Review: The Stowaway & The Immortalists

Is it just me, or has January dashed by at an alarmingly rapid pace? I feel like I blinked a couple of times and suddenly it’s time for February, my kid has 2 new teeth and is trying to stand up, and my scale isn’t showing even a half pound of progress in the desired direction. ūüôÉ Damn, adulthood’s great. Am I right? ūüėú

In other news, I read some pretty good books this month (& a couple of great ones, like this and that).

One of those pretty good books: The Stowaway by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. This work of nonfiction covers the story of William “Billy” Gawronski, the son of Polish immigrants who is living in New York City during the 1920s — a time of great American pride and an insatiable thirst for adventure. When pilot and explorer Richard Byrd announced elaborate plans for an expedition to the South Pole and a winter stay in Antarctica, 18-year-old Billy knows exactly where he wants to be: on that ship, at all costs. So in the wee hours of an August morning, he jumps into the Hudson River, swims to the Bolling, and climbs aboard — much to the chagrin of his parents, who desperately want Billy to carry on the family business and dismiss these foolish notions of adventure.

Told in the style of narrative nonfiction — think storytelling rather than textbook — The Stowaway is a tale of the resilience of the human spirit, a kind of patriotic zest for life that seems so prevalent in the 30s and 40s and so absent today. (I can’t be the only one that feels this way, right? Like the recent decades are far less resilient or driven to less ambitious heights?) As with most narrative nonfiction, I found the cast of characters a bit hard to keep track of at times (which is natural, since there are so many more players in real life than in fiction). While I enjoyed the first half of the novel, I felt like things kind of lost steam in the second half.

Overall, this was a short read (<200 pages) that included some intriguing historical tidbits. It didn’t quite live up to my other NF favorites (Seabiscuit, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Into the Wild), but it’s a pretty good read nonetheless. 3.5 stars

Another new release for the month of January: The Immortalists, an extremely hyped-up title in the Bookstagram realm. This work of fiction by author Chloe Benjamin focuses on four siblings who seek out a fortuneteller in 1960s New York to discover the dates they will die. Childish curiosity comes with a price, though, as the four soon discover; and their lives will forever be altered by the ominous predictions made by the mysterious stranger in her cluttered apartment.

Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon start their lives close enough: the four share a room and all kinds of adventures as children. After the telling, though, their lives begin to follow distinctly different tracks: Simon and Klara head to San Francisco at ages 16 and 18, one to become a dancer, the other a magician; Daniel and Varya remain behind in New York to attend college and care for their mother after their father’s unexpected death. Resentment settles in as the elder siblings forego (some of) their dreams to take up duties the younger siblings can’t be bothered with.

Split into four sections — one for each of the Gold children — The Immortalists does pose a thrilling question for readers: if you knew the date your life would end, how would you live it? Would you play it safe, or live on the edge? My favorite aspect of this novel was the unraveling of each sibling’s life. Benjamin creates this really marvelous plot that becomes increasingly focused with each chapter and in the end, I was left feeling both empty and full at the same time, stricken by the characters’ outcomes.

My one gripe: Simon’s narrative. I hated it. His section of the novel is excessively sexually graphic, in my (admittedly prude) opinion. I’m okay with sex in books, but in this case the language and nature of these scenes just felt really out of place in the work. It was off-putting for me, enough so to make this book a 3-star read and one I’m glad I borrowed, rather than buying.

Review: Looking for Alaska

Four years ago, I was wrapping up my first semester of teaching and coaching, headed to a league track meet that would be the end of our middle school season. The eighth grade students on my team wouldn’t be at school much longer, and the girls had been hounding me for¬†weeks to read this newly popular YA novel called¬†The Fault in Our Stars. I’d never heard of John Green, and I hadn’t a clue what the premise of the novel was, but I knew I had to finish it before the girls graduated or I’d be just another teacher that didn’t listen to their reading recommendations. So I made the dumbest decision of my teaching career to date: I borrowed the book from Lourdes, hunkered down in a brown faux-leather seat, and started reading. The trip was two hours one way, and I figured I could knock out a good portion.

Fast forward seven hours: the track meet is over, I’m icing what I’m certain is a torn meniscus (#coachprobs), and a herd of middle school students is hovering on all sides as I furiously attempt to stop tears from rolling down my cheeks while I finish the damn book. Guys, I ugly cried in front of thirty-seven boys and girls for a half hour. A HALF HOUR. Like I said — not my finest teaching decision.

So, anyway, after I was scarred by the traumatic events that day, I kind of avoided Green’s works though I knew him to be widely praised. I couldn’t even watch the movie adaptation of TFIOS — really, I mean, who would want to experience that kind of emotional trauma a second time? — and I wasn’t in any hurry to pick up another of his novels.

When our local bookstore went out of business, though, I picked up a hardcover copy of¬†Looking for Alaska for a few bucks and finally committed to reading it this month. As with TFIOS, I had a few gripes that I’ll outline below; but overall, it was a pretty good YA read.

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Synopsis:¬†Looking for Alaska is a story about an outsider high school student from Florida who is obsessed with the last words of famous people. Miles, who later earns the nickname “Pudge,” has a sort of knack, actually, for memorizing the last words of former presidents, military generals, authors, and other people of import. Hell bent on finding his “Great Perhaps” before the end of his life, Miles applies to a boarding school in Mississippi that his father attended as a high school student. Once he’s been accepted and moved in, Miles quickly makes friends with his roommate — tough guy Chip “The Colonel” Martin — and Alaska Young, a beautiful enigma admired by many. He also grows close to Takumi and Lara, minor characters that round out the fivesome that finds its way into some pretty tight situations involving firecrackers, cigarettes, pornography, and much more. As Miles works his way through his first year at Culver Creek, he finds himself striving to not¬†do a number of things: get expelled, let Alaska discover his unrequited love for her, fail World Religions. His quest for the Great Perhaps may be a bit more finicky than he anticipated, but Miles is no quitter.

The story is a study in a number of deep themes: hope after loss, finding meaning in life, surviving the transition to adulthood. When approached from a thematic standpoint, the novel really has a lot to offer and would make a great exploration of life, loss, and choices for high school reading groups/English classes. That being said, this novel is also highly controversial . . . because parents are certain that reading a book that mentions —¬†gasp! — sex and drug use (alcohol and tobacco) is somehow more damaging than watching things like slasher films and trashy television shows. I know — I’m scratching my head, too.

The Good: I really, really appreciated this novel’s thematic basis. I felt like Green had a few meaningful points to make and he didn’t overextend himself in the writing of this novel. As always, I’m fascinated by novels about children who go to boarding school (this has been a lifelong obsession of mind, not really sure why?), so I also particularly relished that aspect of the work.

The Not-So-Good: As with TFIOS (and some other YA I’ve read recently, not by Green), I rolled my eyes more than a few times at the adultishness (new word, hit me up Merriam-Webster) of the teenage characters’ language. I realize that there are some very intelligent young adults roaming the earth, y’all, but I feel like Green (and Yoon and Niven) sometimes gets carried away with character dialogue, which results in pretentious-sounding teenagers. Add to this my annoyance with Miles, who somehow manages to get into a prestigious boarding school but — as a high school junior — has never heard of Robert Frost, doesn’t know the difference between end and slant rhyme, and has no clue that Macedonia is a country. I’m sorry —¬†What? I don’t buy it for a minute.

The Verdict: 3 stars. High school me probably would have enjoyed this impactful-but-highly-dramatic story; adult me was kind of just like, eh, it was okay.

Motherhood, No. 2

It is early morning — somewhere between the hours of three and four, when my brain is too fogged with interrupted sleep to comprehend things like time — and you have awakened me with your intermittent cries. Yelps, more like. Between outbursts, a pause of several seconds — long enough for me to think¬†Sure, he’s okay then and sink back onto my pillow before another cry wakes me from my sleep-drunken stupor.

Grumbling, I untangle my legs from the winding vines that the sheets have become overnight: your father doesn’t believe in sleeping like a normal human being (under the covers), so he is forever bringing a blanket to bed and hunkering down in it, pushing the sheets and bedspread to the side or foot of the mattress so that I end up in some sort of twisted pile of bedding that seems intent on strangling me as I sleep. You cry out again — I think you’re probably mostly asleep, the cries are so far apart — and I murmur reassurances that I know you can’t hear as I blindly walk the familiar path from our room to yours.

Your room is awash in the eerie glow of a too-bright nightlight that casts shadows on every wall. The worst is a spidery looking apparition that covers half of the room, mostly over your crib: the ghastly result of light striking your woodland-animals mobile. I secretly shudder at that leggy shadow every night, certain that your cries must have something to do with its looming appearance above your resting place. Can infants fear spiders? I’m sure any child of mine must.

On tiptoes, I lean over the top edge of your crib, my gut — still not recovered from carrying you, seven months later — creased in half by the hard walnut edges smoothed by your father’s shop machines.¬†Shhhhh, shhhhh, shhhhh, Mama’s here — you stop the instant my hands grasp your torso and I lift you gingerly from the confines of your bed. You’re hungry, though, and begin to grizzle feverishly as I carry you to our chair. I brace myself against the shocking chill of polished wood against the backs of my thighs and shoulders. In the dark, your mouth works like that of a little milk zombie: open, shut, open, shut, open shut — until finally, you find what you’re searching for and your eyes fold shut in a mixture of relief and ecstasy.

As you feast, I close my eyes and lean back, wondering who you will become. It is three-something in the morning and I am awake, picturing you twenty years down the road, always with that cheeky grin and creamy, smooth skin. You stroke my hand with your tiny plump palm, occasionally pausing to wrap a finger in your fist, as if to tell me¬†Thank you, Mama or — I like to pretend —¬†I love you most. Not that it’s a competition between your father and me; just, I am your most beloved now, and I will savor that, because later you will have friends and classmates and girlfriends and lovers and I will surely lose the privilege of that¬†most as I drift along in the wake of your expanding horizons.

Looking down at the rounded nub of your nose, I think of my teacher’s son, David, who took his own life a few months ago. Tracing the soft curve of your cheek with my fingertip, I pray.¬†Please let this child grow up to know he is beloved and help him to find fulfillment. And¬†Please always bring him home to me, whole. And¬†Please make him need me always.

You’re through with the midnight snack, your head has lolled back onto my forearm and your mouth is agape, a stream of milk leaking from the corner where your lips meet and trailing down your neck: you are one satisfied little boy. I’m not tired any longer; I’m wide awake with the kind of fervent panic I can only assume all mothers experience at one time or another. It’s a futile panic: you will get older, you will grow up and out, you will leave me for a different life. These are certainties, and though I hate the leaving, I know that it is better than the alternative.

I am not tired anymore, though, so I will hold you a little longer now. I love you, I love you.

I love you.

Motherhood, No. 1

You’re clambering across the wood floor now, undoubtedly picking up stray hairs and particles of God-knows-what as you slap your hands down and drag your belly forward — the undusted floor beneath a bookcase teetering with stacks of beloved prose beckons you. It’s just you and me, all day every day, and you turn as you hitch your rump to one side and tuck your hips up underneath you, propping yourself up on one arm to look at me with a wry grin before resuming your destructive path to a Not-Play Area.

Two teeth jut up from your lower gums, neat and perfect and unchipped by any sort of toddler disaster, tiny white Chiclets in an otherwise gum-and-tongue world.¬†Slap, swish, slap, swish, slap, swish — this is the music of my days, the thudding bass of your tiny body exploring the corners of our increasingly crowded living room. Peppered in among the thuds and scrapes, the excited pant and grunt of Baby Magellan en route to the Strait of Unclean Floor.

You watch me for a moment, lying on your back in all that filth that accumulates in forgotten corners beneath furniture, your head twisted to stare at me as you gnaw on a big toe with the dexterity of a contortionist. Saliva is pooling on the floor near your soft cheeks, and I think briefly — I should attach my microfiber mop to you, take advantage of this perpetual state of slobbering exploration. My own personal Roomba. I shake my head at the thought, and at you, with your body twisted in some sort of unnatural pretzel-ball while you make the kind of sucking sounds that would drive your father crazy if it were coming from someone at the dinner table.

Eyes still locked on mine — so steely blue, so unlike my chocolate browns — you release the foot from your firm grasp and purse your lips together, the tip of your tongue just barely visible before —¬†pffffthhhhffffft¬†— a raspberry, your favorite. Now I can’t help but laugh aloud, a quick¬†Ha! that only encourages you to blow another and another. In these moments, I cannot deny the thought that you want to bring me joy, that you desire my happiness; and the very generosity of that from a seven-month-old baby is startling to my untrained self.

You turn your attention back to the dust-furred floor for the sparest of moments before the edge of a blanket hanging down from the couch captures your attention and you’re off again,¬†thumpthumpthumpthumpthump. Through the belly of the coffee table, not around —¬†So smart, I think — and in the blink of an eye, you’ve crossed the room and the purple blanket has an eggplant corner, already soaked in your saliva. As you examine the possibilities of this Other Region, I edge closer on my hands and knees, bellying up to you on the floor, placing my face nearby your fattened feet. Di-uh-beet-us feet, your father calls them; swollen and pudgy like mine were when you’d been in my belly for nine months. I know it’s likely I’ll take a foot to the face, but I want to be near. I want to be able to breathe the air that you expel, as if there is some sort of magic in just that — the act of breathing. I suppose there is. I suppose I had a hand in making that magic, now that I think of it.

While you fumble with the yarn in the deep red shag rug, I marvel at the callused pads on the tips of your toes which you maintain with regular intervals of kicking the floor in your belly-down position. At the whorls twisting inward on either side of the crown of your head, forming a spiky peak of silvery blonde. At the fingernails that never seem to be short enough, despite several weekly trims. You emit another string of raspberries, tongue proudly thrust forward as bubbles form and rivulets of spit follow the curve of your chins toward the base of your throat.

I wonder, not for the first time — is it possible that I love you too much?

Review: Siracusa

Siracusa, by prolific author Delia Ephron, is my third read of the year. It’s not even halfway through the month and I’m already patting myself on the back for sticking only to my shelves and not actually buying anything new (although I do have a December BookOutlet haul to show off . . . ).

This book came on my radar via Book of the Month Club — it was an August pick a couple years back — and though I was intrigued by the premise (more on that later), I hesitated to buy the book because I’d read some pretty mixed reviews online. As fate would have it, I bought this book for my Litsy winter solstice book exchange partner, only to discover she’d purchased it right before I shipped out my box of goodies. I did a quick swap with a book from my own shelf and decided to give¬†Siracusa a read.

To be brief: the novel follows two couples (Lizzie & Michael, Taylor & Finn) on a couples retreat to hell Italy. Told from the perspective of quite possibly the literary world’s most unreliable narrators,¬†Siracusa bounces from one member of the very conflicted and entwined foursome to another. Taylor and Finn have brought a heavy dose of discontent and their clinically-diagnosed-as-extremely-shy daughter, Snow, who is ten and — to be frank — disconcertingly watchful and quiet. Lizzie and Michael have packed up silent betrayals and insecurities and gleefully brought them abroad. The couples plan to spend ten days together, first in Rome, then in Siracusa, each with his or her own idea of how to maximize their time.

Would this be a good time to mention that Lizzie and Finn have a (secret) romantic history from several years back? Yeah. About that. . . .

Straight from the beginning, it was clear that this novel was a disaster waiting to happen. Within the first 15 pages, one of the foursome tells readers, “I can tell my story as well as the rest of them. Although I’ll mess with you now and then, I warn you. I like to do that.” Meanwhile, I’m drumming my fingers together like —¬†Alrighty then! Bring it on, Ephron. A short novel,¬†Siracusa breezes by in under 300 pages of picturesque Italian bliss and a hearty helping of drama.

The Good: Ephron’s writing is unique and each character — batshit crazy though he or she may be — is distinctive in voice and mannerisms. The novel’s greatest strength lies in the author’s compelling characterization that doesn’t falter once from start to finish. The plot is reasonably unbelievable and enticing. Honestly, this book is worth a read just for the absolutely startling characters and the hilarity that is their unraveling throughout the plot.

The Bad:¬†The story does some weaving between past and present within each narrator’s segment, which can get a bit confusing at times. There were some sections I had to read a few times just to make sure I was following the action, and though this could be somewhat contributed to minor distractions, I felt that at places the novel was just too cluttered. I also had a pretty good idea about where things were going fairly early on — foreshadowing may have been a bit too heavy.

The Verdict: 3.5 stars — borrow, don’t buy.

A Few of My Favorite Things

Some days, I rise at the crack of dawn, knock back my multivitamin with a swig of lukewarm water, and in a blink — the day is over, I’ve survived without incident, Henry is well, there’s somehow dinner hot and awaiting the arrival of my husband, dishes are drying in a neat jumble to the right of the sink, laundry has been folded, and I’ve been wearing something other than pajamas since before noon.

Other days, Zack comes home and I’m like one of those kamikaze goats on the side of a mountain. You know, you’ve seen the memes — tiny hooves perched on tinier jutting cracks, body stretched impossibly wide with all the weight bunched up in his shoulders because his goat-butt is up three feet higher and his eyes are frozen in a combination of paralyzed fear and utter annoyance, as if he’s saying,¬†Really, Frank? Again¬†with the parkour? Fantastic idea.

On those days, I plop a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli or a crinkly packet of Ramen on the countertop, sniff my haven’t-bathed-in-two-days armpits before swiping on a double layer of deodorant, swap out t-shirts so it looks like I haven’t actually been wearing the same thing I wore to bed last night all day long, and shoot a few scathing looks at my screeching seven-month-old who is really friggin’ tired (as much as I am? naw…) but wouldn’t nap for longer than 30 minutes at a time — all just moments before Zack walks through the door smelling of wood shavings and Outside and the sweat of a man who’s just spent a luxurious hour lifting weights in the company of adults.

A Fergie song comes to mind here . . .

But I digress. I wanted to write about some things that help me through those jammies-till-I-die days, beyond the medication I take (which I talked about here because nobody’s got time for taboos anymore). I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite things that I like to have on hand (or available to stream) to pull me through meh-days. I’ve linked some of the items below, but I’m not benefitting from any clicks here (w/ the exception of #1).

  1. My Book of the Month Club subscription. Every month, I get to choose one newly-released hardcover title (out of 5 curated selections) to be shipped to my house for $15. You can sign up for 3, 6, or 12 months at a time (with discounts on the longer subscription services), or you can opt for their new monthly renewal. You can also add up to two other books per month for $9.99 a copy — and you can skip a month at any time with no extra fees or consequences. I typically love the titles each month and have only gotten one or two books in the past 18 months that just weren’t my cup of tea. Frivolous? Yes. Joy-inducing? You betcha. I¬†could check these titles out from the library, but there’s just something purely magical about choosing a book at the first of each month and having something to look forward to in the mail. You can sign up using this link and get your first book for $9.99 (& a free tote bag). (Disclaimer — this is the one link that I will benefit from — if you sign up using this link, I get a book credit.)
  2. Happiness body care products from Bath & Body Works. I absolutely¬†love the aromatherapy line at B&B Works, which is great because compared to other “luxury” skin care products, it’s an affordable option; but it’s also kind of a bummer, because the company rarely has sales on this line of products. My favorite is the Happiness line, which is this glorious fruity fragrance of bergamot and mandarin that inspires, well, happiness. I would probably fill a closet in my house with every product in the aromatherapy line, but since I don’t have an income and my husband would likely lose his bananas, I stick to the shower gel and body cream, occasionally splurging on the sugar scrub. Another favorite: the Stress Relief products, which are this divine combination of eucalyptus and spearmint that just melts my being into this chill, revived lump of existence.
  3. Yoga with Adriene on YouTube. Okay, here’s the deal — I think I might love Adriene a little bit. If I lived in a city, one of the first things I’d be interested in adding to my daily routine would be a yoga class. Alas, SWK doesn’t offer much in the way of yoga (or cities), so I scoured the internet a few months ago in search of an affordable option. Cue Adriene. I started with a 30-day challenge from a couple years ago and loved the diversity of daily practices. I also was amazed at how much my emotional well-being grew with each day I practiced. Sometimes she’s a bit more silly than I like, or a bit more chatty than I’m feeling on a particular day, but for the most part I love the variety of options Adriene’s channel offers and the practices that specifically target an audience (teachers, runners, nurses) or a problem area (back pain, for example).
  4. Essential oil blends, mostly for diffusing. A few of my favorites from DoTerra: Serenity (a great nighttime blend that I use in the diffuser in Henry’s room), Balance (an earthy, calming blend that I diffuse during yoga or extra-tense days), and Cheer (magic in a bottle — super citrusy and uplifting). I also particularly love Thieves, which is a YoungLiving blend that smells like Christmas and basically just makes my heart per happy.
  5. Walks with Henry! There’s very little that some sunshine and fresh air won’t cure; every chance we’ve had this winter, we’ve bundled up and hit the streets of our little town to air off the “house stink” (as my dad calls it). Even just an hour outside is so uplifting — I can’t wait for spring and summer, when walks will be a daily routine and days will last longer!

When I’m really lucky, I get to incorporate all of these things (reading = BOTM) in a day and I end up looking — and feeling — a little less like that mountain goat and a bit more like a Human Being. What are your joy-inducing go-tos?

Best of 2017: The Shortlist

A month ago, I published a “longlist” of sorts featuring my favorite reads of the year. (You can see that list with short descriptions for each title here.) I read a few more books after that, though, and wanted to narrow it down to highlight the very best titles I read last year, and here she be! Without further ado, my top 7 reads from 2017 (in no particular order, because let’s be honest — I can’t choose just one favorite):

  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This one is full of family drama, perfection-seekers, secrets, and jealousy: the perfect recipe for disaster. You’ll stay up all night to find out what happens in this startlingly realistic work of fiction.
  2. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Probably my favorite magical read since the¬†Harry Potter series, this novel is beautiful in its simplicity and wintry mystery. It’s based on the Russian fairytale of Snegurochka and set in 1920s Alaska — so basically, it’s a very cozy, romantic read for adults who love a little magic in their lives.
  3. Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Without a doubt, the most beautifully composed story I read in 2017. Spanning multiple generations of a Middle Eastern family through several marriages, deaths, and wars,¬†Salt Houses is one of those reads that didn’t get nearly enough hype for the quality of writing it contains.
  4. Celine by Peter Heller. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Celine is a badass granny detective and I want to¬†be her when I’m 65. She’s probably my favorite character of the year — okay, definitely — and that fact combined with the tight plot in this thrilling mystery make it a book I want to add to my shelves and read over and over.
  5. Descent¬†by Tim Johnston. This title was my favorite thriller of the year, and believe me — I read a¬†lot of those. The novel isn’t just gripping and fast-paced; its characters are fleshed out and the prose is absolutely gorgeous, which is something quite unexpected for the genre. (Because let’s be honest — most thrillers are all about the shock factor and not so much about solid lyrical writing skills.)
  6. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. The only nonfiction title on this list (but not the only NF I read last year!), this book was an absolute thrill (and horror) to behold. I was taken aback by the very tumultuous history of the Osage tribe’s rise to wealth in Oklahoma during the oil boom and repeatedly repulsed by the actions taken by white Americans to suppress the native people over and over again. I can’t recommend this gem enough.
  7. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Okay, I know I already said Celine was my favorite character of the year, but it’s really quite possible Ove is a tie. Or at the very least, a close second. He’s persnickety, he’s obnoxious, he’s blunt, and he’s hands-down the most endearing old man ever written. This book made me laugh out loud, gasp in surprise, and cry at least twice. It’s quick, it’s sweet, and it’s one of the books I’m most likely to recommend to anyone and everyone. If you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for?!

Overall, I’m really pleased with the quality of novels I read in 2017 and am looking forward to tackling a large quantity of unread books that have been accumulating on my shelves for the past several years. So far this year, I’ve read¬†Tell the Wolves I’m Home (I started it in 2017, but only got halfway through before the new year started, so I’m counting it as a 2018 read) and¬†Pachinko, both of which have set the bar high for the other titles on my TBR shelf for the year.

What were some of your favorite reads in 2017?