Monday, January 8, 2018

The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas

I'm trying to read more middle grade and children's fiction this year! I've been working as a children's librarian, which is amazing, but I've realized that I'm really not "with it" anymore. Kids come in asking for suggestions and it takes me a good twenty minutes to pinpoint a book in their reading level that fits their description. I know it's partly because kids can be picky and weirdly specific, and because programs like Accelerated Reader are slowly prying all the magic and discovery out of reading by pigeonholing kids into a very narrow "reading level" range from which they can pick from and earn points on books they're not really into in exchange for paltry rewards like a holographic bookmark or the prestige of being the principal, who instituted the heinous Accelerated Reader program in the first place, for a day. Has any child used their chance at being principal for the day to abolish the Accelerated Reader system? Anyway, I've realized I need to be better informed so that when a kid tells me they can't read a book that really looks amazing because it's .01 points below their assigned reading level, I can tell them exactly what they're missing, thereby sowing the seeds of discontent in a new generation.

The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole is a book I'll proudly dangle in front of the reading level-bound masses. It took me a few chapters to get into it - our main character, Stella, is sarcastic and the whole book is just a tad tongue-in-cheek, which was jarring as I had already wrongly typecast this as being a sad book only (Stella is dealing with the loss of her dad); it takes place in the 1970s and I realized that way too late and after too many Carl Sagan references; and everyone has weird space names (Cosmo, Tony Luna, Stella, etc). 

But, once I got in the groove, I grew to love this book. It features a funny, sarcastic girl who loves science and dreams of working at NASA someday. She's strong and brave and isn't embarrassed to love her stinky, weird brother. Her father recently passed away and she's struggling with her emotions, but that's okay! It doesn't make her weak or girly - it makes her human. 

What I loved most about this book was the way Stella dealt with her sadness (believe it or not, the pet black hole who follows her home is actually a big gaping symbol for the black hole inside of Stella). She cares for it, she gives it what it needs, because it's a part of her, and she cares about herself. One of my favorite lines comes at the end of the novel: 

"They say that a black hole lives at the center of every galaxy. And I believe that now. There would always be a black hole at the center of me, my galaxy, my life. But it's mine. It's part of me. I faced it. I trained it. I tamed it. And finally, I set it free. There's a hole at the center, but that's okay, because it's full of such beautiful, beautiful things."

I've been continually surprised by how many parents come to the library asking for suggestions for their children only to look at me in horror when I mention that a book is sad. "We don't read sad things," they say. Uh, I only read sad things, so... I try to explain to them that sadness is an emotion that must be explored, confronted, maybe even stewed in for a while, and that books are the perfect practice range for this type of thing, and that their children will be better equipped for having already dwelt there, but no. "We're trying to avoid that particular emotion," said one. I get it if you've just gone through a trauma, but to deny sadness forever is to deny a great swath of being human and it just pisses me off so much. And how boring are books that feature like, no stinging conflict, no risk, no growth? Enjoy your novelization of the Minions movie, kid. Stella herself says it best: 

"I felt less alone, that was for sure. I realized how much my brother and I needed each other. I realized how much I took Mom for granted, and how much I missed her while we were gone. I guess that's what pain can do if you allow it: crack you open, let light in, and show you what's on the inside. Our adventure through the dark had shown me shades and hues of myself that I couldn't have otherwise seen." 

All of that for a whopping 5 Accelerated Reader points!!!!!!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

TheMystery.doc by Matthew McIntosh

Part of my problem is that I compare every uniquely formatted novel to House of Leaves. TheMystery.doc is nothing like House of Leaves - it isn't even in the same genre, or really formatted at all like House of Leaves, so, naturally, I'm disappointed. But if I look past my bigotry, I can appreciate TheMystery.doc for what it is. At least, I think I can? It turns out that I'm not really sure what it is. But I liked it... I think. Do you see what I'm getting at here?

This is a frustrating book. Sometimes you'll be in a groove, and you'll feel the epiphany coming. And then it'll all get dashed away with a series of movie stills that you can't quite piece together, or three pages of asterisks. Then the scene will shift and you've forgotten the hard-won revelation. Soon, you'll just be thankful that you can recognize your own emotions. I felt sad a lot, I felt frustrated most of all, and sometimes I was intrigued (does anyone know why the inside flaps say this is a funny book?). Maybe that's the point? That everything is always ripping away from us and all we really know is how we feel? 

I don't know. NPR did a really nice review, and I think it explains how a book I didn't understand at all deserves 3 stars: "... And then, for some reason, something would catch my eye. A phrase, a picture, something, and something would turn over in my chest and I'd get it. I'd understand what McIntosh was doing. And I'd love the damn book for making me feel the way that almost no book ever has — for making me feel alive and rooted in this one stupid world of ours with all its randomness, all its awfulness and all its beauty. Then, five minutes later? Back to hating it"

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

As a grandchild of Scots-Irish hillbillies from a real life holler, I couldn't wait to read this book. I even went to the same undergraduate school as Vance. I was so ready to find a description of myself in these pages, but I honestly found myself more alienated with every chapter.

I loved the descriptions of his family and their antics, his methods of coping and his struggles. These felt like home. I, too, had a conditional mother with substance abuse problems, a cavalcade of aunts and uncles with murders and abuse under their belts who I love like hell, stories that make some people cringe or run in fear, but fill me with that weird familial pride. But it seems that's where our paths diverge. I don't know if Vance and I are just on two different poles of the political spectrum, but I often found the author weirdly calloused when it came to the plight of our ancestors.

I routinely felt like Vance was slipping into the old "the poor just don't work hard enough!" territory that oppresses and keeps oppressed so many of the disadvantaged. Vance explores the motives, pitfalls, and victories of two subsets of society that I'm sure do exist: the lazy pessimists who let the world roll over them and then blame the world for rolling; and the motivated poor who reach out for help, open themselves up to some serious introspection, and clamor wildly and passionately up out of the holler, Yale degree in tow. But what about the people in the middle? What about the people trapped in vicious cycles of poverty, isolated from assistance and health insurance, unable to obtain good birth control, unable to travel to get the training they need for the jobs they want, isolated from the extended family structures Vance so heavily relied upon? Are they poor because they haven't been able to really admit to their shortcomings, or because they have to pay over half of their wages to live in a sub par apartment in a town laid out in such a way to require the purchase of a car, acquiring increasingly more debt, even though they know it's all wrong?

It makes sense that Vance would write about what he knows, but from my experience, most of the hillbillies I know and love fall into this third unmentioned category. Hell, until I moved in with my husband I was in this category. I had a good job that paid just enough to keep me content, but not enough to save. I was unhappy there, but couldn't leave because of my debt. Vance warns us not to blame the government or society, but I feel like more outreach, more education, might be a partial answer here. For example, my great grandmother was an amazing woman. She had her first child at 14 and didn't stop having a kid every two years for 20 years until her eldest child returned from the flatlands of Ohio and told her mother about birth control. Until this revelation, the rumor was that great grandpa would drunkenly jump on her stomach, upset that he'd have another mouth to feed. I can't help but wonder how more assistance and education would have improved her life. Maybe, sometimes, I can blame society.
A relative's home in my native West Virginia.

I wonder, though, if I'm just falling into something I've noticed many of my Appalachian relatives do: am I engaging in a perverse pissing contest? Was my holler the poorest, was my grandmother the most slighted, did my Papa walk farther to school, in deeper snow, with thinner shoes?

Still, I enjoyed this book. I just wish it didn't read like a college entrance essay, a gear-up for a run for public office, or a letter back home ("Look at how good I did, Pa!"). Vance has had an intensely interesting life and will no doubt accomplish many wonderful things, I just hope he is able to look beyond his own experience and open himself up even more to the plight of the poor. If this book had focused less on what Vance considers successful, and more on the personal, I would have been hooked. Maybe I would have preferred a biography of Mamaw.

Friday, June 30, 2017

American Eclipse by David Baron

I'm not an astronomer by any stretch of the word, but I do hold a special fondness for the night sky and for anyone, amateur or otherwise, who studies it. Here are some of my fondest moments: My dad, ushering us outside, watch held up high, counting down the seconds until a satellite streaks overhead. The first one to spot it won - though the prize, a dim feeling that you knew the universe best, had communed with it somehow - was intangible. Laying with my sister in the middle of the road (something our dad didn't entirely approve of) and watching the Perseid meteor shower on an August night, counting shooting stars (the goal: over a hundred), getting scared out of our minds when sounds came from the nearby underbrush. Listening to my dad recount the pure wonder of watching the moon landing on television.

So, the upcoming "Great American Eclipse" on August 21, 2017, which, as it happens, is also our first wedding anniversary, is something I expect to add to that litany of astronomical wonders I hold dear. However, I don't really know much about eclipses, and I refuse to show up to a party unprepared, which is how I ended up reading American Eclipse by David Baron.

This is the story of the 1878 eclipse that shadowed much of the American west. Scientists, spurred on by a rivalry with Europe, flocked to the dusty, ramshackle railroad towns in the line of totality, hoping to find something to cement their places in history. They encountered Native Americans, women aiming to prove that they had a place in science, horrid weather, and a lot of big egos. I found the interpersonal relationships mentioned in this book almost as interesting as the science itself.

I felt fully immersed in the Victorian setting, which, I found, I didn't know as much about as I thought I did! I had no idea what the average person's perception of science was, how people of different classes traveled long distances, how newspapers functioned, all of it! I was surprised by Thomas Edison's involvement and reputation among scientists and truly enjoyed the descriptions of the west. I might even give a Western a chance - there's just something appealing about it. This is one of the most informative books I've read in a long time.

Even if you're not an umbraphile (a person who loves and chases solar eclipses), this book is a well-written and fascinating glimpse into a formative period of American history.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I know the last thing the world needs is another review of Fangirl. Rainbow Rowell needs no help, and the vast majority of people on Earth have already made up their minds about the book, but here I am, with something (hopefully) to say.

I love Rainbow Rowell, but I was late to the party. When stumbling across the stacks of pastel hardcovers in the bookstore, I very nearly hissed. Too cute. Too girly. Not my thing. I had a bad experience while watching Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and swore off the cutesy twee genre all together. But then I read Landline, then I read Attachments, and then I fought my urge to put holds on every Rowell book in my local library system.

So, I came into Fangirl with high hopes. The beginning half of the book was perfect. God, I was Cather Avery (with a little bit of drunken Wren thrown in for good measure). This could have been my autobiography. Rowell so perfectly captures the chaos and the pain of college - of anxiety - of being thrown somewhere you know you have to be. It hurt. How many times have I tried to explain to people about the fashion show that is undergraduate English (outfits fresh from Urban Outfitters and ModCloth - oxfords without scuffs, socks with frills on them. Frills!)?  The whole big glaring problem of boys. Of people in general. The seething resentment toward Uggs. The plight of a writer finding her way. IT WAS SO GOOD.

And then, it just wasn't. I found myself getting so frustrated with Cath's stubborn/forced innocence, of her preachy attitude, that I wanted to slam her head in her precious laptop over and over. Of course, maybe I was just seeing too much of myself there and I was so overcome with shame that I turned to violence, but there was just something boring, something bland about Cath in the second half. It felt like she stopped growing. True, she did come to terms with many facts of life, wrote her final project without complaining, and didn't give in to Nick's old-world eyebrows, but, most of her self-righteousness was rewarded. Should Wren have been punished so completely? Should Levi have acquiesced to her every demand - grade dropping because of her? Cath was proven right more often than she learned lessons, and, well, that was not my experience in college, to say the least. I wish Cath had done a shot of tequila upon completing Carry On, Simon, just to show us she was fallible, too.

Also  - does she kill Baz or not!?

3.5 stars: Puking from excitement while waiting in line for the script from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to come out. Your vomiting has proved your dedication to the series, but you totally ruined your robe.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

Warning: You can't really talk about this book without spoilers.

I’ve owned this book for a while, constantly confusing it with the similarly named The Girl on the Train. There was some chick involved and she partook in transportation – that’s all I knew. I’ve finally read both, and now I’ll definitely be able to keep them straight.

The science fiction aspect of this novel is really interesting. I wouldn’t be opposed to reading another story set in this version of the future. The technologies characters interact with (such as the Trail, the womb-like pods Meena sleeps in, the desalinators, scrolls, and other artifacts of a connected world) take on a sentience that puts me in mind of the conscious ocean of Solaris.

On the surface (Is this too subtle of a pun?), I loved the image of the Trail. The barren expanse of it, the mythologies created around a glorified generator that echo traditional Hindi lore, the ghosts, living and dead, who frequent its scales. Some imagery in this novel is static and concrete – I may even consider some metaphors explainable. The obvious symbol of the snake, once feared, once lost (and even once imagined), ultimately conquered is one of the anchor points on which you can find solid-footing. However, other symbols, like glistening, alluring mercury, slip right through your fingers, over and over. But they are no less beautiful for it, and, perhaps, derive their power from their ever-shifting, transitory nature (just as the Trail derives power from unpredictable, destructive waves [I am on a roll today, sorry]). This is a fancy way of me saying that I was pretty confused sometimes, but enjoyed it.

The simultaneously most powerful and most confusing trope in the novel was the cyclical nature of motherhood:  the incestuous nature of being our own mothers while committing matricide. The women of this novel strive to accept their deepest selves all while rejecting their most immediate impetuses.  Do our mothers create us, or do we create them? This novel questioned the place from which identity derives, and tested the hypothesis: can an identity, and the traumas therein, be transferred? I knew Meena and Mariama were careening toward each other, through time and space, but I was not exactly sure how they’d be fused together. Who was to be the mother? Who was to be the daughter? Was the bond genetic, mystical, religious, imposed by another hand, a complete fantasy? And that confusion reinforced the idea that it did not really matter: they are each other’s mother, because they are each other, and they are simultaneously a god-figure, full of life and prophecy, and a bringer of murder and lunacy, to repeat indefinitely, defined by one another.

I’m stealing this symbol from a Goodreads review of the novel, because it’s just so fitting:



This was a strange, complex novel, but not at all unapproachable. Trust your intuition while reading and don’t let yourself get hung up on the million mysteries in the beginning. The “golden meaning,” as Yemaya would call it, will sneak up on you in its own time. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

I endured a whole 49 pages of Hausfrau before remembering that I have free will. I then promptly deleted the title from my Kindle.

I wanted to read this book the moment it came out. I saw the cover (the pretty floral one, not the tacky one of boobs) on a “New Releases” list and have pined for it since.

I ignored the “Madame Bovary meets 50 Shades!!!!!!” blurb across the front, because marketing, and I looked past the horrid cover of the new editions, because marketing (Remember when they made those classics with the Twilight-esque covers? Oh…), but I shouldn’t have. Sometimes warning signs are actually warning signs.

I wanted to read a story about a pretty woman with a troubled mind. I wanted her to be bored and destructive, empowered and lovely - so full of her own misgivings that she is driven to stasis. I wanted this book to be the erotic, literary masterpiece the world so desperately needs. I wanted this book to pull sex out of the realm of smut and into the inner-circle of art. Sometimes I just want too much.

I instead found a book about a boring, flat woman who has a lot of sex and is promptly punished for it - the literal tolling of church bells ticking away her every indiscretion (SHE LIVES NEXT TO A CHURCH - PLEASE!). Anna, our oh-so-complex main character, is revealed to us in a series of wordy descriptions, her interactions with her family told, not shown. Then there is the most clich├ęd psychiatrist in literature that I’ve ever seen - she speaks in vague, pretentious half-thoughts. She shows up randomly throughout scenes to remind us how troubled Anna is. She is GOING TO A COUNSELOR, YOU GUYS. She’s real messed up!!1!!!rlkmf

There is no such thing as a graceful, subtle symbol here. Essbaum shoves her literary devices down our throats until we’re sore (Imagine how violent this review would be if I had read the book all the way through!). It’s well written in the sense that it’s grammatically correct, but intellectually, it’s more of the same trite bullshit we’ve been trained to want and like. A metaphor does not a literary novel make, and a story about sex doesn’t make you progressive, or empowered, or daring if it’s just reinforcing the idea that being anything but normal makes you broken. Hell, maybe I am wrong. Maybe this book folds in upon itself and Essbaum says, “Isn’t this all so funny?” and we drink wine and revel in satire and cry until we wash away the horrible, horrible first 50 pages of this book and we can all go out later and listen to cool riot grrrl music and everything will be okay.

Maybe I am not being entirely fair. I’m always looking for a Milan Kundera novel – waiting for the story of a relationship that is fervent in its decay, and lyrically told. Affairs that are beautiful because they’re horrible. You know, that sort of thing. When stacked next to the Unbearable Lightness of Being, there’s really only one similarity.