Little Fires Everywhere: A Review (of sorts)

It has been a while since I connected so deeply to a book.

34273236A novel with strong female characters, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere has something to say for most American women, especially American women who were teenagers in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, teenage girls who ultimately become mothers and continue the generational spiral as it loops throughout time.

For me, I was magnetized to every character, and if you have read any of my book reviews, you’d know, dear reader, how much I love a character-driven novel.  LFE did not disappoint in the characterization department.  I wish I had read this for book club, for I am dying to talk about this one with other people.  I have many questions that I’d love to mull over with someone, but since I don’t have anyone, I’ll pose them here below.

When I read about Mia, the enigmatic, vagabond mother, I pictured her as me: first, as a child misunderstood; then, as a teen figuring it out, introverted, shy, passionate; last, as a mother devoted to her child.  But she is much more than that.  She has history, secrets; she has loved and lost and depended on no one but herself.  Mia’s arc delicately progresses yet the effect she has on others is extraordinary.  She is the kindling that starts those little fires everywhere.  But is she to blame for all the chaos?

When I read about Pearl, the teenage girl yearning for acceptance and connection, I pictured her as me.  I remembered the improvised living spaces of my highly mobile childhood, each city a new start, yet never quite able to begin before we left again.  Relationships were reserved for family only, only because we were never any place long enough to make connections any deeper than acquaintance-status.  Pearl wasn’t the most likable character, yet she was the one I see as most like me.  She showed me some things about myself that I need to inspect further.

When I read about Mrs. Richardson, the idyllic, superficial, suburban mother, I pictured her as me.  She’s a woman who wants the best for her family, who strives to hold her family together, if for nothing but the illusion.  Lost in the quest for social status, she is completely out of touch with her children.  Additionally, she once had a fierce passion for activism that now lies mostly dormant.  What is life if not for passion and meaningful relationships?  Mrs. Richardson has completely missed the mark.

When I read about Mrs. McCollough, the hopeful adoptive parent of a Chinese baby, I pictured her as me.  Though I never suffered through the trials of a difficult conception, I know what it feels like to love a child so much and try to do right by them, yet the best intentions often end up lacking.  There’s always someone informing you on what to do and how to do it better than you currently are, and often times, that advice is under appreciated or defiantly rejected.  A question I as myself as I reflect about Mrs. McCollough’s story line is what makes someone a mother?  Is it biological?  Love?  Acceptance?  Inclusion?  Selflessness?

Of course, the novel isn’t just about American women, it features a host of other characters such as Chinese women, as well as Chinese and American men.  There is a thread of racism in this novel, if not intentional by the characters, perhaps a little unintentional.  Can one be unintentionally racist?  I wonder.  Maybe unintentional racism isn’t the same as delusion; maybe it’s simple ignorance.  Maybe it’s about not valuing a different culture yet not devaluing it either.  Does that even make sense?  Sigh.

When I read about Bebe, the Chinese mother determined to regain custody of her child, I pictured her as me.  I empathized with her as she struggled to deal with the aftermath of her decision.  If I had to do something unimaginable in order to help my child, what lengths would I go to in order to right the circumstance at a later time?  Who gets to judge the “righting” of my “wrong”?

This novel journeys through uncomfortable topics with no real suggestion about how to feel about them.  It’s truly left up to the reader.  LFE’s characters are flawed yet redeemable, just like real life people are.  Most readers will connect with at least one of these strong characters, if not all of them, just as I did.  If you want a thought-provoking novel, pick this one up.


I admit that the story seemed slow-going at first, but just as embers will lie smoldering for a long time, it only takes a tiny breeze to start the fire blazing.

This was my first book to complete in 2018, and what a strong one to have out the gate!  I’m excited to take you all on my reading journey throughout the year!


Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda: A Review (of sorts)

In an effort to widen my horizon in 2017, I tried making it a priority to read works mostly about topics of which I have little personal experience and/or written by authors of a different culture, race, or religion than I have.  Even with different backgrounds, I have found various commonalities and similar experiences that I had never considered before.  It was an eye opening experience, and though I’m still a few books shy of my reading goal for the year, I think it has served its purpose and will be one I continue into 2018.

Last night, I finished Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli.  I had recently read that it was being made into a movie, and I also knew that it won the Morris Award back in 2016 and was long-listed for the National Book Award in 2015.  Another appealing aspect of this book was that it occurred to me that I could recall reading only one other book narrated by a character in the LGBTQ community (Luna by Julie Ann Peters, a National Book Award finalist, 2004), so I grabbed the book from my local library and settled in.51uersxv5jl-_sx325_bo1204203200_

As far as the book itself, it was an enjoyable, fast read.  It centers around Simon, a high school junior in a small(ish) Georgia town, who hasn’t yet come out to his friends or family.  Meanwhile, he has an online relationship with another boy from his school, whose identity remains a mystery to Simon.  It’s not until Simon is found out by a fellow classmate, who blackmails him in order to get a date with the new girl in town, that Simon is forced to decide whether or not to come out on his own terms or to have himself (and maybe even his mysterious online boyfriend) outted by the blackmail jerk.

A couple of issues I had with the book are pretty basic:

  • Simon’s experience isn’t the norm.

I fear that those who are preparing to come out and read this book will get a false sense of confidence that their experience will be like Simon’s.  Let me be clear, Simon doesn’t come away unscathed, but as a person who has worked closely with teens over a pretty lengthy span of time, I can tell you just how vicious they can be, not to mention the stories of teens and young adults who come out and lose most of the people who had supported them their whole lives.  It’s an unpredictable, scary situation, which is why it’s such a brave act when one does choose to come out.

  • It’s wrapped up pretty nicely at the end, when we all know that’s not real life.

While there may be advantages to making everything tidy and nice at the end of a novel like this, this is one of my major complaints with any book that I read.  I get that the reader needs closure, but closure rarely equates to happy endings.  In real life, there are frayed ends left dangling and relationships that don’t heal, at least for awhile, and I think it’s okay for stories to leave some things undone, too.  Books can fall into many different categories, a couple of which are fluff fiction and stories with teeth and meaning.  This had the potential to be the latter, but sort of fell a bit short for me at the end.

In some respects, Albertalli’s book title is combatting against those two issues I had with the book.  Maybe she’s trying to show what could be/should be for teens when they come out.  And if that’s the case, then, well, mission accomplished, lady.  Kudos to you.

But I think the title of the book is more of her way at taking aim at inequality of the social and societal norms for the LGBTQ community.  At one point Simon says, “Why is straight the default?  Everyone should have to declare one way or another, and it shouldn’t be this big awkward thing whether you’re straight, gay, bi, or whatever.”  He later adds regarding race, “White shouldn’t be the default anymore than straight should be the default.  There shouldn’t even be a default.”  When there is a default, there is a scary under layer for All Other Things, and that’s precisely what we are seeing in today’s world.  I won’t get too political in this book review, but it’s easy to see.  All you have to do is turn on the news.

This book is an enjoyable read; it was fun to try to guess who Simon’s mysterious boyfriend is, and there are some great messages in the book.  Go on and get reading.


Turtles All the Way Down: A Review (of sorts)

John Green has rightfully and justly earned himself the respect and favor of readers and critics alike.  Since 2005 with his publication of his Printz-award-winning debut novel, Looking for Alaska, Green has cemented himself as, not only the voice of adolescents and young adults, but as the contemporary JD Salinger,  modernizing a genre of books that are more relative to the targeted audience than the standard stock.

John Green from Time magazine

Another surprising aspect of Green’s craft is his appeal to an older generation.  Granted, I am in the education field and like to stay abreast with what is current and popular with teens, but I know a lot of other people who are familiar with and enjoy reading his books. Of course, he’s not appealing to all.  Some of my adult friends find his work exhausting and unrealistic.  Sure, there is some vocabulary in his dialogue that I don’t know if any 16-year-old I’ve ever taught knows the meaning of, but hey, if kids are reading it, they are exposing themselves to some good vocab, so…#winning.

The book you should be reading right now

With that said, I just finished his latest novel (literally, like 15 minutes ago), Turtles All the Way Down, and I’m feeling very unsettled, which I suspect, is how Green wants the reader to feel.  Turtles deals with the mental illness of a teenage girl, Aza, who has OCD.   Green focuses more on the mental rather than the behavioral aspect of Aza’s illness.

It was very hard for me to read, I think, because at first I was still not truly understanding the severity of the illness.  Unlike, say, The Fault in Our Stars, where I felt such heartbreak and sadness for a week after finishing the book because cancer isn’t something you can control–it just happens–my reaction to TFiOS was typical and expected.  With, Turtles, I found myself saying things like, “Just stop it, Aza” “Don’t do that, Aza,” “WHY ISN’T SHE STOPPING HERSELF?” and “Oh my gosh, did she seriously just do that!?”

As if she could control it.

Here is something that I’ve reminded myself about while reading Turtles: mental illness is and is not like cancer.

Is like cancer:

  • It can worsen without treatment.
  • It is invasive.
  • It is debilitating.
  • The person living with it cannot control it.
  • There is treatment but no cure.
  • It affects the person with it and everyone close to that person.
  • It can be terminal.

Is not like cancer:

  • Oh, wait.  I got nothing.

It wasn’t until I recently dealt with a loved one going through major and serious depression that I started educating myself more about mental illness.  I may not have handled this personal issue well at first because mental illness is not understood and is stigmatized (unjustly), and those thoughts were still in the back of my mind.  Just be happy. Think happy thoughts.  Choose joy.  But my loved one could not just be happy and couldn’t find the joy to choose.

Green’s inspiration for a visual representation of Aza’s “though spirals”

People living with mental illness (depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.) need to be understood and shouldn’t feel that they are having to live through it alone.  There should be no blame involved.  As if the person with the mental illness wants to have these thoughts or behaviors.  As if a person with cancer wants to have the cancer.

We need to start trying to do a better job understanding mental illness.

I thank John Green for writing a book with a character that feels real and deserves our sympathy so that we can better understand these illnesses and start a positive conversation about them.

In a nutshell: if you’re somewhat empathetic, this is not an easy read, but it’s totally worthy of your uncomfort.  If you’re not empathetic, read it anyway, and try–just for a moment–to think what it’s like to be someone else.

History of Wolves: A Review (of sorts)

Fair warning: this will be full of spoilers because I can’t not talk about some things.  So, x out now if you don’t want the plot ruined.

This is more for me than it is for you.  I think this will end up being more of a self-reflection than a proper book review, so here’s your second chance to bail out. 😉

I can’t recall how I came upon History of Wolves.  I subscribe to EW strictly for their book recs, so I think it was in a recent issue that gave a one-sentence blurb about lots of books. Maybe it was because the cover was inviting in its simplicity, maybe it was that its title made me think of my obsession with Game of Thrones (#whereisghost).  Whatever it was, it was a meant to be.41bi2bhiygsl-_sx329_bo1204203200_

Linda, a 14-year-old Minnesotan, is deeply connected to nature.  Raised on a commune as an only child, Linda spent her childhood in the woods understanding how nature works and how it’s all interconnected, how the extremes of both hot, but especially cold, weather affects everything, how to survive.  As much as she is interested in her surroundings, she is obviously very lonely, though she doesn’t seem to notice.  She seems very confident in her independence, yet her lack of meaningful relationships with her peers and parents leaves her awkward and obvious, a target for others.

It’s not until she strikes up an uncomfortable relationship with a teacher that she finally shows her yearning for connection, however inappropriate.  When the teacher is later accused of having a relationship with another student and possessing child porn (Don’t worry, this concept isn’t discussed in detail.), Linda is left feeling confused and rejected.  One has to remember that she’s a teenager, and everything that is NOT about her IS about her.

In fact, that’s one thing that Fridlund does well: immersing the reader into the mind of a self-absorbed teenager so that no matter how many years has passed from adolescence to adulthood, the reader remembers immediately how it feels to see the world through ego-centric glasses.

This novel leaves me with 2 main take-aways:

  • (Remember, you were warned: major spoiler!) First, I had absolutely no idea what Christian Science was.  Maybe if I had, I would have been tipped off by the 2 sections of the book: Science and Health.  I don’t think Christian Science in the book is supposed to be a larger metaphor or a slam on any organized religion.  Rather, I think it speaks to the extremes people will go to in order to stick to their beliefs, even at the expense of common sense and ethical compassion.
  • Second, I made a bit of a discovery.  When I was reading about Linda’s quirky idiosyncrasies, I immediately thought of my best friend’s pre-teen daughter.  I almost sent her a text to tell her that she needed to read this book about this wise-beyond-her-years, woodsy girl.  But the more I read, the more I realized that Linda actually reminded me of myself as a teenager.  For a good portion of the novel, I sympathized with her on just about every level.  Like Linda, I grew up in poverty.  Like Linda, I did not know how to connect to others because I was alone so often.  Like Linda, I carelessly misplaced my trust in others, believed anything, and yearned for acceptance.  Linda isn’t always the most likable character, but she’s almost always a sympathizing character (although a little questionable during the last few pages of the novel).  I don’t think I would like me as a teenager, either, and that’s why characterization crowns Fridlund Queen.

I pride myself on figuring out plot before it happens, but it turns out I had nothing figured out at all.  When I did make a prediction (and I made several, mind you), I was pleasantly surprised not to have called it in the end.  This novel was not predictable, and perhaps that was due to my not knowing a whole lot about the book before I read it.

Fridlund’s style did take some getting used to.  At times, I loved it, and other times it bothered me.  For example, “He’s four, he’s got an owl puzzle to do, don’t talk to him” (1).  The structure of that sentences makes me pause and read it again, not because it’s particularly beautiful but because it doesn’t flow like I think the author intended.  Maybe it’s me.  It’s probably just me.  Other times, I read certain phrases and sentences over and over again because they were beautiful to me.  Take this one for imagery, for example, “The truth was, that old woodstove was narcotic and banal to me as a child, so I was drawn to it without seeing it, and hated it without wondering why.  The winter I was nine, I laid my cheek against it while I was reading Mush, a Manual on the floor.  The burn made a bubble of clear skin–a round half globe like the air bladder of a fish–under my left eye.  The bubble grew as the days passed, rose translucently from my face, obstructed my vision when I looked down” (158).  Just gorgeous.  Another stylistic choice is the use of flashbacks and flash forwards.  This novel is always jumping around, 1-5ish pages per time period, and it makes for a seemingly fast read.  Frindlund is masterful at tying all of the relationships together by piecing them together in the alternate time lines, and it’s a nice added layer of complexity to the novel.

When I began this blog, I really wanted to discuss the ending, but since this blog is mainly for me and my reflection, I’m going to pass on that.  The ending was…something…and it needed to be revisited a couple of times the next day to make sure the meaning was conveyed.  The ending didn’t sit well with many people on Goodreads, so those who suffer from What-Did-I-Miss? syndrome will be in good company.  Such a shame, too, that a book that was so constructed so well ended up having a leaky roof.  It’s the only reason I didn’t give the book a 5-star rating.

I highly recommend this book.  As far as enjoyment of plot and characterization, this one is up there on my best-of-the-year list, no doubt.

P.S. This novel is on the Booker Prize long list.  I think, despite the ending, it’s deserving to be on the short list, which will be announced on Sept. 13.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Review (of sorts)

Have you read this?


If you have, how would you describe it?

Because I don’t have words.

After reading this beautifully poignant memoir about loss and grief, forgiveness and family, I feel that any praise that I could give Sherman Alexie’s work would be grossly inadequate.  Because it would be.

This 453 page memoir is Alexie’s response to losing his mother, a woman with whom he had a strained and complicated relationship for his entire life.  It’s just about the realest book I’ve ever read.


It’s beautifully constructed: short vignettes and poems, joined by repetitious patterns of themes and stories that resemble the construction of a quilt, his late mother’s craft. At the bookends of the memoir are two longer pieces that hold the entire work together, just like the border of a quilt.  His memoir is made with love but is constructed with pain.  Very quiltesque.

I want to write about how much I relate to Alexie’s experiences about growing up poor and with abuse, having a defiant spirit, being disgusted with injustice, feeling unlovable and unloved, being bullied (as a child and as an adult), and self-coping by purposefully forgetting painful memories, but I don’t want this review to be about me.

But it is, isn’t it?  That’s why we read books, see movies, listen to music.  We enjoy the arts because we are constantly trying to connect to others so that we know we aren’t alone in our experiences, our pain, our triumphs.

Alexie’s way of facing grief and loss head-on is brave and raw and honest.  It’s courageous because his mother is complex: he doesn’t paint her as a great and loving mother, so he seems to be mourning the mother he wished he had as much as he is grieving the mother he lost.

It’s beautiful, and you should read it.  Everyone should read it.  Some topics and themes that stood out to me are as follows:

  • His mother’s lies
  • His struggles with religion
  • His tribe’s (and other Native American’s) injustices
  • His gentle feelings about his alcoholic and at times MIA father compared to his harsh feelings about his mother who “saved his life.”
  • This quote alone: “Listen.  If it’s fiction, then it better be true.”
  • The uncertainty of memories–false memories–how memories take shape and evolve over time
  • The importance of salmon
  • Politics of today and how it relates, not only to Natives, but to EVERYONE!
  • Racism, racism, and more racism
  • Government response to anything Indian (Let us not so quickly forget Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock!)
  • Grief is as repetitious as it is heartbreaking.
  • Being bullied by the very people who are supposed to support you
  • What constitutes as an unreliable narrator?

Of course, when we lose someone close to us (or not as close as we would have liked) and we feel the effects of their loss, we start to contemplate the possible the impact we have on those around us.  I wish I had written this one myself because I feel it longing inside my bones:

70. “Ode in Reverse”

This poem is for everyone in my life–

My sons, friends, mother, siblings, and my wife.

It’s a cuff to the head–a self rebuff.  

Dear ones, I have not loved you well enough.

It took me longer than expected to finish this book because I had to stop and reflect or stop and cry, then put it down for a day or so before I could face it again.  It brought up a lot of memories for me, things that I had long (and probably purposefully) forgotten.  But I always came to pick it back up, and I’m so, so glad I did.

All the Light We Cannot See: A Review (of sorts)

It took me 3 reading attempts over a 2-year span and a month and a half of reading straight through, but I finally finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr at 2 a.m. on a rainy Monday morning.  Why did it take me so many times or so long to read it once I finally got going?  I’ll explain.

Geez.  Why so many times?

I’ll tell you what I tell my husband when he gets irritated at my ginormous reading stack: I have condition called Book ADD.  It’s a thing.  Trust me.  I’ll start a book, and often I’ll see another prettier, shinier book and say to myself, “Let me read that for a second.”  Andall-the-light-we-cannot-see-by-anthony-doerr then I have Book ADD with that book.  And the next.  And the next.  It’s actually sort of exhausting, reading a bit of many novels and then becoming so overwhelmed at the stack of ADD books that I abandon them all and start fresh.  Compounding my diagnosis is the fact that I’m a slow reader.  Le sigh.

Gosh.  Why so long?

2 words: The Election.  I was well into the novel when The Election happened.  Sadness and despair held me up for a good week or two.  In actuality, I’m still trying to pry myself away.  Anyway, I just couldn’t go back to St. Malo and all its beautiful devastation when I felt desperate in my own life.  I needed time to make sense of my new real world before I could plunge into a historical fiction that could–given my new real world–become a reality within the next 4 years.

So what?

We read to connect with something, right?  We read to make sense of our world.  I could write for days about the parallels ALWCS and the state of our nation right now: the uncertainty, the turmoil, the madmen at the helm of ships entering dangerous waters.  But I won’t.  Somehow saying very little gives me hope that it won’t be true–like saying it out loud might make it real or give it truth.  I’m superstitious that way.

But the book, friend.  The book is gorgeous.  It does its best job at finding the beauty in the ugly, and its best won the Pulitzer.  In my wildest dreams, I still can’t craft sentences like Mr. Doerr.  Just listen to the master:

“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”

“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

God.  Just.  Why can’t I?

The characters are just as beautiful and intricate as the language, which is why–you know–Pulitzer!  Marie Laure and Werner, Jutta and Papa, Etienne and Frederick, Volkheimer and Madame Manec are surely as real to the reader as the letters on the page.  They bring light to a dark world, and thank God for that.5136536258b0765ceea8d2f959e42ca7

If you enjoy stories with characters who are beautifully flawed, with a mysterious and suspenseful plot over a back drop of Nazi-occupied France during WWII, this is the book for you.  You like folklore involving a blue diamond with a flaming red center that will give eternal life to its carrier yet curse others around it?  Yep, this book.  You fancy miniature model cities (a la Beetlejuice) and radio broadcasts that transmit secret coded messages that were once baked into bread?  This book.  You desire to read something that matters on a larger scale and helps you understand something new about yourself or your world?  This.

Go read this book.


Feel free to also check this out.

Luckiest Girl Alive: A Review (of sorts)

When my friend Cody first told me about Luckiest Girl Alive, I completely dismissed him.  He had lost some book-nerd cred just moments before when he pulled out his phone and skidooed into Instragram to show me Reese Witherspoon’s account that was “chocked full of book recs.”  Reese Witherspoon?  Of Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama?  If she reads at all (which I doubt), it’s probably nothing but Sparks, whose movies always get made into films.


Just no.

I respected Cody, and I promised myself I wouldn’t let his lapse in judgment cloud that admiration.img_46251

Then less than two months later, my school book club chose a book as our Feb. discussion.  At the time, I had no idea that Cody’s/Reese’s book recommendation and our Feb. pick was one and the same, until I saw the cover and was immediately taken back to when I  was secretly eye rolling Cody while he was browsing Reese Witherspoon’s Insta.  The cover is pretty unforgettable.


I’ll read this book that Reese Witherspoon recommends.  For the sake of my book club, I’ll take one for the team.

I had read that the book is compared to Gone Girl, which I really liked, so that was a plus, but even as I downloaded a free sample on my daughter’s Kindle, I was deliciously eye-balling  three other, “better” reads.  I sighed as I began chapter one.

Right off the bat, the narrator, Ani, garnered very little of my sympathy, which was Knoll’s intention, obviously.  She’s superficial, mean spirited, and spoiled.  Unless I emotionally attach to a character, it’s hard for me to continue, but for the sake of the team, I soldiered on.  By the end of chapter 2, however, I was pretty much hooked.  If you are unaware, this book takes alternate points of view between the present- day Ani and her 14-year-old-self, TifAni.  TifAni, who we meet in chapter 2, is much more likable, but only a little and only because you can excuse her insecurities with her naivety and inexperience.

I thought this was going to be a fluff read, a book with very little substance because, you know, Reese Witherspoon.  But I was wrong.  Ani and TifAni are both very layered, complex characters who are dealing with difficult situations of which they’ve had some responsibility in creating.

But it’s TifAni’s choices that will have the reader reeling, wanting to both violently shake some sense into her and gently hug her in the same swift motion.  What makes her so real is that any reader can relate to her.  We’ve all done stupid things or reacted to situations in ways that an on-looker wouldn’t expect or think is normal.  For example, TifAni is so desperate to be accepted by her peers that she apologizes to her rapist.  She apologizes to him instead of reporting him or enacting revenge on him!  And to rub the salt into the wound, several people blame her for the sexual assault because she was drunk and should have known better.  Who believes that, let alone says it?  A lot of people do, apparently.  This type of weakness is despised by others, the feeble and the strong alike, yet our society perpetuates it because many people still don’t understand it.

What makes TifAny’s action (or inaction, if you will) worse is that her self worth is measured only by these same horrible people’s opinion of her, and it’s absolutely heart breaking. However, that’s just what makes her sympathetic to readers.  How many of us have limited our worth to the judgment of others?  It’s a common adolescent psychological behavior, one that most people grow out of as they mature.

Yet Ani doesn’t.  She has kept up a heavily masked facade, one in which she can’t tell the real from the fake.  And the effort she exerts to keep up this image!  It’s completely exhausting.  And sad.  And disappointing.

We all do this to some degree, you know, invent ourselves or reinvent ourselves, and that’s why this novel speaks to people.  Hopefully we will never have to face the tragedies that TifAni has to, and hopefully we will never have to exhaust ourselves with being people we are not like Ani does.  But we are there…somewhere in between the two extremes, praying for acceptance and wishing to better ourselves, hopefully without any collateral damage.

You should take Reese’s advice and read this book.  The film adaptation is coming soon, so do your homework and prepare.

P.S. Cody, if you’re reading this, I’m currently following Reese Witherspoon’s Instagram.  You were right; I was wrong.  😉

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender: A Review (of sorts)


This is going to be short.

It will be short, not because I don’t have much to say about this novel, but because there’s nothing I can say that would ever do justice to its beauty.  I don’t have the words to describe it because I don’t know if words have yet been invented that are majestic enough to reflect its grandeur.  dsc_0253-1

Just go out right now and buy this book.

Stop what you are doing.

Right now.

Go buy it and stay up all night reading about a generational matriarchy that ends with a girl who is born with the wings of a bird–or an angel–you be the judge.

Maybe have a cup of coffee or tea, and some freshly baked bread, while you devour the story.

You will not be disappointed.  I am disappointed only because I didn’t write this story myself.


Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind: A Review (of sorts)

Up until recently, my ever-long quest to find the right balance of work and pleasure had been unsuccessful.  I’ve started a novel that I never have time to work on.  I work late, come home, and work some more.  After doing some chores around the house and having dinner, I do grad school work, check Facebook, do more house chores, and try to fit in some family time.  By 11:00, I’m winding down with a book or looking to have some creative time to write. The thing is, I’m too tired to be creative at 11:00 on a school night.  I might make it through half of a paragraph in a book I’m reading.  All right, my quest is still not successful, but I’m working on it, okay? 😉

Strangely and unexpectedly, a grad school assignment helped me find the balance I was manage-your-day-to-day-reviewlooking for.  I was tasked to read a book about literary citizenship/finding creativity, and I chose to read Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind.  It’s a superlong title for a book that packs a punch with tips for making the best of your limited time.

The book begins with giving some inspirational stats about some successful and famous creative folks.  Did you know that Ernest Hemingway wrote 500 words per day, no matter what (23)?  Also, Stephen King has an impressive morning routine that involves taking his vitamin and listening to music before he starts typing away at his latest horror story (28).

Aside:  I wonder what music he listens to for inspiration?  I’m thinking Marilyn Manson, maybe?

Here are just a few amazing tips the various book contributors give for those of us struggling to find the time to be creative:post-it-notes

  1. Post-It Notes: If you’re a list maker (…like me.  I freaking love making lists!  Who wouldn’t like to make lists when you can make lists on these?), make your daily to-do list on a 3×3 Post-It.
    Doing this will keep you from trying to pack in too much in one day, which you’d never get done anyway.  It will force you to determine the most important things you need to do (28).  Also, if I’m on your Secret Santa list, these make me happy.  I LOVE Post-Its of all varieties.  But not the cheap ones; they don’t stick for crap.
  2. “Establish hard edges in your day” (29): Set your routine.  Contributor Mark McGuinness suggests to start with an hour of the day you wake up and the time at night when you should be in bed.  Fill in the in-between with the appropriate time needed to do the required part of your day.  For example, I’m not a morning person.  At all.  So, my during-the-school-year (not a game night) routine would be something like this (and this definitely needs to get amended!):
    1. 6:00 wake up and get ready
    2. 7:00 breakfast
    3. 7:15 leave for school
    4. 8:00 work
    5. 4:00 leave work (except this NEVER happens.  I’m usually there until at least 5:00.)
    6. 4:00 (5:00) come home and finish work
    7. 5:00 chores
    8. 6:00 start dinner
    9. 7:00 eat dinner
    10. 7:30 clean kitchen
    11. 8:00 family time
    12. 9:00 kids getting ready for bedtime/chores
    13. 10:00 grad school work
    14. 11:00 (or 12:00) read/creative time
  3. Write frequently and routinely (33): Contributor Gretchen Rubin suggests that we write every day, no matter what, even if it’9202074dce511a5634e41eac08b519d6s for 15 minutes.  Sometimes we don’t feel like writing or being creative, but we can’t afford to wait for when we feel creative or have epiphanies.  We.  Just.  Must.  Write.  The.  End.  Rubin suggests that writing frequently “makes starting easier, […] keeps ideas fresh, […] keeps the pressure off, […] sparks creativity, […] nurtures frequency, […] fosters productivity, […] is a realistic approach” (34-36).  I’ve tried this over the last week and a half, and I must say that I am beginning to see a difference in my product.  Some times I can think of nothing to write, so I just write words and word associations, but at least it’s something.  It’s more than I was doing before.
  4. Build Renewal into Your Workday (49): Contributor Tony Schwartz says that “the challenge is that the demand in our lives increasingly exceeds our capacity (51).  Can I get an amen?  This is the story of my life.  This is why, when I’m trying to write an awesome blog post or write an essay for grad school at 11:30 p.m., I just stare at the screen.  I’ve got nothing left.  I’m full (but I feel empty).  I’m done for.  Schwartz says that there are several ways to combat this issue during the day so that you can have sustenance throughout the rest of your waking hours, become more efficient while you’re at work, and have energy and creativity left over for when you’re back at home:
    1. Match your routines to the natural rhythms of your body (52).
    2. Take a 5-10 break at midmorning to talk to a colleague about something other than work (53).
    3. Take a 30 minute walk during lunch time (53).
  5. Find time to focus on creativity (74):  Contributor Cal Newport says that in addition to the routine that you’ve set for yourself (see #2 above), build in focus time.  He says to start for one hour a day.  From there, build in 15 more minutes at a time until you get to a good chunk of time that works for you.  business-does-not-need-facebook-pageHowever, he says that there can be no distractions.  At all.  If you sit down and start to focus and you check Facebook quickly, then scratch it and start over.  Everyone knows the black hole Facebook will suck you into.  And I admit, this is my biggest fail.  This is the one thing I will have to overcome: The Facebook Fail.  Later in the book, contributor Dan Airely says that we should be aware of our compulsions so that we can avoid them (92).  I clearly know what mine is.  Do you know yours?  Newport also recommends working on an isolated task at a time and varying up your “focus locale.”
  6. Multitasking is multi-dangerous (81):  Okay, so I’m paraphrasing a bit, but contributor Christian Jarrett says that people can only multitask with “automatic behaviors like walking” (82).  51286664It makes sense, then, that if you’re being creative, you’re using complex thought. Therefore, we should shut out any distractions that would cause us to “task-switch.”  Again, with the Facebook suckage mentioned above, checking social media is NOT multi-tasking because it is counter productive to your mission.  Also, check out what author Jonathan Franzen did to eliminate distractions when writing Freedom.
  7. Unplug (113): Contributor Scott Belsky says that we should be aware of how much time we spend connected to the intertron. unplug When we are constantly online and being bombarded with information, we limit our own brainpower.  He says that we should limit our time online each day and recognize when we are online for superfluous reasons (This is a repeating suggestion throughout the book).
    1. Also, did you know that there was such a thing as screen apnea (153)?!?! Oh my goodness, just breathe, people!  Your computer isn’t worth dying over.
  8. Unnecessary Creation (174): Contributor Todd Henry suggests that we need to create just to create, that the mind needs it and craves it, and it comes freely with routine.  It allows us to follow “impractical curiosities […] and take risks and develop skills that can be later applied to on-demand creating” (174-175).  I wish I had the physical space and the time to create for creation’s sake.  Maybe after I’m out of grad school and/or have a new house, my creative life will bloom.
  9. Letting go of perfection (203): Contributor Elizabeth Grace Saunders says that you should never be plagued by the wp_20130904_00420130904162828desire (and/or expectation) of perfection. If you’re stuck at the start, Saunders says that you should understand that there is never an ideal time to begin something, so just do it.  If you’re lost in the middle, prioritize what’s important and go from there.  If you’re stuck at the end, finish the minimum and be okay with being done for a while.  All of these ideas spoke to me because I want things to be perfect all of the time, with everything that I do.  At times, it causes me to be immobile.  I plan to reflect upon these as I continue to move forward for writing.
  10. Getting unstuck (213): Contributor Mark McGuinness says that there are a few ways to make progress if there are some barriers in the way:getting-unstuck1
    1. Inspiration Drought: one idea is to take a break and come back later.
    2. Emotional Barrier: write in private for now, with no intent to publish until you feel it’s right.
    3. Personal Problems: use your creative work as an outlet.

I’m always feeling stuck, so these are important to me, and I thought they might speak to you as well.

This book is packed full of ideas and examples, for creating and maintaining a creative lifestyle.  These are just a couple of ideas that stood out to me and that I plan to come back to later.

My big takeaways are to know what time of day my brain is most creative, eliminate distractions, unplug from the internet, set a routine and stick to it, and muddle through the product no matter what.

I feel refreshed and ready to get back to writing my novel.  But first, I need to get my schedule straight.



Traveling with Pomegranates: A Book Review

traveling-cvr-thumbIn their joint memoir Traveling with Pomegranates, famed writer Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees, and her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, take readers on an intricate journey through Greece, Turkey, and France, as they attempt to find meaning and purpose in their lives. Published in 2009, Traveling with Pomegranates documents the pair’s intimate dance through love and success, submission and acceptance, while embracing unexpected inspiration and divine intervention when immersing themselves in French and Turkish culture and ancient Greek mythology.

Readers will enjoy examining how varying cultures impact and reflect the ever-evolving maternal hierarchy of mother and daughter. At the beginning of the memoir as Kidd approaches her fiftieth birthday and Taylor celebrates recently completing her undergraduate degree, the duo travel to Greece on a celebratory voyage of culture exploration. However, the journey becomes rather one of self-rediscovery and redefining roles. As Kidd watches Taylor examine a sculpture of Demeter and Persephone at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Kidd is overwhelmed with the feeling that she has lost her daughter, who suddenly seems strange and alien to her (11). She feels a great divide in their relationship as she recognizes Taylor as no longer a child, but an adult navigating the world privately and separately from her. Just as Persephone is separated from Demeter when Persephone is sent to the Underworld in Greek mythology, Kidd does not know how to reconcile the loss of her daughter, who is right in front of her, yet worlds apart from her. Kidd is a modern day Demeter. What Kidd does not know is the depth of despair that Taylor feels after having been recently denied admittance to graduate school, where she had hoped to study ancient Greek history. Taylor reverts inward and tries to keep the depression to herself, yet Kidd can sense a barrier between them, and she can’t reconcile how to maneuver over it. The symbolism of Demeter/Persephone and Kidd/Taylor winds its way throughout the memoir on a beautiful path of redefining familial roles and shifting relationships between mother and daughter. Kidd yearns for a heuresis, a Greek term meaning “reunion” and attempts to create genuine opportunities to reunite with her daughter throughout the entirety of their journeys (73).

As Kidd is confronted with the unexpected disconnect from her daughter, she is forced to examine the roles of the relationship between her own mother and herself. She explains, “In what seems like a cruel trick of timing, women often find themselves letting go of their daughters around the same time they must let go of their identities as younger women” (69). Kidd, immersed in Greek and Turkish culture, begins to see herself in the legends, folklore, and myths such as The Virgin Mary, The Old Woman, Demeter, Persephone, and more, and she imagines that her own mother must have gone through a similar difficult transition when coming to terms with her initiation to adulthood and independence. The differences in the values she and her mother have previously placed on matriarchal, domestic, and feminine roles in American culture are the same issues she begins to struggle to resolve within herself later in life. Likewise, Taylor begins to see the connection among herself and Persephone, Athena, and—later on—Joan of Arc and is determined to chart her own route through depression and the disappointment of rejection (from both graduate school and her college sweetheart) and to a new path that leads to a fresh, different purpose for her life that she has not yet considered. Her new purpose, a phoenix rising from the ashes of her failures.

The memoir is steeped in folklores, myths, honors, and traditions of the Greeks and Turks. With particular attention to Demeter and Persephone while the two are in Greece, the focus shifts to the Turkish traditions when they visit the house of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus. Kidd wrestles with her changing views on spirituality, yet she ultimately sees the humanity in the Virgin Mary in conjunction with identifying with Mary as a divine feminine deity. The Turkish and Greek legends of Mary meld together and become one of a Black Madonna wrapped in chains. A guide explains to Kidd:

Legend says she was kidnapped several times by the Turks from a convent on the island of Crete but always escaped back to her homeland. Finally the Turks chained her up. Undeterred, Mary broke free and returned home, wearing the chains. The Greek nuns left them on the icon as a reminder of what Mary was capable of. (125)

Inexplicably drawn to bees over the course of several years and not understanding their significance to her, it is in Turkey at Mary’s house that Kidd feels called upon to write a book about bees, and she proclaims her commission to her daughter. The influence of this place and its legends empowers Kidd to write The Secret Life of Bees, in which she includes the Black Madonna in chains, an idol of worship for some of the characters in her novel. The publication of The Secret Life of Bees solidifies Kidd’s place in the literary world, and the journey to Greece and Turkey helps to achieve this accomplishment for her.

The Secret Life of Bees helps Taylor to appreciate the connections in folklore, legend, and mythology in varying cultures as well. After her mother begins to write The Secret Life of Bees and Kidd and Taylor’s heuresis begins to occur, Taylor realizes that the Virgin Mary is just as important to her as she is to her mother, despite Taylor not yet being a mother herself. Mary represents something more to her than the matriarch with which her mother identifies. Taylor explains,

It does not escape my notice that Mary is becoming important to me. I tell myself that if Athena represents independence and self-belonging, and Joan of Arc a passionate sense of mission, the Mary represents the spiritual heart—my ability to love and be loved. Athena, Joan, Mary. It’s an unlikely combination, but I realize they’ve become my female triptych. (206-207)

On the heels of a break up and feeling lost to herself, Taylor has found new love with an old friend and is enjoying rediscovering herself as an independent individual, attached to nothing except to her own desires. She also values the intricacies of mother/daughter and the legends, folklores, and mythologies of these cultures as they become evident to her as being archetypes living within her. Taylor—and Kidd as well—end up finding themselves and their purposes through the experience and the journey; the places within themselves most often mirror their actual journeys.

Taylor references Isadora Duncan, a dancer, who once said that “a dance is a manifestation of the soul” (31). Taylor and Kidd dance their way around two different continents, two-step their way through redefining their feminine roles as individuals as well as mother and daughter, and waltz their way through finding new directions and purpose. Writers could benefit from reading this by examining how closely Taylor and Kidd knit their alternating stories together with the sense of place and embracing and honoring the traditions of different cultures. One simply cannot separate the place from their experiences because they are one in the same. But this memoir isn’t just for aspiring and accomplished writers; it’s also for anyone who enjoys an odyssey of the soul, a journey that is a beautiful and elaborate dance.