pretty parts, anyone who has suffered a loss like June’s – or like mine – will never forget what they endured to reach acceptance.

While June’s grief is clear in Tell the Wolves I’m Home, I believe each reader finds their own in what isn’t explicitly stated, in that negative space where June sees her wolf. I see my dad. Though he died eleven years ago, I still see the buttons too.

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In the Next Room

The book I read this week is NSFW, so this post will also be NSFW.  Proceed at your own risk.

I don’t typically read plays.  They are created to be seen, not read so reading doesn’t allow for the full experience.  But I was so intrigued by the alternate title of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room that I had to make an exception.

It’s the vibrator play.

I don’t know what I was expecting from it.  The story is set in the 1880s, at the dawn of electricity, and features a doctor who treats “hysteria” with his new invention – what will eventually be called a vibrator.

The treatment scenes are interesting (and undoubtedly would be even MORE interesting upon seeing the show live), but the true appeal of the play is its emotional resonance.  The treatments throw a harsh light on the problems in the doctor’s relationship with his wife as well as his patient’s relationship with her husband.  Through these treatments, the women discover the things that bring them physical pleasure and it allows them to search for more in their emotional lives as well.  Though Dr. Givings is hesitant to use the invention on his wife, they soon find it isn’t necessary when they allow themselves to feel the passion they had been repressing.

Ruhl explores human sexuality thoroughly and openly.  Mrs. Givings has a passion and libido that her husband isn’t satisfying.  Mrs. Daldry finds that the machine only works on her when Annie uses it.  Elizabeth is the one to tell them that sex with your husband is supposed to be good.

Symbolically, the play takes place in two rooms simultaneously: the operating theater, where the doctor uses his device on his patients, and the living room, where his wife interacts with his patients emotionally.  When they come together in between them, the scenery shifts to a snow-covered garden.  The imagery couldn’t be clearer.  By allowing themselves to be passionate and try new things, they are able to reach a new connection that allow them to be physically and emotionally intimate with each other and to enjoy it.

Ruhl makes the reader question the characters’ sexuality and relationships so they can reconsider their own.  It shows the importance of physical intimacy in a relationship.  But, mostly, it’s about passion, about opening yourself up to another person in order to find something truly beautiful.

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Brain Storm

I have been in a creative rut lately.  Now that I’m coming out of it, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal but when I was in the worst of it, I felt awful.  I was searching for anything that might help.

Enter: Brain Storm by Don Hahn.  I bought it at The Last Bookstore in L.A. last year.  Don Hahn produced The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.  I still don’t know exactly what a producer does, but he worked for Disney, so I thought he would have something insightful to say.

Halfway through the book, I decided I hated this guy.

Perhaps the problem is that I am not his target audience.  Hahn is writing from his own experiences as a White, Straight, Christian, Neurotypical Male, and treats it as the universal existence.  He quotes a couple dozen men and only two women throughout the book.  He consistently generalizes about men and women in an “us vs. them” fashion.  Likewise he equates “masculine” and “feminine” to sexual orientation, which isn’t how it works.

Most of his advice works in this context.  He suggests taking a day or more to ignore the time and follow your internal clock, which is easier when you’re well-off.  One of his major points is that we are living in a time of prosperity, which should allow for more time to be creative.  This doesn’t take into account the people who are barely getting by, or neurodivergent people who can’t muster up the energy to work the extra hours.  He suggests travel as a way of gaining inspiration.  Don’t get me wrong: it is.  But he works on the presumption that “travel” automatically means going to another country, and that is just not feasible for everyone.

He does have a few good lines, but most of them come from the beginning of the book.  He spends a good hundred pages selling his reader on the idea of creativity and living a creative life.  It’s this section that gives us gems like “If we define creativity simply as ‘imagination directed toward a goal,’ then we all have it.” and “There is strength in boldness, and let’s face it, the alternative–doing nothing–doesn’t sound very satisfying.”

But it’s clear that he spends so long selling his reader because that is his strongest point.  His strongest idea is to prove that anyone can be creative.  This is both true and an important message, but he could have said it in an article instead of in a 300+ page book.  Once you get past the pitch, he runs out of things to say – except the parts that are only relatable if you are also Straight, White, Christian, Neurotypical, and Male.

(Also, I am so PISSED that he started a chapter about God and creativity, a subject I am rather passionate about, with a quote from a child molester.)

While he has a few good points, it’s all stuff you can find on the internet.  If you’re looking for inspiration, skip Brain Storm.

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Dial M for Mason

I have been working on The Magicians for the better part of a month.  Last week, I was supposed to go to England, giving me sixteen hours on a plane and even more on trains to finally tackle it.  But plans change and I still haven’t finished the damn book.

The book I finally finished may surprise you: The Case of the One-Eyed Witness by Erle Stanley Gardner.  A Perry Mason mystery.

I don’t read many mysteries, though I couldn’t tell you why, but the ones I have in the past were mostly Perry Mason stories.  The mysteries, this one included, are interesting and keep you on your toes.  I’m not going to lie, I took a few days off from reading this book and felt a little lost going back to it.

The true appeal of the Perry Mason books is Mason himself.  He’s a mixture between a shark lawyer and Sherlock Holmes himself, solving mysteries and using the facts and his persuasion techniques to force people to confess.  His track record is impeccable.  So far as I can tell, he is always right.

There’s also a subtle romance between Mason and his secretary Della Street.  I love her place in the books.  Her official title may be secretary, but it is clear to both Mason and the reader that he couldn’t do his job without her.

I picked this book up at Selected Works Used Books & Sheet Music in Chicago, Illinois, mainly because it reflected the bookstore’s atmosphere, which itself reflected my view of the city.  I’m glad I did.  This book didn’t change my life or anything, but it was a lot of fun.  Sometimes you need that.

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The only good thing about this book is that it was short.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is less known than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous The Great Gatsby, but it was turned into a movie in 2008 with Brad Pitt.  Maybe the movie was better but, if you haven’t been introduced to the story, here’s the gist: Benjamin Button was born as an old man and, as the years go by, he seems to get younger and younger until he becomes an infant for the first time and then ceases to exist.

To start with, the concept is ridiculous.  Fitzgerald was attempting to make a point about life, but I was too distracted by the absurdity to pay much attention to it.  I can usually get behind an unrealistic concept, but come on: how does a woman actually give birth to a fully grown man?  There are some logistics of that I just cannot get around…

You’re also supposed to feel sympathetic towards Button.  I did when his father was ashamed of him in the first years of his life.  However, the longer the story went on, the less I liked Button, so the less I felt sorry for him.  The final straw was the way Fitzgerald wrote his relationship with his wife.  They were married when he seemed much older than her and she enchanted him.  As time went by, she grew older and he, younger.  She became nagging and boring while Benjamin became more vivacious and interested in living in the moment.

The worst part is that, while he remembers people, he loses intelligence as he grows younger, so he never seems to gain any “wisdom” or “revelation.”  All in all, it just felt like a waste of time.  The only Fitzgerald book that’s worth the effort seems to be The Great Gatsby…which I guess is why that’s the one everyone reads in high school.

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Wonder Woman, Part 2.

Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman is an exciting exposé on the Amazon’s origins.  Part biography, part social history, Lepore’s book tells you everything you would want to know about Wonder Woman’s creator…and a lot you probably don’t.

Some comic readers these days get angry when people politicize their fictional heroes.  This book is here to remind you that politicization was the point all along.

Lepore starts by giving William Moulton Marston’s history, then ignores his story for a while as she gives the background of women Marston will eventually love and learn from.  These women include Sadie Holloway, editor of Encyclopædia Britannica, and Olive Byrne, niece to Margaret Sanger.  Byrne helped Marston with his lie-detector experiments.  That’s right: the man who created Wonder Woman also invented the “lie-detector,” so it’s no wonder she has a Lasso of Truth.

Jill Lepore does an excellent job of showcasing the good, the bad, and the strange.  She outlines Marston’s living situation (basically, he had three wives and was very into bondage) and his background in psychology to explain how his life affected Wonder Woman’s story.  She also manages to highlight the positive contributions he made to the women’s movement at the time while still describing the things he does that are less feminist than he claims to be.  Finally, she tells the story in an engaging yet mostly unbiased way.  It wasn’t just informative: it was entertaining, and even funny.

As nonfiction books go, it’s one of the best.  Besides being a subject that isn’t often explored, the book is expansive and enjoyable to read.  If you’re curious about why the inventor of the lie-detector machine turned to comic books, give it a go.  You may be scandalized, but you will never be bored.

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Wonder Woman, part 1.

I love female superheroes, and I think it’s important that young girls read and watch them. Boys have a variety of strong role models; girls are less lucky.  But in some ways it’s getting better, and Wonder Woman at Super Hero High by Lisa Yee is an example of that.

It’s a tie-in novel to the DC Superhero Girls cartoon.  When I first heard the synopsis, I assumed they attended an all-girl superhero school; that’s how bad representation is.  But these stories are set at Super Hero High, a school with students like Cyborg, Beast Boy, and Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, and yet focus on the stories of these girls.

I had a hard time getting into the book at first.  Yee needed to introduce the school and the world it’s in, where superheroes are so common there are multiple schools to teach them, and the story is a little slow while she sets it up.  Meanwhile, she is also introducing the characters, who are lovable and engaging and make the exposition worth it.  Once the story is underway, it becomes a fast-paced adventure as Wonder Woman works to fit in at Super Hero High, solve the mystery of who is trying to force her out, and figure out who she wants to be.

If you like the DC universe, there are a lot of fun Easter Eggs.  Wonder Woman meets Steve Trevor and learns what a crush is.  Amanda Waller is the no-nonsense principal, the Wall.  And a few of the more obscure heroes (and reformed villains) are the Super Hero High teachers.  It’s also a nice way to introduce kids to the universe, as it features most of the big players in one form or another.

There are also some lessons every kid should know.  Wonder Woman sees a counselor every week and has to learn to balance taking care of herself with her high-achiever personality.  The story is focused on team work and caring for others, not only physically but emotionally.

It’s a fantastic book and doesn’t take too long to read.  I can’t wait to read Supergirl’s adventure next.

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