Friday, April 29, 2016

"Preparation for the Next Life": An Achingly Gritty Love Story

But, he said, you cannot have these beautiful things if you lead a bad life, if you are sinning, doing what you want.  of course you must live properly and obey the law.  he pointed at the bilingual Arabic and English sign over the mosque's doorway, which he read aloud for her.  It said Preparation for the Next Life. 

Sometimes reading a book hurts.

Atticus Lish's highly praised debut novel "Preparation for the Next Life" might just break your heart. It might make you rethink The Patriot Act.  It might make you understand the endless cycle of tragedy that many veterans face.  It might make you consider the plight of illegal immigrants who only want to work hard and find a way in to the American dream.  It might make you ponder what real love means, and sacrifice, and poverty, and PTSD, and prison release, and justice.

I'm still thinking about the edgy story of Zou Lei, an illegal immigrant from Central Asia, who only wants a better life, but finds instead a dirty mattress in a New York tenement building that redefines living in the slums.  She meets Skinner who is fresh off of his third, violent tour in Iraq.  While she wants to work and make New York City her home and prove that she can make it as an American, he wants to find a good time and forget the lost friends and exploding life in Iraq.

Their story broke my heart.

Skinner isn't a bad guy, but his circumstances made it hard for him to be a good guy.  He suffers from PTSD and suffers even more from the neglect of the U.S. Government after he served 3 tours in Iraq. Drinking, drugs (prescription and non-prescription), smoking and pornography cloud his days spent in a small basement apartment in Queens.  Zou Lei tells him "Something has shook your mind.  It could be some bruise inside the head." Maybe that is why he chooses the terrible place to reside where he's only asking for trouble due to his landlady's  ultra violent son, Jimmy who recently was released from prison.

Zou Lei and Skinner fall in love even though she is older than he is, even though she is an illegal immigrant, and even though he is sometimes very mean and rough with her.  They bond over an almost spiritual love of hard workouts.  She loves to run (which comes in handy for her many times throughout this novel) and he loves to push his body over his edge with weightlifting.

Lish's style is jarring and coarse and at times hard to slog through.  Each sentence is densely packed with details.  There are no quotation marks for dialogue and everything in this novel is grim, depressing and violent.  At times the song "Skid Row" from the musical "Little Shop of Horrors" popped in my head, but even skid row is too happy of a place for Skinner and Zou Lei who can't get a break regardless of how much they try.  And they do try to get ahead, but life and circumstances don't always allow them to get where they want to go.

It's a tough read, but I was reminded of Ken Kesey and his rambling "fog" chapters with the Chief in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." There is power in the rambling stream of consciousness writing style of Lish and the book needs the grittiness of the prose to tell the story truthfully.

Life isn't always beautiful, and this book is a harsh reminder of that brutal reality.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

"A Monster Calls": Letting the truth loose

"Stories are wild creatures," the monster says.  "When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?"

Back in the summer of 2011, I attended a Summer Writing Institute at Millersville University.  The professor in charge of the whole institute recommended the book 'A Monster Calls' by Patrick Ness to all of us.  I paged through it when she passed it around for us to inspect; it looked dark, and creepy - a twisted childhood nightmare.

It's not that at all.

This book is one that I will be recommending to everyone, and one that I am so glad my daughter, Raina, and I chose for our 2nd mother / daughter book club selection.

I finished it in a day.  Raina (who is now in 5th grade) finished it in about 3 days.  We both loved it.

The premise of the book is that thirteen year old Conor is visited by a giant yew tree monster different from the monster in his reoccurring nightmares.  The visiting monster tells Conor that he only comes walking in matters of life and death.  Conor's mother has been very sick so Conor believes the monster is there to save her, but in reality what the monster wants more than anything is for Conor to tell the story of his truth.  When the clock strikes 12:07,  the monster comes walking and shares 3 separate stories with Conor that explore the complexity of human beings.

Big questions of evil and good, invisibility and loneliness, loss and pain, the power of holding on to our beliefs, betrayal, revenge, and telling the truth resonate through this beautifully crafted novel.

The story itself was inspired by Siobhan Dowd, who died from cancer before she was able to write it. Ness does her story incredible justice and 'A Monster Calls' won both the Carnegie Medal for literature and the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration (the illustrations by Jim Kay are haunting and absolutely perfect for this novel).

Raina and I decided to go out for sushi (which she discovered that she loves on our trip to Mexico ).  At first she was distracted by the activity or people pouring into our favorite local sushi place, Kumi.  But when we started uncovering the layers of the monster's 3 stories, she got her quizzical look on her face and asked important questions and gave insights into what she believes in situations where the truth is involved.  We discussed at length when it is important to lie to yourself and when it is important to tell the truth because the monster tells Conor "Sometimes people need to lie to themselves most of all." Most people in the book (with the exception of the monster) lie to Conor possibly to protect him, but it is only to his detriment.

I don't want to give the entire story of this book away, so I will stop gushing about it.  Know that it is short.  It isn't necessarily a happy book, but there are moments that the banter between the monster and Conor might make you smile.  You also might cry, but I don't think this book will give you nightmares of any sort.  It will stick with you after you finish it. And, it will make you think deeply about the complexities of the human spirit; we often have contradictory thoughts, but it is our actions that are most important of all.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda": A new spin on YA romance

We all keep secrets.

In high school, those who we had the biggest crushes on rarely knew our true feelings.  I remember staring at that back of one my crushes in my AP English course every single day knowing that I would die of embarrassment if he ever found out.

In Becky Albertalli's debut novel, 'Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda' she deals with the coming of age / coming out / first love story of Simon Spiers, a 16 year old, whose secret email correspondence with the mysterious Blue is about to blown wide open by Martin, a class clown who blackmails Simon to help him get closer to Simon's friend, Abby.  Martin stumbles upon Simon's open email to Blue in the school library and takes a screenshot of it explaining to Simon that he truly believes most people would be totally cool with him being gay at the same time he tells Simon that if he doesn't help him with Abby, he'd share the email with others.

That's just not cool.

So Simon sweats it.

He worries about Blue who wants his identity to be concealed.  He worries about how his totally heterosexual 'Bachelor' addicted family will take the news if they find out he is gay. He worries about his friend Abby and how he will actually get her to even notice the goofy and annoying Martin.  He's always just worrying about something because when we have our secrets that we don't want others to know, it makes us worry when we think they might find out the truth.

Albertalli does a great job of creating lovable characters that her readers adore and want to protect.  Her years as a clinical psychologist helped her get inside their heads and create believable email correspondences as well as believable high school drama (and we aren't just talking about Simon's role in his high school's theater production of Oliver).  There's friend drama and love drama beyond Simon and Blue, but the sweetest moments of this book come in the form of Blue and Simon's growing email flirtation and Blue's concealed identity.

In their emails they discuss family and friends as well as the burden of coming out.  "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.  I'm just saying." It's true.  It's hard enough to deal with being in love and revealing your vulnerability to another or your family when you are straight, but adding the extra pressure of society's perception is almost soul crushing.

In the twists and turns of this novel, Albertalli tries to keep it real.  And it feels mostly real until the truth comes out and then all the sudden things feel too easy like the wrap up at the end of Family Ties. Maybe I am cynical after teaching high school for so long, but not everyone would be so excepting of homosexuality and those who chose to voice their distaste would not be dealt with so swiftly.  Don't get me wrong, we've come so far even in the last 5 years, but there are still a bunch of close minded individuals who are under the guise that their religion tells them that homosexuality is wrong who have plenty of support for their beliefs, too.

I'm glad, though, that love in this novel, prevails vs. ignorance. I'm glad that Simon doesn't succumb to the few haters.  I'm glad that all the friends stay friends and that Simon's family is as awesome as they are.

I needed a fun, quirky, nerdy love story to restore my faith in homo sapiens everywhere, and that is just what 'Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda' does.

Becky Albertalli has a long and beautiful writing career ahead of her with many devoted fans who are eagerly awaiting another novel.  And that's no secret.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

"The Vacationers": A Book to Take On Vacation

I just returned from a fabulous vacation in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.  Living in Chicagoland means that weather through April is iffy at best.  One sunny day of 65 degrees can easily transgress into a snowy day of 39 degrees.  On Saturday (the day we returned from Mexico where the weather was 85 degrees and sunny every day), Mother Nature melted down with one huge 24 hour tantrum.  It rained, it snowed, the sun came out, and then we even had thundersnow before the winds started punishing us for being human.

Because I was lucky enough to rejuvenate in Mexico, the tantrum didn't bother me.  I stayed inside and snuggled up next to the fire with a big cup of coffee and finished the second book that I took with me to Mexico - Emma Straub's novel "The Vacationers."

I admit that I purchased the book because of the pretty cover with the people floating in a pool of aqua blue (my favorite color).  It's a shallow reason for purchasing a book, but it called to me on the table of recommended reading at Barnes and Noble.  I'm so glad it did, because from the first chapter I was addicted to the story of the Post family's two week vacation to Mallorca, Spain.

The Posts are a family in crisis.  Jim, the 60 year old Post patriarch, recently retired from his job as Editor at the magazine Gallant, and spends his days moping around the house.  His early and abrupt retirement stemmed from his affair with a 20 something intern named Madison.  She tempted him and he gave in to her youthful seduction and was "let go" by the board.  His wife, Franny who is a food journalist and loves to cook, vows to never forgive him his transgression.  Their daughter, Sylvia, a petulant college bound slacker is saddened by her parents, but even more disgusted by her gym rat brother, Bobby, who has become a Miami stereotype - a muscle clad, club hopper who hates his real estate job and is indifferent to his cougar girlfriend, Carmen.  No one in the family enjoys Carmen's company because her thoughts veer to physical fitness all the time and she shares no common interests with the cultured Posts.

Along with the four Posts and Carmen, a gay couple, Charles and Lawrence join the family for this two week getaway.  Charles is Franny's oldest friend and confident and his decade younger husband, Lawrence is set on adopting a baby.

Once they arrive in Mallorca, the tensions and truths start to come out.  All of the Posts and even Charles and Lawrence must deal with infidelity in some way throughout the 14 day stay (the book's chapters are divided by the days - 14 chapters for the 14 day vacation).  Sylvia is still reeling from her kinda sorta boyfriend's betrayal with her best friend, and Bobby gets into predicaments because he doesn't want a long term commitment to Carmen.  Even Charles and Lawrence must deal with infidelity.

The men in the book are a bit drab with the exception of Sylvia's Spanish Calvin Klein model tutor, Joan (pronounced Jo-ahhhn).  Jim's sullen sulkiness becomes redundant, and Bobby's adolescent behavior is boorish.  Charles and Lawrence are almost indistinguishable.  Sylvia, Franny and Carmen add some spice to the book, but oddly the ones that are supposedly unlikable become likable.  Franny bugged me more than Jim.  Sylvia was more annoying that Bobby in parts.  And Carmen, the one the family liked the least, was at times the most genuine and likable character in the book even if her whole life revolved around the next workout and protein shake.

Nonetheless, the setting in the mountains of Mallorca along with the conversations and thoughts of the characters and their dinners together (tense and delicious), were enough to sustain a great narrative revolving around growth.

How do you move on after failure and heartbreak? How do you start the next phase of your life? How do you know for certain when it's time to move on in a different direction? All of these questions are central to this story and Straub is able to equally capture the tension and the wit in delicate family situations.

Even with the too quick wrap up at the end of the novel which seemed less than real, the rest of the story pulses with the times in life where we are conflicted with who we are and what decisions we need to make to move forward.  And who doesn't love a vacation story that ends well (especially when reading a book about a vacation on a vacation)?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"Bone Gap:" Original and Fresh YA Magical Realism

Before I get too far into this, I must admit that "Bone Gap" by Laura Ruby was VERY hard for me to get through.

It's not because this book isn't a book one it's more that I am not a fan of magical realism.  I prefer my reality to stay reality and my fantasy to stay fantasy.  When everything gets twisted together I get somewhat agitated.

But here's the deal -
Ruby's book is original.  It's fresh.  It's lyrical and it has stayed with me.  It was a National Book Award Finalist as well as a Printz Honor Winner and those awards and numerous accolades make sense.

At the center of the story are two brothers - Sean and Finn O'Sullivan who live on their own after a tragic accident that took the life of their father and then the subsequent departure of their bereft mother.  Sean vows to take care of his younger brother, Finn, who is odd even for a small town full of a menagerie of trippy characters.  Finn is often beat up by the Rude brothers and called "Moonface" or "Sidetrack" because of his spaced out demeanor.  His saving grace seems to be that he's beautiful just like his mom.

When a gorgeous Polish woman named Roza suddenly turns up in their barn with injuries and no story, the brothers quickly fall in love with her - one in a romantic way and the other in more of a brotherly sort of way.  When Roza suddenly disappears one year later, no one wants to believe Finn's story that she has been taken by a man whose face he can't describe.  Sean believes that everyone wants to leave them, but Finn knows that they need to find her and save her.

Based on the tale of Persephone who gets taken by Hades into the underworld, the realism of small town life gets tangled with black mares, pomegranate cookies, barren gardens, talking corn fields, and prosopagnosia.  Ruby's own poetic style interspersed with a honey laden, young love story make the novel even more dream like.

I appreciate the craftsmanship of the complexities and layers of this tale.  At it's heart is love and how we view the people that we fall in love with and who love us back, and how that changes the way we view ourselves.  It's also about the interconnectedness of small town life full of gossip and secrets - the gaps we fill with stories and those that we leave open for others to discover, as well as the gaps that sometimes swallow us whole. When Charlie Valentine tries to explain the mysteries of Bone Gap to Finn he tells him, "Because we don't have your typical gaps around here.  Not gaps made of rocks or mountains. We have gaps in the world. In the space of things. So many places to lose yourself, if you believe that they're there.  You can slip into the gap and never find your way out.  Or maybe you don't want to find your way out."

It's quite beautiful when I think about it, but I slogged through the reading of this novel vs. enjoying the tale unfold. At times I thought I should abandon it in favor of the other books in my towering bedside stack.  But I stuck with it, and I'm glad that I did because I keep thinking about the story and the characters, and I want to read more about Persephone.

If you want something that isn't ordinary or expected, with a mystery, a love story, and a modern twist on a mythological tale, "Bone Gap" is going to be your new favorite book.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

"Fever 1793": An education about yellow fever

Sometimes I am astounded about my lack of historical knowledge.

I consider myself a rather intelligent person who has an advanced degree plus years of extra schooling and workshops, and 15 years of classroom experience.  Unfortunately, I had the worst ever high school history teacher three years in a row.  His idea of teaching was sitting at his desk and going on tangents of his choosing with his hands behind the back of his head and his feet propped up on his desk.  Occasionally, he'd break out an ancient slide show while many students slept through it. I always volunteered to read the slides aloud for no other reason than to keep myself awake.

I've learned all of my history through self study and through reading historical fiction.  When I read a great one, I do more research to find out even more about a specific period of time.  During the time I taught, I did the same thing; I immersed myself in the history of whatever novel we read.  For "The Great Gatsby," I had the students study famous people of the time and then come to a "Shindig for Smarties" dressed as those people and interacting as them during Charleston contests and mingling.

Recently, my daughter Raina came home and told me about Laurie Halse Anderson's book, "Fever 1793." She said, "You've got to read this book, Mommy.  It's totally gross and totally amazing."  How could I pass up that perfect book review?

I happened to own a copy (leftover from my days in the classroom), so I cracked it open at lunch and didn't stop reading for over an hour.  I finished it that evening before I went to bed.  It's YA (maybe even considered middle reader) so the pace of the storyline is fast and furious.

The story revolves around 14 year old Mattie Cook who is stubborn and lovable.  She lives with her mother and grandfather in the year 1793 in the capital of the new United States, Philadelphia.  Her mother owns and operates the Cook Coffeehouse, and Mattie helps her as much as she can.  News starts to spread about a disease enveloping the city during one of the hottest and buggiest summers ever and people start to panic and flee the city.

The book quickly becomes a survival story when the disease infects Mattie's world and she needs to use all of her courage and instincts just to stay alive.

My daughter was absolutely correct in her review of this book being both totally gross and amazing.  Laurie Halse Anderson knows how to draw her readers into a story.  This is the first historical fiction book of Anderson's that I have read, but I have others on my shelf-  "Chains" (which was a National Book Award finalist in 2008 and won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2009) and "Forge".  "Fever 1793" received numerous awards including the ALA Best Books for Young Adults.

It's worth the praise and worth the education.  Anderson thoroughly researched the epidemic and included quotations from actual documents and diaries of the time period at the beginning of each chapter.  My scholastic version of the book even includes more historical information at the very end of the book, so after I read it, I felt like I had received a better education than my high school history lectures.

More than anything, by the end of the book, I was so thankful to be living with modern medical techniques.  We still have epidemics to contend with in our modern era, but hopefully we can learn from the not so pretty outbreaks in our history.

Monday, February 22, 2016

"The Giver": A classic dystopia

My daughter Raina and I started our own two person book club.  On Friday, we had our first meeting at Marzano's, a wood fired pizza place, to discuss our first selection, Lois Lowry's Newbery Medal winner, 'The Giver.'

Raina reads just as much if not more than I do.  Most nights my husband and I need to repeatedly ask her to close her book and get to sleep.  Sometimes after we have gone to bed, she gets back up, and takes her book under her covers to finish it.  When the Book Fairs come to school, she is in heaven; she plans her purchases and after she has reached the limit I set, she dips into her own precious savings and goes on her class "buy day" and purchases every other book she was unable to get.

I knew all this, but I still wasn't prepared for how amazing it was to have a real adult conversation about a complex book with my 11 year old.

She's smart, analytical and quizzical.

Her analysis of the complex topics presented in the book were spot on.

If you are one of the few people who has never heard of "The Giver" or you haven't read it, it follows a boy named Jonas who lives in a utopia.  Everything is fair.  No one feels pain.  No one fights.  No one needs to make any choices because everything is decided for you.  There are special, all inclusive ceremonies for age groups.  All 9 year olds have a bike ceremony, and all 12 year olds have a special ceremony where they are given their assignments (jobs) in the society.  At the assigning ceremony, Jonas is named the new Receiver and needs to attend special top secret meetings with the current Receiver.  It is there, he begins to learn the truth about his world.  And the truth isn't pretty.

Raina and I discussed topics in the book ranging from euthanasia to what it means to be a family.  We talked about euphemisms and why people use them and we discussed the ambiguous ending of the book.  Raina blew me away when we talked about language being controlled and about the nature of love and why a society might want to take away the power to love.

It was an amazing conversation and it made me appreciate my daughter as the unique and intelligent young lady that she is; I am so proud to be her mom.

Choosing 'The Giver' as our first book to discuss was perfect.  At first when Raina started reading it, she told me, "Mommy, this book is a real snoozer." I told her to stick with it because it picks up and gets very interesting at chapter 7. She stuck it out and just as I suspected when she got to chapter 7, she was hooked.  We even talked about how some books that have slow starts can still be awesome to read and the pay off can be even better than books that are quick to get through.

'The Giver' is a classic YA dystopia that even reluctant readers would enjoy (especially after they get through the first 6 chapters), but even more importantly, it presents so many important discussion points about the ways societies are run and individual rights, the importance of memories - good ones and bad ones, and why love can save us.

I highly recommend not only reading 'The Giver' but also reading the books that your kids are reading so you can talk to them on a literary level.  I loved my first book club outing with my daughter.  I can't wait for the next one.