Top Ten Tuesday: Literary Best Friends

Oh, Top Ten Tuesday, how I love you!  Because, who doesn’t love a list?  This week is to list our literary best friends, the people from the books we’ve read.

1. Mena from Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande – I have shouted my love of this book from the rooftops and I really wish I could be friends with Mena in real life.  She’s stands up for what she believes in, even if she doesn’t really feel like a hero, or even very brave.  Everyone in her small town, including her parents and her school, turn against her, but she stands by what she did.

2. Cat from Fat Cat by Robin Brande – But Mena isn’t the only wonderful girl that Brande has written about that I want to be friends with – there’s also Cat.  Cat, overweight and an over achiever, turns herself into a science experiment when she eats only what early hominids would eat.  She discovers herself along the way and might fall in love, too.  Weight is such a taboo topic in literature, heavy characters are either funny or tragic, or they lose a lot of weight and suddenly become happy or, the opposite, depressed.  If a character is overweight, it defines them.  Yes, Fat Cat focuses a lot on Cat’s weight, but that is never, ever what defines her.

3. Leelee from Say the Last Word by Jeannine Garsee – Leelee was such a good friend to Shawna, I wanted to be her friend too.

4. Gertrude from Runaways by Brian Vaughn – Gertrude is bad ass.  Seriously, there is no other word to describe her.  She and her friends, children of evil villains, vow to do good by their parents’ wrongs.  Gertrude’s powers involve being mentally connected with a velociraptor.  Like I said, bad ass.

5. Marcelo from Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork – Who wouldn’t want to be friends with Marcelo?

6. Miranda from When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead – I loved Miranda, flaws and all.  I would have loved to have a best friend just like her when I was her age.  I did a really awful job reviewing this book when I read it, so please just go out and read it.  But make sure you read A Wrinkle in Time first.

7. Skim from Skim by Mariko Tamaki – I really appreciate it when I find an overweight girl in a YA novel that I can relate to.  I was bullied for my size in elementary and middle school and Skim is under the same pressure.  I wish I’d had a friend like Skim.

8.  Enzo from The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein – Does a dog count?  I think so.  I loved this book, everything about it, but especially Enzo.  What I wouldn’t give for a dog like Enzo!

9.  Ella from Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine – I read Ella Enchanted so often when I was younger, I felt like Ella was a friend of mine.  Full of spunk that she doesn’t even know she has, Ella is a perfect role model.  The movie version of this book is an atrocity (even though I love Anne Hathaway).

10.  Meg and Charles Wallace from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – This is probably the book that shaped me as a reader more than any other.  I already feel like I know Meg and Charles Wallace better than I know some in real life friends, so I thought they would be a perfect ending to this  list.


Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I had little intention of reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, because I don’t think I’m interested in the life histories of despicable people.  (Except, I am.)  I have The Corrections, and know all the scandals that surround Franzen, but just was not interesting.  One thing changed that: NPR.  Right when Freedom came out, I was doing a lot of traveling and listening to NPR on the road.  The interview with Franzen was fascinating and I loved the excerpt he read.  I knew that as soon as I could get my hands on a copy I had to read it.

Now that I have read it, it absolutely lived up to my expectations.  I know that a lot of my appreciation has to do with the writing style; the particularly detailed, almost omniscient narrator is my favorite.  I found Franzen’s voice refreshing and his vision of the US life, though somewhat bleak, was so realistic that the characters could have been my neighbors.

Freedom is a family history of the fictional  Berglunds, from Patty and Walter’s childhoods to their lukewarm courtship and their mutual betrayals over time.  Patty, a college athlete turned housewife, throws herself into renovating their house, but once the project is finished finds herself depressed.  Walter, a strong believer in population control and environmental protection, rides his bike to work every day but eventually changes jobs to a career that will alter his life forever.

Did I like Walter and Patty, or their mutual musician friend Richard?  Absolutely not.  Did I agree with the decisions their children made?  Not once.  Did I enjoy reading about their lives?  I couldn’t get enough of it.

Though I do not think this is the perfect novel, or the perfect US novel, I do think that this story perfectly captures a moment in our history with characters who, yes, are somewhat like caricatures of their real-life counterparts.  But never does Freedom venture into the unbelievable, rather only the extreme.  There is a little bit of all of us, our worst sides, in these characters.

Walter, though for much of his life he thinks he knows what he wants and how to get it, finds himself unsure of everything as he gets older and his children and wife disappoint him.  This is how that feeling is described for Walter:

“He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live.  Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right.  There was no controlling narrative: he seemed to himself a purely reactive pinball in a game whose only object was to stay alive for staying alive’s sake.” (318)

I also loved that Freedom existed wholly in its time period, from the late 70s to the late 2000s, with the appearances of appropriate music details and technologies, including Twitter, Priuses and Obama:

“Linda was very offended by this conversation.  Walter wasn’t really even a neighbor, he didn’t belong to the homeowners association, and the fact that he drove a Japanese hybrid, to which he’d recently applied an OBAMA bumper sticker, pointed, in her mind, toward godlessness and a callousness regarding the plight of hardworking families, like hers, who were struggling to make ends meet and raise their children to be good, loving citizens in a dangerous world.” (544)

“Anxieties hung like a cloud of no-see-ums on Canterbridge Court; they invaded every house via cable news and talk radio and the internet.  There was plenty of tweeting on Twitter, but the chirping and fluttering world of nature, which Walter had invoked as if people were still supposed to care about it, was one anxiety too many.” (546)

Freedom is going to be one of my favorite novels of the year.  It reminded me of all the things I love about Wally Lamb, with none of the problems I have with his fiction.  Will novels like Freedom and The Hour I First Believed, which are so entrenched in a time period and actually occupy the same time period, eventually sound dated?  I hope not.  I hope that they simply serve as a glimpse into our society’s idiosyncrasies and complexities.  I am eager to read The Corrections, a pre-9/11 novel, to compare it to Freedom.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile

Also reviewed by: Caribousmom, Lous_pages, Steph & Tony Investigate, 1000 Books with Quotes, Tales from the Reading Room,  Feminist Texican [Reads], The New Dork Review of Books.

ABCs of Thankfulness

Happy Thanksgiving, USA.  Like last year, I’m going to come up with the ABCs of things I am thankful for.

Anne of Green Gables. Such a comfort read. Thank you for being there, Anne.

Books. Does this need explanation?

Cooking. There are few things in this world that I find as satisfying as cooking a delicious meal.

Dreams. I have some crazy ones and they certainly make sleeping entertaining.

Eating. I love to eat as much as I love to cook. Thankfully Thanksgiving is a holiday that let’s me do just that.

Friends. I have some fabulous friends. We are not always all together, but when we do finally get together, it’s like not a day has passed.

Ginger. Such a delicious ingredient!  We should use it more often.

Happiness. Sometimes we forget to sit back and think about how happy we are. We often think about our sadnesses, but how often do we say, “I am just so happy right now?”  I’m always thankful when I am so happy, it has to be mentioned.

Internet. Where would we be without the internet? Even though I lived (briefly) in a world without the modern conveniences of cell phones and internet and computers, I can’t really imagine going back.

Japanese food. Sushi! You are delicious.

Kaitlin, Kelsey and Claire. The sisters.

Literature. Like books, does this need any explanation?

Maps. I really love maps, both as art and as a functional object.

Nuance. Subtleties make life interesting.

Owls. I love owls!

Poetry. I love to write poetry and I love to read poetry.  So thank you, poetry, for existing.

Quips. Who doesn’t love quips?

Relatives.  Of all kinds, I am thankful for you.

Study abroad. My travels to Spain this year were certainly something to be thankful for.

Today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present!

Underwear. I would certainly miss underwear if it weren’t in my life.

Vegetables. Exploring incorporating more vegetarian meals into my diet (not all the way vegetarian), and it is making me appreciate vegetables even more.

Writing. From blogging, to novel-writing, to poetry, I’m so thankful for writing.

Xmas. Just around the corner! I love Christmas.

Yesterday. Love the memories we made, so why not be thankful for everything wonderful that was yesterday?

Z, love of my life. Of course I’m thankful for you!

Enjoy the time with your family, enjoy the food.  Remember what you’re thankful for in your life today 🙂

Turkey cupcake photo from WishUponACupcake

Great House by Nicole Krauss

I fully expected to be telling you today how much I loved Great House, and how Nicole Krauss lived up to every expectation I had of her.  I wish that is the post I was writing today, but unfortunately my reaction to this novel is significantly more lukewarm than I ever imagined it would be.   There were times when I considered giving up this novel, but something about it kept me reading and I am glad I finished the novel.   Overall, I found it to be uneven, with parts I loved and parts I didn’t.

Great House is structured much like a collection of connected short stories, with several different narrators.  Three of the narrators we return to twice throughout the course of the novel and two are only allowed one section.  I think part of my own failure when it comes to this novel is where my expectations did not meet what I was given.  I was not prepared for the sudden switches in narrator and did not connect with the narrators in the first three sections.  Or, rather, as soon as I did connect with them the story switched.  I was happy to return to most of the narrators in the second part, though of course it was my favorite narrator who we did not see again.

My struggle with this review is that there are truly sections of this novel that I adored, that I want to send out into the world to be loved by other readers.  But at the same time, there are parts that I really didn’t like, that I thought were overwritten and needed editing.  This is a novel that I am so surprised that I didn’t like that I almost feel like there is something wrong with me and not the novel itself.  Surely, since so many people have loved it, I am reading it incorrectly.

So what was my problem with Great House? Why am I having such a hard time pinpointing what I did not like?  I’m even having difficulty explaining what I did like.  Well yes, I found the sections “Lies Told by Children” and the second part of “True Kindness” to be the strongest, but why?  What sets those sections apart from the other ones?

I’m asking a lot of questions here and I’m afraid that I’m not able to provide many answers, which I admit is sketchy writing at best.  Part of me thinks that Great House just isn’t anything new or memorable.  It has been a long time since I read The History of Love, and I have mostly forgotten the details, but it seems like Great House is simply a retelling of that story but instead of a missing manuscript we have a missing desk.  Am I going to remember anything about the plot of Great House in a month?  In a year?  While there were whole pages of this novel that I would like to quote, as a whole it just did not add up for me.

But the one thing that I keep going back to, that I keep trying not to talk about in this review because I’m not sure what to think about it, is the connection I see between Great House and 2666 by Roberto Bolaño.  And maybe it is because I have spent so much time with Bolaño, and maybe it is because Great House at least mentions Chilean poets, that Bolaño and Great House are permanently linked in my mind.  Beyond that, the structures of Great House and 2666 are similar, though where 2666 does not connect the stories in the end Great House does.  Now I have this unending loop in my head that Nicole Krauss is of European Jewish descent and sometimes writes about Chilean dictators and Bolaño is an exiled Chilean poet who sometimes writes about Nazis.  And what does this mean? I don’t know, but I think I like 2666 better.  That’s what this whole paragraph was about.

This is a novel that I think I could potentially have an entirely different opinion of if I read it again.  This was not the right time, which is not to absolve Great House of its flaws.   I wish there had been more consistency.  But I also think that those things would not have bothered me nearly as much any other day.  I think that all of the other pages of success, all of the other quotes that were so beautiful, would have won.  Want some examples?  Boy do I have examples:

But they didn’t come, and so I continued to sit there hour after hour watching the unrelenting rain slosh against the glass, thinking of our life together, Lotte’s and mine, how everything in it was designed to give a sense of permanence, the chair against the wall that as there when we went to sleep and there again when we awoke, the little habits that quoted from the day before and predicted the day to come, though in truth it was all just an illusion, just as solid matter is an illusion, just as our bodies are an illusion, pretending to be one thing when really they are millions upon millions of atoms coming and going, some arriving while others are leaving us forever […] (95)

The only exception was books, which I acquired freely, because I never really felt they belonged to me.  Because of this, I never felt compelled to finish those I didn’t like, or even a pressure to like them at all.  But a certain lack of responsibility also left me free to be affected.  When at last I came across the right book the feeling was violent: it blew open a hole in me that made life more dangerous because I couldn’t control what came through it. (127)

As if to touch, ritually, one last time, every enduring pocket of pain.  No, the powerful emotions of youth don’t mellow with time.  One gets a grip on them, cracks a whip, forces them down.  You build your defenses.  Insist on order.  The strength of feeling doesn’t lessen, it is simply contained. (193)

Because it hardly ends with falling in love.  Just the opposite.  I don’t need to tell you, Your Honor, I sense that you understand true loneliness.  How you fall in love and it’s there that the work begins: day after day, year after year, you must dig yourself up, exhume the contents of your mind and soul for the other to sift through so that you might be known to him, and you, too, must spend days and years wading through all that he excavates for you alone, the archaeology of his being, how exhausting it became, the digging up and the wading through, while my own work, my true work, lay waiting for me.  (208-9)

So, my conclusion?  Just read the damn thing and tell me if you agree with me or if I’m crazy.

Other, less conflicted, reviews: Shelf Love, The Broke and the Bookish, Nomadreader.  (A lot less book bloggers have read this book than I imagined!  Any reviews I missed?)

Writing is like dancing.

When I finally sat down to write this post, I couldn’t do it.

That damn blinking cursor stared back at me and just kept incessantly blinking and blinking until I thought, “No, I’m not going to write this post.”  And it won again.

But I’m not going to let it.  I’m not going to let it tell me that I can’t start that previous sentence with a but and the one before that with an and.  I’m not going to sit here and stop myself from doing what I love, because I doubt my own skill.  What I love is writing, what I love is starting with a thought and putting it into words for others to read.  That is what this post is about: writing.

First, though, I’m going to talk about dancing.  When I was in high school, I used to dance a lot.  I would dance at parties, I would dance at dances, I would dance in private and in public.  Somewhere along the way, I stopped.  I used to believe that I was a decent dancer, that I could move to the rhythm and that others thought I could dance well, too.  Something, and it would be too difficult to pinpoint what it was, made me stop.  Suddenly, when I danced I felt awkward and large.  I didn’t know what to do with my face or my hands; when I danced I looked ridiculous.  So what changed?  Was it me?  Suddenly did I forget what rhythm felt like?  Did I ever know in the first place?

Nothing about the way I danced changed, but it was my perception of the way I danced.  Something about me changed.  Maybe someone made fun of the way I danced, maybe I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, but suddenly I cared what I looked like and not how I felt.

Around the same time I was dancing, I was writing, too.  I wrote everything and anything, and I wrote every. single. day.  I had a journal that I kept and I would write fiction and poetry, too.  And I thought I was good at it.  I worked at it, I studied it.  I read it.  I lived it and breathed it.  Eventually, I found other passions that complemented my love of the written word, like a love of languages and how they work.  Eventually, writing became less and less important.  It went from being an obsession to being a hobby; how can you call yourself a writer if it is just a hobby and not something that you can’t survive without?

So, suddenly, I started to doubt myself.  If I’m not writing every day, if I’m not constantly working at this, then I am not a writer.  I do not have what it takes to be a writer.  I gave up that dream.

But why?  Why do I have to feel validated in front of other people to label myself, to pursue something that I am passionate about?  Why do I continually let my own perception of myself fail me?  If I have stopped writing, I have no one to blame but myself because I have been nothing if not encouraged by others to do this.  In the same way that dancing now seems awkward and feels  unnatural, so does picking up a pen to paper or opening a blank Word document.  It is all because I have doubted myself.

I signed up for NaNoWriMo because I thought it would kick start something in me that has been dormant for years.  It has not.  I have not written a word because the task seems too daunting.   I am too scared to nurture an idea into a novel, because I do not feel relevant, I do not feel like I could come up with something worth reading.

And if that is the case, I am missing the point.

A close friend of mine jokingly said to me the other day that she had a sign from the universe that I should keep writing.  Something I wrote randomly popped into her head and she didn’t know why.  Obviously, it was a sign.  Then another friend, on Facebook, asked in a meme I’ve seen floating around to name 15 authors that have influenced our writing.  Here is my list:

1. Derek Walcott
2. Philip Larkin
3. ee cummings
4. Tim O’Brien
5. John Steinbeck
6. Madeleine L’Engle
7. Louise Erdrich
8. Yusef Komunyakaa
9. Mary Oliver
10. Pablo Neruda
11. Jeffery Eugenides
12. Barbara Kingsolver
13. Haruki Murakami
14. Sandra Cisneros
15. Sherman Alexie

Did anyone on this list every wonder if they were good enough?  Maybe, but it obviously hasn’t stopped them.  They had stories to tell and poems to write and they wrote them.  I don’t know if these are signs from the universe, but it certainly has made me stop and think for a minute.

This is what I love.  This is what feels natural, even if I have to remind myself now and again of that fact.  I will not let myself be intimidated by a blinking cursor or my own insecurities, I will keep writing.   Those authors have given me something special, they have influenced the way I write and the stories I tell, and I shouldn’t let that gift go to waste.  But I will not write for them, I will only write for myself.

And I’m not going to stop.

torch song tango choir by Julie Sophia Paegle (Eco-Libris Green Books Campaign)

Today, you will probably see quite a few reviews with that seal on it.  At 1 pm, 199 bloggers will be posting reviews of 199 books.  What’s so special about these books?  They cover a range of topics, from non-fiction to poetry, from a range of different publishers and presses across the country.  All these books have in common one thing: they are green books, published using recycled paper and other green publishing methods.  The book I chose to receive for review, torch song tango choir by Julie Sophia Paegle is published on “acid-free, archival quality paper containing a minimum of 30% post-consumer waste and processed chlorine free.  I can get behind that!  If I’m going to keep buying hard cover books, then I hope that more and more publishers will start using recycled paper.

But what about this book of poetry?  I had not heard of Julie Sophia Paegle before selecting the book, but I was intrigued by her Argentinian and Latvian heritage.  This is a collection of poetry that is very much rooted in history: the history of music and tango, the personal history of Paegle’s family, grander histories of important women like Katherine of Aragon, Eva Perón and Billie Holiday.

Reviewing poetry is so much harder than reviewing novels.  I thought I was going to be able to give this collection of poetry a glowing, perfect review.  When I received the book  I read the first few poems immediately and absolutely loved them.  It set the tone for the rest  of the book and also raised my expectations, possibly too much.  The book is divided into three sections: torch songs, tango liso and choir.  For me, nothing surpassed the quality of the poems in the torch songs section; they are perfect poems that I felt a connection to.  Not only are they perfectly written, conscious of sound and structure, but they are important in the personal mythology that Paegle is creating.  All of the poems I marked to possibly share with you come from torch songs.

For example:


Blue inside
obsidian, blue of compression,
blue of the fleck

and of flash-
cooled glass.  We anchor,
volcanic and fast.

We embrace
and make changeful our
beach. We bury.

Between, we
breach – our numbers our
reach – but do

not be fooled
by the forfeit of blue,
that sad shadow mim-

icry shift-
ing on waves, or within.
Not slate nor

azure, we
are devotion to tidal

we turn to the
backing away of the ocean
as cicadas

turn to their
seventeenth year; as delphinia
gravely follow

the sun, not
unlike some seraphim long
after faltering.

I really like that poem, but the majority of Paegle’s poems are nothing like that.   Which brings me to my dilemma in reviewing books of poetry.  I’ve never really reviewed a book of poetry on this blog that I didn’t absolutely love or hate.  The truth is, the second section of the book was just okay to me.  I thought Paegle was much stronger when her poems were not about historical figures and instead about personal histories.  The last section was better, but still did not live up to the first section.

So is this a question of expectations?  Did I set my expectations too high?  I think so.  I think that Julie Sophia Paegle is a name we’re going to be hearing for a long time.  She is a fresh, unique voice that deserves recognition.  In fact, I’m going to be feeling pretty smug when she wins some big important award in the future and I can say, “Why, yes,  I have heard of her.  In fact, I read her first book.”

So go read this!:  now| tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Check out more green books on the Eco-libris website!