Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Wonder": Wonderful. For Real.

I cried.

Actually, I cried more than once while reading this book.  If it's been awhile since you have read a really great book that made you want to stand up and cheer, you need to pick up the book "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio.

Someone in my old book club wrote this on her list of "books she wants to read" and I remembered it last week while I was at the library picking up a book for my daughter.  After I sobbed three times yesterday while finishing this book, I decided that I really want my daughter to put down her "Dork Diary" series and read this, so I can talk to her about it.

Palacio's book revolves around 10 year old, not so ordinary August (Auggie) Pullman and his first year not being homeschooled.  His mom and dad decided to homeschool Auggie due to his severe facial abnormalities and his constant visits to the hospital for many surgeries to correct complications due to his abnormalities.  It's not just the surgeries or past health problems that keep him home, it's also the fact that people actually recoil when they look at Auggie.  He even says, "I won't describe what I look like.  Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse."

Fifth grade life can wear anyone down, but Auggie's experiences as a new 5th grader to Beecher Prep school are treacherous.  Without the kindness of the unfortunately named headmaster, Mr. Tushman, Jack Will (a boy who was forced at first to befriend Auggie and later becomes his friend), and Summer (a girl who decides to forgo the popular path and sit with Auggie at lunch because they both have summery names), Auggie's experiences at Beecher could have been downright tragic.  As Mr. Tushman's speech at the graduation ceremony at the end of the book demonstrates, when people place kindness as the measure of success in education, everyone wins.  He includes a quotation from J. M. Barrie's book called "The Little White Bird" in his uncharacteristically short commencement address, "Shall we make a new rule of life . . . always to be kinder than is necessary?" Just re-reading this part in the book made me all choked up again.

Palacio makes Auggie lovable - the right blend of self awareness and an earnest determination to stick it out in school against all odds.  She doesn't stop at Auggie, though.  Each chapter is told from another character's perspective, so we get the full spectrum of emotions revolving around August's entry into school.  Palacio effortlessly captures the voice of Via, Auggie's older, protective and guilt riddled sister just as well as she gives a voice to Jack Will and his nonchalant attitude towards life until he meets August.

I don't want to give too much away because this is one of those books that I believe will eventually be made into a movie, but it's also one of those books like "The Fault in Our Stars" that people can believe in.  After reading it, I had a renewed faith in humanity.  I know this is fiction that I am writing about, but certain books just speak to our hearts and heads, and R.J. Palacio was able to achieve this in her debut novel.  She just rocks.

Monday, September 8, 2014

"The Girls of August": Why do people read books like this?

I caved and got a summer beach read, right as the last breath of summer descended in our area.  I blame the heat and humidity for choosing the schmaltzy book with the beach cover picturing two middle aged women lounging under a huge umbrella with their hands behind their heads in a totally relaxed position.

I needed something that I knew would be quick, and I wanted something more lighthearted than orphans or struggles or child molestation or any of the other tragic tales that I read this summer.  BUT while reading Anne Rivers Siddon's 19th novel "The Girls of August" I realized something.  Most books I read have a purpose.  They have some substance.  They give me something to learn or relate to.  This book, on the other hand, made me question how Anne Rivers Siddons ever became a best selling author.  Who reads this stuff and likes it?

The storyline in "The Girls of August" hurt to read.  It revolves around a group of wives (Maddy, Rachel, Barbara, and Melinda) who all have doctor husbands.  Each August the four wives go on a beach getaway together without their husbands (hence their very creative name "The Girls of August").  They stop going after Melinda dies in a tragic car accident (who the girls all blame on her negligent doctor husband, Teddy), but decide to reunite after being prodded to by Teddy's new wife, Baby, to join her at her family's idyllic beach house on a private island.  Baby grates on all the older women because they view her as childish and a sad replacement for their good friend, Melinda. Mostly it could be because she is only in her early 20s and all these women aren't.  They are petty and jealous and keep eyeing up Baby's hot body and commenting on how free she is with it.

I could go on, but there is really no point, because there was no point to this story.

Like no point.

The novel could have been renamed "The Mean Girls of August" since as tolerant as they viewed themselves, Rachel, Maddy and Barbara acted like gossipy high school girls out of some sort of 1980s John Hughs movie.  None of them seemed even a little bit gracious to be invited to this beautiful beach house or even try to act appropriately.  They openly rolled their eyes at Baby and treated her poorly at her own home.

Siddons tried to thicken the plot by giving each of the women a secret, but even the secrets were so very predictable and underdeveloped.  As a last ditch effort, Siddons even tried to throw in a climactic ending, but it all fell so very, very flat and dull.  The writing was so bad in spots that I actually stopped and read lines aloud to my husband like "Teddy and I were simply a bad fit, like hair spray and fire." For real? Yikes, Anne.  Maybe it's time to retire?

Maybe beach reads are meant to be fast and dull books.  Maybe this isn't a good example of Anne Rivers Siddons who by all accounts seems like a well loved and well received author of many books. Maybe I should stop being lured by pretty covers that have beach umbrellas and women with their bare feet in the sand and stick to the books that I know have something to offer me as the reader.

I know, next time I hit the "Hot Picks" section of the library, that I will choose more wisely.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"We Are Water": A rambling tale with too much tragedy

Darn you, Wally Lamb.

I'm just so disappointed that I didn't like this book that I actually feel angry with Wally Lamb.

I read "She's Come Undone" by Wally Lamb all the way back during my undergraduate classes at the University of Minnesota.  My then boyfriend, Eric, was just starting his first real job as an academic recruiter for the University.  We took a road trip to one of his recruiting conferences in the late summer, and while he was walking the floor touting how awesome the UofM was, I was captured by Wally Lamb's deft 1st persona narrative depiction of Dolores Price and her struggle with life as an overweight teen and woman.  I spent that weekend poolside reading at a fast pace, just wanting to keep going. Lamb's ability to capture the voice of a tragic and comical heroine, left me in awe of his writing talent.  His next effort, "I Know This Much Is True" didn't leave me as breathless, but I still enjoyed it.  It's been awhile since I've read Lamb, but when I saw this book int he library with it's beautiful title and haunting blue cover, I couldn't wait to sink in.

Even after the first chapter, I knew that "We Are Water" wasn't going to rock my world.  The novel centers on the lives of the Oh family, a tragically flawed and messed up bunch of people.  Annie Oh works as an artist selling her angry art installations to famous celebrities like Lady Gaga.  Annie recently ended her 27 year marriage to husband, Orion, to wed her rich, socialite art promoter, Vivica.  Orion suffers from this news and while reeling from the loss of his wife, he also loses his career as a college counselor amidst sexual harassment allegations.  Annie and Orion's three children also suffer from this news, but each deal with issues of their own including explosive anger, disillusionment, prostitution, and loneliness.

Throughout this stream of consciousness novel, the narrator changes with each chapter, but the rambling diatribe seems to be consistent among each of the characters.  They all divulge all of their secrets in waves and waves of confessionals.  From the tormented molester of Annie's youth, to the racist mom of Josephus Jone's "girlfriend," to the seemingly virtuous Ari, all the characters sound almost identical.

I found the endless tragedies in this book a bit much.  Did Orion really need to be wheel chair bound? Did Andrew need to be tormented indefinitely due to his mother's physical abuse? Too much is too much.  I thought that about the narration, too.  There was no subtlety in this book.  Every story line goes over the top with too much (in the case of Kent's storyline, way too much).  It wasn't until the very end of the book while Andrew and his dad have heart to heart talks about life as they walk along the beach, that I saw glimmers of the genius of Wally Lamb's life insights, but by that time it was too late to save the entire book of stream of consciousness ramblings (and what's with the ...... all over the place, Mr. Lamb?).

I loved the link to the title (which also comes close to the end) that “We are like water, aren’t we? We can be fluid, flexible when we have to be. But strong and destructive, too.” And something else, I think to myself. Like water, we mostly follow the path of least resistance.” 

I may have loved "She's Come Undone" but this book is one that I would recommend leaving on the shelf if you see it on the new fiction section of the library, especially if you are looking for a book to capture you poolside during the last remaining days of the summer season.  

Friday, August 22, 2014

"Yin, Yang, Yogini": Don't let the title turn you away

I fell in love with this book.

Not only did I fall in love with the story, but Kathryn E. Livingston's 'Yin, Yang, Yogini: A Woman's Quest for Balance, Strength and Inner Peace' made me fall in love with the power of yoga all over again.

I first must confess that I am a yogini, and I intend to take my practice to the next level this fall and go through yoga teacher training.  Non-yoga people might be totally turned away by the title (it's not the best title to make non-yoga people want to read it), but it's more a story of finding yourself in a dark place and discovering the power within to gain healing and lightness in your own life.  It's a story that yoga people or non-yoga people can relate to, and Livingston's writing style and stories make you want to know her and read more about her experiences.

I didn't know anything about Kathryn E. Livingston before reading this book, but I feel like she is my friend now.  She is insightful, funny, honest, and smart.  Before this book, she wrote columns for parenting magazines and Working Mother magazine, and she has co-authored books about parenting. In this memoir, she turns her keen life observations from parenting to her opinions and experiences as she ventures into the world of yoga.

At the age of 51, Kathryn feels stuck.  Stuck by fear of living.  Stuck by the grief over her mother's death.  Stuck by the unknown of her three sons who embrace life and are at the crossroads of adulthood.  She goes to a therapist who suggests Kathryn tries yoga to help her reach a more peaceful place in her stressed out existence.  Rather than turning to anti-depressants or medication to help her through her anxiety, Kathryn decides to try the yoga studio that recently opened just a block away from her home.  Her experiences are transformative and she discovers that maybe just as yoga philosophy preaches, there are no coincidences in life and that yoga can help her through some of the most difficult moments she will ever encounter with a peaceful awareness and calmness that she has never possessed.

Each vignette that Kathryn shares about her yoga classes and her inspirational teachers made me think of all my wonderful yoga instructors who have each taught me so much about myself and the world.  I think of Pat and his Thursday night classes that I called "Thursday night therapy" and how each class would start with Pat's take on the atmosphere of the room.  Some nights were about change and growth, and how even though periods of change bring uncertainty, we can reach out and say, "Why not?" and enjoy the changes we encounter.  Some nights were about acceptance.  Some nights were about challenge.  I think of gentle Dayna and her ability to make me really aware of the space I created in my body through my movements, and how each breath allowed me to lengthen and elongate.  I've changed through yoga as a person, and seeing it through Kathryn's experiences was a huge validation for how much love and appreciation I have for yoga and all my fellow yoga devotees and my instructors.

Kathryn's insights in the two years that this book spans are inspirational.  Through her growing love of yoga, she starts to see the interconnectedness of things around her and she starts to have some huge realizations about life.  As she works through her feelings about her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment she realizes, "I always thought it totally unnecessary for bad things to happen to appreciate what we have; but the truth is, we do sometimes need to step into the darkness to understand how bright our light really is." I think about that from all of the hardest times in my life.  After going through the dark period, I realize how strong I really am.

I also really related to her ability to see that she receives exactly what she needs, exactly when she needs it.  It's like in the book 'The Alchemist' by Paulo Coelho where the main character just needs to be open to the universe for the universe to open up to him.  Kathryn's yoga instructor, Jill, gives her class the message that "We get what we need." It's like that Rolling Stone's song.  We can't always get what we want, but we just might find that we get what we need. Kathryn adds, "If we need to be awakened, something will open our eyes."

By the end of the book, Kathryn waxes philosophical on the two overarching life lessons that yoga and her bout with breast cancer taught her.  "The first, that when you're in the darkness, know that the light will come.  We are light and dark, sun and moon, male and female, yin and yang; life is composed of opposites, in a continuing cycle of change. The second, when you are in the light, don't step back into the darkness. Live in the light, and breathe it in fully."  I took deep breaths while reading this book and felt that it was like oxygen or like ujjayi breath in yoga.  It helped me to feel alive and invigorated by life's possibilities of balance, strength and inner peace.

Monday, August 18, 2014

"Orphan Train": Searching for home

At my new library there is a section titled "Hot Picks" by the new fiction and non-fiction.  "Hot Pick" selections mean because the book is so hot with the library patrons that only  a 7 day check out period  is allotted with no chance for renewal and a $1 a day fee for being overdue.  When I browsed for books to take on vacation, I came across 'Orphan Train' by Christina Baker Kline in the "Hot Picks" section, and although it looked great, I knew that I'd be looking at a $5 fine because we'd be gone longer than 7 days.  Thankfully, my awesome neighbor bought "Orphan Train" and before she even finished reading it leant it to me. How awesome is that?  I finished it in two days because #1) It's short AND #2) It's very good, so I wanted to finish it quickly and give it back to my neighbor.

"Orphan Train" recounts a time in history that I knew nothing about, but now I plan for sure to research.  In the book description it says, "between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by pure luck.  Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude?" The orphan in question for this story is Niamh, a young, red-headed Irish immigrant who loses her entire family to a fire in their tenement building.  Thrown into the Children's Aid system, she is one of the countless orphans who board the orphan trains like cattle.  She morphs into a new life as Dorothy and then Vivian as she is shuffled from foster home to foster home, even if the first two are far from anything anyone would call home.

The present day narrative that frames the historical story of Vivian's search for home revolves around another girl in her own foster care dilemma.  Molly, the 17 year old, whose hard exterior is just a cover for her hopes and dreams, gets in trouble for stealing a copy of 'Jane Eyre' at her library.  Her foster mother shows nothing but disdain for her and wants to send her away for committing another act of insubordination.  Because this isn't Molly's first offense, she could face serious penalties, but her dreamy boyfriend, Jack, hooks Molly up with her mom's employer, an old woman named Vivian who lives in a huge mansion and needs help cleaning out her cluttered attic.

As Molly and Vivian clear out box by box, they both face their own dilemmas of the past and present and piece together a meaning of home.  They partnership is mutual and they both grow and learn from each others' stories.

Although at times, the Molly narrative rings false, Vivian's story of immigration, separation and salvation save everything and make this book more than worthwhile to read.  It's also fast as the narrative moves at a solid clip.  The details fade a bit at the end of the narrative and I was left wanting to have more information about Vivian's adult life, but just like life moves in fast forward and stop action motion, this book does as well.

The ending feels like a Hollywood sort of wrap up.  I can almost hear the surging music, but I shed real tears for Vivian and all that she went through in the course of her orphan experience.

We are all on a journey.  Some of us have longer more painful travel experiences than others, but hopefully we can all get to the peaceful place of acceptance of the past to move forward in the present and welcome the future. Near the end of the book Molly, while sitting in a rocking chair in Vivian's kitchen thinks that "for the first time she can remember, her life is beginning to make sense.  What up until this moment has felt like a random, disconnected series of unhappy events she now views as necessary steps in a journey toward . . . enlightenment is probably too strong of a word, but there are others, less lofty, like self-acceptance and perspective."

Any book - a "Hot Pick" or not, that helps me to get closer to self-acceptance and perspective by living the journeys of the characters is worth reading.  A book that combines that and teaches me something about a time in history that I didn't know existed, makes it to the top of my "to read" list.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"The Signature of All Things:" Ambitious, Expansive, and Intelligent

I'm a book gusher.  I always have been.  When I love a book, I want to gush about it to whoever will listen (which is why I enjoy book blogging so much).  One of my favorite parts of being an English teacher was when I gushed about books I loved.  My classroom bookshelf took up an entire wall, so anytime I could recommend books to my students, I would need to stop myself from rambling too much and gushing at an uncontrollable rate.

When I meet another book gusher, I love to hear about their book passions.  The books they can't put down.  The books that make them want to shut out the rest of the world until they finish every last page.

My friend, Kris, is a book gusher.  Maybe she doesn't gush about every book, but when I recently visited  Pennsylvania, she told me that she was in the midst of a relationship with Elizabeth Gilbert's "The Signature of All Things," so her time was limited.  She didn't want it to end, and she said, "Alma is so strong, so very strong."  I asked her if I could borrow it after she finished, and she happily agreed to let me borrow her book.

The last week of my life I've been consumed with the lives of the Whittaker family and their torrid and fascinating history.  The book begins with Henry Whittaker, a poor but very clever boy, who ends up making a fortune by stealing plants and selling them.  When the owner of the plants, Sir Joseph Banks, discovers the thefts, he sends Henry (basically to banish him) around the world on voyages with the formidable Captain Cook to study botany.   Henry becomes an astute botanist, and learns to survive, listen, and practice abstinence while all the other sailors fall prey to indulgences.

Upon his return from voyage after voyage, Henry forges his own fortune and moves to Philadelphia with his equally strong willed wife, Beatrice.  After many miscarriages, they finally have a girl, Alma, who not only survives, but thrives and can hold her own in arguments and discussions with world travelers and astute philosophers at her father's always entertaining dinner table.

Although the beginning of the book revolves around Henry, Alma becomes the center of the rambling plot as she consumes books about botany and revels in all pursuits of the mind.  She learns to live with her adopted (and much more beautiful) sister, Prudence, and even finds friendship with a flighty and ridiculous girl named Retta Snow.  Alma's academic pursuits always take precedence over her pursuits of the heart as she navigates her love for George Hawkes, a fellow scholar who loves Alma for her ideas but does not see her as a romantic interest.  When Ambrose Pike, an angelic traveler who has spent his life drawing the intricacies of orchids arrives at Alma's home, White Acre, the story line diverts in odd and illuminating directions and the truth of the title, "The Signature of All Things" is revealed "namely that God had hidden clues for humanity's betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth.  All the natural world was a divine code."

The remaining half of the book follows Alma through her middle ages and her own renaissance of spirit and understanding of herself and her world.  Her studies of mosses and her unique strength and wisdom make her a heroine to be loved and cherished, a warrior to be feared, and a humble innocent who the readers can sympathize with in her darkest moments.  We feel her grief.  We see her strength.  We celebrate her triumphs.  When Alma realizes that she wants to live rather than drown and sees clearly "that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died" I wanted to stand on my chair and shout to celebrate her existence and her strength to live and fight.

The scope of the book revolves around evolutionary theory and the survival of the fittest - not the most beautiful or the most desirable or the most sensitive.  As Alma discovers in her feverish exploration of mosses and the interconnectedness of the world (which she calls "A theory of competitive alteration"), "the trick at every turn was to endure the test of living for as long as possible.  The odds of survival were punishingly slim, for the world was naught but a school of calamity and an endless burning furnace of tribulation.  But those who survived the world shaped it - even as the world, simultaneously, shaped them."

Each page in Gilbert's sweeping epic novel sings with intelligence and original freshness.  I loved watching Alma's self and world discovery from her baffled thoughts on her beautiful, China doll-esque sister, Prudence, to her befuddlement over relationships.  I loved her interactions with her fiery, titan father, and his doting admiration of her.  I loved the travels to Tahiti and back again.  Although there were holes in the narrative and incredible leaps at times (as well as some underdeveloped secondary characters), I would definitely gush about this book to someone else who wants the challenge of the 500 page epic.

This book restored my faith in Gilbert (much as her Ted Talk did) after her lucrative success with "Eat, Pray, Love" which I found mildly entertaining albeit a bit whiny.  This book is a ferocious journey through love, loss, and mostly the survival of the fittest.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"Life, Animated": Hope in the spectrum

It's hard to review a book that took so much courage for one of my favorite authors to write.  Any author who chooses to reveal the struggles of his or her family in the hopes that their story might help other families dealing with the same difficulties, makes my heart open to that author.  The reason I love memoirs so much stems from this simple fact - sharing your story honestly will make others care. It will connect you to people who have had similar struggles. It will increase empathy and understanding.

That's why it's even harder for me to admit that I didn't love Ron Suskind's book "Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism"  about his family's struggles and triumphs with their autistic son, Owen, who started as a relatively normal boy and retreated into autism at age 3 after the family moved to Washington, D.C..  I wanted to love it and wanted it to teach me more about autism, but I found the repetitive nature of the book which explores Owen's eventual connection to Disney animation as a communication bridge a bit tedious (sorry Mr. Suskind).

To be completely honest, I am in awe of Suskind's work.  "A Hope in the Unseen" ranks up there with my favorite all time books.  The story of Cedric Jennings and his harrowing journey out of inner-city D.C. and away from the "dream busters" who didn't believe he would be able to make it to the Ivy League, made me reexamine everything I knew about education and the Oprah "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough.  Knowing that as Suskind wrote "A Hope in the Unseen" he simultaneously struggled with his own version of "dream busters" in his personal life with his son Owen, makes me love "A Hope in the Unseen" even more.

Just like when I read "A Hope in the Unseen," The hair on my arms did stand up in certain points while I read "Life, Animated." In the very beginning after Owen is diagnosed as PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified) and before the family starts using the daunting word Autism, Suskind thinks about, "how many wild-eyed expectations you carry around about your kids, especially when they're young. Presidents? Nobel Prize winners? Global celebrities? Super Bowl quarterbacks and prima ballerinas? It could happen" and then thinks further about the "damaged goods" kids like Owen and the "new planet" they have arrived on where expectations shift of your child's future, and where the goal on many days is to find a way to ease the frustrations of both the child and the family members.

I also got teary eyed when the person who Owen idolizes, Jonathan Freeman (a.k.a. the voice of Jafar in Aladdin), calls Owen at the prompting of Ron Suskind's letter.  When Freeman asks Owen what the real meaning of Aladdin is, Owen replies, "I think it's about finally accepting who you really are, And being okay with that." Even the man who did the voice for the evil Jafar gets a little sniffly with that profound statement.

The highlight of the whole book for me wasn't the ending (very unlike a Disney ending where everything works out beautifully since Owen's future still remains uncertain), but when Owen gives his graduation speech from KTS.  Instead of an impressive guest speaker at this monumental occasion, each of the 18 graduates prepared a speech about the lessons they learned at KTS.  "Each speaker simply says the truest thing they know. And that's why there are so many awed faces looking up toward the stage, waiting for their moment to express the truest thing they know: that, yes, each graduate is more than worthy.  When the crowd gets a chance at the end to cheer, they won't stop. They can't."

I wanted the whole book to feel that way - the not wanting to stop cheering at Owen's triumphs over the dream busters (like that horrible kid who threatened him in music class), but I didn't feel like that most of the way through.

Don't get me wrong, Suskind is brilliant, and this book definitely goes to the heart (unflinchingly) of Autism's impact on an entire family.  I just wanted less of it rather than more, which means to me that although I love Suskind and Disney, too much of a good thing can feel over indulgent and a little bit disappointing.

I go back to my original point, though, of how amazing it is when a person opens the vault of their personal lives for the world to see, prod, pick apart and internalize in their own way.  Telling the truth of your life (especially the truths that hurt to tell) takes courage, and that's what Suskind showed in writing the story of his son, Owen who is a true hero.