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Masochistic Reading

WHY?! Why do I read things that hurt me?!

I just finished Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King and I’m SO DEPRESSED!! My Goodreads review simply stated, “this was sad 75% of the time, and I’m not about that life,” but AM I?

I am known for my commitment to intake as much WWII and Holocaust information as I can (seriously, I imagine my Nexflix documentary history has me on some sort of watch list). Now, we all know how those stories turn out; aside from the general overthrow of the Nazi party, there is very little about that time that was… uplifting. Every time I read Holocaust literature, it makes me cry. It gives me nightmares. It weighs on me as I continue living my privileged life. Nevertheless, as soon as I finish one, I anticipate which will be next. If these stories continue to break my heart, why do I continue to seek out more? In this particular case, it’s hard to explain, but it’s a matter of respect and remembrance. My life has been beautifully and blessedly persecution-free, so the least I can do is read the stories of those who have endured things beyond my comprehension in order to give respect where respect is undoubtedly due.

If you know anything about The Serpent King, you may be asking, “why are you rambling about the Holocaust?” Valid question, since Zentner’s work has nothing to do with WWII. However, similarly, it was crushingly sad for the majority of the novel. It tells the story of three high school kids living in a poor, rural area in Tennessee. It addresses difficult topics like domestic abuse, child pornography charges, being disowned by one’s own parents, depression, bullying, and the loss of a loved one. It was heavy and disheartening, and I know of at least 5 trustworthy reader friends who LOVED IT. WHY?!?!?! Why love this? Yes, I’m from the South so yes, I find the small-town characteristics to be relatable. Aside from that, nothing about this book was relatable. I wasn’t bullied or “othered” in high school, I don’t find myself swimming in a sea of racism every time I go home to southern Georgia, I didn’t endure alcoholism or abuse or extreme poverty during my childhood and I didn’t watch friends endure it. This depiction of life in the South is far more severe than my actual experiences while growing up there, so why did others from the South recommend it to me?

I think we all have our own “thing.” That something that speaks to you and calls out to your interests. Whereas Holocaust literature is something that educates me on the experiences of a certain peoples, it may be Southern Lit that educates others. Again, my privileged childhood may be the reason that I can’t find solace in this depiction that directly contradicts my own experiences, but it may parallel the experiences of others. And sadly, it may parallel the experiences of my current and/or future students. I couldn’t disconnect the experiences of the protagonists with the possibilities that my own students are enduring these horrible circumstances, which further contributed to my depressed state. This book hurt my heart; I will NOT seek out more books like it, nor will I recommend it to anyone who enjoys being happy and unburdened. The fact still stands, though, that people I trust derived joy from this text. It caused them sorrow; it made them cry; and yet they value it. Book masochism at its finest.

First of all, sorry for all the caps. The wound is still fresh. Secondly, does anyone else experience this? Are there any stories that cause you pain but you just keep coming back for more?

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L: Review of Ware’s “The Woman in Cabin 10”

Life got busy; these things happen. Luckily, I found a hot minute to type up some musings, so here goes nothing.

I just want a book to be scary!! Is that too much to ask?!?! Ruth Ware’s most recent novel, The Woman in Cabin 10, was included in a list of “October Reads” and we all remember how much I obsessed over SWEET (the dust-jacket blurb comparison is uncanny), so I really just threw myself at this book in full-fledged desperation. Firstly:

In this tightly wound story, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong…

As is often the case, I think all the hype that preceded this book’s release was a contributing factor in my semi-disappointment. But… I don’t think I’m really disappointed in the text itself. It did everything it promised. I think I have myself to blame for the fact that it just wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped. Maybe I watch too many scary movies, read too many scary books? Maybe my understanding of “scary” does not align with the general public’s “scary,” so I have gypped myself out of a whole slew of typically scary books. Regardless, I didn’t consider this book to be scary even for one moment. I found it to be adequately suspenseful, but those words are not synonymous in my mind.

So, we’ve determined that the hype set it up as a good “scary” read, and I’m afraid I have to disagree, but who cares, right?! On the other hand, it was also often paralleled with The Girl on the Train and I will go right ahead and concur, good sirs! Except, in all the ways that I found The Girl on the Train to be unlikable, I found The Woman in Cabin 10 to be utterly victorious. The characters were likable!! Imagine that! We have a protagonist who is still a hot mess, no doubt, but Lo Blacklock is familiar and relatable in ways that remind the reader of herself, or at least that one friend about whom you find yourself saying “bless her heart.” Lo is the spirit animal version of every woman when she’s set aside thriving & is just worried about surviving. Thankfully, Lo’s particular circumstances are not familiar to most of us, but the novel is written in a way that makes it seem entirely plausible and personal. Readers are able to relate to Lo’s trepidation, fury, mistrust, and desperation without actually experiencing the horrible events that result in such feelings. Thank goodness!

The mystery aspects of the novel were great! I kept thinking, “wow, I just cannot wait to see how all this gets resolved” because, let me tell you, it was a tangled web she wove. No one was safe, no one could be trusted, and every moment was a potential clue. I thought the mystery itself was masterfully written, but I will say that I found many aspects to be repetitive. For instance, insomnia reared its ugly head enough times that it eventually felt like beating a dead horse. “Yes, OKAY! She’s so incredibly tired. Got it. What else?!” Similarly, there were entire swaths, paragraphs and eventually pages, that I felt were just there to take up space. I counted 18 pages towards the end that recounted Lo’s panicked thoughts that could have been summed up in one page. I noticed Ware repeating herself and rephrasing the same thoughts many times throughout the book. Maybe this was a plot device? Who am I to judge? However, I do know that my students do this in order to use up more space on a page requirement, so… that’s not out of the realm of possibility for me.

I’d love to read In a Dark, Dark Wood in order to experience more from Ware without preconceived ideas of what the novel will be. I thought The Woman in Cabin 10 was good enough for some, but just not for me.

Scarier, please!

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L: Yoon’s “Everything, Everything”

I read this book in one day. Granted, it was a day spent alone in a strange city waiting for my fiancé to get off work, but the point is that this book can easily be devoured in one lazy day and then you can consider it a day well spent.

My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.

But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.

Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.

Everything, Everything fits into the genre fiction category of “sick lit,” meaning that one of the main characters suffers from some sort of illness. This genre is gaining momentum in the literary world, especially in YA. As you now know from the synopsis, Yoon’s protagonist, Madeline, has a disease that essentially has her under house arrest. Now, you’d think this would be the prime opportunity for some stereotypical teen angst and sulking, but instead, readers have been gifted with the most optimistic, buoyant, and humorous (and clearly fictional) teen I’ve ever encountered, in real life or books. This disease confines Maddy, undoubtedly, but it does not define her and she finds joy in the simple things in a way that I, as a reader, envied. Of course, all of that goes to crap once she gets a crush on a boy, but even imaginary teens are still teens.

Yoon deftly navigates readers through some really murky waters, addressing love (obviously), death of loved ones, domestic abuse, self-confidence, the value of life, the loss of trust, and forgiveness. To me, I found the humor to be the most powerful and ongoing influences within the text. If anyone has a right to be crabby, it’s Maddy, and she certainly experiences an exhausting range of emotions throughout this novel, but her humor persists, showing that each individual chooses how s/he will react to any and all circumstances. The characters were relatable and likable, so the emotions while reading were strong and meaningful, and the writing truly felt like I was in the mind of a teen, albeit an abnormally mature one.

I think this is one of those books that could speak to teens on a lot of levels, and in most ways, I trust the messages kids can read out of this text. Sick lit may offer some severe depictions, but I think it touches upon the feelings of isolation and other-ness that teens often feel, usually based on the smallest of differences. Take, for instance, Maddy’s freckles. They are mentioned numerous times in the book; for Madeline, they are a source of embarrassment and a flaw, while for Olly, they’re a source of attraction, a unique eye-catcher. Madeline disliked her freckles until Olly came along and liked them, and now she’s all proud. If I were one of her freckles, I’d be like, “um, no, gurl. That ship has sailed. You had your chance.” I understand that the emphasis on freckles was included because teens, especially females, often to hate the traits that separate them from the pack, and maybe this book hoped to speak to them and ultimately show them that our differences are what make us uniquely beautiful, but why, oh why, do we always need someone else to come along and tell us that?! Why did Madeline’s self esteem need to be gallantly saved by the man brave enough to see beauty in her flaws?! This is where I have to give endless props to Emmy Laybourne’s protagonist in SWEET. That right there is a girl who is beautiful and needs no man’s reassurances, and I think YA needs more confident girls and fewer girls in need of reassuring. Rant over.

Anyway, this will be a hot item on my classroom bookshelf, I have no doubt. However, this is certainly a girl book, no doubt about it. Lots of feelings in this one. I ultimately gave it 5 stars for being so sweet and so positive and so so CUTE!

Side note: I do not understand the title or cover art, so someone please enlighten me.

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Combo: Review of Myers’ “Monster” and Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary (…)”

I’m doing a combo review today, partly because I’m tearing through these books like a bag of Peanut Butter M&Ms, and partly because I don’t have too terribly much to say about a few of these books. But first, the obligatory synopsis courtesy of Goodreads:

This New York Times bestselling novel and National Book Award nominee from acclaimed author Walter Dean Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon, a teenage boy in juvenile detention and on trial. Presented as a screenplay of Steve’s own imagination, and peppered with journal entries, the book shows how one single decision can change our whole lives.

Fade In: Interior: Early Morning In Cell Block D, Manhattan Detention Center.

Steve (Voice-Over)
Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie. Maybe I can make my own movie. The film will be the story of my life. No, not my life, but of this experience. I’ll call it what the lady prosecutor called me … Monster.

Monster was one of those books that I’m convinced could truly help readers of the right audience, but the fit would have to be juuuust right. The story is told as a screenplay as the main character, Steven, goes through his trial.

The good news is that the story includes journal entries here and there, which give chilling depictions of Steven’s time in juvie and these journals could easily speak to readers who are facing similar circumstances or choices. The bad news is that the story also includes transcripts of courtroom proceedings and, thus, a lot of legalese. The jargon regularly overwhelmed the story and, although it offered readers a glimpse of a life spent fighting for freedom, the transcript style was far less convincing and relatable than the journals. I was filled with sadness for Steven while simultaneously being utterly unsure about what happened in that convenience store. I think this was on purpose, since Myers wanted readers to decide whether Steven was guilty based on evidence, just like a juror. I just finished with the stong hope that none of my students ever endure circumstances like those, which was a powerful and meaningful take-away.

On the one hand, I think this would be a valuable read for students who may be struggling with friend groups or decisions about life paths, but on the other hand I think the legal emphasis could easily overwhelm and discourage that same student. Regardless, I was not the intended audience and that was painfully obvious throughout my reading, but it didn’t prevent me from seeing value for other readers.

Another recent completion was Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Synopsis:

Born poor and hydrocephalic, Arnold Spirit survives brain surgery. But his enormous skull, lopsided eyes, profound stuttering, and frequent seizures target him for abuse on his Indian reservation. Protected by a formidable friend, the book-loving artist survives childhood. And then – convinced his future lies off the rez – the bright 14-year-old enrolls in an all-white high school 22 miles away.

That synopsis manages to symplify a book that is anything but simple. I completed this one via Audiobook and, I’ll just be honest, while I appreciated that the author narrated it himself, his voice was distracting. It was some sort of stoner/dracula/Bob Dylan combo, that served no purpose but to distract me with every passing word.

Aside from that, the story was so unbelievably depressing at times and hopeful at others that I was just exhausted. This kid, Arnold, has to take the cake for the most pity-enducing story, what with his physical deformaties, mental handicaps, extreme poverty, alcoholic parents, bullying neighbors, racist classmates, friend turned ex-friend, murdered pet, and the fact that loved ones keep dropping like flies. I can understand an author seiezing one or even a few of these tropes and writing about them, but all of them?! Are you trying to make me die of sadness overload?

Don’t get me wrong, the book had beautiful, profound, stunningly hopeful moments that really gave hope to readers, but make no mistake it beat you into the ground before it even thought about picking you up and giving you a reason to smile. I have a number of friends who love this book, so I’m going to go ahead and assume that this is one of those books that was ruined by the narration, and I’ll certainly have it in my classroom for students who might be enduring any of the countless hardships Arnold Spirit navigates with relentless humor and positivity. It is just as uplifting as it is devastating; such is life.

I have a lot more reviews to complete, but I also have a few more books for my summer classes and those take prescedence, so I hope you all will be patient with me. More to come soon, but feel free to follow me on Goodreads for quicker updates. Happy summer readings!!

 

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L: Review of Anderson’s “Feed”

M. T. Anderson’s Feed is one of those books that is mentioned as an inspiration by other books and authors all the time, especially in YA. In fact, I was just listening to the audiobook version of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (review to come soon) and the main character includes Feed in a list of favorite books. So… why didn’t I like it?

I’ll tell you why. Reading this book was exhausting. I liken reading Feed to my 6 a.m. workout sessions; this is a means to an end, that end being a better me, but make no mistakes that I am exhausted and frustrated, with an expression that could curdle new milk (LOTR ref). So the key to understanding my 3 star rating has to be hidden in the frustrating bits.

But first:

For Titus and his friends, it started out like any ordinary trip to the moon – a chance to party during spring break and play with some stupid low-grav at the Ricochet Lounge. But that was before the crazy hacker caused all their feeds to malfunction, sending them to the hospital to lie around with nothing inside their heads for days. And it was before Titus met Violet, a beautiful, brainy teenage girl who has decided to fight the feed and its omnipresent ability to categorize human thoughts and desires. Following in the footsteps of George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., M. T. Anderson has created a not-so-brave new world — and a smart, savage satire that has captivated readers with its view of an imagined future that veers unnervingly close to the here and now.

The first point of frustration was the language. The story takes place in the distant future, when other planets have been colonized and most people have grown up with the feed. Language undoubtedly changes over time, as evidenced by the high give-up-rate associated with any Jane Austin novel. Our language in 2016 is not so different that her novels are unintelligible, but just enough that reading passages or novels from that time often prove more frustrating than anticipated, and people give up. Anderson changed the language to reflect the passage of time. If the story takes place in a time when cars can fly, of course the English language would have come up with hip, new jargon. It’s only realistic. However, this was a big stumbling block for me. The dialogue was fluid & realistic enough that Anderson didn’t waste space defining words that the characters would already know, but I didn’t know them, so I had to learn on the fly, which takes time and patience which I have never claimed to possess. In fact, I slowly read and reread the first 30 pages of this book, couldn’t understand any of it, and eventually gave up until I realized it’s a required text for two of my summer classes. Nothing breeds achievement like necessity, so I restarted and endured. After about 50 pages, you get used to it and either skim over it or, by some divine knowledge, understand it.

I thought the novel was going to be far more political than it was. I assumed, “oh ok, feeds in the brain and someone is going to rage against the system and blah blah blah,” but there was very little raging and most of them loved and appreciated “the system.” That, in and of itself, was undoubtedly a statement about society’s reliance on technology, namely our phones, and our willingness to submit to that dependence. The message, although more subtle than I assumed it would be, was still there in all its majesty, urging readers to think about technology and how our society has progressed from primitive independence to total dependence, and how it might continue to evolve.

However, like I said, that message was not as in your face as expected; what was in my face was the other annoyance: Violet. The protagonist, Titus, starts seeing this girl and she seems sweet and whatever until they both endure an unexpected interruption of their feeds. Titus and his feed recover in all their annoying glory, but Violet’s recovery does not return her to her initial, “quirky” personality, but rather that of a Stage-Five Clinger. It starts with casual mentions of “their” future and “when we’re old,” and evolves into paranoia, obsession, unaccountable anger, and psycho-esque behavior. She becomes a total flight risk and I lose both my patience and my tolerance for her. Not to mention, she was one of those people who would ruin an innocent conversation with dramatic news updates and statistics. You know that person, the one you avoid because you might casually say “what beautiful flowers” and s/he’d follow up with something about the bees dying at incredible rates leading to the demise of the Earth’s natural ecosystem. You note a favorite restaurant in Boston and suddenly you’re talking about the Riots and the number of casualties. This is Violet.

All in all, I think the overall messages of the novel slightly outweigh the annoyances. And truthfully, teens will be dealing with acquaintances who possess qualities much like the characters in Feed, like peer pressure, societal pressure, parental pressure, and reading this could help them see the futility in certain actions and the advantages in others. This might be a good book placed alongside 1984, showing the different ways that the government and media can influence its citizens, and how fine the line is between technology making you capable vs. controlled. Good enough, but not something I’ll ever read again. Meh.

 

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