Sep 24

My Neighbors Are Better Than Your Neighbors: Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Book Club, Contemporary Fiction 14

Hello Bookworms! If you recall from an earlier post, I joined a second book club. This is my neighborhood’s book club and despite knowing it existed, I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 4 years and haven’t joined until now. I’ve got some mild social anxiety issues… So the idea of joining a room full of strangers scared me a little. I tend to clam up and then everyone thinks I’m bitchy… I’m not typically a shrew, I’m  just awkward.

Luckily, our neighborhood guru is awesome and hilarious- it’s almost impossible to say ‘no’ to that girl. So, when we ran into her at a mutual friend’s baby shower (and she started the conversation by complimenting my flowers) I decided to give the book club a shot. She’s also such a freaking trooper- she had her appendix out the day before book club and STILL showed up. God bless her wormy little heart!

What in heaven’s name was I worried about? I apparently live in the greatest neighborhood on the planet. I’d suspected as much, but now I’m sure. Not only do most of the houses look like they’re made out of gingerbread, but the people who live in them are sweethearts! Like gingerbread ladies with gumdrop buttons. I just took that comparison too far, and I don’t care! Huzzah!

This month’s book was Plainsong by Kent Haruf. I’d never heard of the book or the author before, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

If you read this, you’ll learn how to tell if a cow is pregnant! (Anal palpation. You’re welcome.)

As far as the book goes, I liked it. It was set in rural Colorado and followed the lives of a select group of residents in a small farming community. We’ve got an unusual cast of characters: a clinically depressed mother of two, the two precocious boys she seeks escape from, her beleaguered high school history teaching husband, a pregnant teenager, a pair of middle aged bachelor farming brothers, a female school teacher with a heart of gold, and her Alzheimer’s ridden father. There are a few other less critical characters, but I think this description gives you a good idea of the sort of slice-of-small-town vibe the author was going for here.

I only have one complaint with this book. There are TWO instances of teen sex parties where a single female services more than one male. I don’t know what goes on in Colorado, but I think that’s a sufficiently unusual circumstance (at least I sincerely hope it is.) I can’t figure out why it had to make an appearance twice. I’m hoping it was just a literary device, otherwise I’d begin to worry that the author might be a touch pervy. Although, he DID take the high road in a scene with the town ne’er-do-wells tormenting little boys, so I shouldn’t have played the perv card. Sorry, Mr. Haruf… If you’re reading my blog, holy crap on a cracker! I’ve arrived.

So bookworms, are any of you involved in a book club? Tell us about it!

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Sep 21

Confession Friday: I Don't Read Shakespeare

Classics, Uncategorized 20

It is with tremendous shame and utter humiliation that I admit I don’t read Shakespeare. It doesn’t make sense, because I love Shakespeare. The tragedies make me cry, the comedies make me laugh… When I see them performed. But I can’t just sit down and READ it. What kind of a bookworm am I?!

My first encounter with the bard was when we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 8th grade. Freshman year we did Romeo and Juliet. Sophomore year was Julius Caesar. Senior year we read Hamlet and Two Gentlemen of Verona. After enjoying the plays in class and seeing an incredible version of Two Gentlemen at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, I was a Shakespeare devotee.

I was also a HUGE fan of 10 Things I Hate About You starring the late Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles. One of my favorite bands, Letters to Cleo, was featured in the movie and on the soundtrack. Everybody, even angsty teenagers, knew that the movie was an interpretation of The Taming of The Shrew. I trusted in my mantra of “the book is always better than the movie,” so I decided I needed to read the play. I was so sure I was going to love it that I bought it in a compilation of Shakespearean comedies, so I could bone up on more plays and be extra super smart.

I made it about 20 pages into The Taming of the Shrew before I threw in the towel. I had taken for granted the teachers explaining the social implications of biting one’s thumb and the benefit of hearing different voices speaking their parts. I just couldn’t follow it, and I haven’t picked it up since. I keep it on my bookshelf though, because I want to appear intelligent. Sadly, I’m not brilliant enough for Shakespeare. Bookworm fail.

Any of my wormy friends have tips for enjoying the READING of Shakespeare? Am I the only person who has this problem?

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Sep 20

Pirate Dog! And The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

Historical Fiction 5

Ahoy there, Bookworms! Yesterday was Talk Like a Pirate Day, and I didn’t acknowledge it on my blog. For that, I apologize. I did celebrate, though. I put on my fearsome pirate-y eye patch and shared my yogurt with Pirate Dog. (Yes, Pirate Dog. One of our office dogs had to have an eye removed because of painful doggy glaucoma, and the name “Harley” doesn’t seem to suit him anymore. At least I don’t think it does.)

This is Harley AKA Pirate Dog right after his eye removal. Don’t feel too sorry for him- he was significantly more upset by the cone than he was by the eye. He couldn’t see out of it anyway.

Now that we’ve gotten that business out of the way, let’s talk books! I just finished The House At Riverton by Kate Morton. I read The Forgotten Garden a while back (you can read about it here) and I liked it well enough to try another of Ms. Morton’s novels. Sometimes I have difficulty differentiating an author’s “style” and an author recycling the same literary devices. I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy The House at Riverton, but there were so many similarities in the story structure between it and Forgotten that I found myself drawing an awful lot of comparisons. Fortunately, I LIKE Kate Morton’s style… or recycling… so I didn’t mind too much.

The House at Riverton tells the story of Grace. We go back and forth between Grace’s time as a young housemaid to a wealthy family in the English countryside and Grace in her twilight years at a nursing home. Grace’s early tales start out just before the outbreak of WWI and take us through the first half of the 1920s. The family that employs Grace has its share of dirty little secrets (really, what kind of a book would be written about a HAPPY aristocratic family?) and throughout the book Grace uncovers them.

The cover is pretty! Too bad I bought it electronically…

It’s so hard to talk about books without filling the descriptions with spoilers! I’ll try to be vague. In this novel we see shell shock, paternity scandals, infidelities, sibling rivalry, class disputes, gun violence, and everybody’s favorite: the ugly American villains. (Kate Morton is Australian, though this book is set in England. The Americans are portrayed as devious money grubbing weasels. I’m not going to say that there aren’t plenty of devious money grubbing Americans, but it seemed a little pointed. Also, the Americans in question wanted to be English really, really badly… Who doesn’t though? They have much cuter accents than we do, and they can wear fascinators to weddings.)

All in all, The House at Riverton was a decent read. I wouldn’t count it among my all time favorites, but it was a solidly written story. It held my interest, and in spite of my criticisms, I enjoyed it. Have any of my bookworms run into authors that seem to recycle their stories? Do you think think it’s a question of style or lack of new ideas? (I am so not blaming any authors for this- I’ve been blogging for two months and sometimes I grasp at straws…) Talk to me worms, what do you think?

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Sep 19

Ermagerhd! Awerds!

Personal 8

G’day Bookworms! I mentioned yesterday that I was nominated for THREE blog awards while I was on vacation. Super super exciting! These awards are designed to share the blog love and give deserving bloggers some exposure, so I’m beyond flattered and will devote today’s post to the award assignments.

Pocketful of Joules and Quirky Chrissy both nominated me for a Liebster Award!

The Rules:
1. Each person must post 11 things about themselves.
2. Answer the 11 questions the person giving the award has set for you.
3. Create 11 questions for the people you will be giving the award to.
4. Choose 11 people to award and send them a link to your post. Go to their page and tell them.
5. No tag backs.

11 Things about Me:
1. I am not an especially picky eater, but I despise beets and traditional cole slaw.

2. I keep the boom box I received for my birthday in 5th grade in my office and use it to listen to old fashioned radio.

3. I found my first gray hair when I was 22. I now have my hair dyed in a double process regularly and am unreasonably vain about it.

4. I’m not sure if I’m capable of having a dream that ISN’T an anxiety dream. Tornadoes, failing exams, and missing out on Summa Cum Laude by one grade point are regular occurances. I also dream fairly frequently that my high school diploma has been deemed invalid by new standards and I’m forced to go back and complete more hours of gym class. Attempts to tell administration that I have a bachelor’s degree fall on deaf ears.

5. I didn’t wear makeup regularly until I was 28. It wasn’t a political protest as a feminist… It was literally that I’m very lazy.

6. I danced growing up- ballet, tap, and jazz. I learned a lot about people and competition from that experience. It did not bring out the best in me. Now, when I go back to watch old videos I want to smack myself because I wasn’t even a GOOD dancer. Sigh. Learning is important.

7. People who are skinny without trying annoy me. Struggling with one’s weight is character building, right? (I say this as I fervently wish to be skinny without trying…)

8. I don’t trust people who don’t own televisions.

9. I LOVE Harry Potter. If I could have a super power, it would be the ability to apparate. Travel would be so easy! Also, I’d have been a Ravenclaw, and my patronus is a penguin. I have detailed reasoning behind all of these, so if you’re interested, just ask.

10. I’m not a big movie buff. I watch a lot of TV, but I lack the commitment to watch movies regularly. I’m all like “no I can’t make a two hour time investment to watch this movie” but then I watch a marathon of Yard Crashers and blow the theory.

11. While I’m perfectly fine with the idea that I need not like everyone on the planet, it REALLY bothers me knowing there are people out there who don’t like me.

My 11 Questions to Answer from Joules:

1. Who is on your man crush list?
My celebrity man crushes include, but are not limited to: Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg (I like nerds)
2. Why did you decide to start a blog?
I’m incredibly vain and sure the internet wanted to know what I was thinking? That, and I got asked for book recommendations pretty regularly, so I figured maybe like 5 people would read it.
3. Had you even heard of me or my blog before I awarded you the Liebster Award?
Of course, yo! Pocketful of Joules is awesomesauce!
4. What is the last commercial that you laughed at (post it if possible)?
Umm.. I like the commercial for Capital One where Jimmy Fallon does all these characters saying they want more cash back. He does one that’s this Boston fisherman and it reminds me of the sketch he and Ben Affleck did on SNL where they both broke character and laughed through the whole thing. Hilarious.
5. What do you do for your day job?
I work for a company that does consulting for radio and television stations. Mostly, I look at charts and crunch numbers in a program that only my company uses. There are office dogs here, which is very cool, but I’m still not sure how I ended up in a job working with numbers. I sometimes got B’s in math. Weird.
6. What is the rudest question that someone has asked you?
I get asked a lot when I’m going to have kids, and it annoys me. I’ll have them when I’m good and ready, thankyouverymuch. Most of my family and friends know this and are pretty cool, but occasionally new acquaintances will try to make conversation that way, and it irks me.
7. What is the best vacation that you’ve ever gone on?
Since I juuuuuuuuuust got back, I’ll go ahead and say my 10 day Disney trip is the best vacation ever! Woo hoo!
8. How did you meet your significant other (if you have one) in 2 sentences or less? If no sig, how did you meet your best friend?
I met Jim, my husband, in college- he was my lab monitor. I was his stalker.
9. What are you really, really good at?
Nothing really. I know that sounds self deprecating, but it’s not meant to. I’m fairly decent at a number of things, but I’m not like BRILLIANT at anything. And I’m down right awful at quite a few tasks (singing, drawing, video games, directions…)
10. What is your favorite online shopping website?
Amazon, obviously. It’s where I buy my kindle books.
11. I’m always looking for fun beauty products that make me feel pretty. What is the one beauty product you just cannot live without?
Having just explained how lazy I am with cosmetics, I feel ill equipped to answer this. I’m going to go with my exact eyelights cover girl mascara. It’s supposed to bring out the blue in my eyes, it doesn’t clump, and it’s waterproof, which is good because I’m a crier.

My Questions to Answer from Chrissy:
1. What is your favorite Dr. Seuss story?
Tough call, but I’m going to go with One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.
2. If your life were a movie what genre would it be?
Dark comedy, a la Drop Dead Gorgeous. I was in a beauty pageant SCHOLARSHIP PROGRAM once. Paid for my first semester of books for college. I was only first runner-up though. Losing is ALSO character building, right?!
3. What is the worst state in the union? Why?
That’s kind if mean, don’t you think, Chrissy? I mean, it’s not North Dakota’s fault that it’s the lesser Dakota. (I don’t actually hate any of the states- apologies to any North Dakota folks!)
4. Describe, in three sentences or less, your high school experience.
I spent my weekends alone watching marathons of Real World, Road Rules, and Daria on MTV. I mean, I had friends and stuff, but yeah. I’m glad that’s over.
5. If you could sum yourself up in song lyrics, what song would it be?
This is a difficult question. I’m going to go with “Kate” by Ben Folds Five. Because you can seeee daisies in my footsteps, and my mix tapes ARE masterpieces. Oh yeah. And my name is Katie, which is practically Kate, so it was written about me.
6. If you could travel through time and space, where and when would you go?
Time travel is a seriously risky business. I’d probably be burned as a witch if I went back anywhere, and people smelled really bad before deodorant. BUT. I think I’d be interested in biblical times because I think it would be fascinating to watch that unfold. Then I could come back to the here and now and say “Actually, I asked Jesus for clarification on that one and he said…” I also have a fascination with the middle ages, but I’d break the universe by trying to sneak penicillin in my space travel carry-on bag and cure the bubonic plague…
7. What is the best Halloween costume you’ve ever had?
I’ve had some fun ones. I was a penguin, the Cat in the Hat, the Bee Girl from the Blind Melon video, and Raggedy Ann. Those have to be among my favorites.
8. What are your top 3 vices?
Junk food, gossip, bad reality television
9. How much time do you spend on the interwebs?
More than I care to admit
10. If you could give yourself any title/rank/leader of any country/object/or whatever you want, what would it be? (Ex: I am the Empress of the Internet)
I hope this is an empty title, because I don’t want any more responsibility. Queen of Penguin Enthusiasts of the Universe. I want a tiara AND scepter. A sash too, if it’s not too much trouble.
11. What is your biggest pet peeve?
A lot of things annoy me, but I don’t think I have any one specific pet peeve. I hate when people don’t use turn signals. Can that count?

I was also nominated for the Sunshine Award by Liam at The Life of A Thinker. 

The conditions of this award are to answer the eight questions below, and nominate 10 other awesome bloggers.

The Questions:
1. What is your favourite Christmas/festive movie?
A Muppet Christmas Carol. Rizzo the Rat MAKES that movie. “And I am here for the food.” A rat after my own heart.
2. What is your favourite flower?
(I love that this was written with British spelling!) This is difficult for me to answer because I love flowers so much, but I guess I’ll say daisies. They’re such a happy flower, and this IS the sunshine award, after all.
3. What is your favourite non – alcoholic beverage?
Unsweetened iced tea is what I drink most often, but if I get my wish to be skinny without trying, it’ll be all chocolate milkshakes all the time.
4. What is your passion?
I don’t suppose it will come as a surprise to anyone when I shout, BOOKS!!!!!!
5. What is your favourite time of year?
Fall, for sure is my favorite season. I love the way everything smells and pumpkin baked goods and hot cider with cinnamon. It’s such a cozy time. That said, I also LOVE the lead up to Christmas. I love decorating, wrapping, shopping, and eating all the delicious treats!
6. What is your favourite time of day?
Any time but morning? I am horrible at getting out of bed.
7. What is your favourite physical activity?
Do you mean like working out? I wouldn’t say I necessarily enjoy it, but I tolerate zumba and pilates fairly well.
8. What is your favourite vacation?
I just got back from Disney World, so I’d feel traitorous if I said anything else.

Whew! That was something. I am still new at this so it’s going to be tough for me to nominate a ton of bloggers. I’m going to go ahead an nominate 11 people for all of the above awards. I’m really quite lazy. So congratulations my bloggy nominees, you win… THRICE!!! Here are some blogs I love!

1. Filing Jointly Finally

2. Psychobabble

3. Eyechow

4. Books, J’adore

5. B(itch)log

6. It’s A Dome Life

7. What Jane Read Next

8. In Natalie’s Shoes

9. There & Back

10. Sorry Kid, Your Mom Doesn’t Play Well With Others

11. Chewylicious

Congratulations all you nominees! You just won the Liebster award from me… Twice. And the Sunshine award! Wahoo!

Here are MY chain letter-esque questions for YOU:

1. What is your favorite holiday, and why?

2. If you could have a super power, what would it be?

3. What’s your favorite genre of book?

4. You know you have guilty pleasure TV shows. Spill it!

5. What is your day job?

6. What is your ideal vacation destination?

7. Do you think you would survive a Zombie Apocalypse?

8. What is your favorite type of take-out food?

9. Name one thing you keep in your underwear drawer that isn’t underwear.

10. If you could meet any celebrity, who would you choose?

11. What is the greatest animal on the planet? (The correct answer is penguin, but I am interested in everyone’s various shades of wrong-ness.)

Whew. Did you read this all? Yay awards! Yay everyone! It took me three days to finish this beast!

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Sep 18

Don't Let the Bonnet Fool You: Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult

Mystery, Religion 15

I read a lot, obviously,  but I also watch a lot of television. I’m only human. Sometimes I watch cheesy reality television. My latest fascination has been Amish: Out of Order on the National Geographic channel. It’s a reality show about a bunch of people who have left the Amish and are trying to adjust to life in the outside world.

I’ve read a few novels by Jodi Picoult, but my favorite by far has been Plain Truth. It’s about an Amish community being shaken by a shocking crime. As I’m watching my Amish reality show, I find myself saying things like “Ah yes, Rumsrpinga.” Or “listen to their odd accents- they speak a particular dialect of German in addition to English, and due to their seclusion it has morphed into nearly its own language entirely…” Clearly I am an expert in all things Amish thanks to Jodi Picoult (I’m not an expert in anything, but I did learn a lot from this book.)

Don’t let the bonnet fool you. That Katie Fisher is a sinner, yo.

Plain Truth centers on an Amish girl named Katie (I swear this is not the only reason I like this book.) Katie is 18 and unmarried, but appears to have given birth in a barn (a colossal no-no in Amish-ville. They know good and well how babies are made, and shenanigans of that kind are NOT okay amongst the unmarried.) The baby is later discovered by a farmhand, dead. The cause of death is unclear.

It’s difficult for me to write this review without making it a mess of spoilers, and I like this book enough to not want to ruin it for anyone. I’m going to try to focus the Amish-ness of it all instead of spoiling all the saucy bits for you. Not only is it incredibly rare for an Amish girl to get pregnant out of wedlock, Katie appears to have no memory of the conception or birth. That certainly doesn’t help her case when she’s put on trial for the murder of the newborn. It throws the whole community into a tizzy, because the Amish are also devout pacifists. A murder charge?! Against an Amish girl?! Inconceivable!

All I really knew about the Amish before I read this is that they were a quaint religious sect who didn’t use electricity and built high quality cabinetry. I mean, most people know that the Amish dress differently, they drive horse buggies instead of cars, and they make gorgeous quilts, but I don’t think most of the world really pays attention to the religion itself. It can be beautiful and incredibly harsh all at the same time. The Amish are a very peaceful people- they don’t participate in violence and are very focused on the health of their overall community. It’s also a very simple way of life, so it sounds idyllic when you’re up to your elbows in credit card statements and emails.

It has a darker side as well. School is not allowed beyond the 8th grade, which makes it very difficult for those who leave to find gainful employment. Many sects shun those who choose to leave the religion. Like for real. Hardcore shunning. You decide to leave the church and you’re completely disowned by your family and the only life you’ve ever known. You can’t even go home for Christmas. Can you even imagine how much that would suck? No matter how jacked your family is, they’re still your family. Only now, they’re forbidden to talk to you, because you’re going to hell. Way harsh. (The Catholic guilt complex has nothing on Amish shunning. I’m just saying.)

Jodi Picoult takes you into this world through the eyes of an outsider, Katie’s lawyer. The lawyer comes out to the farm to live with the family while working on the case. Eventually, we get to the bottom of Katie’s story. How she came to meet an outsider. How she became pregnant. How she was confused and in denial about the whole process. What really happened to that baby in the barn.

Like I said, I don’t want to ruin the ending, but there are quite a few twists, turns, and discoveries made through the course of this novel. Courtroom drama isn’t normally my thing, but I was so enthralled learning about Amish culture that the Law and Order rigamarole didn’t phase me. It’s definitely worth the read. If you’re looking for something a little different (and you haven’t been reading a bunch of Jodi Picoult, because she can get a wee bit formulaic…) give it a shot!

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Sep 17

Airplane Reading: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Coming of Age, Fantasy, Mystery, Young Adult Fiction 3

Hello bookworms! I’m back! I was on vacation, but you’re not supposed to say things like that on the internet, because 20/20 says that’s an invitation to burglars to, um, burgle your home. As we did not want to be burgled, I claimed to be an international super spy instead. Smoke in mirrors. (Mark it off the bucket list- I used three forms of “burgle” in two sentences.)

Jim and I went on our first “real” vacation. We went to Florida this past January, but it didn’t count because Jim had to work while we were there. THIS counted. 10 days at Walt Disney World! Don’t you dare go judging, we are simply young at heart.

I went to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party as the Cheshire Cat. The Queen of Hearts was suspicious…

The first of my three meetings with Alice. What can I say? I’m a fan!

This is one of Mary Poppins’ penguins! All time favorite movie. All time favorite animal. Mr. Penguin is preparing to give me beak kisses here.

I learned several important things on this trip. First- the concept of personal space is one that is not shared by all cultures. Second- no matter how much zumba SHOULD prepare you for walking all day, it does NOT. Bring Advil and blister bandages (I was actually prepared for this, but still. Ouch.) Third- I am still not quite ready to have my own children. The vast majority of kids were adorable, but there were enough jerky little punks to make my womb shut tight for a while still.

What does this have to do with reading? Other than my obvious obsession with Alice in Wonderland, nothing. So…Let’s talk about what I read on the plane!

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs was my choice for travel reading. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting from this book, but whatever my expectations were, it certainly wasn’t what I got. Miss Peregrine combines aspects of A Wrinkle in Time, Harry Potter, and the TV show Heroes. Our protagonist Jacob is a teenage boy traumatized by witnessing the tragic death of his grandfather. He sets out to learn about his grandfather’s childhood in the orphanage he inhabited during WWII. What Jacob doesn’t realize is that his grandfather was more than just a Jewish refugee from Poland given asylum on a remote Welsh island. He was “peculiar.”

“Peculiar” people basically have super powers. Some are invisible, some can fly, some can light fires, some can resurrect the dead, and some can make things grow into elaborate tree sculptures (if teleportation is not an option for my personal super power, I wouldn’t mind having the ability to grow hedges into amusing shapes. Runner up super power acquired ). It is said that the peculiars often hid out in plain sight- as sideshow acts in circuses. That’s kind of brilliant, because as I mentioned in my post on The Night Circuseverybody expects crazy fakery in circuses.

Another trait amongst the peculiars? Some of them can see the invisible monsters that are trying to exterminate the peculiars by devouring them. Yes, the MONSTERS that want to EAT peculiar people. Are you still with me? Good.

In order to keep the peculiar  children safe, they live within time loops that allow them to hide from the monsters. A time loop is essentially the same day played over and over again- so the children never age and are hidden from the monsters. The time loops are overseen by… how do I describe this without it sounding stupid? There is no good way. The time loops and the peculiar children within them are overseen by shape shifting bird-woman nannies.

Jacob stumbles across the time loop and discovers that his grandfather was devoured by a monster, not a pack of wild dogs (a pack of wild dogs in Florida. Really? Gators are so much more glamorous.) Jacob and the peculiar children work at solving some mysteries, chaos ensues, the day is saved by a team effort of super powers. You know the drill.

It sounds a little ridiculous, but it’s actually a pretty good book. The only gripe I have is that it was left sooooo open ended. I’m a little concerned that this story won’t hold up as a series, but hey what do I know? I certainly liked it enough to check out book 2.

Also! I was apparently nominated for THREE blog awards while I was away! Thank you, thank you, thank you to Pocketful of Joules, Quirky Chrissy, and The Life of a Thinker for nominating me! The rules for accepting the award include some extra odds and ends, so it may be a while before I get around to all of it. But thank you from the bottom of my wormy little heart! 🙂

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Sep 14

Confession Friday: The Perks of Being A Wallflower and Katie's Teen Angst

Coming of Age, Young Adult Fiction 19

Confession Friday: I was an angsty teenager. That’s not much of a confession. But I used to dress like this:

Photo of me and some friends in high school. Tragically hip.

I went through what I like to call my “grunge phase” in high school. What can I say? I was a socially awkward girl in the late 90s, and it was perfectly acceptable to hide one’s perceived imperfections underneath layers of enormously baggy pants and giant t-shirts. It wasn’t EXACTLY the age of Nirvana, but you know, trends hit the suburbs a few years late.

Anyway, being a teenager and tending toward the angst ridden, you may understand why I list The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky among my favorite books of all time. It was given to me by my friend Kim (the girl conveniently hiding half her face in what she must have known would someday be an embarrassing photo) and I’ve loved it ever since. It’s one of the few books I’ve read more than once. It’s the ultimate teen misfit tome- it was published by MTV, for heaven’s sake!

This book was hipster before hipsters were ironic. Or something. I don’t “get” the hipster thing. I HAVE mentioned that I’m uncool, right?

Our protagonist is Charlie, and he is a freshman in high school. He’s brilliant, but awkward. Two seniors take him under their wing and introduce him to all that high school has to offer angst ridden teenagers (sex, drugs, and rock and roll, obviously.) Charlie’s English teacher also takes a particular interest in him and supplies him with a series of novels that shape his world view. This book was billed as a modern day Catcher In The Rye and it lives up to this when Charlie breaks down and is admitted to a mental hospital at the end. It’s not all bad news though- Charlie seems to be making a steady recovery and we leave him hopeful for the coming school year.

I’m not sure if I would love this book so much if I were to read it today without having my nostalgic connection to it. I mean, it’s good, but I think what makes it so special to me is the time it invokes. Despite all my brooding, I too had moments of feeling “infinite.” Picking up this book is like listening to Nirvana’s “Unplugged in New York” for me- it takes me right back to that point in time (in the case of that album, it takes me to my BFF’s bedroom above the garage of her parents’ new house in Maryland. We haven’t lived in the same state since we were 14, but we are so awesome that it doesn’t matter.)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower has been made into a movie that is due to be released later this year. I hear Emma Watson is playing a starring role (is there anything Hermione CAN’T do?!) Obviously, as it has not yet been released I can’t review the movie, but I’m going to go ahead and say that the book is better. Even with Emma Watson (although I am VERY curious to hear your American accent, Emma dear.)

Bookworms, do you have a nostalgia book? What did you love during your awkward teen years?

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Sep 13

Life Lessons Courtesy of Harriet The Spy

Children's Fiction 2

One of my all time favorite childhood books is Harriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Harriet is a precocious 11 year old girl who aspires to be a spy. She wanders around New York City (yeah thinking about that NOW is a little scary, but suspend your disbelief for a moment.) She observes her neighbors and classmates while writing down her notes in her special spy notebook.

Harriet’s regimented existence delighted me. Despite the fact that I didn’t care for tomatoes until my teen years, I suddenly had cravings for tomato sandwiches. And chocolate egg creams. (Not that I knew what they were. I finally had an egg cream when I was 20. It was awful. Why such a thing would exist in a world where milkshakes are readily available, I will never understand. Moving on…)

Harriet lives with her parents and her nanny Ole Golly. She is absolutely devastated when Ole Golly leaves after a blow up with her parents. To add to her fragility, Harriet loses track of her super secret spy notebook during a game of tag on the playground. Harriet’s notebook not only contained her observations on her oddball neighbors, but also her private thoughts on her classmates- and best friends.

This part breaks my heart. Every time I read it, I feel the terrible sinking sensation I get in my stomach when I know I’ve hurt someone’s feelings. Poor Harriet is devastated when she’s shunned by her friends and classmates, but she’s confused. Everything she wrote was true! Luckily, Ole Golly writes Harriet a letter and offers her some sage advice- she has to apologize, and she has to lie in order to get her friends back.

I’m not big into poetry, but I do enjoy Emily Dickinson, and this poem reminds me of Harriet’s plight:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

Harriet’s childish bluntness got her into a heap of trouble. Just because you THINK someone might turn into a mad scientist or acts like a little old lady doesn’t mean you should SAY it. And even if you didn’t mean to go public with your thoughts, you should apologize for them anyway. Because hurting people’s feelings sucks. (Keep that in mind all you internet trolls who are reading my blog! I cry easily!)

Eventually though, it all works out for Harriet. She publicly retracts her meanness toward her friends and classmates and all is forgiven. The lesson here? If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it. I think every kid should be required to read this book before signing up for Facebook. I thank God every day that Facebook wasn’t around when I was a tween. What a nightmare.

Have any of the bookworms out there read Harriet The Spy? What did you think?

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Sep 12

Pearl of China

Asia, Memoirs, Women's Studies 6

Hello Bookworms! I’ve mentioned that I’m highly susceptible to marketing tactics, have I not? I purchased the latest entry in my Kindle because Amazon was having a sale. A girl’s got to budget, you know?

Pearl of China by Anchee Min is a novel based in part on the life of Pearl S. Buck. Pearl S. Buck, in case you were unaware, is a Nobel Prize winning author. A Nobel Prize winning author yours truly has never read, shamefully, although now I fully intend to add some of her work to my never ending reading list.

If this book hadn’t taken some historical liberties, it would be a dry-as-toast biography that nobody would want to read. So, Anchee Min, I’ll forgive any historical inconsistencies that might exist here because it was so enthralling. Pearl of China is written from the point of view of Pearl’s childhood best friend, Willow. Willow is largely fictional, but as a fictional character the author has the freedom to give her the sort of life story that is most compatible with Pearl’s legacy, so it all works out in a nice little package.

Willow is born into abject poverty. Her father was born into a wealthy family that falls to ruin and has a difficult time adjusting to his new circumstances. He goes so far as to rent out his wife as a prostitute (yeah, Chinese women really get the raw end of the deal A LOT.) Unfortunately, when Willow’s mother becomes pregnant as a result of this encounter, she is killed by an attempted herbal abortion. So. Willow is poor. She is motherless. And she’s a thief so she doesn’t starve to death. It pretty much sucks to be Willow.

Pearl lives in Willow’s village. Pearl is the daughter of American missionaries who have come to China to convert the heathens. In a way, this book reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible as that was about a missionary family living in Africa (you should read The Poisonwood Bible if you haven’t- it’s very good.) The biggest difference between the two though, is that the daughters in The Poisonwood Bible are brought to Africa as adolescents (except for little Ruth.) They are old enough to experience the culture shock that comes with leaving 1960s Georgia and trying to make a life in the decidedly less industrialized African Congo. Pearl, though, is brought to China as an infant. She learns the language the way a Chinese child would and identifies more closely with the culture she is raised in than the culture she was born into.

Pearl is an outcast because she’s not Chinese and her father is more than a little overzealous about converting the townspeople. Willow is an outcast because she and her father are thieves. Luckily for both girls, they find each other and their families intertwine to their mutual benefit. They forge a friendship that will last them a lifetime.

Unfortunately for our heroines, China in the 1930s was NOT where you wanted to be if you were foreign. First a bloody war with Japan, and then the Communist uprising meant that a blond haired-blue eyed woman was a walking target. Eventually, Pearl and her family flee to the US, but her heart remains in China.

Willow, upon Pearl’s departure, marries a man who turns out to be one of Mao Zedong’s closest advisors. I don’t like to take sides in political battles. In fact, I hate it. However, it’s difficult not to get a little bit political when discussing early Communist China. In theory, Communism sounds great. Everyone is equal, everyone has enough food, everyone is taken care of. Unfortunately, that is NEVER the way it works in practice. If you don’t believe me check out what Stalin did in Russia. Mao totally wanted to be Stalin, so killing off dissidents and imprisoning people who happened to have ties with “outsiders” was par for the course. It really didn’t end up being “Communism” at all because there was totally an elite class favored by the dictatorship, and millions of people starved anyway. Sigh.

If you want to learn more about China and it’s less savory chapters in history, read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. You’ll get first person accounts of this time period, as well as two generations previous. It’s excellent. You’ll learn things.

Anyway, poor Willow gets the short end of the stick with the Communists. Despite being married to a big wig, her friendship with Pearl (who started publishing novels critical of the regime) lands her in prison on several occasions. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel on China that wasn’t absolutely devastating in one way or another, but beneath that devastation there’s always a stoic beauty about the place.

So my Bookworms, as this was a book centering on a lifelong friendship, let’s talk about it! Do you have any friends you’ve kept since childhood?

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Sep 10

Snow Flower and The Secret Fan

Asia, Coming of Age, Historical Fiction, Women's Studies 10

I promised you we’d “travel,” didn’t I, Bookworms? Let’s got to China! Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See takes us on an adventure though 19th Century China. More historical fiction, I know, but this is in CHINA, y’all! Totally new perspective.

Our heroine Lily is paired up in an “old sames” relationship with another young girl named Snow Flower. Because women were kept in near total seclusion at this point in history (at least women with any social standing) they didn’t exactly get to go out and meet people. Being in “old sames” was sort of like having a matchmaker find you a BFF. Then you and your BFF would exchange notes via your matchmaker on a fan using a secret phonetic form of women’s writing. (You remember having code names in your middle school notebooks for the boys you liked? It’s kind of like that, but it allowed you to actually communicate with other women without censorship, which is pretty cool.) Being “old sames” Lily and Snow Flower were destined to begin their foot binding at the same time.

Oh yeah. Foot binding. In graphic detail. Before I read this book, I really had no idea what foot binding entailed. I imagined ace-bandages wrapped tightly around the foot in an attempt to keep it small. There was no “attempting” in foot binding. They would essentially force young girls’ feet to fold over on themselves. Then the bones would break and they’d heal in a grotesque distorted version of a foot. Assuming you didn’t die of blood poisoning before the healing could take place, of course. The women were then doomed to wobble around on these “golden lilies” for the rest of their lives. Learning the truth about foot binding is reason enough to read this book.

The problem was, the foot binding was culturally NECESSARY. If your feet weren’t bound, you had virtually no prospects for marriage, and marriage was by FAR the most appealing life option for a Chinese woman at this point in time. It was like, all the dudes in China had a foot fetish. For real. Only the men would only see the feet while perfumed and wrapped in slippers, because naked deformed feet are stinky and unattractive. (Since we’re on the subject of feet, I think it’s worthwhile to mention that my feet are quite lovely. My toes go in perfect descending order, and although I’ve heard that having a long second toe is a sign of intelligence, I’m content to embrace my toes for their esthetics.)

My feet are gorgeous. Perhaps my best physical feature.

Lily and Snow Flowers’ childhoods are spent preparing for their marriages. They spent their time embroidering slippers for their newly deformed feet, making clothes, creating gifts for their future mothers-in-law,  and writing each other letters via the fan. When their marriages do occur, the girls are separated- Lily to a life with a respectable family, and Snow Flower to a life with an abusive butcher. (Being a butcher was NOT a well respected occupation. It was seen as one of the lowliest ways to earn a living, but when your father is an opium addict who has squandered his fortune on drugs, you don’t exactly have the reputation or dowry to “marry up.”)

Anyway, the poor girls suffer a misunderstanding at the hands of the secret fan, they have a falling out, then they have a dramatic deathbed reunion. It’s all very touching, I promise.

I recommend Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to anyone who is interested in Chinese history, women’s history, or the gruesome spectacle that is foot binding. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn something!

I realize that as a modern American woman the idea of foot binding disgusts me, but it was the utmost form of beauty in China until a little over 100 years ago. What sort of beauty rituals do you Bookworms indulge in that may be considered barbaric by other cultures?

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