Sep 1, 2014

Exploring the Idea of What Makes a Life Exciting Enough for a Book Through Two Very Normal Lives With Different Resulting Books

My Week In Books

I was trying to explain a book I read earlier this week to my husband and said, "You know how all of our lives aren't interesting enough to really be the subject of a book?" His response was a well-timed, "Speak for yourself!" I stand by the question though. Not all of us lead a life that merits a book. That said, in the hands of the right author, maybe any type of life can make for an interesting read.

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I really enjoyed Someone by Alice McDermott because it was so beautifully written. I was surprised by how quickly I read it because it was also pretty painfully normal. Just on the right side of being downright dull. It was this book that inspired the conversation between Wonder Boy and I. I put it down thinking, "Well, that was a nice book about a nice person." And "nice" is certainly a positive word. But "nice" isn't what sticks in your memory days, weeks, months, years later. "Nice" is something you do to pass the time and set aside later.

Briefly, against better judgement, I had myself believing that stories had to be about interesting people to make for interesting books. I've many times over seen that that's not the case, and still...

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A while back, a co-worker of mine had her niece shadow her for a day, to learn about the workplace. Throughout the day the niece sat down with different people to learn what they did. With me, we spent most of the time talking about her art and love of cosplay, something about which I know and care very little.  She showed me her portfolio and it introduced me, briefly, to a world of fandom like I've never known. People were rendering characters in new ways, writing fan fiction, developing costumes they would like to see characters wear...  It was wild.

In Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Cath is not only comfortable in the world of fan fiction, she's one of it's bigger celebrities. She's fallen so in love with the world and characters in a series much like Harry Potter (I say, never having read those books), that she reinterprets the relationships between all of the characters, developing entirely new storylines. Thousands of people log in every days to read her new installments.

The fan fiction is an outlet for Cath when life gets too hard. When her dad falls too far into the depths of mental illness, when she misses the mother who long ago abandoned her and when she feels inferior to her outgoing, popular twin sister, Gwen. When Cath and Gwen go off to college, the world of fan fiction based on Young Adult novels seems less like a cool outlet and more like a safety net.

Over the course of her freshman year, Cath doesn't entirely let go of her fictional world, but she does learn her way through the more tangible, real world.

Rainbow Rowell is a delightful writer. I started this book before bed and then took advantage of a Labor Day off work and finished the book over a lazy, rainy morning indoors. I've now read three of the five books Rowell has penned (see Landline and Eleanor and Park) and I am looking forward the checking out the other two.

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Rowell reassured me that you don't need an outlandish tale to make a good story. Sometimes tyne simplest of stories can pull you in so that in a matter of hours, you've read an entire book. McDermott didn't achieve that with me, but her writing was the sort I lingered over to enjoy the words. And maybe that was pleasure enough.

Someone by Alice McDermott and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

Aug 26, 2014

Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Close - The Different Ways We Preserve Memories

In 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino, the main character Madeleine is dealing with the loss of her mother. Before her mom passed away, she created a recipe box of instructions. “Do what scares you.” “Know yourself.” It’s a heartbreaking, lovely idea, creating a way for a young child to maintain a connection to their mother, to have memories they might be too young to form.

There are so many different ways we can cherish the memory of a loved one. I like how the memories we keep so often reflect the personality of the person we miss

Memories in Plain Sight

When I had my First Communion, my aunt Betty gave me a gold ring with a turquoise stone that was given to her by her aunt. Thinking back, that was a crazy thing to do! I can barely keep track of jewelry now, but at seven … no chance. And yet, somehow I still have it! I’ve long since outgrown the dainty little ring, but sometimes still wear it on a chain as a pendant. When I think back on Betty, I don’t remember her as girly or prissy or someone who would make a big deal over jewelry. But, she was my grandparents’ only daughter and I think that status carried with it some privilege of being different in a family with five sons. I’m excited for when I get to pass the ring on to a niece

A pinky ring given to me by my aunt Betty.

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Almost every day I wear my grandmother’s engagement ring on my right ring finger. It is so not my style to cover myself in jewels, but that sparkly ring reminds me not only of my grandmother but also of the bond she and I shared. On my left hand, my wedding band is a simple silver ring. I like it for its simplicity. It’s there to symbolize my relationship with my husband and doesn’t need any flash added to it for other people to admire. My grandmother had a similar wedding band and later in life she asked that I make sure she was buried with that ring on – she had never taken it off since her wedding day. I, likewise, haven’t removed my ring since getting married. It’s a simple gesture, but one that bonds me to her

Memories in Details

When I was younger, my grandpa would take me and my siblings to the pond to feed the ducks. I don’t really know where the pond was or how many ducks we successfully fed, but I can describe for you in great detail the food we used. Off of my grandparents’ kitchen was a stairwell into their basement with a landing midway with a door that led outside. Just after the landing there was a shelf of sorts that ran parallel to the ceiling. Right at the end closest to the steps, my grandfather kept a brown paper bag filled with corn. It was always folded over and kind of solid like a brick, rather than a loose sack. Long after he died, while my grandmother was still, living there, the last bag of corn he’d bought stayed on the shelf. I recently learned that my uncle saved that bag and it’s sitting in a drawer in his kitchen. That made me so happy, knowing that something that holds only sentimental value but means so much to me still exists.

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When we were in Cleveland, in between trip to feed the ducks, my grandmother would take us on trips to Convenient, a local convenience store. Being kids form the suburbs with nowhere specific we could walk or bike to, trips to Convenient were a big deal. And bless my grandma, she saw how much fun we had on those trips and would manage to drag one short shopping list into many, many walks to the store. “Ooops, we need butter!” “We ran out of milk!” I cannot imagine how much extra she spent shopping there versus somewhere else. When we got a little older we were able to ride our grandparents’ 3-speed bikes to the store. My grandma’s had baskets on the side, which was especially handy when being sent on errands at Convenient. I have lots of funny stories about my grandma but some of my favorite are walking side by side with her just to go buy some overpriced milk.

Memories in the Future

When offered with the option of taking French, German, Spanish or Latin in high school, I quickly chose German. My grandpa had told me that if I took German, he would send me on my school’s class trip to Europe. I am no fool. Ich spreche Deutsch. Looking back on that gift, it was a weird one. I am one of about a bajillion grandkids but the only one, to my knowledge, who got that offer. Maybe my grandpa thought I had an aptitude for German? (Notsomuch.) That trip to Europe set the stage for so much, though. Over the course of 10 days I visited England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Austria. I think that a whirlwind itinerary like that is part of the reason I now try and spend a more extended period of time in each place I visit and not over-schedule my time. I’ve now been to 22 countries (23 if you count the U.S.!) with more already being planned for. That plan to teach me German might have failed, but the side effect of infecting me with the travel bug? Love it.

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In 2012 my godmother, Fish, died. She wasn’t someone who I spoke with on any regular basis, but she was a constant source of support and inspiration for me. I know people who travel alone, but Fish travelled. She went to places on her own, without a tour, that would intimidate most people traveling in groups. If she wanted to see a place, she just did it. What’s so valuable about knowing someone like that is that it illustrates to you what is doable. And so when Wonder Boy and I discuss our next travel location, nothing seems out of bounds. If Fish could do it, I can do it.

Me with my backpack on a trip in Spain.

What are the ways you cherish the memories of loved ones?

I read 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas as part of From Left to Write and received a copy of the book as part of that book club. Read more about what I thought of this book.

2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino.

Aug 25, 2014

A Little Girl Finding Her Voice Behind a Microphone and a Teen Losing Her Voice to the Voices in Her Head

My Week in Books

This week I jumped into two books with little information about them. The first was a book club selection and the entirety of the information I'd learned beforehand was, "it's about jazz." The second book made a list of YA books to watch out for on Buzzfeed, from which I added a lot of books to my To Read list and hoped for the best.

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Madeleine Altimari is the clear star of 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino. While there are other interesting story lines related to hers, Bertino does a great job of developing a spunky character in Madeleine. She's a driven little girl of nine who frequently turns to the instructional notecards left behind by her recently deceased mother and who grades herself (literally) on daily exercises to help with a future singing career. She has a mouth like a sailor and few friends, aside from the family friends working to care for Madeleine while her father loses himself in the despair over his wife's death.

A favorite excerpt:
Madeleine prefers to spend this and every recess alone, singing scales under her breath, walking laps up and down the parking lot. Madeleine has no friends. Not because she contains a tender grace fifth graders detect and loathe. Not because she has a natural ability that points her starward, though she does. Madeleine has no friends because she is a jerk.
That had me laughing when I read it the first time, when I read it aloud to my husband and again while typing it here.

Later in the book, Madeleine reacts to her principal over an injustice regarding carmel apples, head lice and expulsion by yelling, "This is f---ing bullish--." Were the character a boy, I don't think that would have caused a reaction from me. But for some reason, that language coming out of a little girl's mouth slayed me.

I don't quite know how to properly sum up the plot of 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas and not give anything away. I can say this: Bertino has a quirky writing style that's not quite linear but still beautiful. A few times I found myself paying extra attention to the time stamps at the beginning of each chapter just to make sure I knew where I was. For me, having to take that brief, extra moment, helped me slow down and appreciate that book a little more, rather than just fly through the story.

I enjoyed this and look forward to reading peoples' thoughts about it in the From Left to Write book group and hearing from my friends at my regular book club next month - the book was a selection for both.

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Buzzfeed lists might not be the most reliable source of book recommendations, or anything else, but they've been doing me pretty right in terms of young adult reading selections.

The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wonder is about two good friends, Hannah and Zoe. They've been friends since kindergarten and have each other's back during the trials of high school. Where Hannah is goal-oriented, cares very much about her grades and her future, Zoe is a free spirit who's demons appear in the form of bipolar disorder. While Zoe has spent much of their friendship guiding Hannah through the social intricacies of  popularity (or lack thereof) and supporting her through parental implosion, Wunder focuses this story on a period when Zoe especially needs the support of her friend.

I read this book during an afternoon at the pool and liked it but can't say I loved it. I appreciated seeing books about mental illness targeted at young people, to help start a conversation about the diseases and reduce stigma. That said, I'd like to think the books offer some implicit guidance on how to handle mental illness. Maybe it's just learning how to be there for a friend, knowing when medical support is needed to when to go to an adult, but literature can play a powerful role in teaching people, through the power of story, how to approach serious situations. Looking to The Museum of Intangible Things for guidance on mental health would be to the detriment of everyone. As an example of friendship, however, it is well done.

2 am at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino and The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder.

Aug 18, 2014

An Introduction to Harry Hopkins, the Man Who Influenced Roosevelt, Churchill and the Outcome of World War II

My Week In Books

There’s certain parts of WWII history that I know from reading so many novels and history books set in the time period. America’s active participation in World War II occurred after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. If Winston Churchill had gotten his way, American forces would have joined the fighting about 11 months prior. American sentiment about World War II was greatly influenced by World War I, influential isolationists like Charles Lindbergh and the idea that the United States could support the allied forces through things like the Lend-Lease bill. Not one used to being told no, Churchill kept at Franklin Delano Roosevelt, trying to persuade him to help support the British.

All of the above is history I’ve heard dozens of times. James MacManus, in his novel Sleep in Peace Tonight, introduced me to a new element in the decision about whether the United States would or would not join World War II. He got me interested in learning more about a topic I thought I was done with. He taught me about Harry Hopkins.

Hopkins was a good friend and trusted adviser of FDR. His opinion carried so much weight with FDR that it led to tension between FDR and his cabinet members. Hopkins opinion was sought on many matters and he lived in the White House with frequent access to the President. When FDR needed more information about the fighting in Europe, and England specifically, he sent Hopkins on a fact-finding mission.

Hopkins’ time in London was full of meetings, seeing first-hand how the war was affecting the British and spending massive amounts of time with Churchill. Through the meetings with Hopkins, MacManus presents Churchill as someone who works crazy hours, eats, drinks and smokes cigars endlessly and makes good use of time by holding some meetings even while he is in the bathtub. Hopkins gradually finds himself growing close to Churchill, London and its citizens, leading him to see the need for American intervention in the war. He finds himself stuck in the middle of two of the most powerful men in the world.

By focusing on Hopkins, Sleep In Peace Tonight offers a slightly different story about well-known history. By translating this history into a novel, he makes it easier to digest. Throughout Sleep In Peace Tonight, there is a storyline about a romance. It’s a major portion of the plot and does help to move keep the story progressing, but it was, for me, much less interesting than the basic facts about Hopkins.

For people interested in war history, American history or WWII, this books is an easy read highlighting an angle that doesn’t get much attention. It’s well worth the time investment to get to know Harry Hopkins.

By focusing on Harry Hopkins, James MacManus looks at World War II from a new perspective in Sleep In Peace Tonight.

Sleep In Peace Tonight by James MacManus is available in October 2014. I received a copy of this book as a Goodreads First Read.