Book Review – “Vaclav and Lena” by Haley Tanner

Vaclav and Lena
goodreads.com

Vaclav and Lena is gorgeous from beginning to end. The writing flows easily and the story is sad, but lovely. We meet Vaclav and Lena when they are 10 and 9 respectively, practicing for their first real magic show. They are both Russian immigrants, and it’s immediately clear that they are best friends who love each other very much. Though they have been friends since they were small, they are at the beginning of their prepubescent years, and their bonds are just beginning to be tested. Tragedy strikes right before their big magic show, when Lena mysteriously vanishes and leaves Vaclav confused and completely devastated. Seven years later, a long-awaited reunion reveals how they have both changed: Lena is damaged but recovering with her devoted adoptive mother, and Vaclav is a handsome, popular fellow. They are, however, still fundamentally the same two people, and they still deeply love each other. This love very quickly gives way to an impetuous romance, which threatens to be ruined yet again by the secrets surrounding Lena’s disappearance.

We don’t get the full story until the last quarter of the book, but when the pieces all finally start to fit together, we realize, along with Vaclav, that things haven’t always been quite as they seem. This book provides an interesting look into immigration and the emotions that swirl around such an upheaval. Vaclav, Lena, and both of their families deal with a lot of uncertainty and fear, and their stories give a realistic look into some of the difficult things people do and sacrifice for a better life.

Although I loved this book, there were a lot of ideas crammed in, which in my opinion tended to dilute the importance of some of the major themes. For example, the love of magic is a major thread running through the story, and it is probably meant to show Vaclav’s innocence and childlike wonder – which presents a stark contrast to Lena’s worldview. Although sweet and kind of cute, this enduring fascination with magic becomes a bit of a stretch as Vaclav moves into adulthood and the darker elements of the story are revealed. After a while, it starts feeling like the whole magic theme is just that – a theme. To me, the bones of the book were peeking through, and it temporarily yanked me right out of the narrative.

The love story was also a bit hard to swallow, but only because it reads kind of young to me. I’m a little more than a decade away from 17, so the speed and intensity with which they jumped into their relationship was hard for me to read without rolling my eyes. But I was a teenager once, and all of this is definitely an appropriate reflection of what love is at that age. Vaclav and Lena’s relationship definitely embodies the kind of passion I longed for at 17, and as a high schooler I absolutely would have devoured that section of the novel whole.

Regardless of its few faults, at its core, this is a beautifully told story of profound love, hope, and belief. Vaclav and Lena are at the center of it all, and the love that they hold for each other is the foundation of their lives. It helps them find each other, it roots them, and it protects them. The only redeeming force in their lives is love, and in the face of some genuinely dark subject matter, that’s incredibly heartening to see.

 

Recommended For:

Those who like a good love story but can handle some details about abuse.

Book Review – “Delicious Foods” by James Hannaham

Delicious Foods Let me start by saying that this book is not to be missed. It upset me, made me shout rage, and had me punching my fist in the air yelling, “Yes!” I read several sections out loud to my sister, who became invested in the trajectory of the story just through the bits and pieces I shared with her.

Despite the compelling story, it did take me quite a while to read Delicious Foods. I borrowed it from the library and renewed it once, which is to say that it took me around two months to read. Truthfully, this was partly because I was dealing with my own issues, but also because Delicious Foods is simply a harrowing read. This is an undoubtedly intelligent, complex, moving book, but was just difficult for me to get through. The story is enthralling, but is also intentionally violent and off-putting. It is by no means supposed to be a pretty story, but I tend to empathize too much with the characters in such well-written books, and I had to take a break every now and then to reorient myself with and appreciate my much happier life.

The story revolves around Darlene Hardison, her son Eddie, and the drug Darlene is addicted to – “Scotty” or crack cocaine. The story is told from each of their perspectives, with Darlene’s and Eddie’s chapters told in the third person, and Scotty’s chapters told in first person. It’s unusual to hear from the perspective of a drug, but Scotty has his own clear voice and tends to give a clearer, more brutal picture of what’s going on in the world than Darlene and Eddie sometimes can.

The prologue of the book begins with Eddie driving like mad, trying to keep a car steady while bleeding profusely from the ends of his wrists. We don’t know what’s going on at this point, except that he has just escaped “the farm” and has recently had his hands cut off. Undoubtedly a jarring way to start a book, but what’s even worse is that poor Eddie is more worried about getting pulled over and arrested for driving a “stolen” car with no license than about the fact that he may very possibly bleed to death. It definitely sets the tone for the rest of the book. Not until about 300 pages later do we find out what has led Eddie to careen away from Delicious Foods like this, hand-less. In the intervening pages, we witness how one major tragedy in Darlene’s and Eddie’s lives sends their future into a tailspin and lands them at Delicious Foods.

This book, perhaps most ostensibly, is a modern-day slavery story. The ways that Darlene, Eddie, and the rest of the workers at Delicious Foods are treated (mistreated, left untreated), kept ignorant, in debt, and in the dark, all hearken back to the days of American slavery. The workers are all minorities, mostly black. They sleep padlocked in a chicken coop on bunk beds that have rusty coils poking out of dirty mattresses. The farm’s owner has his own mansion (master’s house) on the premises – “Summerton” – where Eddie and his mother are eventually invited on dubious pretenses. The workers are all supplied with a steady stream of “Scotty” to keep them addicted, needy, and complacent, despite their inhuman, unlivable conditions. It is appalling, to say the least.

I had to keep reminding myself that this story is set in the present-day American South. I am a descendant of slaves on my dad’s side of the family, and kept thinking about what terrible obstacles some of my ancestors must have overcome for me to even be born. Without going too in depth about this theory, my opinion is that this book is at least in part a quiet commentary on American consumer culture. I think Hannaham is saying a lot about how, to this day, we as a culture still profit from the effects of slavery, from poverty and the disadvantaged. It’s unfortunately not hard to believe that a lot of the food we eat and clothes we wear are products of such dubious practices. This book serves as a good reminder that we are not so far removed from the days of slavery.

Toward the end of the book, we are fortunately rewarded with some forms of redemption, comeuppance, and hope for the future, small as they may be. Suffice it to say that if I wanted to write a dissertation on all of this book’s layers, I could easily do so. But that’s not what this blog is for, so I’m going to stop here. Please just read the book.

Recommended For:

Those who can handle some graphic violence and enjoy gritty tales of survival, slavery narratives, and eye-opening literature.

The Antidote to Reader’s Block is YouTube

I’ve been suffering from reader’s block for about a month now. “Reader’s Block” is not a technical term, but I’ve got it. I was on a roll with reading for quite a while, finishing about a book a week. Then, all of a sudden, I just couldn’t go on. It’s not like I don’t have interesting stuff to read – I have several large, overflowing bookcases full of books, as well as three tomes scattered around my house that I keep touching and staring at forlornly. I’ve been anticipating reading those three books for months, but…. I just haven’t had the will. I’ll pick up a book, read a page or two, then put it back down. This happens to me from time to time, and it’s usually related to some deep ennui. Unfortunately, this listlessness has extended to my writing, which explains the lack of blog posting.

Not everyone experiences this kind of melancholy, but I am personally all too familiar with the sadness and guilt that comes from badly wanting to read a book but just not feeling up to it. So, as an antidote, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube.

Judge if you must, but I am fascinated with people’s lives (which may explain my proclivity for writing). And food.  And makeup tutorials. And the UK, which I may or may not have mentioned before. What better place for all of those things than YouTube? This ennui has allowed me to spiral into YouTube oblivion, and I’ve had generally positive results. So, I want to share the top five channels I use to escape my blues.

 

1. Kaushal Beauty     

Kaushal Beauty
kaushalbeauty.com

Kaushal’s channel is the first one I ever subscribed to. I am a biracial lady with medium skin and not a lot of makeup knowledge, so I stumbled upon Kaushal while searching for eyeshadow tutorials for my skin tone. And What. A. Find. She LOVES makeup, and I love her.  An English darling with a winning smile and infectious personality, I have now plowed through approximately 98% of her videos. She is a very talented makeup artist, and seems genuinely kind and positive. I came for the makeup tutorials and stayed for the sunshine. And, honestly, for more tutorials, because she’s pretty damn good at what she does.

2. Rachel Khoo  

rachelkhoo.com
rachelkhoo.com

I started watching Rachel Khoo’s cooking shows on The Cooking Channel a couple of years ago, and I liked her instinctively. She cooks and shoots in her own, real kitchen, is not overly concerned with putting on a show or amping up her personality for the cameras, and has an appealing personal style. Her history is super inspiring (leaving fashion PR, moving to France without knowing a stitch of French, taking patisserie courses, and graduating from Le Cordon Bleu), and her food is to die for. She doesn’t update this channel much anymore, instead focusing on her fancy new website Khoollect, where there’s a lot of engaging and intelligent writing on food, beauty, fashion, travel, books, and more. I love absolutely everything she does and highly recommend signing up for her Khoollect newsletter. She’s basically just a badass boss, and watching her makes me feel like one too.

3. & 4. Samantha Maria and Samantha Maria Vlogs

Samantha Maria
samanthamariaofficial.com

I’m sort of cheating with these two channels by the same person, but you can’t really have one without the other. Samantha is a long-time YouTuber, and it’s easy to see why she’s remained so successful. A luminous spirit, she mostly films about beauty, fashion and styling on her main channel, and vlogs about her everyday life and jealousy-inducing vacations on her vlog channel. It sounds like it could get kind of boring, but definitely does not. Samantha somehow makes daily coffee runs, video editing, movie-going, and dog walks with two precious pups addicting to watch. She is also incredibly busy, constantly updating her style blog and running a small clothing line with her ruddy-cheeked fiance Jason. What I find most appealing is her genuineness, though; she’s not afraid to talk about how hard it is to make friends, how lonely freelancing sometimes is, and how crippling anxiety and depression can be – all things I can relate to. She is an everyday person turned YouTube star, and is so incredibly humble. I just like her. She doesn’t have it all figured out, but she tries to have fun and lives a life many of us dream of. Sam makes me want to be sunnier, more positive, and more grateful for my life every day.

5. Nerdy Nummies with Rosanna Pansino  

Rosanna Pansino
rosannapansino.com

I think Ro’s channel is pretty impossible not to have seen if you’re a nerd and watch YouTube. She’s bubbly, silly, a little geeky, and despite the cutesy title, actually makes some pretty legit and delicious-looking desserts. I love seeing her make treats that appeal to my personal dorky preferences, like Totoro macarons, Adventure Time tarts, Harry Potter Liquid Luck drinks (non-alcoholic and spirited), and Zelda-inspired Triforce lemon bars. She also hosts a wide range of special guests (Neil deGrasse Tyson, anyone?) and does hilarious food-related challenges with her sister and friends. I’ve taken a pass on her music videos (definitely a little much for me), but I’m down with most of her other stuff. She makes me smile and even inspires me to bake more, which I love to do. My sister even bought me Ro’s recently-released cookbook, so maybe I’ll make some of my own nerdy desserts next time I’m feeling down to pep myself up.

 

And that’s it! Those are my top gloom-reducing YouTube channels. This method of self-medicating seems to be working; I’ve been able to crack open a couple of books and legitimately start reading again. The only problem is that now I can’t stop watching these women’s newest videos,  so I get caught in the ol’ YouTube loop again and again. But there are worse things in the world. If I’m able to read and write again, what’s the harm in indulging in a little makeup tutorial or four? Right…?