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

Have you read this?

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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.

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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.

One of Us Is Lying: A Review (of sorts)

Imagine this:

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plus this:

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but subtract the carefree fun of this:

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and that’s what you get when you read this:

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Karen M. McManus’s One of Us Is Lying is classic whodunit with a modern twist.  It centers around 5 teenagers who are sent to detention, only to have one of them murdered while they are there.  Just like 1985’s The Breakfast Club, we have an eclectic group of students: the athlete, the brains, the criminal, the social outcast, and the beauty.  All are stereotypical on the surface, but each one becomes much more complex as the story unfolds.

Told via alternate perspectives from the 4 remaining suspects, the reader is propelled into their separate–and now intertwined–worlds where there is plenty of speculation on all accounts about who committed the crime.

Full disclosure: I did have it figured out from the beginning.  I didn’t want to call it, but I am the same person who leaned into my husband about 1/2 way through The Sixth Sense and told him that dude was dead.  He has never forgiven me.  What can I say: I see dead people.

My sleuthy Sherlockian skills aside, I thought that if I ended up being right about the killer, the story would end up feeling like it fell short.  But I was wrong about that.  McManus does a great job building doubt for several characters throughout the story, so I did start to question my theory a few times.

Overall, this is a fun read, and I recommend it.  Since I don’t read as much YA anymore, I enjoyed stepping back into it, if only for a little while.

Also, I think John Hughes would have been proud.  Here: enjoy this for a minute.

 

Do Not Become Alarmed: A Review (of sorts)

I haven’t posted in a while, but this read was too good not to give a quick shout out.  The premise of this fiction (Thank God it’s fiction!) is relatable to all parents who have taken their children on vacation and have feared the worst would happen: losing your child(ren) in an unfamiliar area.  Are they dead?  Alive?  Trafficked?  Held hostage?

The panic.  The stress.  The absolute loss of control.  It’s terrifying.33155774

Whether Nora and Liv’s fears were realized in the book, I’ll leave for you to discover.  It won’t take you long; though the book is 342 pages, the chapters are short and the story progresses with great speed and alternate points of view.

Even though it’s a quick read, this book has heft and depth.  There are a lot of complexities with the characters, both internal and external, and the reader really has an opportunity to feel as they do, and all of them are relatable, whether it’s Neomi, a South American 10 year old who is trying to make it across the US border to be with her illegal-immigrant parents in NY; Marcus, an 11-year old map enthusiast with autism; or 40-something Nora, a stay at home mom and wife of a successful actor.

The character development is what I enjoyed most.  One of the book’s accomplishments is to tell the story in such a way that the reader may not realize how complex the plot is until he steps back and evaluates how the characters are responding to what is happening to them.

I still have a lot I could write about from the books that I’ve loved most this year (Exit West by Hamid and Word by Word by Stamper have been among my faves.).  Maybe stay tuned for more on those and more.  I’ll get back to writing more now that summer has officially begun.

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.

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Feel free to also check this out.

Noggin: A Book Review

After reading John Corey Whaley’s freshman novel, Where Things Come Back (2011), I had ridiculously high expectations for his sophomore follow-up, Noggin (2014). Where things come backRight out of the gate his first novel had earned him a golden sticker in the form of the Michael L. Printz award, and with the William C. Morris award also gracing the front cover, the book silently (and justly) bragged on itself as it sat on bookstore shelves all across the country. I won’t lie; I had a little anxiety that Noggin had the potential to earn Whaley the badge of Sophomore Slump. After all, it is not often that a novel with such accolades leads to subsequent novels with equal success. As it turns out, Noggin was a National Book Award finalist; thus, Whaley’s name was officially solidified as a powerful voice in contemporary young adult literature.

nogginAs the novel begins, protagonist Travis Coates is rudely awakened to the aftermath of his “cranial reanimation.” That’s right, you heard me: Travis has had a head transplant. Out of desperation, sixteen-year-old Travis undergoes an experimental procedure in the wake of failed attempts to cure his acute lymphoblastic leukemia. After a five-year nap, Travis is astonished to learn that the procedure had been a success: his head had been chopped off, cryogenically frozen, and reattached to a donor body. His new body (from the neck down) has given him a few more inches in height and tons more muscle mass. All of this would be great, right? Coming back from the dead, exempt from the disease that had plagued him, and with an upgraded physical form sounds like a dream come true…except that everyone he knew before is five years older, and his place in their lives is now uncertain.

Travis’s mission is to set his new-and-improved, second life right by making everyone else relive the past. His now 21-year-old best friend Kyle and (former?) girlfriend Cate are forced to choose whether or not they should soldier onward with their lives or if they should turn their backs on the progress they have made over the past five years. The passing of time means little to Travis. noggin2He went to sleep and then simply woke back up. However, the others have long since mourned his passing, moved on, and are maneuvering their way through adulthood. The situation is quite a conundrum, and no one seems to know what do. Unfortunately, Travis does not see it that way; he is impatient and doesn’t appreciate their current positions. This creates a great deal of tension and a string of impulse reactions on Travis’s part. His parents try to cushion the impact, but they, too, are trying to deal with the reality that he is back again and what that means for their family.

Whaley is a master craftsman when it comes to character development. A sign of a well-developed character is if he/she seems authentic. Travis Coates feels like the average kid down the street. teenagerHe is flawed, he makes mistakes, he is completely self-absorbed, and he lacks impulse control. Travis has good, yet misguided, intentions, and he screws up things for himself in a big way. What could be more real than that? I kept wondering when Travis would put everything back in order for himself and be his own hero, but Whaley is not one to wrap up his narrative with a big red shiny bow. His stories have a genuine and authentic style that can seem melancholy at times, but upon further inspection is just honest and raw. Being a normal teenager is difficult, and one does not emerge completely unscathed. There are usually some emotional scars involved, and Travis just so happens to wear his scar visibly around his neck.

Whaley skillfully balances the tragedy with the comedy. While the plot is a bit heavy, Travis and his new friend Hatton are not without a healthy dose of wit and sarcasm, and they deliver plenty of hilarious one-liners. There is just the right amount of oddity, too. Perhaps my favorite dose of quirk is a band called “Judd Nelson’s Fist” (174). judd nelsonI mean, come on!  Brilliant.  The absurdity of the plot seamlessly blends with the genuineness of the characters, and there are times when the reader forgets that Travis is a modern-day monster of Frankenstein. In a sense, the blend of tragedy and comedy mirrors Travis’s new body composition, and it is beautiful.

Some readers will thirst for more science in the novel. frankensteinFor example, little about the logistics of the actual surgery is explained. Some might feel that Travis’s adjustment to his new body is skimped over. However, most readers will be okay without the minute details. Whaley makes it easy to forget that the reader is immersed in a work of science fiction because he says he never meant for it to be a sci-fi novel. Whaley accomplished what he set out to do. The novel’s universal themes carry through beautifully. Though this book is technically a work of science fiction (Despite Whaley’s rejection of the sci-fi label, the copyright page deems that it is, in fact, sci-fi.), the premise is not too far from reality: it was just announced that the first head transplant is slated for 2017.

Noggin is a beautiful story of loss and second chances.   It’s about the dangers of looking backward instead of looking ahead. More than anything, it examines the science of love and friendship, and it proclaims that the bonds of love are stronger than any passage of time or catastrophe.

Now go on and read it.

 

 

Book Winks

Call me a lit nerd, but I sort of love it when this happens:

I’m reading along, minding my own business, and then, in some cosmic literary force, my stars align and fiction reaches out to hold hands with reality.  It’s an act of fate that says, “Yes, you’re reading the right book at the right time.”  Since it doesn’t happen often, it’s pretty freaking amazing when it does.

IMG_5112I’ll explain…

I finished a book today, but I didn’t have a book hangover this time (thank god), so I wanted to read something else right away.  I picked up a few novels from my nightstand and started browsing to select just the right one, but I wasn’t really feeling any of them.  So I asked my best friend what she was reading and was happy to learn that she was reading a YA novel, Mosquitoland by David Arnold, which was already on my mountainous to-be-read-shelf.  I cracked her open, and pretty much right away, this happened (See pic.).

Sure, most people will think it’s no big deal and that it’s just a coincidence.  BUT IT’S LABOR DAY EVE for goodness sake, and don’t even try to pretend that it’s not freaking cool!  You can’t take this from me!

This has happened before.  In the weeks after the Sandy Hook tragedy, I, like most of America, was wrapped up in the news coverage of this horrific, senseless shooting, and I needed to take. a. step. away. from. CNN.  I casually picked up Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, and almost immediately I came across the line:

“Magda, is ‘rocking a dope Ochun-colored bikini that her girls helped her pick out so she could torture me, and I’m in these old ruined trunks that say ‘Sandy Hook Forever!’”  

Are you kidding me?  I couldn’t believe it: a book that had been published before the shooting, and yet even in my attempts at a quiet escape from reality and the news, the written words still found their screaming way to my ears.  Not such a great thing at the time, but still an interesting coincidence.

There’s more…

About a year and a half ago, as I was reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman, I found myself immersed in the historical-fictional account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  I had never heard of this tragedy before, so I set the book aside and Googled it, only to learn that I was reading about it on the very anniversary of the fire, March 25.  Of all the books in the world to read, and of all of the days of the year they could be read, and of all the days one could be reading a particular part of a certain book, I was reading about that particular event in history on the very day it had occurred 103 years earlier.  What are the freaking odds?  That’s just magic, I don’t care what you say.

So what?  What could these instances mean?  Carl Jung called these meaningful coincidences “synchronicities.”  His theory actually goes much deeper than my book-related coincidences, but it’s definitely worthy of mention, and the essence is pretty much the same.

My mom is pretty spiritual, and she has told me about these little messages that she believes God sends to her in times of need.  She calls them “God Winks.”  She even asks God to send people she loves these little signs or messages.  She will tell me, “I prayed that God would give you a little God Wink today.”  She’s so sincere and sweet, and man, I love that about her.

But, while I don’t necessarily think it’s God sending me messages through my Book Winks and I don’t think my meaningful coincidences go as deep as Jung’s Synchronicities, I certainly do think that sometimes these coincidences are pretty spectacular, so in the words of John Green’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson, “It’s hard to believe in coincidence, but it’s even harder to believe in anything else.” Continue reading