Book Review – “The Mistress of Spices” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

the-mistress-of-spicesI originally happened upon the movie adaptation of The Mistress of Spices a few years ago while perusing a going-out-of-business sale at my local Blockbuster (R.I.P.). I liked the film well enough that when I later visited the Half Price Books that is just a few doors down from that now-defunct Blockbuster, I saw the novel and snatched it right up. I knew it couldn’t be bad; the book is almost always better than the movie, right?

Of course. Both versions have their own merits, but I can honestly say that the book is so different from, and much better than, the movie.

The story revolves around Tilo, a woman who has basically lived a few vastly different lives within her short existence. Each phase of her life is so unique that she adopts a new name upon each transition, although I find it hard to remember any but “Tilo” since that is the name she uses for the longest time. She is born into an unremarkable family, but with the innate power to grant wishes. Her gift makes her family the most powerful one in the village, attracting the attention of some vicious pirates. They eventually burn her village to the ground and kidnap her, yet she becomes their pirate princess in time, taking on a new name. Eventually borne away from the pirates as well, not-yet-Tilo lands on a mysterious island and learns how to manipulate spices from an ancient crone called the First Mother. When we first meet her, she is already in what is basically her third incarnation – Tilo, a mistress of spices who has just woken up in a magically constructed shop, inhabiting the body of an old lady and communing with spices in order to help people.

Tilo does her best to cater to everyone who comes into her shop, letting the spices speak to and guide her in helping abused wives and unhappy, bullied children. She never leaves the confines of her shop, but is happy knowing that she is living a life of service, and will never want for anything. However, her whole world is turned upside down when a beautiful American man comes into the shop, seemingly able to see past the old lady facade to Tilo’s true self. Oooooh!

Now, I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the movie version. It skips over some of the major plot points in the book, and while that’s not unexpected, it’s a little annoying. The star of the movie is the beautiful, young Aishwarya Rai – already a huge departure from the book, since Tilo is supposed to be a young woman trapped in an old lady’s body…. Thanks, Entertainment Industry. I mean, the movie is good, and if you want to see it, I’m sure you can find it somewhere. It’s fluffy and light and doesn’t capture the depth or beauty of the book, but it’s an enjoyable watch nevertheless.

I’ve only read one other book by the very prolific Ms. Divakaruni – Sister of My Heart – and I remember liking it, but this book is already much more memorable to me. Her writing style is very lyrical and sensual, and the manner in which she weaves the real world with the mystical one is reminiscent of Isabel Allende. The imagery in The Mistress of Spices is so incredibly rich and colorful, I can still see Tilo riding on the backs of sea serpents, sassing the First Mother during her magical spice training on a remote island, summoning the courage to go against the spices’ wishes in order to fulfill her own, scooping out mounds of turmeric, packaging up fennel seeds for a customer, and even standing nude, clutching a single red chili as the walls of her shop tumble down. So many images continue to reverberate in my mind, which to me is the sign of some seriously imaginative storytelling.

I also find Divakaruni’s approach to the immigrants’ stories fascinating. The entire book is populated with immigrants, mostly Indian families living in California. The struggles and horrors that I imagine many non-native people face in America are fleshed out in agonizing detail through the people that Tilo meets and helps. To be sure, there is no glossing over bullying, racism, and violence here. I had to close the book a few times because I was so upset by these fictional people’s very real experiences. But just as the awful experiences are laid out in detail here, so are the joyful, lovely, and loving moments. I became so invested in the characters that watching them fall in love, narrowly escape terrible situations, and find their own personal versions of happiness truly felt like such a triumph. I eagerly plowed through the last few chapters to see if this character had managed to leave her abusive husband, or if that one had found his way out of gang life. I felt like I knew them and only wanted the best things to happen in their lives.

The central love story involving Tilo is pretty compelling as well. Her struggle to reconcile her past choices with her wishes for the future makes up much of the book, and that struggle is so relatable. As Tilo begins to grapple with this newfound love and what it might mean for her lifestyle, she finds herself becoming less in tune with the spices (less objectively magical) and more human. Yikes, haven’t we all been there – trying to hold on to our personal truths while becoming engulfed in something/someone else. This was probably the most accessible part of the story for me, if only because I often get consumed with things (typically my working life and how much I hate the daily 8-5 grind) and only remember who I am and why I’m here in snippets. Tilo’s ability to balance it all and stay true to herself to the end was inspiring for me. Basically, this book spoke to me on another level, which, in my opinion, is what good writing is meant to do.

All in all, this is a wonderful and engaging book. It will remain on my shelf, until I loan it out to any friends in need of a richly detailed, satisfying story.

 

Recommended For:

Fans of Isabel Allende and/or magical realism. And those who, like me, enjoy the story so much that they can’t quite bring themselves to give movie adaptations away . . . even if they are a little inferior.

The Mistress of Spices Movie
santabanta.com

 

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Book Review – “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

Cursed ChildI’m not going to reveal any Cursed Child spoilers here. I don’t want to ruin it for people who haven’t experienced the story for themselves. But there are a lot of things that happen in this script, so I will delve into the plot some. If you haven’t read the story yet and want to be totally surprised when you do, skip this review for now.

When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, I was reasonably satisfied with the ending, but devastated that the series had finally ended. At the time, I was honestly kind of disappointed that the series concluded with Harry, Ron, and Hermione all grown up and sending their own children off to Hogwarts – I wanted to see what life was like a year after The Battle of Hogwarts, how they were adjusting, how the wizarding world had changed. I almost felt robbed of the ending I felt I deserved, and resentful that the distant future had already been laid out for me – I wanted to be the one to imagine what happened as they grew older, I wanted to decide their fates and the names of their children (I love J.K. Rowling, but “Albus Severus”? I can’t get over that mouthful. And seriously, what pressure to put on a little kid!) But in retrospect I realize that my feelings stemmed from my own desire to see the possibility of the trio’s adventures continue – a need for the story to not really be over.

Well, little did I know that the story was indeed not really over. When I found out that there was a sequel coming out in play format, I was simultaneously excited and apprehensive. I’ve often thought about how lucky I am to have grown up with these characters, to wait for the books to be released and witness history happening, to finally be alive at the same time as a favorite author and to see her clear up any ambiguities or misconceptions about the universe and characters she created. I was excited and grateful for the privilege of getting to see the author create more content in the here and now. But another part of me said “let sleeping dogs lie.” I had accepted the ending of the series and didn’t want the story to be tarnished. But, obviously, my curiosity won out, and I somehow managed to walk right in and pick up a copy of the book/script at Target on the day it was released (everywhere else was sold out and had people waiting on orders – FYI, always try Target!).

I was immediately surprised and pleased to find that story picks up exactly where Deathly Hallows leaves off, with Harry, Ginny, Hermione, Ron, and Draco dropping their kids off at Platform 9 ¾. At this point, Harry is a man stretched too thin – he has too much work to do at the Ministry, is trying to be a good parent with almost no example to follow, and is still navigating the trappings of a celebrity life he never asked for. Ron is still Ron – irreverent, always eating, always a beat behind, but still a strong and loyal friend. And Hermione is the freaking badass she always was, wielding the strength and authority she was always destined to wield. (I pumped my fist and shouted when I found out where she had ended up, career-wise.)

The Potters, Weasleys, and Grangers are all related at this point, so their kids are all brothers, sisters, and cousins, and there are too many of them for me to keep up with, honestly. But the story centers on Albus, Harry’s youngest boy, and Scorpius, Draco’s only son, who strike up an unlikely friendship on their first train ride to Hogwarts. Albus is the most like Harry (kind and unsure, but bold, reactive, and hotheaded at times) and, of Harry’s three kids, feels the pressure of his father’s accomplishments to most. Scorpius is witty, very intelligent, and instantly likeable (he’s basically Ron and Hermione combined, oddly enough), but bears the weight of coming from a family of former Death Eaters, and of his father’s expectations for a type of greatness he’s not sure he’s capable of. So these two boys bond over their shared “outcast” status. The story jumps years at a time, and we witness Albus grow closer to Scorpius as he drifts further from Harry.

It has to be mentioned that Harry is, unsurprisingly, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We are subtly and sadly reminded that he grew up in an abusive home, that his whole existence has been riddled with struggles, that things will probably never be easy for him, and that his demons will never truly leave him. So, on top of everything else, as the distance between Harry and Albus widens, Harry starts to experience pain in his scar again. Uh-oh.

When Albus is about to begin his fourth year, a Time-Turner prototype is recovered from dark wizard Theodore Nott’s home. Because all of the Time-Turners were thought to have been destroyed during the battle at the Ministry of Magic, this is a huge discovery. Of course, rumors start to fly, and Amos Diggory pays a visit to the Potters’ home, with his niece and caretaker Delphi in tow. While Harry refuses to even acknowledge to Amos that a Time-Turner exists, Albus hatches a very Harry-like plan to, with the help of Scorpius and Delphi, right some “wrongs”. Unfortunately, Albus, Scorpius, and Delphi are no Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and there is no Dumbledore to oversee their shenanigans…. Yikes. Suffice it to say that things go very, very wrong.

I won’t go any further plot-wise, for fear of ruining the spectacular, gut-wrenching ending. But I will say that although I’ve never understood the love for and obsession with Draco Malfoy that many people have (I find it kind of disturbing, as he was an incredibly cruel, unsympathetic character for about 6 books, and imagine it has something to do with good-looking Tom Felton’s portrayal in the movies), in this play we see Draco in a new and forgiving light. I suppose there was always a kernel of good in there, and his goodness is allowed to grow and shine here. I actually ended up really liking the sucker. Who would’ve thought? Also, I laughed a lot, felt a true and profound sadness for Harry, and cried twice while reading: once during a scene between Harry and Dumbledore’s portrait, and once very close to the end. I’ll leave it at that.

If you love the wizarding universe and you haven’t managed to or wanted to or really felt compelled to read this, please do so. I was ambivalent at first, but I was so moved and satisfied by this addition to the series. The only thing that would make it better would be seeing how they manage to pull all of this off on a stage.

 

Recommended For:

Potterheads who can’t afford to fly to London to see the play, but feel like getting their little hearts ripped out again by words on paper.

Book Review – “Beautiful Darkness” by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet

Beautiful DarknessWell, Beautiful Darkness most certainly lives up to its name. This short graphic novel has beautiful artwork by Kerascoet entwined with some truly dark subject matter written by Fabien Vehlmann. I got a sense of the story from the cover of the book, which shows a tiny blonde girl peeking around a gigantic grey hand that appears – accurately – to belong to a dead person. However, I didn’t anticipate it being as raw and dark as it is. When I finished this short book, I was left thoughtful and, frankly, pretty bummed out.

The story begins with three squeaky clean, charming little people living a fairy tale life, when they are suddenly hit with a deluge of pinkish fluid that forces them out of their habitat. Chaos ensues, and we see more of these little people fighting their way to safety. The facts of the story are not completely spelled out, but in just the first five or six pages, we see these people crawling out of the orifices of what is revealed to be a dead schoolgirl lying in the forest.

We immediately begin to see these hordes of tiny people rebuilding their lives outside of the dead child’s body. They construct homes with her school supplies, eat her crackers to survive, and start breaking off into different factions. Subsequently, the best and worst facets of human nature are explored through the lives of these factions of small people, and through our speculations about the horrors that this young girl has clearly experienced. We can only infer what terrible things have happened to the little girl as we get further into the story, but we visually witness the equally horrifying ways in which these little people begin to behave. Death is commonplace, murder is just a fact of life, executed with little thought and no remorse, and only the most cunning survive.

As the story progresses, we witness the young girl’s body transform and decay while simultaneously watching the main character, Aurora (also the name of the dead little girl), change from a kind, youthful, hopeful girl into a hardened, disillusioned survivalist. And as a result, the ways in which the reader comprehends the story begins to change too. Because the landscape is mostly painted from the small people’s point of view, it’s only once we’ve acclimated to the darkness of the story that we begin to realize that things are not immediately what they seem. I had to go back and really study the artwork to get that the pink fluid forcing the little people out was actually blood filling the dead schoolgirl’s nose, and that the little fishing pond they find is not filled with tadpoles but is actually made of semen. Yikes.

This book is so complex and intentionally vague that it is completely open to interpretation. I couldn’t decide if these little people living inside of the girl are different aspects of her personality, or different aspects of human nature in general. Or both. For example, the little Aurora is loving and helpful, seeming to represent the best in people, while her larger and equally beautiful counterpart Zelie is cruel and conniving, representing the worst. Jane, the only small character who is an adult, is sad, resourceful, wise, and knowing. I took her to be the lost adulthood of the murdered schoolgirl, which is heartbreaking. But I could be totally wrong – and that is part of what’s so intriguing about this book. It can be interpreted in so many different ways, and leaves several unanswered questions that we are left to puzzle over long after the book has ended.

My interpretation is that Beautiful Darkness is basically the human experience writ tiny. It manages to realistically detail the best and worst aspects of human nature in all of their beautiful and gruesome glory. This is a deeply affecting story that is definitely not for the faint of heart, but is a short and absolutely worthy read.

Recommended For:

Adults who will appreciate striking, lovely artwork juxtaposed with weighty subject matter.

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.

Book Review – “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang

The Vegetarian has a striking cover. Shallow though it seems, that was the first thing I noticed and liked about this book. It would catch my eye every time I visited my favorite local bookstore, so I would pick it up and read the dust cover again and again. The premise was interesting, and I don’t have much experience reading the works of Korean authors, but I somehow always talked myself out of buying the book. Luckily, my boyfriend unwittingly got it for me as a birthday gift, most likely because I’m a vegetarian and he thought I could relate to whatever was inside. And I’m so happy he did, because I ended up loving this book –The Vegetarian not because of my personal food preferences, but because it is so very, very good. There are many layers to The Vegetarian, and I imagine it could be interpreted any number of ways; I’m pretty positive I could write an entire critical essay on this book. It is incredibly nuanced, and I felt a range of emotions – some identifiable, some not – while reading. I was mystified. I was hopeful. I was sad. I was genuinely frightened by the time I reached page 15 (though as someone who can’t even watch the preview of a contemporary horror movie without having nightmares, you can take that with a grain of salt). In sum, I was so moved by this book that I was compelled to write a more serious review of it.

The Review:  

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is a haunting, quiet, and strange piece of literature that both frightens and fascinates from the first page. The three-part story centers around a woman named Yeong-hye whose recurring, carnivorous dreams impel her to renounce meat and and adopt a vegan lifestyle. However, as Yeong-hye becomes more detached from her physical body and the world in general, we see her lifestyle choice slowly morph into something more sinister.

Each section of the book focuses on one person in Yeong-hye’s life as he or she attempts to make sense of her radical behavior. Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister are the most deeply affected by her actions, and we witness their utter and complete helplessness drive them to make a number of rash decisions, with devastating consequences. Forced to look at the ugliest parts of themselves, those closest to Yeong-hye begin to slide into their own personal versions of madness and despair.

Over the course of the book, even the reader becomes estranged from Yeong-hye’s truest thoughts and motives. While she calmly slips further away from the corporeal world and deeper into the spiritual one, we learn more about the abuses Yeong-hye has faced, and how they have led to this moment in her life. The question is not whether she is losing her mind, but instead whether her method of finding and accepting her truest spiritual self is worth the cost to everyone involved.

Reading The Vegetarian is like stumbling through a dark forest teeming with unknown beasts; there is a monster lurking in the shadows, and only in the end do we truly begin to see its many rows of teeth. Kang has crafted a moving, unsettling, unpredictable story that begs to be read over and over again.

Recommended For:

Those who enjoy magical realism, haunting story lines, and books that can (and should) be read repeatedly.

Book Review – “Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty I’ve had Me Talk Pretty One Day on my bookshelf for a long time. Like, since a few years after it came out . . . so I’m talking over 10 years. And I haven’t gotten around to reading it until now. Whoops. I’ve skimmed over this book on my shelf so many times, thinking, “Eh, nah. Not in the mood.” I’ve also nearly donated it on several occasions, but always held onto it because of the sheer number of glowing reviews I’ve heard over the years. Honestly, I’ve also kept it partly because I felt bad for the poor book, just sitting there for so long with no love. Don’t ask me to explain the strange inner politics of the book lover, just suffice it to say that I couldn’t get rid of it.

Well, Me Talk Pretty wasn’t quite as revelatory as I expected it to be, but in all fairness, how could it be after 10 years of buildup? The book was, however, still a very good, short read. It is an established fact that David Sedaris is a hilarious man, a practiced self-deprecator, and a great writer – so, in other words, a good comedian. I found the essays in this book to be consistently funny and succinct. BUT, for some reason, more than once I found myself impatiently checking to see how many pages I had left to read. It may have been because I had unreasonably high expectations for just how funny the stories would be (I imagined I would be rolling around on the floor with laughter the whole time), or because I was a little anxious to start a different book. Either way, though the book was entertaining, I found myself totally engaged in some of the stories and speed-reading through others.

However, I did laugh out loud more than once about tiny, ridiculous little things in the book. I don’t often outwardly emote when reading, but some of this stuff struck me in just the right, silly way. A few shining examples are: David whispering “Go on, scoot! Shoo!” to a huge, unflushable turd someone else left in his friend’s toilet, fearing that he’ll be blamed for its existence. His life in a French village as “the guy who says ‘bottleneck’”/”the grown man who . . . frightens the horses with his screaming”. His dad obsessively squirreling away food, specifically a banana so old it looked like a  shriveled piece of cat crap. These types of things, which are obviously so much funnier in context, and in his offbeat voice, really got me just right.

All in all, despite a few moments of restlessness while reading, I’m glad I never gave Me Talk Pretty away. I’m glad I finally read it, and glad that I waited 10 years before cracking it open, if only for the outdated technological references.

I am also grateful that, thanks to the Sedaris family, I have a “Fuck-It Bucket” full of candy in my house. Read the book to find out what this magical bucket is – it’ll only take you a day, and you won’t regret it.

Recommended for those who want a short, comical, bizarre, silly, and oddly heartwarming read.

Bucket

Stitchin’ Bitch

It’s dark and gorgeous and rainy outside, and all I want to do is sit on my couch and cross stitch. I. Love. To. Cross. Stitch. I get such a sense of accomplishment from it. Even if I only do it for 30 minutes, seeing all the progress I’ve made forces me to heartily congratulate and high five myself. Cross stitching is great because it requires the right amount of concentration to obliterate whatever stressful thoughts are plaguing me, but leaves just enough open brain space to enjoy the audio of countless episodes of “The Office” playing in the background. (Both the U.K. and American versions, of course, because what kind of nerd would I be if I didn’t appreciate such a fantastic show in both of its incarnations?)

But seriously, if I could make a living cross stitching, I would be living a dream. I love it that much.

My very lovely and crafty grandmother, Doris, taught me how to cross stitch when I was little, and it’s something that has stuck with me ever since. Cross stitching itself is actually pretty easy – if six-year-old me was able to do it, almost anyone with functioning hands and fingers can. Keeping track of the stitches and colors can be difficult at times, but it basically just entails making little X shapes in the right fabric with a needle and thread. It doesn’t take much training, just a lot of patience. When we were kids, my sister, cousin, and I would while away whole summer afternoons cross stitching together like a group of tiny ladies in Victorian England waiting for visitors in our parlour. We obviously weren’t normal children by any means, but it was one of Grandmother’s ways to keep us quiet and captivated for hours at a time, and it worked.

One of the downsides to cross stitching is that it is nearly impossible to find a decent modern, cool cross stitch book. Most of the books out there have the cutesy kitten/ABCs/teddy bear vibe, and I’m not into that. Though I consider myself an old soul, I am not a granny. I’m not even a mom. So I don’t want any of that crap around my house. I check out patterns on Etsy pretty regularly; there are all kinds of amazing designs available there, no matter your fancy. Etsy is definitely the cross stitcher’s haven.

I am a rabid book-lover, though, and I sometimes prefer to have an actual book with patterns that I can choose from at will. My favorite cross-stitch book by far is Twisted Stitches by Phil Davison (creator of Urban Cross Stitch). This crafty Londoner has created some unique, edgy, fun, and colorful designs that anyone with a dark sense of humor can appreciate. What I like about this book is that some of the patterns are printed on the pages of the book, but there is also a pocket in the back with paper patterns of some of the more intricate designs. Portability!

Twisted Stitches Cover

I hold Twisted Stitches near and dear to my heart because it helped reignite my love for cross stitching as an adult, and it has kept me steadily stitching for a few years now. Below are a few of the Twisted designs I’ve done:

 

 

Skull Kids Pic

This pattern is called “Twisted Balloons Pretty Picture.” It’s a little wrinkly – I’ve been storing it (poorly) and am still looking for a frame to fit it – but the illusion is visible and pretty cool.

 

 

Sugar Skull Framed

This is one of the two “Day of the Dead Finger Towels” patterns. I prefer to frame my cross stitches, rather than go to the trouble of sewing them onto things, so this is obviously not on a finger towel.

 

 

Zombie Pic

 

I’m currently working on this one. It’s called “Burlesque Zombie Portrait” and is by far the largest, most detailed cross stitch I have ever done. I’ve been working on this one on and off for over two years (full-time jobs get in the way of cross stitching), but I’m FINALLY almost finished.

So scroll through Etsy, check out a cross stitch book at your local library, or order Twisted Stitches on Amazon. Whatever it takes.

Just get to stitchin’ bitches.

Book Review – “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie

Alexie BookI went into this book expecting it to be similar to the novel Wonder, which I read in February of this year. (If you haven’t read that book, you should. It’s fantastic.) I wasn’t totally sure what to expect from True Diary, but it won the National Book Award, so I figured I couldn’t go wrong. And the theme seemed similar to Wonder, so I assumed I knew what I was in for. A boy who is very different than his peers goes to a new school, faces some major challenges, and ends up better for it. Great, I’m in.

And, of course, every time I assume something about a book, I’m dead wrong. The themes of the two books are similar in a general sense, but I should not have assumed that this book would be like Wonder. It was most definitely not. There isn’t really even a comparison between the two – they are completely different stories altogether.

True Diary revolves around Junior, a young teen dealing with a lot of deep but relatable issues such as poverty, hate, racism, othering, and even love. He is an American Indian living on a reservation, and the formative events in his young life almost all relate to the alcohol abuse of those surrounding him. He endures several tragedies, witnesses all kinds of violence, and lives in poverty, all mainly due to alcohol (it’s heartbreaking when we realize that his kind and loving but flawed father would rather spend his last bit of money on drinks and gambling than on basic necessities for Junior). Only when he changes schools does Junior truly realize that he can have a better life, but even this glimmer of hope is tempered by the realities of abuse and hatred he faces at the hands of his new peers and teachers. Despite all of the forces threatening to derail his life, though, Junior is still a relatively hopeful kid. He wants to break the cycle and do better for himself and for others, which is such a great message. My major takeaway from this book is that with perseverance, there is always hope for growth and the possibility of change, betterment, and forgiveness.

This book has a truly engaging style, with Junior’s scrap-paper drawings interspersed throughout the text. His sketches are mostly hilarious, sometimes childish, and always perfect. They reflect how he’s feeling as he grapples with the major events in his life. His voice is extraordinary and unique, yet somehow not unlike that of a typical young teenager. But Junior is an artist through and through, and I found his art to be one of my favorite parts of the book. Although sometimes the drawings are there simply as a supplement to the text, they also frequently come into play when he doesn’t have the words to fully express himself.

I like that Junior’s life is so real. He is clearly a whip-smart kid who is more intelligent, both traditionally and emotionally, than most of the adults around him. There is no sugarcoating the truth with him, and he is painted so strikingly that it’s easy to believe he’s a real kid dealing with all of life’s ups and downs the best way he knows how – through his art. Junior’s story is incredibly powerful, and gives a good insight into the type of strength and creativity that can never be stifled by harsh circumstances.

Recommended for those who want a fast, YA-literature type of read, but can handle some truly heavy subject matter.

Book Review – “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm

I apologize in advance for my somewhat shoddy photography. I want to take my own pictures of the books I’m reading, and I’m not a photographer. I thought the black and white effect was appropriate for a mystery, because I’m a nerd. Moving on….

I recently finished reading The Silkworm, the second novel in the Cormoran Strike mystery series by Robert Galbraith, and as corny as it sounds, when I closed the book I kept thinking, “Ah Galbraith, you’ve done it again.” I finished the first book in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, about a month before I finished this one, and I couldn’t wait to jump back into Cormoran Strike’s world. I was not disappointed. (Side note: I do know that Robert Galbraith is J.K. Rowling’s pen name, but I like to refer to the author as listed on the book cover. Rowling even treats Galbraith as a separate person – at least on Twitter – so it only seems right.)

The book’s plot isn’t particularly dense, although I did forget the importance of certain characters as I read. Many of the characters are given alternate names in the weird as hell novel-within-the-novel, Bombyx Mori, and I had to refer back to the beginning more than once to remember which character was which. Regardless, everything made sense by the end. The manner of death described in the book is bizarre and disgusting but appropriate, and the conclusion is satisfying. It left me ready for the next installment, which I’ll hopefully get my hands on soon.

I don’t read many mysteries, so when I pick one up, I’m typically in it for the challenge. I want to see if I can solve the case on my own, with generally mixed results. However, with this series, I’m finding that I couldn’t care less about solving the mystery myself; I’d rather just hang on for the ride. It’s not only that I have difficulty sorting my way through the red herrings, which I do, but that it’s just fascinating to watch Strike’s brain work it all out.

Galbraith’s ability to perfectly capture the visuals and feelings in Strike’s world is mind-blowing to me. When the stump of his amputated leg is aching from walking too much, snow is piling up on the streets, it’s freezing outside, and all he wants to do is sit in a cozy pub, I feel Strike’s longing for warmth, rest, and a pint (or two, or three). When he’s lying on his bed, simultaneously trying to watch football and finish the grotesque Bombyx Mori, I also get frustrated that he’s missed the whole second half of the game because the damn novel distracted him. Although he’s living hand-to-mouth, Strike’s existence has a shabby glamour to it. There’s never any question that he’ll solve the case – it’s more about how he goes about it. At first, I attempted to read critically and analyze what in particular was so captivating to me about Strike’s world, but then I ended up getting sucked into the story and forgetting about form and style. Even after I finished the book and tried to go back and pinpoint what exactly drew me in, I was at a loss. I don’t know how Galbraith does it, exactly, but the portrait of Strike’s life is so vivid and enticing, I can’t help but trust him and greedily watch how things unfold.

What I find I have enjoyed most about the series so far, though, is the character development, particularly regarding Robin and Strike. I definitely identify most with Robin, and felt almost proud watching her stretch and become more involved in the investigative side of the job. She tries so hard to keep the peace with her fiance Matthew (who, in my opinion, is a douche), but she can’t hide her enthusiasm about working with Strike and her love for investigating. The communication between Robin and Strike is spotty, and it’s often hilarious to see the truth of their miscommunications from Robin’s point of view. Mostly, though, it’s refreshing to see Robin stand up for herself and fight for what she wants in her home life and at work. I always trust Strike to solve the case, with Robin playing an integral part. I also find myself consistently rooting for Robin as she faces the challenges involved in trying to reconcile her work life with her personal life, something Strike doesn’t necessarily have to do as much.

As far as Strike is concerned, it’s interesting to watch him make his way in the world as a now semi-famous man in his own right. It’s also amusing to see him behave like a more “traditional” private detective. We tag along as he sneaks around seedy parts of town, circumnavigates repeated attacks by a shadowy figure, lies to the police when he has to, and (arguably) unintentionally uses women to get the information he needs. He can’t be as free with this investigation due to police hindrance, and is therefore forced to be more creative when gathering information. He is incredibly resourceful, and it’s just entertaining to see what he will do and who he will piss off next.

Ultimately, this book was smart, entertaining, and well-written. This installment makes it even clearer that Strike is brilliant, and because we know him better and are delving deeper into his mind this time around, watching the cogs turn is even more fun than it was in the first novel. Highly recommended for those who enjoy a nice, gruesome mystery but like a good story even more.