Book Review – “Carry On” by Rainbow Rowell

Carry OnI was reading the staff review of Carry On at my favorite local bookstore the other day, and the staffer who wrote their own little synopsis captured the twisty back story of this book so perfectly. This entire book review, like the staff member’s synopsis, is a little wacky, so bear with me. The synopsis basically said something about this book being fan fiction based on fan fiction that was originally fan fiction. Accurate, I think…. Carry On was originally conceived as fan fiction by the main character in Rainbow Rowell’s novel Fangirl. The (fake) Harry Potter-esque series in Fangirl was a favorite of the main character Cath, and so she writes her own spinoff fan fiction called “Carry On, Simon.” That fan fiction is actually fleshed out in this book, but Cath isn’t the author of the actual novel Carry On, Rainbow Rowell is, so I guess technically Rowell wrote fan fiction about her own fan-fiction? Whew.

Although I did read Fangirl before Carry On, there is no real need to have read one before the other – this novel can stand on its own. Carry On is about an orphaned “chosen one” named Simon Snow, the strongest magician ever born and consequently the only hope for the “magickal” world. This world is currently besieged by enemies without and within. There is a civil war a-brewing among magickal folks, and on top of that, the magickal world is being attacked by something called The Insidious Humdrum. The Humdrum is a strong, anti-magickal force that eats up magic wherever it appears, leaves nothing in its wake, and just happens to look like Simon did at 11 years old.

The real, 18-year-old Simon can’t really control his magic and is prone to dangerous eruptions. In addition to this, he also struggles with his longtime nemesis and roommate Baz, a Malfoy-esque vampire. He also has to deal with his girlfriend Agatha, who like-likes Baz and yearns to escape the magickal world, his bossy, Hermione-like bff named Penelope, and a mentor called The Mage who is the head of the magickal world and of the school. Much like Harry Potter, Simon has a lot on his shoulders, tasked with saving the world just because he was apparently sort of born to do so. But unlike Harry, he has no exceptional aptitude for it.  Though in this story, the spells are all cliches and common turns of phrase, Simon is not that great at casting. However, it’s kind of fun (and sometimes eye-roll-inducing) to hear him utter phrases like “Up, up, and away!” to cast flying spells, or witness other characters recite Queen lyrics while enacting horrific rituals.

Honestly, there is so much going on in Carry On, it’s hard to condense. The damn thing is over 500 pages long. When I started reading, I was initially a little irritated by how self-referential and cliched it was right out of the gate. I wondered how I was going to make it through the whole thing because from the get-go it seems that the reader has missed something. Simon speaks as if we should already have some sort of knowledge of his world and personal history, and although I did because I read Fangirl first, this method of narration was still a little off-putting. However, after I remembered that this was supposed to be the last book in a Harry Potter-like series, and that the reader in the fictional world (Simon’s or Fangirl’s, I’m not sure) would ideally know what was going on, I was able to accept it and move on. I’m not sure someone who was just jumping into the novel would be able to get past it so easily though.

Anyway, despite my initial reticence, I whipped through all 500-ish pages. Rainbow Rowell’s writing is magical. The story is part mystery (who/what is The Insidious Humdrum?), and part love story (who is really in love with whom?). It all sounds a little silly, but it’s actually pretty engaging. Especially the love story – because let’s not kid ourselves. Anyone who knows anything knows that anyone reading a Rainbow Rowell novel is at least partly reading it for the love story.  And though it’s only after the first 200 pages that Rowell gets to the lovey-dovey stuff, it is worth the wait. I warn you to stop reading now if you don’t want spoilers about the romance at the heart of this book.

Simon and Baz are sworn enemies, but forced to live together due to some ancient, Goblet of Fire-like roommate-choosing rule at their boarding school. Simon is on the outs with Agatha, partly because he caught her and Baz in the forest the previous year, holding hands and staring at each other intently (oh, youth). Simon, muscled and ginger and beautiful and fiery and wild, is a little lost. Baz, lithe and gorgeous and pale and elegant and mysterious and moody, is a little depressed. These two inspire such anger and obsession in one another, especially with Agatha thrown into the mix. But – twist – Baz is not into Agatha. He’s secretly in love with Simon, and always has been; the Agatha thing was just a ruse, at least on his end. He’s worried that Simon really hates him, and so tends to treat Simon like a clumsy oaf, which he admittedly sometimes is. For his part, Simon feels hunted, sure that Baz is going to kill him at every turn, and treats Baz with abject suspicion. But when Simon finally realizes that his incessant need to monitor Baz’s behavior and know his whereabouts is actually affection and concern, rather than fear, it’s incredibly sweet. It is also a surprise to Simon (but not to us), and he does have a brief struggle with understanding his sexual identity. Regardless, we get to see Simon and Baz’s tumultuous enemy relationship transform into what it probably always was under the surface: a strong but sometimes-turbulent bond with affection and passion at its core. And, true to form, these teenagers in love connect so easily, yet continue to treat each other with varying degrees of affection and venom. There was always a hint of competitiveness at the core of their bond too.

I have to break away and mention that I read Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park first, then Fangirl, then Carry On. I became beguiled with Rowell’s writing probably within the first 20 pages of Eleanor & Park, and after reading three of her YA novels, I have definitively confirmed that her writing is, again, magical. I’m not kidding. She is somehow able to transport this seasoned reader back to the days of heart-pounding, unrequited love and naive, optimistic hope. I get butterflies in my stomach every time I read one of her books. Every time. Being an adult in a long-term relationship, that doesn’t really happen to me much anymore. And she does this with WORDS ALONE. I can’t figure out how, but can conclude that maybe that particular part of adolescence is still alive and well in her.

Moving on, all of this mushy stuff is wonderful, of course, but it quickly takes a backseat when things start to get serious with The Insidious Humdrum’s “dead spots” appearing more frequently, Simon’s magickal outbursts getting more out of control, and the impending civil war bubbling up in the magickal community. It’s a mad dash to the end of the book, as dots are connected and everything comes to a head. I won’t go any further plot-wise, mostly because too much happens for me even attempt to explain. Suffice it to say that the sequence of events is wild.

I’m not really doing an adequate or concise job of reviewing this book. Briefly, I really enjoyed it. It’s detailed, engaging, and strange, and once I banged it closed, I immediately wished that it wasn’t over. Rainbow Rowell’s winks at the reader, with her references to other works of fantastical writing, are funny and satisfying. I wouldn’t say that I was particularly invested in the magickal world and all that it had to offer, but I did become invested in the main characters. And she did leave some room for the possibility of a sequel, which left me with some hope. After reading this book, you’ll probably want a sequel too. Trust me, if you pick it up, bear with all of the cheesy puns, and get past the confusing magick-speak in the first section, you will absolutely be rewarded.

 

Recommended For:

Rainbow Rowell fans, fantasy fans, love story lovers, and those who are interested in the fan fiction so central to the plot in Fangirl.

 

The BSC Project – #0.5/The Prequel “The Summer Before”

The Summer Before
goodreads.com

And so The Project begins. I was a little apprehensive about reading this book, partly because starting this whole project is a daunting task, partly out of fear that I very well might have roped myself into reading a mountain of books with gigantic print, and partly because I have a deep-rooted fear of commitment that apparently extends to long-term reading projects. I was able put it off for a bit because I had a surprisingly hard time finding this book in my local bookstores, and had to order it online (boo). But once I had it, I couldn’t justify delaying for much longer. Sometimes you just have to do the damn thing, so I jumped in.

This book, a prequel that was actually written 10 years after the original stories ended, is set before the Baby-Sitters Club is officially formed. It revolves around the four original babysitters, Kristy, Claudia, Mary Anne, and Stacey. Fittingly, the prequel starts with 11-year-old (!!!) Kristy, a seasoned babysitter (AT 11) who was clearly born to be a boss babe. She is a tough little thing whose vulnerability only tends to show when she is struggling with the harsh realities of her father’s abandonment and her mother’s desire to move on. Then there’s Claudia, the gifted artist with strict-ish parents, a genius older sister (literally), and a kind grandmother who is her best friend and ally. Claudia, almost 12, has a growing interest in fashion and boys, and is afraid she’s outgrowing Kristy and Mary Anne, who have been her closest pals since forever. Mary Anne is trying to grow up, but her controlling/obsessive-compulsive dad is determined to keep her in pigtails, frilly outfits, and a vomitous pink bedroom. She is also struggling to know more about and connect with the memory of a mother who died when she was an infant. And Stacey, still living in New York through most of the book, is trying to cope with a disease her parents want to keep secret (it’s just type 1 diabetes, for god’s sake), and with her former friends who mysteriously start bullying her at school. So, these girls are dealing with a lot. I think most of us can relate to that.

In this book, each chapter is narrated by a different girl, so we get to see how different plotlines play out from different perspectives. For example, we see how Claudia’s blinding infatuation with her new boyfriend (who is 15…while she is just barely 12…) quietly distances her from Kristy and Mary Anne, or how Kristy’s misguided hope for her dad to be a better person inspires sadness, graciousness, and strength in the other two girls. We also see how Mary Anne’s father’s issues (setting down his paper involves adjusting it to perfectly fit the corner of the table) and suffocation affect the way people view Mary Anne. We even get glimpses of how something as simple as Mary Anne’s effortless act of decency towards new girl Stacey makes Stacey feel included and good again after the weeks (months?) of bullying and ostracism at her old school.

I was initially somewhat skeptical of the content, format, and style of this book. However, I very quickly remembered why I loved this series so much. The writing is simple but not overly juvenile, and the quality of the plot far outweighed any issues I might have had with the writing style. These girls are just young people dealing with universal problems, making mistakes, and trying to learn from them. It’s really the small moments that make these characters so lifelike and endearing, like watching Kristy waste her whole birthday, which her mother and brothers try to make really special, wishing and waiting for a dad who never shows up. Or when, at the end of the disastrous birthday night, Mary Anne sits down next to Kristy and wordlessly puts her arm around her friend. Ugh! The bond these girls share is enviable. A major part of what is really fantastic about these books is that they show young girls helping each other out and supporting one another, rather than the tired old tropes of girls constantly in competition for a boy’s interest, or girls putting each other down, or girls fighting over who’s prettiest. These books portray female friendships as they really are: complex, sometimes confusing, and generally pretty rad. It’s this portrayal, rather than some twee or sensationalized, cheap, unreal TV version of how girls treat and compete with each other, that helps make this series so wonderful.

I want more friends like these four little ladies in my life, but making friends as a grown up is as hard now as it was as a kid, if not harder. So until some awesome new lady friends magically appear, I suppose I’ll stick with the ones I find in books. These ones set a pretty good friend precedent, anyway.

The BSC Project – Mills’s Great Idea

BSC Logo

I’ve mentioned this before, but when I was a little kid, I was totally and completely wild about The Baby-Sitters Club. I inhaled it all, from the books (heart eyes) to the short-lived TV series (gold) to the movie (trash). One of my favorite childhood Christmas memories (and Mom memories) revolves around the book series: I must have been around 9 or 10, and I’d already gotten several great Christmas presents, when my mom told me that she and Dad still had the biggest, best present to give me. I certainly wasn’t expecting to get anything else, but then my mom walked in with a GIGANTIC plastic bag full of all of the BSC (Baby-Sitters Club) books she could find, particularly the ones I didn’t have in my collection. I freaked out and generally lost my mind. As I dug around the bag excitedly, I asked, “Are these ALL Baby-Sitters Club books?” I remember her delighted smile as she said, “Yep, all the ones you don’t have yet.” She succeeded in raising a geek; I was ecstatic about getting a bag full of books. Even now I can recall that feeling of intense elation, and I’ll never forget that it was the first time I had the desire to quite literally dive into a pile of unread books and not-quite-literally gobble them up whole.

Then, at age twelve I inevitably entered that dreaded hell, the deepest torture I believed was sent solely to rip me out of childhood and dangle me in that god-awful purgatory, before thrusting me into full-fledged adulthood. I’m talking about that rite of passage known as junior high school. Those were some of the worst years I’ve ever experienced. In junior high, everyone seemed so grown up, and I was really, really not. I wasn’t one of the tallest kids in class anymore (or ever again). Nobody ushered me from class to class. People had boyfriends and girlfriends. Hell, there were pregnant girls in my 7th grade class. Everyone was so cool (aside from the pregnant girls), and here I was, clutching a baby’s book as I buffeted my way through the halls. So I did the unthinkable: I abandoned the BSC, never to visit the hallowed halls of Claudia’s bedroom again.

I had some serious issues putting those books down then, and I still have an issue with that decision now. In an effort to fit in, I let go of something that brought me true joy and comfort, and I picked up JNCO jeans, which brought nothing but utter embarrassment. Also, I don’t think I was developmentally ready to just dump those books, or that part of my childhood. But we all do dumb stuff at that age, and I was no exception. Shocked that I stopped reading my BSC books, my mom questioned the decision and tried to encourage me to pick the series back up again, but I was moody and lacked a basic understanding of my own feelings, hormones, and reasoning. I just wanted to fit in, really, but I had no way to express or even fathom why I felt I had to stop at the time.

So it’s only fitting that exactly 20 years later, as a “mature” adult who generally doesn’t care what people think, I’m choosing to pick them up again. I’ve read such a multitude of books in the intervening years, and have obviously experienced such a shift in perspective between 12 and almost-32, that I’d like to return to the series with fresh eyes. I love reading books for younger people, because I feel like there are great lessons to be learned in them, some that we forget or simply take for granted as we age.

And so, the plan is basically for me to read every Baby-Sitters Club book I can get my hands on. I’m calling this ambitious venture “The BSC Project”. Luckily, I still have all of my original books and they’re in great condition, despite having spent 20 years in a storage shed with tiny spiders weaving colonies in their pages. This is really a way to revisit an old childhood love, and also an honest attempt to relearn some of those lessons I was taught as a kid but could probably stand to hear now. And the 12-year-old in me is also itching to know what the hell happened to those steadfast, fictional friends of mine. 

BSC Bracelet
My BSC bracelet from the ’90s….

THE RULES:

  • The first and most important rule is that I don’t want to have too many hard and fast rules. That’s a surefire way for me to give up. However I will be following a few guidelines, because otherwise I will absolutely quit. I haven’t changed that much.
  • I have to read (and write about) all of the books from the original series.
  • I have to read all of the extra-long Super Specials (which were my favorites).
  • I will read all of the Friends Forever books, provided I can get my hands on them. They are the final installments in the girls’ storylines, and I’ve never read them. I’ll read the prequel too, since Ann M. Martin wrote it, albeit long after the series ended.
  • If I start feeling really ambitious, I might dig into the mysteries too. However I’m not making it a priority to read the numerous spinoffs, like the enormous Little Sister collection, because there are too many issues of them and they are boring. I might pick up The California Diaries that feature Dawn, because I’ve also never read them and they sound interesting; they’re apparently targeted to older kids and are darker than the main series.
  • MAYBE I’ll rewatch the series and the movie. Maybe. We’ll see how I feel. I love the series, but the movie is 90% garbage.

It’s hard to say exactly how many books I’m missing at this point, but I fully expect to spend hours upon hours reading, and to pay exorbitant amounts of money to complete my collection. I’ll do my best to chronicle it all and explain everything as I go along. And I imagine I’ll learn some stuff along the way. There will still be normal-person posts, though, because this is definitely a long-term project and my blog isn’t solely dedicated to this book series. It’s going to be a long ride, but a good one. I can feel it. I’m about to say hello to my (old) friends!

BSC TV Show
wikipedia.org

A Blog I Love – Meet Me At Mike’s

Meet Me At Mikes

I have a confession to make: though I like writing a blog, I am not great about reading other people’s blogs. It’s embarrassing, it’s probably blasphemous, and it feels selfish. But I’m not going to beat myself up about it right now, because I want to share with you one blog that I follow religiously. It’s wonderful and inspiring, and I don’t remember how or where I found it, but the Australia-based Pip Lincolne writes a blog called Meet Me at Mike’s that is definitely among my favorites.

Pip mostly focuses on crafting and visually appealing things, which I love. She so obviously takes such great joy in beauty, writing, creating, and in life in general that I always feel somewhat giddy and inspired after reading one of her posts. It’s a bit of positivity in my inbox every now and then, and adds a tiny punctuation mark to my week at a tedious office job. I don’t know Pip and she doesn’t know me, but in case you couldn’t tell, I adore her. After reading her blog, I feel more creative, I have more appreciation for my crafty side, and I look at the the things around me a little bit differently. I encourage you to take a (visual) stroll around Pip’s blog, especially if you’re a crafty-type person.

Pip does this thing once a month called “Taking Stock” where she makes a list of things that she’s currently doing, seeing, feeling, etc. It seems like a good way to slow down and take a few minutes to practice some self-awareness and to acknowledge and appreciate the things you’re thinking, feeling, and enjoying about life.

I’ve always been fascinated by time capsules and things like that, so I may start doing a Taking Stock list every now and again, if only to look back at a log of the things I’m interested in at a particular moment. I’ve created my first list below, and in the spirit of Pip, I’ll leave a little list below for you to fill in if you’d like. I’d love to know if you’ve checked out Pip’s blog, and if you decide to “take stock” too.

***

Making: A Majora’s Mask cross stitch that I got at Classic Game Fest last year. It will be amazing when I actually finish it.

Cooking: Some quinoa lately. I LOVE QUINOA.

Drinking: Lots of water. I used to have this Plant Nanny app that tracks water consumption by having you grow plants. I loved it, but they haven’t updated it in almost a year, so I grew all the plants and then begrudgingly deleted it.

Reading: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. I’m trying to read more YA, and I love Rainbow Rowell’s writing. It reminds me what I was like when I was a little younger – full of vim and vigor and imagination and tummy-butterflies and crushes.

Trawling: Other people’s blogs for similar ones I can follow.

Wanting: A newer laptop so that I can type away on my lunch breaks instead of stealing illicit moments and hoping nobody looks at my computer at work….

Looking: Out the windows at a grey sky and wishing I was at home.

Deciding: That I need to buckle down and start writing more. I love it, and I sometimes I really abuse my free time by watching YouTube and not putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

Wishing: That my mom was here. I’ve been missing and needing her a lot lately.

Enjoying: Sitting outside on my lunch breaks and reading my book. I love the freedom of being outside and basking in the sun.

Waiting: For 5pm so I can go home and start my weekend!

Liking: These macrobiotic bars called . . . MacroBars. In “Protein Pleasure” particularly – peanut butter and chocolate chip. I’ve convinced myself that they’re a healthy breakfast even though they’re full of chocolate chips.

Wondering: If I should brave the city streets for food. I live in a festival city and work downtown, and there is a festival going on right now. Hipsters and pretentious DJs and rich girls with expensive bohemian clothes are swarming the sidewalks and roads and annoying the bejesus out of me.

Loving: My kitty Samadhi. She’s getting older and has some kidney issues, and I’m trying to lavish all the love I can on her while she’s still around, even if it means letting her crawl under the covers at night to administer sharp little love bites to my bare arms and legs, but also to spoon with me.

Pondering: What book I’m going to read once I finish this one. It’s easier than thinking about what’s going on in the world. Books are always the best thing to ponder.

Listening: To the “Feminist Friday” station on Spotify. It’s a Lilith Fair throwback this week, y’all! I LOVE that time in music. Ugh, it was the best.

Considering: Buying a Nintendo Switch. Whenever they’re available next. I must play Breath of the Wild.

Buying: Far too much makeup and makeup-related items lately. I’ve sadly realized that no matter how hard I try to find a cheap, good-quality drugstore setting spray, nothing comes close to Urban Decay’s All Nighter. Damn them. It’s so expensive.

Watching: “Chewing Gum” on Netflix. Michaela Coel has created an amazing show, and she’s a great actor! I relate to her character Tracey in so many ways; she’s such an awkward, weird creation.

Hoping: That I can stick with the promises I’ve made to myself regarding more writing and less consumption of sugar and fried foods….

Marvelling: At people’s capacity for hatred, meanness, and cruelty. I can’t relate in the least, or even understand what leads people to their heinous beliefs and behavior.

Cringing: Because I missed a beloved family member’s birthday last Sunday and only realized it this morning.

Needing: To stop clenching my teeth out of stress, but old habits die hard.

Questioning: Where I am in my life, work-wise, and why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Smelling: The perfume my dad bought me for Christmas.

Wearing: Very black pointy shoes. And nothing else. Kidding, kidding.

Following: The news. Reluctantly. But I do stay away from the news and social media on the weekends, because I would be clenching my teeth and pulling my hair out even more if I didn’t take a break.

Noticing: The new buds and leaves on trees, and how pretty and bright green they are.

Knowing: The lyrics to lots of songs from the ‘90s, apparently.

Thinking: About seeing my beau this evening.

Admiring: People who write full-time. Admiring/envying, potato/potahto.

Getting: A treat for myself today for making it through the week.

Bookmarking: Embroidery and cross stitch patterns I like on Etsy.

Disliking: The current state of the American government.

Opening: My mouth. The teeth-clenching! *eye roll*

Giggling: About some Harry Potter memes and tumblr posts and illustrations I saw yesterday. They had me laughing out loud, inappropriately.

Feeling: A little cold and headache-y from today’s chilly weather and my allergies.

Helping: A coworker with the grammar on some of his school assignments.

Hearing: People chatting in the hallway.

Celebrating: The end of the work week. And St. Patrick’s Day this evening, with my sister and a pint.

Pretending: That I don’t have work things I could be doing.

Embracing:  The fact that I’m not perfect, and that I don’t have to be. The idea that being my flawed self is okay and good and genuine.

And a blank list for your own sort-of time capsule:

Making:

Cooking:

Drinking:

Reading:

Trawling:

Wanting:

Looking:

Deciding:

Wishing:

Enjoying:

Waiting:

Liking:

Wondering:

Loving:

Pondering:

Listening:

Considering:

Buying:

Watching:

Hoping:

Marvelling:

Cringing:

Needing:

Questioning:

Smelling:

Wearing:

Following:

Noticing:

Knowing:

Thinking:

Admiring:

Getting:

Bookmarking:

Disliking:

Opening:

Giggling:

Feeling:

Helping:

Hearing:

Celebrating:

Pretending:

Embracing:

Book Review – “Delicate Edible Birds” by Lauren Groff

Delicate Edible BirdsI originally bought this book of short stories for my sister, but the description on the book jacket sounded so intriguing, I decided to get a copy for myself.  Full disclosure, it’s been a while since I’ve read this book, so I’m writing with a few notes by my side. However, I think my distance from the book has been beneficial, as I remember with greater clarity the stories in this collection that really stood out to and stuck with me.

One of my standouts was “Blythe”, narrated by a bored stay-at-home mom who was previously a busy attorney. Boredom leads this woman to join a poetry class, where she unexpectedly meets and befriends a glamorous, commanding fellow mother – the eponymous Blythe. A suicidal, dramatic poet and artist, Blythe rips the narrator out of the dullness of her everyday existence and draws her into a wild, lifelong friendship that ends up warping both of their lives. Over the years, the narrator’s life follows a more traditional trajectory, while Blythe becomes a well-known and provocative artist. Their friendship is at turns exhilarating and draining, but it’s overarching characteristic is its toxicity. The narrator comes to feel beholden to Blythe, catering to her every whim and playing stand-in mother to her neglected young sons. With time, Blythe becomes more and more volatile, growing in popularity, size, ego, and personality, and her very being seems to threaten to consume those around her, the narrator in particular. To me, the story felt very true to life; as someone who has experienced my share of toxic friendships, this story depicted all too well how easy it is to get dragged around and bled dry by the domineering Blythes of the world.

Another story I enjoyed was “Sir Fleeting”, recounted by an old woman looking back on her life after being visited by an old lover. As a very young woman on her honeymoon, the narrator falls in love and lust with a wealthy, wandering French traveler she meets in Argentina. As this man drifts in and out of her life over the years, she seems to want to hold on to him, but also enjoys the fleeting nature of their trysts, knowing that she can never have a true relationship with him. No matter where they are in their lives and personal relationships, the two always happen to bump into each other and rekindle the common spark that attracted them in the first place. But this playboy is slippery, and usually disappears before she can fully understand what she is to him, or what she even really wants from him. However, upon their final meeting as old friends and lovers, things take an interesting and rather melancholy turn as the veil of infatuation is lifted and truth finally begins to break the spell he has on her.

Two of the most heartbreaking stories in the collection were “Watershed” and “L. Debard and Aliette”. The former revolves around a woman who falls in love with, marries, and then loses a man in a tragic accident following a newlywed marital tiff. Again told by a woman recounting her past, this story is arguably the saddest of them all. I will not do it the injustice of trying to relate all of the particulars – you just need to read it. The latter follows the lives of a young poetry-loving girl with polio and the much older, very accomplished Olympic swimmer and poet she falls in love with. Set in the early 1900s, the two eventually begin an illicit affair that challenges the mores of the day, and when they are finally found out, their lives are violently and irrevocably changed. The story manages to be dark, romantic, weird, and somehow sadly uplifting. Wikipedia tells me that this is a more modern depiction of the story of Abelard and Heloise. I’m no expert on that story, but I did enjoy this one.

Overall, I found this short story collection to be odd, gloomy, and therefore satisfying. Each story has dark undercurrents flowing beneath the surface, and nothing is tied up quite neatly in the end. I like that women are centrally featured in these stories, and there is an intense examination of women’s expected roles in society, and of the consequences of breaking from convention. Maybe it’s because of the reference to the grossly inhumane “delicacy” ortolan in the book’s title, but when I think of this collection, I imagine each of the stories as a tiny little bird, beautiful and ostensibly fragile, but full of crunchy, sharp little bones that are revealed upon delving in. The bones of these stories definitely stick in the mind for quite a while.

 

Recommended For:

Those who like reading about the nuances in the female experience from different perspectives. Also for those who enjoy stories that end up being much darker than they first appear.

All Apologies

I don’t know if anyone cares, honestly, but I want to explain why I’ve not posted anything in a while. I am frankly embarrassed that I haven’t written anything for this blog in months, but I feel like so much has changed. When I started writing here, I promised myself I would keep up with it no matter what. But whether we like it or not, things happen.

This is going to sound weak, but I’ve been having a hard time keeping up with my writing because I have been absolutely drained by my day job. I’ve continued to read and watch YouTube and live my life, but have not kept up with my writing. Which is not good, because that behavior is not getting me anywhere, either personally or creatively. For a long time I’ve called myself “the writer who doesn’t write,” and, while funny, that’s not what I want to be. I think it’s the plight of many a working creative person to be too drained by the daily grind to work on personal projects, but maybe that’s all just an excuse. I don’t know. But that’s where I’ve been.

Work exhaustion is not the whole story, though. Like many Americans, I have also been deflated by the whole election cycle, and everything that has happened since. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m an optimistic person, but I at least make the smallest of attempts to find a silver lining when life gets shitty. Unfortunately, like many Americans, and like many people all over the world, I’m having a rough time finding the bright side these days. I’m really having to work at it.

Funnily enough, though, the day after the election results came in, I couldn’t stop myself from writing. I typed up the following at work on November 9th, tossing professional decorum to the wind:

 

I’m sitting at work, trying to wrap my head around this election. I am in disbelief, I am in shock. The world feels upside down. I just want to go home and crawl into bed with a book, a cup of tea, a heated blanket, and a lot of French fries. I want to disappear from this world for a while. But I can’t, because I have responsibilities at work. Obligations, really. One of my bosses came in this morning, and approached me in such a casual manner that I was even more shocked. Doesn’t he know the world just flipped inside out? Maybe not for him, who is very wealthy, ostensibly white, and powerful. He is also a kind, very intelligent person, with the demeanor of a doctor. Maybe he just can’t deal with it, like the rest of us, and so refuses to do so. I hope that’s what’s happening. He has a job to do, after all. Right?

I have never been more aware of my skin color than in this election cycle. I am more aware of my gender than ever before.

 

And I stopped there, because I was at work, and because I felt too disheartened to go on. It was a lost day for me. I have since learned that at least one of my coworkers and a couple of my otherwise intelligent bosses, including the one mentioned, are Trump supporters. So that is a new reality I have to deal with every day. The daily reminder that I work with and for people who maybe see me as a token, who do not value me, whose votes have demonstrated that they have no regard for me as a woman, or for people of color, or for the fact that some uncomfortably Hitler-esque nonsense is rising to a boil in this country, or for reality and facts in general, is tough. But it’s a reality that I’m slowly learning to navigate, and I’m finding that I am a stronger, more passionate, and surprisingly more compassionate person than I thought I was. I never thought I could be so befuddled and bewildered than I have been by this turn of events, but I am also more vocal, more emotional, and more “woke” than I ever imagined I could be. I mean, this anxious introvert is actually out in swarms of people, marching for her rights, and for the rights of others to be heard.

So, for many reasons, I will write. I refuse to let my exhaustion from my day job deter me. I refuse to let my disenchantment with the world impede my progress any more. I’m trying really hard not to engage in negative self-talk, so I won’t beat myself up about it too much, but I know I have something of value to say, whether or not others agree. Now more than ever I think my voice is important. So I will write.

Book Review – “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell

vampires-in-the-lemon-grove
goodreads.com

I was never too keen on short stories growing up. I’ve always liked getting completely immersed in lengthy novels, losing myself in another world, and the short stories I was reading always felt too . . . well . . . short to get lost in. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the artistry of short stories. In my humble opinion, a well-rounded reader should be able to at least appreciate written work in all forms (I still struggle with reading plays, but can appreciate their merit). I recently read this beautifully written article by Junot Diaz on LitHub about the beauty of the short story, and it deserves a read; it really reflects how I’ve been feeling lately about them. Earlier this year I read The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction for the first time, and each story in the collection completely blew me away. My ill-advised, half-formed opinion about short stories not providing a world to get lost in was shot to hell. And I’m so glad it was, because I probably would never have given Vampires in the Lemon Grove a real chance otherwise.

This collection, by Karen Russell of Swamplandia! fame, is dark, hilarious, introspective, and eerie. Each story includes a supernatural element, which gives the reader the unsettling feeling that virtually anything can happen at any time in these stories. Nobody is constrained by the rules of this world, and it can be off-putting, but in the best, creepiest way. The stories were all very, very good, but in the interest of time, I’ll only talk about three I loved and one I thought was just okay.

Reeling for the Empire is about a group of girls in feudal Japan who are basically sold by their fathers to a mysterious businessman in order to make money for the family and serve the empire by reeling silk for one year. In reality, these poor girls are enslaved indefinitely, turned into humanoid silkworms who must spin their uniquely-colored silk constantly to avoid death. The one girl who actually volunteers to go, as opposed to being sold, is the one who starts shaking things up in the factory after she finds out what is expected of the girls. This story is just bizarre, perfectly imagined, and exquisitely executed. Russell takes an outlandish premise and (dare I say) spins it into a story that explores the strength of women and the power of unity.

In The New Veterans, a massage therapist takes on a new client – a young veteran fresh from the front lines, who has a full-back tattoo memorializing the day a colleague died in a bombing. As the therapist works on this young man, she mysteriously finds herself able to physically manipulate his massive, intricate tattoo and slowly taking on his memories and, consequently, his PTSD. The more she works on him, the less he remembers and the more he physically and mentally heals – for better and for worse. I don’t pretend to know what veterans have to live with on a daily basis, but this story presents a different take on the traditional narrative about what civilians know and think of what homecoming soldiers deal with in everyday life. For me, it emphasized the fact that although we can listen to stories, unless we’ve actively engaged in battle or lived in a war-torn country, we can never truly know what that experience is like.

The final story in the collection, The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, is the story that haunted me the most. In it, the main characters, a group of bullying teenage brats, come upon a scarecrow that seems like any old scarecrow, until they look at it a little closer. After a bit of teenage-boy joking and general tomfoolery with the scarecrow, the boys begin to realize that it very closely resembles a boy they used to bully who just disappeared one day – Eric Mutis. What is so freaky about the scarecrow is that the more they look at it and the closer they get to it, the more it appears that someone has transformed the real Eric into something made out of wax, glass, and straw. The description of this scarecrow straight up freaked me out. It has dead, staring, but humanoid eyes, and later we find that the body is stuffed with the same grass-like substance Eric used to put in his bunny’s cage. These boys used to really go after poor Eric, both physically and mentally, and through flashbacks we find that despite it all, he was still kind to them. Eric was treated like trash by his peers and teachers alike, and when he just stopped showing up for school one day, they all quite literally forgot about him. Heartbreaking. It is revealed that he had a troubled home life (to what extent we don’t know), and now it seems he may have come to a terrible fate. And because these boys harassed him instead of protecting him, they are all partially responsible. I think I’d have to reread this one to fully grasp the entire subtext, but I found it to be a rumination on bullying and what happens to kids like Eric who fall through the cracks every day. This story was mesmerizing and terrifying all at once. I loved it.

The story I liked the least was actually the most overtly comedic of the bunch. Reading Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating is like reading a football-tailgating manual, only the teams are whales vs. krill. Dougbert is rooting for the little guy, hoping that this year the krill will overpower the whales. He is also actually mourning the dissolution of his marriage, and it’s hilarious to read. This story is objectively a good and funny one, it’s simply just out of place in this collection. I think it’s more fit for the amazing website McSweeney’s than for this particular book.

Part of what sets this collection apart and makes it so enthralling is the latent supernatural element, which left me unsure of what was real and what wasn’t most of the time. These stories are quite a departure from what I’ve read in short stories before, and on the whole they are so layered and complex that I felt like I only picked up on a fraction of their meanings. As with horror movies, it’s not knowing what’s around the corner that is the worst, and also the most captivating thing about this collection.

Recommended For:

Readers who like short, engrossing narratives, supernatural tales, and a dash of horror in their stories.

Read What You Want – A Mini Book Review and Rant

among-the-janeites
http://www.goodreads.com

Ever since I chanced upon it while wandering around a bookstore, Among the Janeites sounded like my kind of book. I don’t naturally tend to gravitate toward nonfiction, but at first glance, this little paperback sounded just like my cup of tea – a tome filled with personal stories of people obsessed with books.  Among the Janeites features the lives of (mostly) women whose lives were changed by Austen’s works. They relate what their day-to-day lives are like, how they prepare for the annual Jane Austen Society of North America gatherings, and exactly how their lives have been altered by their favorite Austen tales. Though not a “Janeite” myself, I am fascinated by books and documentaries about people who love basically anything enough to embrace that thing body, mind, and soul. Fandoms are so interesting to me. Dressing in the appropriate garb, speaking in the customary fashion, living life as if in another world; I find all of it to be so compelling. So, after perusing the back cover, I was excited to delve into Among the Janeites and read about one woman’s foray into the vaguely familiar world of kooky Austen fanatics in their natural habitat, the convention.

I had very romantic notions about this book before I even cracked the cover, to be honest. I think I was expecting some light confection about frilly Austen-lovers, solely informed by my love of the offbeat and woefully underrated movie Austenland, about a superfan who stays at an immersive, 1800s-themed Austen resort (yes, I know there’s a book and no, I’ve never read it). After I grabbed Among the Janeites from my library’s shelves and dove in, I was greeted with a little anecdote involving author Deborah Yaffe and a deck of Jane Austen tarot cards. Not quite as romantic as I’d pictured, but interest piqued! That anecdote was followed by a more personal story about Yaffe’s young life and how she grew up loving literature and the works of Jane Austen. Eventually, she started to make her way to the meat of the story and began discussing the people she had interviewed. She related stories about these Austen fans’ everyday lives and how they came to be obsessed with Jane Austen, and also wrote quite a bit about her unsuccessful attempts at trying to find the right corset and dress for the annual convention. While reading these first few sections of the book, I learned lots of facts, including that the term “Janeite” was coined by some British dude in the late 1800s. All intriguing enough, right? 

Well, yes, it was at first. But that’s where all the fanciful pretense ended. What followed this long and engaging introduction was continual chatter about dress shopping, alternating with strangely analytical biographies.  There was so much talk about finding the perfect gown and corset for the convention, Yaffe sounded as if she was trying to hunt down a wedding dress. She  was so distressed, moaning and lamenting her misfortune, that I actually said out loud, “UGH. I. Don’t. Care.” Perhaps she was attempting to hearken back to times when English gentlewomen had nothing more important to worry about than the gowns they would wear to each ball and the men they intended to marry. But those tropes are best left to Jane Austen, not to a modern woman lamenting the $200 corset she was simply forced to buy. Yikes. No. I could only read about it for so long. 

Yaffe’s personal quest for THE dress (eye roll) might have been tolerable if the stories breaking up her personal anecdotes were appealing. But the way in which she wrote about these everyday women who are so deeply passionate about Jane Austen lacked any, well, passion. The stories, which I’m sure were actually delightful, came off as very factual and clinical. They weren’t presented in a compelling manner, and I felt almost as if I was reading case studies in a scientific journal. To put it bluntly, I could not have been more bored. Over time, I found myself picking this book up and putting it down over and over again, my attempts to read more than a page totally fruitless. I struggled with this book for a long time, desperately wanting to like it, but just frankly not caring for it. After wrestling with myself for a couple of weeks, I finally gave in to my despair and returned it to the library.

The whole process of finally giving up on a book, while not foreign to me, has always been so disheartening. This time especially, I was really disappointed in the book, and in myself. It’s not often that I put any reading material back down after starting it, because I don’t like giving up. But for some reason, this book made me hit my breaking point. I beat myself up about it for a while, thinking that if I had only stuck with it, the story probably would’ve gotten better. However, as disappointed as I was, I got a small but substantial bit of consolation from the fact that I’d only checked the book out and hadn’t bought it. And after all was said and done and I’d started an excellent new book, that feeling of small consolation turned into a flood of relief. I ended up being pretty proud of myself for not wasting my time slogging through something I wasn’t enjoying.

Which leads me to my point/piece of advice, and it’s a simple one: Don’t read stuff you don’t want to read. I know, it’s genius. It took me a long time to get here, but I’ve finally made it. It’s very freeing, not feeling beholden to a burden of a novel. There are simply too many good books out there to waste my time trudging through the dull ones. It was tough to get to this point, because I feel such loyalty to any book I choose to read (not unusual for a book lover, I’m sure). For me, that loyalty owes itself at least in part to the amount of time it takes me to pick out a new book after I’ve finished the last one. So when I do finally make that decision, it’s like the book and I are heading into unknown territory together, and after I’ve spent my hard-earned time and money, I don’t expect to be abandoned by my partner. If that partner ditches me, then I have no choice but to curse the day I ever met him/her and give up the journey. And I have no regrets about this now, either. I know they say you can’t appreciate the good without experiencing the bad, and that is true, but I can definitely read three chapters of a mediocre book and appreciate that I’ve read better. I’m not sticking it out in the muck while my partner wanders off, prattling on about corsets.

It’s important to read what moves you. We’re not going to live forever (probably), so we should spend time doing what we love and actually, I don’t know, enjoying ourselves while doing it. Maybe you’ve been telling yourself that you must read that Proust because all well-read and intelligent people read Proust, but you’re finding it to be long and confusing and boring. Just put it down. It’s okay. Maybe Proust doesn’t speak to your soul. I mean, on my shelf sits Swann’s Way, and I like to think I’m going to read it someday. But if I’m being totally honest with myself, I know that barring some major catastrophe that leaves me with only a flashlight and that behemoth of a book, I’m probably never going to make it all the way through. When I die, I doubt anyone will be impressed or even know that I read some stuff from the Western Canon once. It doesn’t matter. And I’m okay with it. I want you to be okay with it too. What does matter is the pleasure of reading, what we learn from our books, and how we grow from that knowledge. Whether you get that readerly satisfaction from Henry James or Helen Fielding or a bunch of clinical stories about women who dress in period costumes and obsess over Mr. Darcy is inconsequential. You have the right to like whatever you want, others’ opinions be damned.* When it comes to books, we owe no loyalty to anyone, man, book, or beast, dead or alive. We only owe it to our ourselves and our precious time.

So read what you want and tell that negative inner voice to kiss your ass (effing Prudence).

 

* I do, however, reserve the right to judge you harshly if you enjoy Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey. Because I can.

Book Review – “Love, Loss, and What We Ate” by Padma Lakshmi

love-loss-and-what-we-ate
lovelossandwhatweate.com

Like most of America, I first came to know Padma Lakshmi through a little TV show on Bravo called Top Chef. She is the beautiful, willowy, modelesque host who speaks very deliberately, doesn’t look like she eats food all day long, and escorts some of the country’s best chefs all around the world to compete with one another for prizes. I somehow peripherally knew some bits about her personal life, in the way that we all tend to know too much about celebrities these days – that she was in a relationship with and married to Salman Rushdie for quite some time, and that at some point she had a child with super rich dude Adam Dell – but otherwise I just knew her as the seemingly haughty host of a cooking competition.

When Padma’s book came out earlier this year, I honestly didn’t have any desire to read it. I like her fine, but have never been super interested in knowing her life’s details. But then she visited the studio of my favorite podcast, Buzzfeed’s Another Round – a fantastic podcast, by the way – to speak about her childhood, the book, and her struggle with endometriosis. Hearing her talk about these topics, and then hearing that Heben (one of the two whip-smart hosts) read the book, enjoyed it, and was pleased by Padma’s writing ability, I decided to go ahead and check it out from the library.

The book opens with Padma’s thoughts, just after she has moved out of her marital home and into a hotel. She is struggling to pick herself back up after a heartbreaking divorce, finding solace and her appetite in a forgotten box of kumquats that her mother grew and sent to her. Her discovery of these kumquats launches us into a reminiscence about how Padma met her future husband Salman, and from there she leads us through the events of her life a less chronological, more sensory- and remembrance-driven order. One memory leads to another in this narrative.

The absence of true chronological order in these events was hard for me to deal with at first. There is a small linear thread running through the book, but I wasn’t ever sure where in her life I would end up from chapter to chapter. This isn’t a complaint, though. At first it was confusing and seemed like an amateur writer’s foible, since most of the autobiographies I’ve read generally follow a traditional beginning of life to current/end of life structure, but I realize that this was a stylistic choice. As it goes, what annoyed me at first ended up keeping me interested throughout the rest of the book, and actually set this book apart from most other memoirs I’ve read. 

Padma chronicles her life shuttling back and forth between India and America, her various modeling and television stints in Europe, her relationships and marriage, the birth of her daughter, binding them all together with her love of food. Her deep fondness for and enjoyment of various cuisines is central to the book; her descriptions of the dishes closest to her heart exemplify how important the combination of love, family, and meals are her life. At times she in fact seems overly eager to explain to us that she actually DOES eat, that food is one of the great loves of her life, though she also quietly mentions the pressures of her life in the public eye, and that she is often vain about her figure and doesn’t typically allow herself to eat food in large quantities. Hmmmm….. A little more off-putting are the times when she tells us that her life hasn’t always been easy, that she is actually a smart person and not just a beautiful one, and that she is truly grateful for all of the luck and opportunities she’s had. Not a surprise, but I find it a teensy bit disingenuous when very thin, successful, attractive people present themselves as “just like us.” I found myself rolling my eyes from time to time while reading, unfortunately.

Funnily enough, though, some of the most compelling and real parts of the book were when Padma was talking about things that actually make her just like us – her 30+-year struggle with endometriosis, the dissolution of her marriage, her custody battle, and the incredibly sad death of the man she loved, billionaire Teddy Forstmann. Yes, of course she would be involved with a string of powerful, wealthy, influential men, right? But I was actually fighting back tears during that last one. The touching way she chronicled her love for him and dealt with her grief during his illness and passing moved me. These were the most poignant, raw,and arguably best parts of the story, by far.

If nothing else, Padma’s life has been glamorous and interesting, and for me her stories served as a nice respite during lunch breaks at my recently-started new job. As a nice little bonus, the personal recipes peppered throughout the book are mouth-watering, and I regret not writing them down before I returned the book.

While I can’t say Love, Loss, and What We Ate was the most engaging read from the get-go, I did actually end up liking this book much more than I anticipated. All in all I wouldn’t categorize the book as particularly deep or inspirational, but it was amusing and varied enough to suit anyone who wants a sentimental little read about the life of a famous TV host.

 

Recommended For:

People who love memoirs that include recipes. Top Chef fans, or anyone with a passing interest in Padma Lakshmi.

On Representation – “The Mindy Project”

the-mindy-project
themindyproject.wikia.com

I recently started watching The Mindy Project on Hulu. Though I’d previously watched the pilot and thought, “Oh, this is truly funny. I should dig into this,” I never followed through. Until now. And holy crap, I don’t know what I was waiting for! Each 30 minute episode is a perfect little nugget on its own, with A and B story lines that unfold unexpectedly and round out nicely. However, as the story goes, I’ve found it hard to just watch one episode at a time. And why should I, really? This show is so well-written (duh, because Mindy Kaling is involved), has an off-beat sense of humor in the same vein as New Girl, and builds tension well. The whole series is pretty impossible not to binge-watch in a short time frame; my sister and I watched the first 38 episodes in a span of three days, so….

The story obviously revolves around Mindy, who is an accomplished OB/GYN co-running a practice with her two male counterparts. She is mega-intelligent, but she is also a major drama queen, kind of shallow, and relatively clumsy. She loves Hollywood gossip. She is rather materialistic. Her body is not the willowy Hollywood ideal, and she addresses that from time to time, whether it’s mentioning how proud she is of her big butt, or thanking someone for commenting on her flat feet, proudly stating, “I almost never fall down.” (See? Weird comic gold.) She says dumb things and makes cringe-worthy mistakes, which we all do.

And that is what is so refreshing about Mindy – she is relatable. She doesn’t always say or do the right thing, which I can definitely relate to. Also, I recently read that the average American woman is a size 16-18. And while Mindy is a size 6-8 (I only know because I read her first book), even seeing any leading female character who is above a size 4 is sadly refreshing and oddly more representative of the general public. Seeing her on the show is actually what inspired me to write these posts on representation.

I personally felt a strange kinship with Mindy from the outset because my body shape is nearly identical to hers, which is something I never, ever see in the media. Like, ever. Everyone is perfectly proportioned on TV – no one is ever smaller on top and larger on bottom, except for frumpy moms. It’s incredibly irritating. And Mindy is anything but frumpy, in style or attitude. The fashion on this show is incredible, so much, in fact, that there have been several web pages and serious retrospectives dedicated to Mindy’s many outfits. It’s cool to see someone with our proportions taken seriously, stylistically, and dressed in a flattering manner. But style aside, Mindy is a cool, informed (though with some weirdly and hilariously conservative views) 30-something who somehow manages to maintain the attitude and pep of a preteen while running a successful and time-consuming business.

Yet perhaps what is most different about The Mindy Project is that its lead character has dark skin, is a woman, and is still undeniably the star of the show. AND that star is also the show’s creator and head writer! Even in this day and age, that is all such an anomaly. Though great strides have been made in the past few years, a female minority lead character in a popular television show is unfortunately still something pretty rare to find. Add on the titles of series creator and lead writer, and you have something pretty unique. It makes me hopeful to think about young girls/women (and boys/men) of color seeing themselves in Mindy on TV, maybe thinking “Hey, I can be a doctor!” or “I can be the main character on a TV show!” or even “I can be a writer and director and TV star too!”. Mindy – the actual person – has certainly been a source of inspiration for me.

At the tail end of my first (of many) binges on this show, I just remember taking a quick break and saying, “It’s so nice to feel represented.” Superficially, seeing Mindy Kaling on my television, with my body, makes me feel not so awful about these inherited large hips, or small chest, or extra few pounds, because she is a confident, bad bitch. Not only does she own her shape and wear some killer outfits, but she doesn’t let her body alone define her. It’s kind of sad to think that at 31, I am so excited to see someone who kind of looks like me on TV that it almost brings tears to my eyes. It may seem like a small thing, or a superficial thing, but I’ve never really had that before. And sometimes it’s the little, seemingly insignificant things that hit us the hardest. Just seeing someone who resembles me in such a cursory way has made me think hard about what I’m doing and about the things I want out of my life. 

Because, more importantly than the physical representation, it is heartening seeing a female, minority writer living her dream. It’s just incredibly encouraging. Mindy worked her way into writing for The Office, penned some of the best episodes, and then took off to make something all her own. And while I realize that she has had a lot of amazing privileges and opportunities, it gives me hope that one day, if I work hard enough and stick to what I’m good at, I can also live the writing life I imagine. She helps me remember that the only limitations I have are the ones I place on myself.

I don’t know what Mindy Kaling hoped to accomplish when she created this witty, hilarious, well-written little show, but she has definitely made something significant.