24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: 4 hearts (page 1 of 2)

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 ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
Simon and Schuster, 2014, 384 pages
YA Realistic Fiction

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han has been getting a lot of attention in the book blog world. (A brief-ish aside here: “Before,” as a preposition in a title, should not be capitalized — however, all of the book sellers are capitalizing it as such and, frankly, it would look weird if it wasn’t capitalized, so this is how it will appear throughout the review. Interestingly, the title on the actual book cover is in all lowercase except the “I” in “I’ve” — I’d be willing to bet it was specifically because of this ambiguity. But, anyway–) To be fair, it does have a gorgeous and incredibly photogenic cover. It’s popped up over and over again on my Tumblr dashboard with comments on the art as well as the contents, so I decided to give it a try.

This young adult novel begins as Lara Jean’s older sister, Margot, prepares to leave for college across the pond in Scotland. Left with her dad and younger sister, Kitty, Lara Jean discovers a hatbox full of letters to boys she has loved over the years has gone missing. It’s not long before she finds out the letters were sent to their addressees, including to the boy next door, Josh, who recently ended his relationship with Margot. Although the letters were intended to be Lara Jean’s way of letting go, she quickly learns she might still have a flickering flame or two still burning as the boys come forward to ask about Lara Jean’s letters.

All right, look, I know this sounds ridiculous and campy and superficial. If you can get past the basic premise, which I realize is asking a lot, it’s so worth it. What I really appreciate about this book is that, in its incredible simplicity (particularly in prose style), it manages to get at incredibly dynamic characters and a heartfelt-yet-poignant story line. It’s very likely, at least in part, the slow start to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is what helps build these unique and realistic characters. As a set of three sisters, the Covey daughters (also known as the Song Girls) seem more like a group of real-life siblings than I’ve ever seen in fiction — the exception being Austen novels.

Though I didn’t notice when reading, it was evident to me, after, how similar this novel is to your average Austen novel. The romance plot gets at much more than romance with subtle societal commentary all while being a realistic portrayal of teenage romance. The complications and conflicts, while not apocalyptic or dire, instill a sense of urgency despite how mundane they are. Like Austen, Han injects her prose with humor and provides her main character with a strong, if a bit immature, voice. The benefit for modern and young readers here is that while Austen’s prose can be dense and long-winded, Han’s prose uses simple (but very effective) sentence structure and a first-person narrator, enabling readers to more easily empathize with Lara Jean.

In my notes for To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I’ve written that the book is, “Feel-good without being gross or cliche or too fairy-tale” and that it’s “like Disney but grounded in reality.” Now, I’m not saying I’d totally go to a To-All-the-Boys-I’ve-Loved-Before theme park within the larger Disney theme park, but I would totally go to a To-All-the-Boys-I’ve-Loved-Before theme park within the larger Disney theme park. Photo op with Lara Jean and her sisters? Yes, please! In fact, I’d love to see a live action Disney production of this book — it’s already got the mother out of the picture in true Disney fashion. (Who am I kidding? The book is — almost — always better than the movie.) In all seriousness, it felt like Tinker Bell had sprinkled just the right amount of fairy dust on this book, making it sweet escapist literature while being firmly rooted in this place we call planet earth. I rarely see this done so well — too often, happy stories (though I can’t say this book has a strictly happy ending because reality) float out of the realm of real life and land elsewhere, providing examples that people can’t aspire to. I don’t think we should necessarily model our lives after fiction entirely, but life imitates art — or, at least it tries to. So, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is an important example of this sort of thing done well.

Let me put it another way — if I had a kid who told me they wanted to be just like Bella Swan when they grew up, I’d be a bit concerned (despite my mixed feelings on Twilight — a whole other story for another day). If I had a kid who told me they wanted to be like Lara Jean? High five! Yeah, Lara Jean makes some questionable choices but she’s a teenager whereas Bella is…a robot. Maybe.

The point is, this book isn’t just well-written and fun and enjoyable. It’s got heart and lessons and a unique sensitivity to what life is actually like. The fact that it does all of this without being boring makes it earn a high rating in my book.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013, 448 pages
YA Fiction

If you’ve been anywhere near young adult lit in the past two years or so, you’ve probably at least heard of Rainbow Rowell and either Eleanor & Park or Fangirl. I finally got around to reading Fangirl recently. As someone who is very much a fangirl, I went into the book expecting to find a character very much like myself in Cath. And I did.

Cath and her twin sister, Wren, are heading to college for the first time. While they’ve decided to attend the same school, Wren is ready to branch out and doesn’t want to be Cath’s roommate. Shy and socially anxious, Cath is paired with Reagan, an older student whose comfort in her own skin is a stark contrast to Cath’s cardigan-wrapped personality. Cath gets two-for-one when Reagan’s boyfriend, Levi, spends most of his time either in Cath and Reagan’s room or working at Starbucks – that is, when he isn’t studying agriculture on campus. Unwilling to leave her room for anything other than class and worrying about her sister whose introduction to college involves heavy partying and a general lack of communication with Cath, Cath struggles to adjust. All the while, she’s IMG_0338dealing with the reentry of her estranged mother into her life and the creeping feeling that maybe she likes the barnacle that is Levi.

So, you may have guessed that I picked up Fangirl with fairly high expectations. You’d be correct. And overall, I think the book did pretty well in the face of those expectations. One of its greatest strengths is its ability to pull the mundane day-to-day into a cohesive and relatively compelling story. The conflict embedded in Cath’s story isn’t terribly pressing. The inability to seamlessly integrate into college life is standard. Thousands of people experience it every year. Even Cath’s social anxiety, while obviously a strong if faceless antagonist in the book, is commonplace. It’s unusual to find a book about just life that doesn’t bore the reader into pitching the book across the room. That’s what makes Fangirl so unusual.

Part of what made the book feel so lifelike was the intersection of details. The problem with this is so many details become overwhelming, so many details are irrelevant to the core plot, and so many details make for a slow read. Fangirl didn’t take forever, but, despite how I liked it in other ways, it felt like it took a long time to get through.

On the other hand, Rowell creates fairly multi-dimensional and realistic characters. Without a true personified antagonist, Rowell is free to design characters that are not evil for the sake of providing a “bad guy” for Cath’s “good guy.” Each character is full of personality, including Cath. Many readers might disagree with this assessment, particularly in regard to Cath because she will be so similar to so many readers. As a (previous) member of this audience – the socially anxious teenage girl obsessed with a specific fandom and dying to write while falling for the boys she’ll never have – a lot of readers will identify with her. I worry this will lead to people describing Cath, then, as a sort-of Mary-Sue. I just don’t feel that’s the case. A character that represents the largest demographic in a population of readers is not, automatically, devoid of character. She’s simply a representative.

Rowell has an excellent grip on what college students are like today. Without being condescending or unrealistic, she tells the story of one college student many readers will see themselves in. With a true-to-life ending full of hope, she leaves her readers reminded of how even the mundane can be extraordinary and even the extraordinary can be normal.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays by Elinor Lipman

I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays by Elinor Lipman
Mariner Books, 2014, 176 pages
Nonfiction Humor Essays

Elinor Lipman’s collection of essays is not a new set of material. Instead, it is truly a collection of her essays – pieces she’d published in journals, magazines, newspapers, and one or two fresh pieces. Despite the age of some of the essays, Lipman’s commentary on life in general remains pertinent to more modern times. Lipman’s main focus rests on her family – a husband and son. Family life frequently intersects with her Jewish heritage while Lipman muses on relationships, blunders, and gratefulness.IMG_0193

I recall one of the blurbs on the book comparing Lipman to a modern-day Jane Austen in the light of social observations. While I agree that Lipman is observant and often amusingly so, I wouldn’t go as far as to say she’s the Austen of the Twenty-First Century. That said, I enjoyed Lipman’s tamer take on the humorous essay. Where other, younger writers come across as having something to prove (often with crass humor that has its place but can become tiresome), Lipman’s age is reflected in her wisdom and her desire to prove something, if it ever existed, has gone long ago. At the same time, Lipman’s prose is that of an old friend’s. That is to say, while Lipman’s maturity is evident in both her content and style, this was not my grandmother writing. Lipman is friendly and engaging, reaching out to women in particular but offering something for everyone.

As different essays are pulled from different sources, I did find the lack of chronological order somewhat disjointing. While Lipman discusses her husband at length, one essay reveals his death shortly before other essays speak of him as a living person (which, of course, he was at the time of their original publication). The organization of essays as it currently is doesn’t add anything particularly compelling to the book as a whole. A chronological set, in fact, might have provided more as Lipman’s opinions change and grow over the years. This “character development” would have been more evident and therefore more interesting if the essays appeared in order.

The words I’d use to describe I Can’t Complain are all pretty bland: nice, pleasant, enjoyable – but don’t let that deter you from picking it up. It’s a fast read. Reading I Can’t Complain will be like spending a few hours with your mother in her most candid state on all topics, but most of all, on life.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Shut Up, You’re Welcome by Annie Choi

Shut Up, You’re Welcome by Annie Choi
Simon & Schuster, 2013, 270 pages
Nonfiction Humor Essays

In an effort to make NaNoWriMo to go more smoothly this year, I’ve been trying to read exclusively collections of humorous essays by women. There are a ton of them out there, but they are not all stellar exemplars. Shut Up, You’re Welcome by Annie Choi isn’t, either, but it’s also not bad. Choi writes largely about her family, though also about friends and other personal adventures in her life. Unlike many similar collections, Choi’s book has the relatively unique perspective of growing up Korean American. This in itself isn’t completely unique. There are many Korean Americans living in the DSC_0025United States. However, Choi’s perspective as an author is unique — racism, intended or otherwise, is alive and well in all facets of life, publishing included. Many of the essay collections you’re likely to encounter are written by white women who grew up in middle class families, probably had a publishing internship, and now live in New York. Such is not the (complete) case for Choi, which makes this selection stand out from the others. Combined with Choi’s generally excellent sense of humor and balanced writing style, it makes Shut Up, You’re Welcome an enjoyable read.

After reading a few collections already, one of the things I most appreciated about Shut Up, You’re Welcome, was Choi’s sense of humor. All humor essayists have some sense of humor or they wouldn’t be writing what they do. Choi’s humor, however, generally refrains from much of the problematic “jokes” I’ve read in other books. It’s not completely free of issues, but is far better than some of the others. The Harm in Asking by Sara Barron, Is Everyone Hanging out without Me? by Mindy Kaling, and The Idiot Girl’s Action-Adventure Club by Laurie Notaro (at least what I’ve read so far of that one) fares far worse with “humor” about rape, trans* people, eating disorders, self harm, and various other things that really should not be joked about, some while decrying cheap humor based on “roasting” individuals. Choi, for the most part, avoids this. This does not mean her book is any less funny. In fact, I think the lack of these “jokes” makes the book more hilarious because I’m not constantly stopping to think, “Woah, went too far there. Now I’m going to be uncomfortable for the next five paragraphs.” This also indicates to me that Choi is reaching for higher forms of humor that are not as easy to achieve, but more admirable both in content and effort.

Choi also strikes the delicate balance of making fun of her family and their particular ways without making them totally unlikable or crossing the line after which they’d no longer wish to speak with her. (At least that’s my guess; I don’t know Choi’s family personally.) You grow to love Choi’s family throughout the book and, by the end, they feel like a part of your family. Chances are, you’ll likely find at least one trait from each “character” that mirrors that of someone in your life.

The prose which makes up Choi’s essays is equally well-crafted. Creative nonfiction can be difficult to do well, as employing too much dialogue ensures a lack of realism while too little can make for boring chapters. Choi seems to rely on regular phrases and verbal quirks of the people around her, picking up on pieces that will make her “characters” memorable for the reader. Setting is done similarly well, as Choi gives enough detail to settle the reader into a scene without drowning them in so much that the action of the scene is lost. Essays are fairly good lengths for people who enjoy reading for half-hour increments or so. They’re kind of like the “pick your own size” paper towels. What I really love about Shut Up, You’re Welcome, however, is its gimmick. I love a good gimmick. For Choi, the gimmick is short letters between each essay. The letters serve two purposes: to provide a breather piece between longer pieces and to introduce the following piece in some way. Letters are addressed to anyone or anything, and Choi refuses to hold back on how she really feels.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Gallery Books, 1999, 213 pages
YA Realistic Fiction

Charlie is starting high school. Charlie has a lot of doubts. Charlie is about to learn a lot about himself and the world. With the help of an English teacher, Charlie decides it’s time to reinvent himself as someone who “participates” as opposed to someone who observes. The first step is to make some friends. Writing to an unnamed “friend,” Charlie details the sequence of his growth and the lives of the people around him.

Well, finally. I know, I know, it took me far too long to get around to reading this one. But it’s happened at last! I’ll say up front that I wasn’t quite as enchanted by it as everyone else I seem to know and their grandmother, but that’s okay. I agree that IMG_2988it’s a pretty important book — sure, literature, even — and not a bad read. If you know anything about Perks at all, you probably know it deals with a lot of heavy material. As someone who hasn’t been subjected to most of these heavy and unfortunate events, I’ll venture to say that I feel Chbosky dealt with them with sensitivity and honesty, which can be a difficult balance to strike. (I’ll emphasize again, though, that I’ve never suffered from the more severe things that occur in the book and, while I saw Chbosky’s handling as appropriate, others may find it insensitive or triggering which is totally valid.)

Chbosky has also clearly mastered Charlie’s voice and its evolution within Perks. While I can’t say that I’m familiar with any of other Chbosky-material, it seems to me Charlie has a very distinct and deliberate voice. I got the sense that Chbosky may always use this voice in other writing — that is, the voice is very much his and while it’s strong, unique, and evident within the text, it makes him out to be a sort-of one-trick-pony. But, being unfamiliar with his screenplays and such, I can’t say that for certain. And I digress — this review is about Perks, not Chbosky’s entire body of work.

There are three particular points that I’m interested in discussing here, but given that it would involve spoilers, I’ll refrain. Instead, if you’ve read the book, I’ll just encourage you to think about Bill (what did you expect of his relationship with Charlie? I was completely surprised by his motives), the recipient of Charlie’s letters (does identity matter?), and Charlie’s main trauma (nothing in particular, and I understand why Chbosky included it the way he did, although it didn’t fit in with the way I understood the story was “working”). Obviously Perks gives readers a lot to think about.

And it’s partly that which has made people so angry about it. In their handy list of frequently challenged books, the ALA has reported Perks as being challenged with dizzying frequency over the years. This comes as no surprise — the book, intended for and marketed a young adult audience, contains anything and everything various groups might find offensive or distasteful (this is not to say I agree with any of them): drugs, sex, rape, incest, homosexuality, feminism, underage drinking, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Shall I go on? I’m not one for censorship, though from a literary perspective, I thought Chbosky put more on his plate than he could handle. While each of these topics are touched on (and some repeatedly), the sheer volume of heavy topics makes it difficult to digest any one of them within the context of the book. And with Charlie’s sometimes-vague prose, it’s sometimes hard to even know what, actually, the issue is. None of these issues are more or less valid than any of the others, but by cramming them all into such a small book, their treatment is severely diminished.

A lot of people have, in my memory, compared Perks to The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. I can see the similarities and the influence, but the books have a very different atmosphere. Where Holden Caulfield of Catcher is cynical, Charlie is curious and hopeful. This makes all the difference.

Generally not a bad read, but not one to rush through — read, digest, repeat.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Gated by Amy Christine Parker

Gated by Amy Christine Parker
Random House, 2013, 335 pages
YA Thriller

When Lyla’s big sister disappears days before 9/11, a charismatic and empathetic man shows up at her family’s home. They’re meant to come with him and help build a community in preparation for the arrival of the apocalypse and the image1Brethren . Distraught over the loss of a child and the chaos of the events of September 11, 2001, Lyla’s parents decide to join Pioneer and his mission. Now, Lyla is seventeen and things in the community are tense. The local sheriff is checking in on them, along with his son, Cody. Now, Lyla doesn’t know who or what to believe as the days between the present and the apocalypse shorten.

Parker clearly did her research when completing this novel. Each chapter begins with a quote, most of them from famous leaders of the past. Pioneer exhibits textbook characteristics of manipulation, making the plot stand strong in the face of any unrealistic moments. The novel takes on a fascinating topic that can lead to a rabbit hole of research for the reader. While the pace and movement of the story feels a bit off, the overall content of the plot carries on well and is well-planned and just plain interesting.

Because of the textbook-like personality of Pioneer, some of his actions and words do come across as slightly campy. Given that readers are not supposed to trust Pioneer, I don’t feel that those moments draw too much on the book. Each other character was fairly well-developed and easily distinguishable from other characters in the novel. Parker also managed to avoid clichés, which I thought particularly impressive given how easy it would have been to fall into them in writing this novel. Lyla’s character development is relatively minimal — we see more of a change in what she knows as opposed to who she is, though it’s there if you look for it.

Parker’s writing style flows nicely with no distractions. If you’re looking for something a bit more descriptive and visceral, like Michael Grant’s Gone series, this might not be the thing. That said, if you enjoyed the Gone series, Gated is worth checking out if you don’t mind being a little underwhelmed in the visceral reaction department.

According to Parker’s website, Gated is followed up by Astray in a continuation of Lyla’s story and the consequences of the previous novel. I plan on checking it out as a testament to my enjoyment of Gated. Happy reading!

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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