24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: 4 hearts (page 1 of 2)

Abby Reads: Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson
St. Martin’s Press, 2017, 240 pages
Nonfiction

Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America takes a decided stance on racism in America in 2017, particularly within the context of the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States of America in the 2016 presidential election. Drawing from personal experience, 31421117anecdotal research, and data, Dyson illustrates the situation of the black man in America with poise, empathy, and clarity. Written as sections of a sermon, the book is directed at white readers but offers a great deal of material for American citizens and, indeed, beyond.

With regular references to the reader (often, “beloved,” as you might expect in church), Dyson effectively draws the reader in prior to beginning his argument for better treatment of African Americans. Much like officials including Trump’s name frequently in reports meant for his consumption in order to maintain his attention, Dyson’s frequent addresses to the reader does a powerful thing in actively engaging and interacting with the reader who might, without proper empathy instilled, wonder what this has to do with them. To get to the debate of what this has to do with them (assuming the reader does not see the poor treatment of other humans as relevant to their own lives — a reality, to be sure, for many), Dyson must first get the readers on his side. He does this beautifully with these gentle call-outs — calling readers in by name. Beloved. Paired with the history of the word beloved in black culture (think Toni Morrison), this method is hugely impactful to cultivating the reader’s attention.

It is this language, however, that also contributes to a softening of Dyson’s call-out. He is empathetic to a fault, acknowledging directly that confronting racism within yourself and your peers is challenging. At times, Dyson seems to imply that confronting this racism is just as difficult and emotionally traumatic as it is being on the receiving end of racism — whether it’s personal or systemic. He concedes having white guilt is difficult and how white folks in America do have it hard. In doing so, he distracts from the central issue of racism and what people of privilege can and should be doing about it.

In many cases, Dyson’s arguments are strong for those of us who are already on-board. But aside from stating that white folks have it hard as a result of their own racism and using inclusive terms like “beloved,” his arguments are rarely anything new or particularly persuasive for someone who might disagree or is undecided. This is a tough thing to achieve. Certainly those who need convincing are the least likely to pick up the book in the first place, so this may be a misinterpretation of the purpose or target audience of the majority of the book on my part.

That said, the book is highly relevant for modern times. Dyson regularly refers to Trump, Ferguson, and other current events that make the book an immediate call to action. With — well, I don’t know what, luck? Hard work? — with any of whatever it is that we need, we’ll not need this book for too long. And, even more-so, news moves fast. Trump, we’ve seen, moves fast. Tears We Cannot Stop is a static piece of writing that, though perhaps able to be updated in reprints or new editions, will not remain relevant in its current form for long. These are ongoing problems, certainly, but the specificity sometimes takes away from overall goal.

Still, Dyson wraps up his work with an immeasurably useful chapter on real, practical actions readers can take to mitigate the strain of racism. Ranging from tipping people of color extra in their work to reading dozens of more writers on racism in America, these suggestions are some of the strongest I’ve seen in terms of making activism actionable in real people’s lives. Not everyone has the capability to organize a rally, but a good deal more people can effectively choose to patronize establishments owned by black people over white, and thus help even the playing field. The list of writers Dyson offers in terms of further reading is also impressive and helpful, though another format might have made the list more accessible.

Tears We Cannot Stop is readable and interesting, but won’t do much to bring new folks over to Dyson’s side. The actionable items at the end are invaluable and well-organized for those who stick to the end and feel inspired by Dyson’s sermon. As a piece of literature on racism, though it might not lend a lot of new material to the subject, it’s an important one and likely to become part of the canon.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella

Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella
Houghton Mifflin, 1982, 265 pages
Fantasy

After a bodiless voice tells him to do it, Ray Kinsella turns his farmland into a baseball diamond, where he awaits the appearance of long-dead Shoeless Joe Jackson in W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. When Jackson shows up, Ray knows this is not the end of this wild spiritual journey. Instead, he is compelledImage result for shoeless joe wp kinsella to drive from Iowa to New Hampshire in search of the recluse J. D. Salinger, at which point he will take Salinger to a Red Sox game and — well, who knows. Driven by complicated feelings about his upbringing and a desire to be a part of something bigger than himself, Ray travels halfway across the country and finds there’s more to baseball than he ever imagined.

I realize naming a character Ray Kinsella has narrative value in that it’s relevant to the J. D. Salinger connection (read the book for more information on that), but it felt pretty ridiculous reading a novel in which the author shared the main character’s last name. I think most of us can agree that male writers tend to do a lot of self-insertion (and, true, writers of all genders do, but it seems the men deny it to an extra degree), but this felt especially egregious. In any case, the name was distracting, especially as it appeared as a Point again and again.

The danger of putting Ray on a quest for Salinger and him rolling over in his doubts for hundreds of miles of driving is that the story can be monotonous at times. Typically by himself, Ray has little cause for dialog and primarily ruminates on his baseball field, its implications, sometimes his family (both the one he was born into and the one he’s created). He makes sweeping observations about American life and leisure, which can be interesting, if a bit pretentious at times. And, perhaps predictably, Ray falls into the unfortunate state of racism and sexism on occasion. One particular scene troubled me, in which Ray purchases a gun. In an exchange with a gun shop clerk, Ray and the clerk discuss how the neighborhood has changed “if you know what I mean.” Kinsella — both author and narrator — need say no more for modern readers, at least, to pick up on the fact that the reference, here, is to people of color moving into the neighborhood, particularly with the context around this scene. It’s a shame. Although I’m not one to believe a book must eschew racism outright, I do believe it ought to have a purpose if it is going to appear. In this case, the conversation was nothing but filler, rendering it as just a vehicle for racism. In many other scenes, Ray’s focus is on his wife’s body, her little girlishness, his daughter’s similar innocence, and other dehumanizing aspects of the few women present in the story — again, to no real point.

Though these moments might do little to illustrate any consequential character traits (at least insofar as they’re related to the narrative), Kinsella does an otherwise fine job of developing the inhabitants of Shoeless Joe. Both J. D. Salinger and Moonlight Graham are especially good examples of characterization well done. They are complex individuals with motivations and desires, developed to the point of realism. While I don’t know enough about Salinger’s personal life story (beyond the usual facts of reclusiveness and rumors) to imagine this characterization was either well-researched or accurate, it certainly comes across as reasonably real.

Shoeless Joe has been, in my experience, surprisingly overlooked as a piece of good literature. Capital-L Literature, even. The novel is slow-paced, to be sure, and not a whole lot happens. But the prose is delicious to turn over in most passages, and there’s no doubt Kinsella-the-author does a fantastic job at weaving magic and realism into a seamless example of magical realism. None of it seemed so outlandish that it couldn’t be, particularly in the very sacred context of baseball. Like lots of Literature, it does at times seem pretentious and lofty, but it’s the tolerable kind that adds to the story, rather than detracting from it. Even if you’re not a fan of baseball, Shoeless Joe provides another look at the American Dream, wanting to be a part of something bigger than yourself, and the concept of spiritualism — and, it’s worth reading just to compare to the movie adaptation, Field of Dreams.

 

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Viking Press, 1962, 214 pages
Fiction

Living with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian in a large house in New England as outcasts, Mary Katherine (Merricat) of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is comfortable in her life despite the death of nearly her entire family some six years prior to the events of the novel. When 89724cousin Charles shows up and relentlessly inquires about and comments on the sisters’ financial state, Merricat is reluctant to trust him while Constance is charmed by Charles’s romantic advances. In a story that feels half wrought with horror and half with the stuff of fairy tales, Jackson reveals the creeping underside of the Blackwood family while underscoring the poison that is ostracism.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an enduring work of slow and dripping dread that dawns on the reader as Jackson peels away the layers of the Blackwood family and Merricat as a character. Despite the brevity of the text, the novel provides plenty to dissect. The most interesting of these aspects, I think, is the subtle and fascinating psychological study Jackson does of her characters, which, with the eighteen-year-old as the narrator, focuses on Merricat. Although the novel was published in 1962, Jackson makes incredibly astute observations about mental illnesses we might recognize as something like sociopathy today. Though psychological science had come quite a ways from Freud by this time, Jackson’s sophisticated and subtle depiction of the psyche of the Blackwoods feels years ahead of its time.

Beyond the individual, Jackson also examines society and the psychology of guilt. It’s difficult to discuss this point without giving too much away, but the theme of food returns in a fascinating way again and again throughout the novel, including in instances as a show of repentance. Jackson considers the reason behind the show of guilt and how people feel compelled to seek forgiveness, often, it seems, more for their own sakes and peace of mind rather than for those they’ve done wrong.

All of these philosophies (and certainly there’s far more to digest than what is merely mentioned above) are delivered through Merricat, whose voice is a swift and strong kick in the teeth from the get-go. We Have Always Lived in the Castle’s iconic opening paragraph is a delicious taste of the originality in the articulation to come and its a pleasure to read and reread Merricat’s thoughts in her distinct style.

And what’s more, is Jackson-as-writer manages layers that Merricat-as-narrator likely does not intend. This allows for a slow, sort of subtle story that heightens the spooky mood and ambiguous supernatural elements. To Merricat, this is just her life, but the very exact way in which Jackson tells the story makes the novel a piece of literature with more than enough to ponder upon for days after the reader finishes the novel.

In fact, a couple of weeks after finishing We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I’m still thinking about it. It’s not a book I feel I understand completely — and even if I read it several more times, I don’t think I could understand it completely: that’s part of what makes it so wonderful. It is a show of mastering storytelling elements that few can even articulate, let alone implement. We Have Always Lived in the Castle left me hungry for more of Merricat and her family, of the world they lived in, and of gothic horror as a whole. While Jackson only gives us a few short pages to inhabit, the story lives well beyond those pages and opens up a reality for readers who wish to be creepily brushed with horror in the most unsettling and realistic way.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
Abrams ComicArts, 2012, 240 pages
Graphic Memoir

If you have any interest in true crime — and even if you don’t — you’ve heard of the infamous cannibalistic serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. Though Dahmer was quite young when he was killed in prison (thirty-four years old), his murder spree mostly occurred in the later years in his life. This leaves the mystery 12959045of what Dahmer was like prior to giving into his fatal temptations. Who was child Dahmer? Who was high school student Dahmer? Former classmate John Backderf, writing under the name Derf Backderf, reveals what he witnessed in Dahmer prior to the serial killer’s crimes. With a gloomy graphic format, in My Friend Dahmer Backderf provides an interesting look into the history and mind of Dahmer with painstaking research and deep dedication.

Backderf supplies both the text and art for this graphic memoir that borders on a graphic biography of sorts. Although Dahmer, even in his teen years, was mostly closed off from his peers (largely, it would seem, as a self-imposed mechanism), Backderf and a small group of others got to know Dahmer casually as a sort of class clown with a drinking problem and an unsatisfactory home life in midwest America. The dinginess of the 1970s reflected in his artwork, Backderf works with a muddy palette that serves to heighten the sense of suffocation Dahmer was apparently feeling in his teen years. While the color scheme works well to influence the mood of the story, the drawing style often felt bulky and somehow unserious, which was much less fitting to the narrative.

Still, Backderf writes with a voice that is a bit melancholy and thoughtful. Both the language and sentence structure contributes to a sense of impending doom. He frequently asks himself the what-ifs while acknowledging that despite any events in high school, the grim future had Dahmer stuck on a path to destruction. Even as readers know how Dahmer will turn out, they reach for his salvation, prior to his first murder. Backderf is careful to differentiate Dahmer pre-murder and post-murder, noting that while pre-murder Dahmer deserves sympathy for his wretched home and school life (and general mental health), post-murder Dahmer has made a conscious choice and can no longer receive sympathy.

Because of the distance between Dahmer and his small group of “friends,” Backderf must rely on loads of research to get the story as accurate as possible. This means plenty of gaps, too, but with a detailed explanation of his methods following the narrative, Backderf is surprising with the amount of care he put into depicting Dahmer’s earlier life. Using newspaper articles, books, court documents, yearbooks, and memories from other acquaintances (which he nearly always insisted there must be two of each event to qualify for inclusion), the amount of work Backderf sunk into this project is admirable. It pays off with an intimate look at teenage Dahmer unavailable elsewhere and totally unique. However, the missing details only Dahmer can share, particularly about specific mental states and the why of it all does make for a work that feels incomplete. In fact, Backderf leaves nearly everything following Dahmer’s first murder off of the narrative. While he briefly discusses reactions to Dahmer’s arrest and certainly references the murders to come, these events are never truly explored. If you’re looking for something that is truly true crime, My Friend Dahmer is not the book to go with.

My Friend Dahmer is an interesting, if sometimes frustrating for the necessary separation between narrator and subject, work that is unlike any other. Backderf is incredibly thoughtful, both on his own feelings and Dahmer’s life. Introspective and marveling, the story reaches into many places many of us want to visit but are often unable to access. Though some of those places remain inaccessible in this graphic memoir, My Friend Dahmer is a worthwhile read for anyone into all things murder and psychology.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1962, 211 pages
Juvenile Fantasy

It’s been years since twelve-year-old Meg Murry saw her father who is on a mission assigned by the United States government in Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time. Though she knows it involves something called a tesseract, Meg’s understanding of what her father is doing ends about there. 18131When her brother Charles Wallace meets the enigmatic Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who, the witchy women send Meg, Charles, and Meg’s schoolmate Calvin on a journey to find and free Charles and Meg’s father, but there are dangers in other worlds they have not even begun to imagine.

Reading this at twenty-five was an exercise of the mind. Now that I’m working as a children’s librarian, I’ve felt nostalgic about my own elementary school years. I first read A Wrinkle in Time in an advanced English class in fifth grade. At the time, I recall understanding this novel on a far deeper level than I did this time and I’ve been unable to recreate what it was I understood then that I don’t now. I don’t believe this is a failing of the book however — rather, I think it takes an incredibly talented author to pull this off.

A bit chaotic and with a staccato pace, A Wrinkle in Time still stands up as something unique and wonderful. Despite the reaching Meg and her companions do across the universes, it never seems unnatural that they’d be doing so without adult supervision. And when adult supervision does arrive in the form of Mr. Murry, he’s utterly useless. L’Engle breaks a truth to kids here that often goes ignored until adulthood and sometimes even beyond: parents are not infallible, nor are they all-knowing.

L’Engle is funny in moments, bestowing the name of “Happy Medium” on a fortune teller and weaving humor into situations that are trying for the young characters. L’Engle’s focus is always on the children, too — even when in a nearly bodice-ripping moment, Calvin kisses Meg, readers are not at all apprised of Mr. Murry’s reaction, though he is standing nearby. Given that the last time he saw Meg was when she was only seven or eight years old, this event must be at least a little shocking to him and L’Engle does not divulge it.

What’s special about A Wrinkle in Time is its ability to describe complex concepts of physics in such a way that make sense to both children and adults. The title itself is one such example, as the children learn their travel through space is aided by a ripple that allows them to skip from point A to point C without traveling through point B. It is only when you truly understand a concept that you can describe it so simply, and L’Engle shows her ability here with great strength.

Another achievement of A Wrinkle in Time is Meg’s revolutionary character. As a young girl in the early 1960s, Meg is interested in math and science — this is so much unlike the majority of the literature at the time and, even, today, done to the extent and with such realism as Meg is, that readers can’t help but cheer for her, even when she is churlish and brusque.

You may not be able to appreciate A Wrinkle in Time the same way as an adult as you did as a child. But the merit is still there. Give this novel another look before the film comes out and you might find something in yourself you didn’t know was there to begin with.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Some of the Parts by Hannah Barnaby

Some of the Parts by Hannah Barnaby
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2016, 304 pages
Realistic Fiction

In Some of the Parts, younger sister Tallie has only just begun grieving the death of her older brother. Wracked with guilt from being the driver of the car in which he was in at the time of his death, Tallie has not only lost her brother, but lost her parents to their own grief and her good friend who had just started a relationship with her brother at the time of his death. As she gets to know the new boy in school, Chase, Tallie must confront her own grief and begin to function again or she risks losing more. But it’s harder to let go when she discovers her brother might not be as gone as she thought. Hannah Barnaby paints a painfully realistic picture of a girl who has lost her brother at an age that is too young to experience such pain, but too old to not understand it.

I sought out Hannah Barnaby at an event in Arlington in September 2016, just a few weeks after my own brother died in a car crash. After the talk she gave with another author, I rushed up to her and told her my own story and that I had written a similar story in college, never knowing what was in my future. Barnaby graciously signed the copy I bought from her and later got in touch with me on Twitter to check in with me. I wasn’t able to actually read the book for another seven months, but when I did, I was amazed.

Barnaby so acutely describes what has been my experience around grief and sibling loss. Although my brother was not an organ donor and I did not cause his death, Tallie and I have much else in common in how we handle or don’t handle our grief. The accuracy Barnaby pins the story with can be painful in spots, particularly for those who have been there, but is a rare and excellent thing to encounter, especially for those who are trying to understand and empathize with a character or individual who has had such an experience.

Beyond the specific concept of sibling grief, Barnaby handles the other aspects of the lives of her characters with striking realism. This helps ground the overall plot from being pure emotion and chaos, but can sometimes make following relationships a challenge. Tallie, of course, has school friends and acquaintances, all of which are affected by her grief and potentially their own grief over the loss of their friend. Because it’s unclear how big a part any one character will play at any given time (something that also increases the realism), it’s hard to tell which characters deserve the most attention. A naturally flowing timeline adds to the realism, as does  a commitment to providing an ending that is not overly kitschy or predictable.

As a character and narrator, Tallie leans toward the mature with an adult lilt and a willingness to use SAT words in the everyday situation. She’s observant and often self-aware, though not always in the ways she needs to be. Tallie was a person before this event which tore apart her life, and glimpses of that person make her a fascinating character who is affected by her grief but who is not, necessarily, her grief itself. On the flip side, Barnaby shows grief acting in different ways with different people. Not one of the affected characters respond in the same way, and even when they do, it is often for different reasons. Barnaby has a great grasp on each of her characters, making Some of the Parts all the more enjoyable and important.

The story is somewhat too neat by the end, with a suggestion that now that Tallie has gotten over the hump of her grief, she will return to a normal and happy life. The reality is, Tallie will likely return to her grief which will appear in different shapes throughout her life. While that might be too realistic and too grim, I was disappointed to see it left out (at least from my perspective).

Ultimately, I’m so grateful for Some of the Parts. It articulated much of my early months of grief in a way that I could not at the time and can’t now, because the form of my own grief has changed so much. This could not have been an easy book to write and despite this, Barnaby did not make sacrifices in quality just to tell an important story. It’s well-rounded in nearly every way and a great story for those who have not lost a sibling as much as it is for those who have.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Surviving the Death of a Sibling by T. J. Wray

Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies by T.J. Wray
Harmony, 2003, 247 pages
Non-Fiction, Self-Help

There are a whole lot of reasons I don’t want to do this review. I lost my brother to injuries sustained in a car crash in July 2016 and quickly discovered that there are almost no resources for grieving siblings. There are a few Facebook support groups, some hidden in-person groups if you’re lucky, a handful of articles written by people who have probably experienced the death of a sibling but aren’t professionals, and a few obscure books, some of which focus more on being a memoir than on being of use to a grieving sibling. T.J. Wray’s experience losing her own adult brother brought her to write Surviving the Death of a Sibling. The book came highly recommended on the two or three Facebook support groups I’m in and I’d come across it in my search for some kind of literature that would offer practical advice and comfort. So, I read it, and here I am to review it, because I think it’s important we discuss and promote what resources are out there because they are so few.

Wray has a background in religious studies, which may automatically turn some readers off. However, I found the presence of religion to be light in the book, which generally uses the famous stages of grief to move through its content. Although faith of various kinds pop up now and then, Wray does not push any kind of religious agenda nor insist that religion is the way through grief. Her background contributes, however, in making her especially sensitive to the counseling needs of others. Although she experienced her own sibling’s death, she always recognizes the circumstances of other grieving siblings may be very different from her own, and therefore they may find X, Y, Z, or some other, undefined strategy more helpful than what she herself found to be a useful tactic in her process.

For example, while Wray had the benefit of having other siblings to share and understand her grief (although they grieved differently, which caused other challenges), she notes that plenty of siblings suddenly find themselves only children and struggle with that identity, if that is how they choose to view the shift in their life. In other passages, Wray emphasizes that some siblings have the ability to say goodbye, while others do not. She notes this can cause those who watch their siblings pass from illness to go through more than one grieving process (speaking simply, with acknowledgment that the “grief process” isn’t a process in that it eventually comes to an end — it is, in fact, ongoing and evolving rather than something that can ever be considered “finished”), but she also appreciates that many siblings would gladly go through that pain for the chance to say goodbye. Ultimately, Wray’s sensitivity to variables is part of what makes the book so relevant.

Over and over again, I found myself nodding or even stopping to cry when a particularly accurate passage appeared. Wray hits on so many of the things that not only have I felt, but that I’ve seen expressed in the Facebook support groups again and again. Probably most prevalent is the frustration of having the sibling’s grief considered to be disenfranchised. While family, friends, acquaintances, and so on regularly ask siblings how their parents are responding to the tragedy, many forget that the sibling, too, is grieving, and not only this, but has lost a significant part of their past, present, and future.

Wray explains that siblings are often the one constant thing in a person’s life. No one else has quite as similar experiences as our siblings. No one else had our parents or grew up in our home. No one else shares private memories of events at which only the two of you were present. And it’s painful to confront the realization that you are now the sole keeper of these memories and experiences. Maybe you haven’t yet gotten your first “real” job, been married, had children, bought a house — whatever big life events matter to you — and your sibling will not be there to witness them. You’ve lost not only your past, someone with whom to reminisce, but also a part of your future. And any of the events they might have witnessed for you, you may now miss out on witnessing for them.

Earlier chapters of the book are filled with concrete advice readers can put into place in their own lives, particularly for the days immediately following the sibling’s death. Practical advice on funeral arrangements and such are especially useful, though I don’t know that anyone quite has the mind to read in those few free moments during the time of funeral planning.

Wray provides examples not only from her own life, but from a number of interviews she conducted for her research. Ages, causes of death, and other circumstances are varied in these examples, ensuring that readers will find at least a few anecdotes that apply specifically to them. These quotes help to not only offer a source of familiarity of situation but also contribute to the relaxed style of the book. Early on, Wray pledges to write in a style that isn’t overly complicated or burdensome. She recognizes that the reader is probably already overwhelmed and does not need a book full of complex sentence structures and words in the moment. This doesn’t stop the prose from being interesting and engaging, however. Wray is gifted at writing in such a way that holds the attention without drowning the reader.

One drawback I found was outdated resources referenced in the book. A jewelry maker, for example, who does memorial pieces was mentioned in the text and again in the appendix. When I sought out the resource online, I found the jeweler was apparently no longer in business or else known by something else. While I didn’t visit all of the listed resources, I imagine others are now outdated as there has not been a new edition of the book since it was originally published in 2003. (Consequently, I’m hoping to put together a resource list in the next few months.)

Wray’s writing is clear and sympathetic without being pitying. She recognizes the many emotions that come along with being a part of this “club” and offers what wisdom she has gathered over the years since her brother’s death to those who have been grieving for years as well as those who have been grieving for hours or days. If you are a grieving sibling or care about a grieving sibling and wish to better understand their new normal, Surviving the Death of a Sibling is a great place to start.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han

P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han
Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 2015, 352 pages
Young Adult Fiction

The sequel to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, P.S. I Still Love You picks up not long after the ending events of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Now in a relationship with Peter, Lara Jean doesn’t have long to enjoy her new relationship before pictures of her kissing Peter in which she appears nude begin circulating around the school. Things only get more complicated when John, the recipient of one of Lara Jean’s letters from the first book, reappears in a letter to Lara Jean and then reappears in person. Meanwhile, boy-next-door/sister’s ex-boyfriend/crush Josh is distant and Peter is spending more time with his ex-girlfriend, Gen, than makes Lara Jean comfortable. And then there’s the matter of her single father.

Han achieves the same endearing level of authenticity in P.S. I Still Love You as she did in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Lara Jean is deeply flawed and complicated, as are all the characters in the novel, lending the otherwise-standard relationship drama a refreshing new sheen. Lara Jean loves her family despite and because of their quirks, leaving readers with a place in their heart for the charming relationship the Song sisters share. Like its predecessor, P.S. I Still Love You has a sweet, pastel atmosphere to it at times, matching the much-Instagrammed cover (seriously, how gorgeous are this series’ covers?). But it’s not all sugar and roses.

When the book opened with the very real issue of the invasion of privacy, I was hopeful that Han would take advantage of her massive audience to make a difference for young women who, in real life, often find intimate pictures of themselves making their way around the young women’s schools and communities. Due to the nature of the picture of Lara Jean and Peter, many students assume the picture is of the pair having sex. In the reality of the story, Lara Jean’s back was exposed, but the two were kissing — not having sex.

This is important to Lara Jean (and I’ll leave the slut shaming rhetoric for another post), and certainly this picture should not have been taken or shared without her consent to begin with (yes, even if it was just a portrait of her smiling, this would be true), but it’s especially discomforting that this picture being shared is understood, in general, to be of Lara Jean and Peter having sex. This means, for all intents and purposes, the photo being shared is essentially child pornography. Despite this really excellent setup to talk about a massively important issue, Han sidesteps the conflict and it disappears after only a few chapters and no real resolution. This narrative conflict is in fact dropped in favor for a much more cliché story of Peter dedicating seemingly too much attention to ex-girlfriend Gen (for, as it turns out, an equally cliché teen-movie reason), and the book is the worse for it.

Then there’s the issue of John. Though Lara Jean’s relationships with both Josh and Peter in the previous novel sparked with chemistry, Lara Jean’s new love-interest-ish lacks a connection that says anything stronger than friend. Lara Jean’s interesting flaws and complexities come out as she essentially uses John to get back at Peter (who, again, is paying too much attention to Gen for Lara Jean’s comfort). But beyond their friendship, Lara Jean and John have no chemistry, making the conflict of will-she-or-won’t-she feel moot. Han leaves readers with a hopeful cliffhanger in regards to Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship, but in Han’s realistic world, nothing is guaranteed.

This sounds like a grim review. However, if you enjoyed To All the Boys I’ve Loved before, P.S. I Love You is a fun read to follow up the original. Besides, you have to be ready for the upcoming Always and Forever, Lara Jean!

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
Riverhead Books, 2015, 244
Memoir

Before I get to the actual review, I need to tell a little story. It might be upsetting and involves my brother’s death, so if you prefer to skip this bit, I understand. I was reading Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl the day I found out my brother died. In the morning, I read on the Metro train. I arrived at work and, while delivering newspapers, kind of lamented that my life wasn’t more tragic. I didn’t mean it seriously, of course, and internally chastised myself for even having the thought in the first place, but there it was. Great artists, it seems, have tragic lives. Carrie Brownstein didn’t have it easy, yet became a phenomenal musician, writer, and performer. And so it was that I thought, “Maybe if there was more tragedy in my life, I’d be the artist I want to be.” Three hours later I got a call from my parents: my brother was dead. I’m not sure what it is that makes us romanticize the starving/struggling/mentally ill genius/artist. Is it because it’s true? Is it because the examples that are true stick out to us more-so than the “healthy, well-adjusted” artist because they are so out of the norm? I don’t blame myself for my brother’s death — in fact, by the time I had the thought, he’d been gone for a few hours. Eventually, I finished the book, but it has greatly shaped how I experienced the remainder of it and how I remember the beginning.

/End Sob Story

Brownstein begins her memoir with her earliest memories. With a sister and two parents growing up in suburbia as many of us do, Brownstein yearned for a life felt more intensely. She numbly moves through her childhood while dealing with her mother’s eating disorder, then the coming-out of her father later in life, which alters the way Brownstein understands her childhood and the relationships around her. She gets into the riot grrrl scene and starts her own band, Sleater-Kinney. They tour. She gets violent. They stop touring. She deals with her own mental illness, perhaps in a way that conquers leftover feelings from her mother’s illness. And so we have Brownstein’s story.

The book reads a bit like a therapeutic journey for Brownstein, as if it were something a therapist prescribed her to do and it was well-written enough that it became worth publishing. There’s no doubt Brownstein tackles some uncomfortable demons and she never shies away from admitting being wrong in a given action or story. Many times, she views her past self objectively rather than posing herself as some kind of embodied perfection. This has an interesting affect on a book that is decidedly feminist: with this deep level of honesty, Brownstein is unable to directly feminize herself. Instead, Brownstein is simply a human being with feelings, opinions, a past, and hurt. She rejects the idea that there is such a thing in her discussion of interviews in which she was asked what it was like to be a woman in rock music or a rock band of all women. This emphasizes Brownstein not as a woman (whereas many women authors focus on what it means to be a woman in their field/society — which is certainly an important perspective) but as a human being, by turn heightening her humanity and, in some ways, proving by example that women can do or be anything and be just as valid as men. Of course, this is all in the context of the gender binary, which we now know to be false, but fits in this particular work.

The prose style of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is spectacular. Brownstein writes with full impact, employing unusual metaphors that are always painfully accurate and vibrant. She varies her sentence structure and length to greater effect than I’ve seen done most elsewhere. She falls short in content, however, with a division of events that feels disproportionate (focusing largely on her few years touring as opposed to parts of her life that made up greater pieces of time) and an uneven hand on explanations. This is most evident in discussing riot grrrl culture. As someone generally unfamiliar with it, I found myself lost fairly frequently. One moment, Brownstein offered excellent context and description, the next, there was nothing to cling to and build upon as she told her story. Be sure to have a phone or computer nearby to look up bands, songs, places, and more that come up: it makes all the difference in understanding.

Though Brownstein bypasses the thing that arguably made her most famous — her work on Portlandia — there’s a sense that this memoir won’t be the final one. The open-endedness, of course, comes from the fact that Brownstein is still young and has a lot of life left to live. Certainly she’ll have more stories to tell, politics to share, and feelings to parse out. I, for one, will be watching for that next memoir if it does indeed materialize. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Brownstein’s musical and/or comedic work, her memoir speaks to the woman or artist or mentally ill or lost in each of us. Give a read (or try the audiobook, which I hear is even better!).

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Dataclysm by Christian Rudder

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder
Broadway Books, 2014, 320 pages
Nonfiction (Data Science)

Despite not being terribly old, Dataclysm by Christian Rudder already has two editions with two different subtitles. The eBook edition I read had the subtitle of Love, Sex, Race, and Identity while another version emphasizes with Who We Are (When We Think No One Is Looking). I note this because I think this marketing strategy is interesting, especially as the two subtitles are so different and imply completely different things about the content of the book. I’ll also point out that, while I (and many others) pronounce “data” as “date-uh,” the title demands the pronunciation of “dah-tah” to reap the rewards of the, er, pun.

Christian Rudder, as a founder of OKCupid, has access to an extraordinary amount of data (dahtah, I remind myself). While discussing the habits of OKCupid users, Rudder broadens the implications he finds there to the whole of society – at least in America and sometimes beyond. The problem with this, and Rudder does admit it, is his data is not representative of any actual population aside from the population that uses OKCupid. Despite his acknowledgement (and a brief chapter on users who are not WASP-y men), Rudder often writes as if the information he extrapolates from this population can be applied across any and all spectrums. I may only have a minor in Psychology (and, yeah, I avoided the stats class – oops), but even I know that is poor scholarship.

Admittedly, the book is a work of popular nonfiction, so I suppose some might argue it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s interesting and somewhat informative. But the problem with acting as if your research is comprehensive aside from a few nods otherwise is that people will use that information as such and it can do some serious damage to how society ultimately operates. Insidiously, yes, but impactful nonetheless. There’s also a piece Rudder never really did acknowledge – the fact is, there’s only one kind of person who will use OKCupid/dating sites: people who will use OKCupid/dating sites. Meanwhile, Rudder takes the information from this particular dataset and applies much of it to the American population at large. Surely there are at least sometimes fundamental differences between the people who are willing or choose to use dating sites and those who are not. What, for example, about technophobes?

All this said, if you’re a straight, probably-middle-class, white person living in America, you might find a good deal of this book insightful to not only others but yourself. Rudder has an accessible form of writing that makes even complicated data structures, theories, and concepts, easy to grasp for the layperson. Rudder does a pretty excellent job explaining the various graphs he used, some of which were in formats totally new to me, which was exciting (though I made the mistake of reading this on a black-and-white Kindle, which made some interpretation challenging – get the print, if you can). What’s more, he explains it in an order that makes sense and doesn’t bog the reader down with details. Instead, he explains the essentials, points out a few especially interesting details, and leaves the rest (with some encouragement) for you to coax out yourself with careful examination of the graph.

He’s funny, too, though perhaps overly self-deprecating in some parts. One passage leads him to provide a picture of his adolescent-self with no reining in on the punches. Rudder relishes in his nerdiness, which, as it is, happens to be trendy right now, so more power to him. Regardless of his approach, the humor itself adds another layer of accessibility to an otherwise often-inaccessible, but increasingly in-demand and important, subject.

Ultimately, the content in Dataclysm can’t begin to cover the actual topic at hand. Like many a teacher and professor told me, the subject is too broad; narrow it down. Rudder might have done well with this somewhat-nebulous topic if he’d gone more in-depth and written something lengthier, though that would likely take away from its readability and popular intrigue. Smart readers will recognize there’s a great deal of complexity behind each statement that Rudder chooses to avoid, but I’m again torn between feeling this is at the reader’s detriment and feeling the book wouldn’t have such wide appeal if he did go into greater detail.

Dataclysm is a great introduction to the world of data. As someone who primarily lives outside of the data world, I found myself understanding a great deal more about it than I had previously (despite numerous explanations of various data theories and structures from my ever-patient data scientist boyfriend). The organization, for the most part, makes sense and the concrete examples Rudder offers do well to illustrate his points. If data is something you want to “get into” but don’t know where to start, maybe start here and move onto something a little more challenging and in-depth.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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