Posts Tagged With: 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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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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To Have and Have Not

Honestly, I have a hard time reading classics.  I don’t always understand the antiquated language or the story’s context so they can be difficult to get into.  That’s why I tend to give classics a longer chance before giving up on them.  Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not was different: it had me in the beginning, lost me in the middle, and didn’t come back around until the last few pages.

The main character of To Have and Have Not is supposedly Harry Morgan.  I say “supposedly” because the story opens on his point of view, tells how he got shafted by a rich guy who chartered his boat and then skipped out on his bill, and then explains that he began to smuggle contraband out of desperation.  That sounds like the makings of an interesting story.  But Hemingway ends the section and skips ahead to his next illegal job, dropping the reader into the middle of the scene without giving us the “Point A to Point B” explanation.

Once Morgan’s boat has been taken by the Coast Guard, Hemingway gives us a bizarre bedroom scene between Morgan and his wife.  While this would have been a great opportunity to legitimize their relationship so the reader will sympathize with them and understand Morgan’s desperation, that doesn’t happen.

Morgan goes to Freddy’s and Hemingway takes the opportunity to introduce us to the “haves” in this universe – rich tourists who are above these problems.  Their stories are sprinkled in between Harry’s illegal jobs and then take over after his last job leaves him wounded.  While he lies in his boat, shot and bleeding, these men are watching drunks fight and arguing with their wives.  This goes on for pages and pages while Morgan is dying.  When the story finds him again, he has died and his wife Marie is contemplating how she is going to take care of their daughters, since they had little money and she is “empty” without Harry.

And yet…I had no sympathy for any of them.  A byproduct of the style, perhaps, but none of the characters had defining features that made me like them.  If the point was that desperation drives honest men to do horrible things, I needed more proof that he was actually a good man.

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Crooked Kingdom

There are few books that I love so much I need to read the sequel immediately, but I loved Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows that much.

Six of Crowsin case you’ve forgotten is an amazing sci-fi/fantasy, heist YA novel about six misfits who become a team.  The sequel, Crooked Kingdom, is the best love story I’ve ever read.

Okay, obviously, there is a new heist.  At the end of Six of Crows, the team gets screwed out of a payday and Inej is captured.  Kaz intends to get his money and his girl, and so we have a sequel.

The rest of the team has problems too: Nina is fighting withdrawal, Jesper’s father shows up, Wylan’s is looking for him and has been hiding his mother for years…  Meanwhile, the rest of Ketterdam – and the whole world it seems – has turned on them.

This is why it’s a love story.  In the first book, Kaz pulled the team together.  In the sequel, they pull together themselves.  They don’t stay for Kaz, they stay for Inej…and then each other.

Usually, I hate stories that “pair everyone off,” but this one is done so well, I can’t object.  Mathias is still prejudiced but is fighting it, not necessarily for Nina, but with her help.  Kaz gets Inej back and has to decide if he can keep her and protect her simultaneously.  Inej is incredible (and a role model for all of us) because she wants him but refuses to betray herself to keep him.  And Wylan and Jesper…god, Wylan and Jesper…

But that’s not why it’s the best love story I’ve ever read.  The couples are perfect for each other, but the true love story of Crooked Kingdom is the family the six of them create together.  Back in Ketterdam, with everyone against them, they learn to rely on each other and become the family they’ve all lost.  They learn to trust each other and compensate for each other’s weaknesses  In Six of Crows, they ere a team; in Crooked Kingdom  they become a family.

Don’t get me wrong: the heist is exciting.  With Kaz’s ingenuity (and the other’s talents) they con the whole city and finally bring don Pekka Rollins, Jan Van Eck, and even Per Haskell.  It’s very satisfying to see them pay for their crimes, but it’s even more satisfying to see the characters you come to love in Six of Crows grow during their performance in Crooked Kingdom.

Obviously I advocate for everyone to read Six of Crows first, but Crooked Kingdom is worth reading.  Even if the first book as a quarter as good as it was, I’d suggest people read it for the sequel’s sake.  In the first, you fall in love with the characters; in the second you fall in love with the family.

All that to say…you should read Six of Crows.  You will then feel compelled to read Crooked Kingdom.  You’ll enjoy every minute of it and wonder where these characters have been all your life.  I promise.

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The Geography of You and Me

I hesitate to say The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith is “not your typical YA love story” because, in a lot of ways, it kind of is.  Two teenagers meet by chance and immediately fall in love, more of less.  Their relationship faces certain obstacles which serve to bring them closer to each other.  It’s light and breezy and overall a fun read.

The difference is that the main characters, Lucy and Owen, spend most of the book apart from one another.  The story focuses on their individual stories as they travel and grow.

The traveling is what made me fall in love with this book.  The two started in New York City (*heart eyes*) and then traveled in opposite directions.  Owen went west, ending up in Seattle and Lucy moved to London after traveling through most of Western Europe.  Since the story focused on their individual travels, it showed off their individual development.  When they came together in the end, it felt more like a beginning than an ending.

Instead of the relationship carrying the story and being used to develop the characters, the characters develop on their own and give the relationship an emotional weight that is deeply rooted in the individuals.  Despite lacking a base setting, between the characters and the writing, the reader is never lost.

It’s an easy read, and it leaves the reader with a warm-fuzzy feeling, but it also makes you think about the world as a whole and travel as a life-changing phenomenon.  You become invested in the characters and their development.  The relationship is secondary, only important because it makes them happy, but it’s still well-done.  It’s definitely in my top 10 as far as YA goes…but god, does it make me want to travel again…

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Six of Crows

A couple weeks ago, a friend (who doesn’t usually talk books with me) sent me a Snap.  “Have you read Six of Crows?  I think you’d really like it!”

I made a note of it but, because I wasn’t buying books at the moment and won’t read books I don’t own, I figured it would be a while.  Then a different friend let me choose a Blind Date with a Book for my Christmas present.  Based on a very vague description, I chose Six of Crows.

“I thought you’d end up with that one,” she said.  “I think you’ll really like it.”

A third friend got really excited when I put a picture of the book’s maps on my SnapChat story.  This book came highly recommended…and it absolutely lived up to the hype.

The description for my blind date was “felt like watching Leverage.”  To me, it was a mix between Leverage and Firefly.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is a fast-paced heist story.  These characters are on a Mission and every action either brings them closer or further from their goal.  With all the twists and turns, the reader is constantly desperate to find what happens next.  It’s an exciting plot, but the best part is the characters and their found-family dynamic.

You can pick your own favorite…but if it’s not Inej, you’re wrong. The Wraith is the glue that holds the team together.  Everyone loves Inej.

But they’re ALL wonderful.  Kaz is a beautiful train wreck, Wylan and Jesper are adorable, Nina gets to be a different kind of strong than Inej, though just as powerful, and Matthias grows so much and so realistically over the course of the story.

Between the plot and the characters, the story is unique and fascinating, but it’s the writing that elevates it all.  Bardugo describes this sci-fi universe with enough detail that it presents a vivid picture.  The action is described so clearly that it’s like we’re there.  She looks into each character’s mind so clearly that the reader can understand the motivations even they may not recognize yet.

By the end of the book you will be sucked into the action, but also so in love with the characters that you feel like you’ve gone on a trip with your new best friends.  It’s so good that I’m going to actually buy the sequel as soon as Christmas is over.  It’s amazing.

Don’t let the “YA” label fool you.  If you like sci-fi and adventure, this is the story for you.  And who doesn’t like adventure?

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Sword of the Rightful King

Jane Yolen has written over 200 books and Sword of the Rightful King is proof that one should not do that.

I have so many complaints about this one that I’m going to put them in a list so I don’t need to bother with transitions.

  1. The story didn’t truly start for at least a hundred pages.  Even once it had, she stretched certain parts needlessly.  Basically, the book was too long for the story.
  2. The story may have started a hundred pages in, but it didn’t get interesting until two hundred.
  3. Yolen spent most of those pages with Gawaine, who all but disappears as soon as he arrives in Camelot.  His basically used to introduce his mother, Morgause.
  4. Morgause is only one of two women who are developed as characters in this story.  She’s evil.  And the other woman is pretending to be a boy named Gawen and isn’t revealed as a woman until the end (though it is “foreshadowed,” so there’s that I guess).
  5. One of the “hints” that Gawen is actually Guinevere is a scene were she and Lancelot lock eyes.  And then, until the end of the book…NOTHING HAPPENS BETWEEN THEM.  I understand it’s part of the original legend, but why introduce it if it’s not a plot point?
  6. When it is revealed that she’s a woman, Arthur just says, “Oh, you’re actually a girl?  Cool.  Marry me.”  WTF?
  7. There’s a single hint that he cares for her before that.  Otherwise, Yolen keeps telling the reader that Gawen is one of Arthur’s top advisors but doesn’t show her advising him…unless following Merlinnus’s script counts as giving advice.  The same is true of Agravaine: we are constantly told that his loyalties have changed, but it’s never very convincing.
  8. Merlinnus is completely unlikable.  “Unlikable” can work for a character if it works for the story but, come on…it’s Merlin!
  9. In the end, Morgause disappears after one foiled scheme, which seems out of character at best.  She does curse Gawen before she goes, but nothing actually comes of that.  Merlinnus says he’ll “take care of everything,” but it’s so vague, there’s no confirmation he even knows about the curse, let alone how to stop it.  And if he did…why not show us how he does it? Breaking a curse is always interesting!
  10. This isn’t Yolen’s fault, but…THE BLURB!  It’s misleading to start, and then completely spoils the final twist…which would have been the best part if it was set up properly.

After The Bell JarI wanted something light and easy to read.  I expected the trade-off would be that it wasn’t as satisfying, but I had no idea it would be THIS bad.  My advice?  Skip this book and watch Merlin if you need a Camelot fix.  It’s on Netflix and everyone in it is gorgeous, just fyi.

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The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is not for the faint of heart.

This post is going to contain spoilers, and I also feel I should warn you (in case you don’t know what the book is about) that there will be discussion of depression and suicide.  Here goes.

Growing up, I was constantly told (please don’t ask why) that the way you boil a frog is by putting it in a pot of lukewarm water and slowly turning up the heat.  By the time it realizes how much trouble it’s in, it’s too late to do anything about it.  I thought about that a lot as I finished The Bell Jar.

It starts as the kind of novel I hate: a meandering journey through somebody’s life that doesn’t seem to be going to any place in particular.  Even then, though, I couldn’t hate it because Plath’s writing was so beautifully and masterfully done.  The book is so well-written that it takes a while to realize the author has you by the throat.

There are signs, even in the book’s bright beginnings, that Esther suffers from depression.  But it doesn’t seem like a “problem” at first.  It’s just a thing about her.  By the time she (and the reader) realize how serious it is, she is already contemplating suicide and is sent to a doctor.

When I read The Virgin Suicidesits perspective was designed to give the reader some distance from the depression itself.  Plath gives us no such relief.  Her first person voice puts you directly into Esther’s head.  The imagery and descriptions give a clear picture of how her mind works and how it changes over time.  By the end, you are horrified both by how easy it seems to slip into madness and how little anyone actually understands or helps her.

Plath grabs you by the throat.  Her words wrap themselves around your head.  I can’t say I loved this book, but I am amazed by what Plath accomplished here and I know it will stay with me.  I’m still shaking over it.  That’s how good she was at her job.  Though I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, this book deserves its spot in the Literary Canon and is worth reading…if you can stomach it.

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Road Trip Book Haul

This was meant to be a vlog post, but I don’t actually feel like videoing myself right now.

I probably visited a dozen or more book stores on this trip.  Some were awful, like the one in Cuba, Missouri.  There were a few, like the one in Nashville, Tennessee, that were nice but didn’t have what I wanted.  There were six I found and purchased books from.

The first bookstore of the trip was in Chicago.  Selected Works Used Books & Sheet Music was a room and a half in a building so old the elevator was cranked by hand.  There I bought a Perry Mason mystery: The Case of the One-Eyed Witness by Erle Stanley Gardner.

Despite going into almost every bookstore I saw, the next place I found something was Palace Avenue Books in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  There I bought Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. The owner saw that I was buying it and showed me an antique he’d recently acquired with some beautiful pictures of the pyramids.

I FINALLY found If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho translated by Anne Carson at The Writer’s Block Book Shop in Las Vegas, Nevada.

When I made it to The Last Book Store in Los Angeles, I almost didn’t find anything…but then I saw Brain Storm by Don Hahn and Neil Gaiman’s ‘Make Good Art’ Speech.

Originally, I expected this would actually be my last book store of the trip, but then I got to meet Anna Kendrick and get her book Scrappy Little Nobody at Bookends in Ridgewood, New Jersey, a bookstore well known for its author events.

And of course, once in New York City, I couldn’t resist going to one of my favorite bookstores: The Strand.  That’s where I found In the Next Room by Sarah Ruhl, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.  These were all books I’d wanted for a while, so that was extra wonderful.

I’ve stopped going into big chain bookstores because I’ve found half the fun of buying books is where you get them.  So where are your favorite independent bookstores?  And be sure to shop there Small Business Saturday!

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