Category Archives: Reviews

Review of Anna and the French Kiss

Image

In 2010, the YA community was buzzing about Stephanie Perkins’ debut novel Anna and the French Kiss. It was raved about by so many people that I knew I had to read it, but only now have I gotten around to it.

In the book, the title character is sent to spend her senior year of high school at the School of America in Paris. Anna doesn’t speak a word of French and is furious with her Nicolas Sparks- esque author father for being so obsessed with appearances that he would deprive her of spending her final year of high school away from her best friend, Bridgette, and her little brother, Seany. She realizes that she’s being forced to do something most eighteen year-olds would die for, but she’s still pissed.
But things are looking up not long after Anna arrives. Her hallmate Meredith becomes a fast friend, and through her, Anna is introduced to some great people. One of these people is Etienne St. Clair, an American who was born in Paris and raised in London. His English accent only adds to his attractiveness and Anna develops an instant crush. But St. Clair (as everyone calls him) has a girlfriend of a year, and Anna tries to squelch her feelings, especially since Meredith is obviously in love with him, too. But of course, she can’t, and the usual teenage mishaps happen- awkward encounters, drunken confessions, and misunderstandings that threaten to tear the entire friend group apart.

Anna wasn’t my favorite YA book I’ve ever read. Perkins’ style is very enjoyable to read, but the plot of the book is underdeveloped in some places and forced in others. For the most part, Anna is a likeable character, but for some reason, Perkins sometimes downgraded her usually-witty character to an airhead: upon finding out that the motto attached to her family crest is French, she comments, “How was I supposed to know a Scottish motto would be in French? […] I always assumed it was in Latin or some other dead language.” For a girl who is obsessed with all films, including foreign ones, these sorts of moments made no sense.

Anna and St. Clair’s friendship is pretty cute and fun throughout the book, and Perkins does a great job of describing the awkward tension between two people that are attracted to one another but can’t do anything about it. One of my favorite scenes was after St. Clair’s domineering father forces St. Clair to stay in Paris over Thanksgiving instead of spending it with his sick mother in California. He’s so upset that, after venting about it to Anna in her room, he asks if he can stay there overnight. The awkward sexual tension is well-done: they both stay fully dressed, but there’s not enough room in Anna’s bed to avoid their legs or arms touching and they both try their hardest to act like they’re totally fine with the arrangement. But then, several chapters later, when St. Clair hears their friends having sex, Anna freaks out mentally, thinking how humiliating this moment is because the fact that she’s a virgin has always been this “wall” between her and St. Clair… but it hadn’t been before, and after that moment, continued not to be.

Similar incongruities spring up elsewhere in the book. St. Clair mentions how controlling and emotionally abusive his father is several times throughout the book, but when Anna sees St. Clair and his father interacting on the street, she thinks “Whoa, this is why St. Clair never talks about his dad- he’s controlling and emotionally abusive.” If Perkins had meant for the street interaction to be jarring and sad, she failed to create the proper build-up.

There were things I enjoyed about the book, though. Anna’s voice and Perkins’ style in general reminded me of Maureen Johnson’s, whom I love, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that they have the same agent (as it happens, a flaw of the practically-perfect Johnson’s is her knack for creating romantic relationships that fall short in some infinitesimal but important way.) The book is a fun read with good characters, but Anna doesn’t have enough weight for me to return to it anytime soon.

Review of The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Perksofbeingwallflower1

I’ve been hearing about Stephen Chbosky’s book The Perks of Being a Wallflower for years. It was always on my to-read list, but I never got to it. When the recent movie adaptation was released, I couldn’t see it until I followed my rule of reading the book first, and then Stuart got me Perks for Christmas.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is told from the perspective of fifteen year-old high school freshman Charlie. In a series of letters to an unknown person, Charlie describes his first year of high school as it goes on: losing a close friend, struggling with school, being taken under a teacher’s wing, making new friends, and exposure to the party scene of those new friends. He also describes his family- his parents and two older siblings- with whom he is very close, and how watching his siblings grow up influences the way he himself grows. Watching is what Charlie does best, and his letters reveal an astonishing level of personal and social analysis that is both inspiring and heartbreaking.

The book surprised me right away. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t for the book to be in letter form and for it to open with the main character, Charlie, grieving his friend’s suicide. Chbosky isn’t afraid to shove reality in your face, and I respect his not shying away from it from the beginning. He also doesn’t understate Charlie’s naivete. Both Charlie’s reactions and his written voice reveal it almost uncomfortably and we’re able to watch Charlie grow in both areas as the book goes on.

Cbosky doesn’t stops shocking with those elements, though. Throughout the book, we are left clues about Charlie’s past stay in a hospital when he was very young. It could have been a stay for pneumonia, for all we know in the beginning, but as the letters keep coming, it’s revealed that Charlie’s doctor at the hospital was a psychiatrist, who he started seeing after his beloved Aunt Helen dies tragically. His struggles were bad enough that he missed almost a year of school, and throughout the book, Charlie constantly references his fond memories of when Helen would babysit him and his siblings on Saturdays when his parents went out and how Helen was the one who made him feel most loved in the world. But as Charlie falls in love with his friend Sam and explores his sexuality with both her and his gay friend Patrick, it’s obvious that something is amiss. Chbosky saves the bomb until almost the end of the book, when Charlie is again under a psychiatrist’s watch, and it’s one of those reveals that makes you take a literal step away from the book.

You’ve probably already Perks. Read it again. Charlie’s story merits another look.

Choice Quotes:

I think about it sometimes. I wonder went on in Michael’s house around dinner and TV shows.Michael never left a note or at least his parents didn’t anyone see it. Maybe it was “problems at home.” I wish I knew. It might make me miss him more clearly.

I would really like to ask Sam on a date someday. I really would. She is so nice […] It would be very nice to have a friend again. I would like that even more than a date.

I didn’t know that other people thought things about me. I didn’t know they looked.

I always wanted to be on a sports team like that. I’m not exactly sure why, but I always thought it would be fun to have “glory days.” Then I would have stories to tell my children and my golf buddies. I guess I could tell people about Punk Rocky and walking home from school and things like that. Maybe these are my glory days, and I’m not even realizing it because they don’t involve a ball.

And I thought that all those little kids are going to grow up someday. And all of those little kids are going to do the things that we do. And they will kiss someone someday. But for now, sledding is enough. I think it would be great if sledding were always enough, but it isn’t.

I just wish God or my parents or Sam or my sister or someone would just tell me what’s wrong with me. Just tell me how to be different in a way that makes sense […] I know that things get worse before they get better because that’s what my psychiatrist says, but this is a worse that feels too big.

Review of Things Fall Apart

At sixteen, I read Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, a novel about the rise and fall of dictatorships in modern Africa. It was compelling, insightful, beautiful, and dense. This foray into non-Western literature was for me a glimpse of an alien world, one so foreign from the tradition of American and British writing in its senses of place, detail, character. I could go on, but suffice it to say that Achebe offered to me such powerful words that depicted the chaos of a continent rent asunder by totalitarian regimes and Western imperialism.

When I heard earlier this year the Achebe had passed away, I felt compelled to revisit his work before it came time to do the end-of-the-year post for Ambidexteri. I wanted to do something to commemorate his accomplishments while demonstrating an appreciation for one of his greatest novels: Things Fall Apart.

As Achebe first introduced the main character of Okonkwo, I felt instantly immersed in a way somewhat reminiscent of The Good Earth–the world was genuine, the language simple and sincere. The novel follows Okonkwo from the life of his slothful father to the growth of his own children. Achebe builds Okonkwo from several angles, and this makes him a compelling character, if not relate-able.  The impact his father’s poor nurturing has on his values and identity evokes a strong sense of empathy for him as he starts his underprivileged life. Okonkwo’s determination and accomplishments despite the setbacks of his unfortunate upbringing and consistent run of bad luck make him admirable. His tenderness and compassion contrast with his strictness and temper, making him a conflicted but very human persona. While I would not say I always like Okonkwo or his behavior, he consistently remains the protagonist. This certainly speaks to Achebe’s aptitude as he creates not a heroic but rather an exceptionally real character.

What made the whole of this piece so compelling was not Okonkwo, however. Umuofia, the village in which Okonkwo and his family live, is Achebe’s medium for depicting Africa before and after Western religious, political, and cultural imperialism. Like Okonkwo, the village is not perfect–there are conflicts between members of the clan and with other clans. Achebe uses Okonkwo and his experiences to highlight various elements of Nigerian ethnic identity, such as anamism and the role that this faith plays in personal life, which in turn emphasizes the importance of family. Indeed, all aspects of their culture are interconnected like strands of a spider’s web: sever one strand, and the whole falls apart. Achebe’s beautiful depiction of this highly-evolved society becomes stark as missionaries, and later political administrations, begin to wear at its fabric.

What I found most intriguing in the end, with Okonkwo’s ultimate response to the white man’s new place in Umuofia, is the way in which Okonkwo and his life reflect almost as microcosm the life of Nigerian society. The grief and pain he suffers at the hand of the District Commissioner is symbolic of the early throes of death his village begins to show in its complacency and fatigue. Achebe’s final depiction of Western imperialism is done not through Okonkwo or the disintegrating clan, but rather through the head of the white man’s political administration: The District Commissioner. This overseer himself fancies writing about the life of Okonkwo in “[p]erhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate,” ending with an alternative title to Achebe’s novel: “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribe of the Lower Niger“. Particularly heart-rending is this suggestion that the end of a culture and civilization should be considered modernization, or even an act of kindness.

Compelling and insightful, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is brilliant, eloquent, and riveting. His simple language, complex characters, and detailed world make for a moving read about the dramatic changes experienced in Nigeria during the European conquest.

Some favorite quotations:
“A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true–that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation.”
“Your mother is there to protect you… And that is why we say that mother is supreme. Is it right that you, Okonkwo, should bring to your mother a heavy face and refuse to be comforted? Be careful or you may displease the dead.”
“We do not pray to have more money but to have more kinsmen. We are better than animals because we have kinsmen.”
“The white man is very clever…. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
“He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart…”

Review of There but for the

therebutforthe

In London, 2011, a guest at a dinner party excuses himself, goes upstairs, and locks himself in the guest bedroom of his hosts’ house. For months, he stays there, forcing his hosts to slide deli meat under the door on pieces of paper and worry that their unwanted boarder will never leave. As the crowds gather outside the house, hoping for a glimpse of the man through the window, the Lee family does the best they can to keep themselves and the situation under control. The man, Miles, seems to be known by no one, really; he has no family, his emergency contact Anna claims she hasn’t spoken to him in thirty years, and the friend who brought him to the party in the first place had only just met him a few weeks before. Everyone wants to know who Miles is and why he’s locked himself in the room, but Miles doesn’t seem in any hurry to supply anyone with answers.

Ali Smith is known for her strange, beautiful writing style, and There but for the is no exception. Each section of the book (headed respectively by one of the words in the title) is written not only from a different character’s point of view, but also in a different style. The first section is a story about a young boy and his father in a basement folding paper airplanes. The story seems unremarkable until the end of the novel, when it connects the characters in a perfect circle; it is, in fact a story written by Miles in the room, inspired by a prompt given to him by ten year-old Brooke. The second installment features Anna Hardie, a middle-aged woman who has just quit her job for all the right reasons, which would be fine except the right reasons don’t pay the bills.  Then, in the middle of her financial stress, she gets an e-mail from the Lees about their situation. Though Anna argues that she and Miles haven’t seen each other since they went on a student trip together in the ’80s. Anna’s story switches between the present and the past and she slowly remembers that there’s more to her and Miles’ story than she thought. Part three is from the point of view of the guest who brought Miles to the dinner, Mark. Mark is haunted by the voice of his dead mother in his head, and she only speaks in obscenity-laced rhyme. We get to see what happened at the dinner the two men attended, and suddenly Miles’ decision to leave makes a lot more sense. An Alzheimer’s sufferer, May Young, stumbles through section four, describing in bits and pieces her marriage, her young daughter’s death and the boy who helps her get through it every year, and the workup to her escape from the retirement home where she’s been placed. Then finally, ten year-old Brooke takes over the book in full force. With her stunning vocabulary (thanks to her natural intellect and professor parents) and insatiable curiosity, Brooke is the only one who manages to connect with Miles at all, and ends up changing his life in the process.

Smith’s novel clearly illustrates the complexities of human lives and relationships. Each featured character is somehow connected to another and the connection influences the decisions the other characters make. Smith’s skillful reveal of these bonds is fantastic and I loved being surprised as I was let in on the secret.  I also enjoyed the change-up in styles; May’s story is disjointed because of her Alzheimer’s, and Brooke skips from subject to subject like the kid that she is. Mark’s telling of the dinner party shows us how everyone behaves from time to time- obsessed with proving how cultured and wonderful they are to a crowd of their peers. Each story shows a different side to human nature, some that aren’t fun to look at.

Britain seems to be more welcoming to different writing styles than America. I suppose “style” is the wrong word; almost every writer in the world has a different style. But in America, the format of almost every book is the same. In Britain, authors seem more free to change it up. For example, Smith’s novel doesn’t have a single quotation mark in it, though there’s plenty of dialogue. And even without it, her writing never confuses the reader. She tells the story with flair and weight, and it’s altogether wonderful.

Choice Quotes:

He’d said did she know he could sum up the last six decades of journalism in six words?
Go on then, she’d said.
I was there. There I was, he said.
It was a commonplace, he said. By the middle of the twentieth century, every important reporter put it like this: I was there. Nowadays: There I was.
Soon it would be seven words, Anna said. The new century had already added a seventh word. There I was, guys.

She had not known she was this shy.
She had not expected, out in the world, to find herself quite so much the wrong sort of person.

Google is so strange. It promises everything, but everything isn’t there.

Well, but it was sore enough, that wrist on the bed, to be her own wrist, no stranger’s wrist after all, there where the plastic bit into it. That’s how you knew it was you and nobody else, then, was it, when things were sore?

But the fact is, how do you know anything is true? Duh, obviously, records and so on, but how o you know that the records are true? Things are not just true because the internet says they are.

Review of Mary Poppins

marypoppins-2gp5xox

Most children in the first world saw Mary Poppins during their childhood. I was one of these kids, but to be honest, I don’t remember much of it. From what I remember of the title character, Mary Poppins was a magical, mysterious nanny who seemed strict upon introduction, but soon softens and speaks nonsense words while skipping through animated flowers.

P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins is a bit different. She’s still a magical, mysterious nanny, but there is no singing from this Mary Poppins- in fact, there is rarely a smile. Travers’ Poppins is a real person, which is to say, she is very flawed. She is vain, constantly admiring her reflection in windows, and is rather cold toward her charges throughout the novel. She’s even stern toward people she loves, like Bert the street artist and her uncle, and when caught doing a good deed, she brushes away compliments with “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The Banks children, despite their nanny’s coldness (or perhaps because of it), are fascinated by her. After all, she can have conversations with dogs, disappear into sidewalk drawings, and has an uncle who floats in midair when he laughs on his birthday. She’s not one to offer them a cuddle, but they are drawn to her nonetheless. The infant Banks twins too, love Mary Poppins because she understands what they’re saying where other adults think the babies are just gurgling.

Travers’ book is fantastical and charming, full of grand talking animals and a magical version of London where dogs have deep friendships and constellations appear on Earth in human form to do their Christmas shopping. It also discusses the tragedy of growing up from the points of view of both the child and the child’s elders, and parents’ stress about raising children well.

The reason I read this book was because of the upcoming  movie, Saving Mr. Banks, which is about Travers’ response to the making of the Mary Poppins film. In the trailer, it is revealed that one of the reasons why Travers is so upset by Disney’s approach to the story is that he is missing the point: the nanny doesn’t come to rescue the children or the family… she’s there to, as the upcoming movie’s title suggests, save Mr. Banks. I approached the novel excited to see the complexities of that in the novel, but wasn’t able to find  even an inkling of that. Mr. Banks is barely in the story, and when he is, he has very little contact with Mary Poppins. This is obviously not a criticism of the novel- Travers’ book stands on its own as a great piece of writing for children, and she can’t be held accountable for themes that are tagged on by others- but I am disappointed that the thing that most drew me to the upcoming film has very little root in the original source. But that shouldn’t dissuade people from reading the novel, especially if they’re a fan of Roald Dahl, whose style Travers’ is very like.

Review of I Used to Write On Walls

Still from a production in the Footloose's Women on the Way Festival.

Still from a production in the Footloose’s Women on the Way Festival.

Bekah Brunstetter’s play I Used to Write on Walls seems to fulfill the dreams of any casting director looking for a contemporary play featuring women: the cast requires six women and only one man, and the women have fairly well-written speaking parts, some of them largely monologues.

The play features Diane, a 30-something cop; Georgia, a 22 year-old beat poet; and Joanne, a lonely 30-something. Also featured are 11 year-old Anna, two mothers (one to Anna and one to Diane, played by the same person), and Mona, a possibly crazy former astronaut. The synopsis on the back of the book describes the play as featuring the lives of these women and how they navigate their opportunities and their passions and fantasies. But as it happens, the thing all of these women are focused on is a man, which completely ruins the play’s fantastic feminist opportunities.

I Used to Write On Walls opens with young Anna on her eleventh birthday. Within five lines, she’s longing for her period. I took that in stride; plenty of eleven year old girls long for that first step into womanhood. It’s actually kind of cute that in her second scene, she makes a list of all the “womanly” supplies she’ll need: tampons, Pamprin, an overwhelming sense of joy. It’s not even too much that Anna asks her mom if Anna has begun to develop. But Brunstetter takes it several steps too far by giving Anna a vocabulary that’s obviously only there to shock the audience: instead of Anna asking her mother if she’s growing “boobies” or “breasts” or something along those lines, Anna’s line is, “That dress makes my titties look small!” She also talks about shedding her placenta (even though she doesn’t actually know what a placenta is), and repeats something she’s overheard about her mother recieving oral sex from the mom’s boyfriend. If a play discusses these subjects intelligently, or even just with a reason, I think that strong choice can be great. But Brunstetter seems to have written this just to make sure that we know that she’s an Edgy Playwright.

Then we meet Trevor. His  character description reads as follows: 24. Sexy. Oh my God. Sexy. Stoned, oblivious. Philosopher, Surfer, Skater. When I first read this, I thought it was funny. It hinted at a candid, colloquial writing style that I tend to enjoy. But the fact that every scene that featured Trevor (nine out of the twelve) revolved around his hotness and the desperation for him being experienced by whichever woman happened to be onstage at the time made me a little ill. Even his cousin (who we find out at the end of the play is Anna) is romantically linked to him. The play fails the Bechdel test at every single turn, especially in moments like Joanne’s first conversation with Diane, when Joanne proclaims that she’s finally discovered her self-confidence and says it’s because “I met a boy. A guy. I mean a man-person.”

I almost stopped reading this play mid-way through, but kept going, hoping it would get better. Besides its potential to be a great almost-all-female cast, there was also a fantastic opportunity to show female relationships, namely mother-daughter ones, and especially the one between Anna and her mother. Anna is beautiful, so beautiful that her only-sort-of-pretty mother can hardly bear to look at her. There was such a great chance to subtlely reveal Anna’s mother’s jealousy and insecurity, but instead, these feelings are broadcast through lines such as, “I DESERVE TO FEEL PRETTY TOO” and, when she looks at Anna, “Ow” (because, you know, it hurts.)

i would write more, but it’d just be me complaining a lot, so I’ll leave it here. The play was disappointing. Ow (it hurts me that it was.)

Choice quotes:

“We met two months ago. The day I made up my new name. When I signed up for the poetry thing where we met. I go to write my name down, but I didn’t write my name, GEORGIA. I mean, fuck all names that are also secretly states or flowers or feelings.”

MOTHER: I don’t want to- but I have to bring up Robert and how-
DIANE: WE DON’T SAY THAT NAME. I don’t know that name. That name is a dead word.
MOTHER: It took a long time to cancel all the catering and flowers. There are still envelopes in the attic. I’m just asking, are you SURE?
DIANE: YES. WE HAVE SEX.

TREVOR: Where’s your husband?
MONA: Prison.
TREVOR: What for?
MONA: Beating me up. And I have an MFA. You can’t beat on somebody with an MFA.

Guest Post: Review of Tuesdays With Morrie

Stuart’s friend Russell has been kind enough to write us a fantastic review:

180px-Tuesdays_with_Morrie_book_cover

By the time I got to The Twelfth Tuesday, I was sitting on the couch crying. Few things bring tears to my eyes, and I never expected Morrie’s story to be one of them. This book is deep (while being a light read), emotionally powerful, and incredibly personal. The words of a dying man exhibit great gravity, for indwelling them are the wisdom of a lifetime, the sobriety of reality, and the freedom of truth. Morrie Schwartz was a professor at Brandeis University, and this book’s author, Mitch Albom, his student. Albom frames the book as being the culminating assignment of Morrie’s final class: “It began after breakfast. The subject was the meaning of life. It was taught from experience… The last lecture was brief, only a few words. A funeral was held in lieu of graduation” (1).

Morrie Schwartz, the old professor or “Coach” as Albom affectionately calls him, is suffering from ALS, also know as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which slowly paralyses his body before finally ending his life. Instead of wasting away quietly and out of sight, however, Morrie embraces his final months, making an impact on this world that has clearly extended past his earthly life. I will leave the full discovery of the person Morrie up to you as you pick up the book. What I would like to highlight below are a few moments that I found particularly significant.

” ‘Remember what I said about finding a meaningful life? I wrote it down, but now I can recite it: Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning’… I jotted some of the things Morrie was saying on a yellow pad. I did this mostly because I didn’t want him to see my eyes, to know what I was thinking, that I had been, for much of my life since graduation, pursuing these very things he had been railing against…” (127).

“But everyone knows someone who has died, I said. Why is it so hard to think about dying? ‘Because,’ Morrie continued, ‘most of us all walk around as if we’re sleepwalking. We really don’t experience the world fully, because we’re half-asleep, doing things we automatically think we have to do.’ And facing death changes all that? ‘Oh, yes’… He sighed, ‘Learn how to die, and you learn how to live.’ ”

“I felt as if I had a pit in my throat. ‘Coach?’ ‘Ahh?’ I don’t know how to say good-bye. He [Morrie] patted my hand weakly, keeping it on his chest. ‘This… is how we say… good-bye…’ He breathed softly, in and out, I could feel his ribcage rise and fall. Then he looked right at me. ‘Love… you,’ he rasped.”

Saying goodbye on a beautiful spring day in 2012 to my Auntie Etta, a close friend of my family through four generations, was one of the hardest things I have done in my life. And the toughest part of it all was when she said those very words, as clear as day, through all the difficulty of speaking after her stroke: “I love you.” Tuesdays with Morrie addresses both the richest joys of life and the harshest realities and trials of departure in an unashamed, vibrant, and honest light. It is not overly sentimental. If you have lost someone close to you at any time in your life, this book will bring back a flood of wonderful memories; even if you have not, Morrie’s words are sure to touch your spirit. This is not a genre I would typically pick off the shelf – but it is a book that you most certainly should.

Review of The Bell Jar

Bell Jar

When I picked up The Bell Jar at the library, I wasn’t sure if I should be reading it. I wasn’t really in a good place, mentally, and I knew that the book had some dark themes. I also thought it was a book of poetry, and I’m not much of a poetry person. But I knew it was a book I should read at some point in my life, and I chose then. I’m very grateful I did.

Sylvia Plath’s novel is about nineteen year-old Esther Greenwood, who, at the start of the book, is in the middle of a magazine internship in New York City. She’s one of twelve female writers who were invited to not only work on an NYC magazine, but also to be lavished with attention and gifts. It should be a dream come true for a well brought-up aspiring writer like Esther, but something’s wrong. She feels constantly outside of what she’s doing and the people around her, and she can’t seem to get excited about anything like all the other girls. “I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” she says early in the book. But life has no regard for her- besides having trouble mentally, she gets rejected by boys she wants to date and schools she wants to get into. She gets assaulted at a party and has to keep it to herself. Her mother has little regard for her and her father has been out of the picture for a long time. When Esther returns home the summer after her internship, a summer she had planned to spend in a prestigious writing program (from which she was rejected), her symptoms worsen. Eventually, she takes herself to get electroshock treatments, and it’s a terrible experience. Her world just gets darker, until finally she is admitted into  psych ward. Then, the only question is, will the ward make her better, or will she  be stuck there forever?

As previously mentioned, I knew well the themes in The Bell Jar and people’s reactions to them: that the book was incredibly dark and if you weren’t already depressed, this book would make it happen. I also went into the reading with my personal expectations- that it would be written in an older voice, about an older, married woman and that I probably wouldn’t be able to relate at all. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book is classified as young adult, written in a young voice and extremely relatable. Perhaps because I am going through my own depression, I didn’t find Esther’s story to be gloomy, but refreshing. At last, someone who was writing accurately about what I’m going through. There were certainly parts that were disturbing or sad, but I didn’t feel myself pulled down by the story.

Perhaps because The Bell Jar is a thinly veiled tale of Plath’s own life, the reactions of Esther’s mother were heartbreaking, but quiet accurate to how many people reaction to all mental illnesses. After her first needlessly painful round of ECT (electro-convulsive therapy), Esther sits in the back of her mother’s car and says that she’s done with the treatments. Her mother smiles. “I knew my baby wasn’t like that,” she says. Esther is surprised. “Like what?” she asks. Her mother explains, “Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at the hospital. I knew you’d be all right again.” Even after Esther nearly succeeds in killing herself, during her recovery her mother tells her, “We’ll act as if this were all a bad dream,” as though Esther could simply forget the reasons why she wanted to kill herself and enter a new, happy life.
But not everyone in Esther’s life treat her depression with scorn. An old flame of hers, Buddy, who later dated an acquaintance of Esther’s who also ends up, suicidal, in the psych ward, asks Esther if it could possibly have been him who drove the girls insane. He worries that something he did during their respective courtships somehow pushed the girls over the edge.

One thing that jumped out at me about Plath’s writing style besides, of course, how good it is, is that she LOVES similes. Especially in the beginning of the novel, there’s a least one per page, sometimes more.  She describes what she wears as “expensive clothes hanging limp as fish,” and later on writes, “It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction.”

If anything, I find The Bell Jar a good source about mental illness. For people suffering from similar maladies, the book tells them that they’re not alone. For those who aren’t afflicted, it gives them insight into the condition and how involuntary it is. The Bell Jar is a fantastic novel. Read it.

Choice Quotes:

It didn’t seem to be summer anymore. I could feel the winter shaking my bones and banging my teeth together.

A second wave collapsed over my feet, lipped with white froth, and the chill gripped my ankles with a mortal ache.
My flesh winced, in cowardice, from such a death.

The only trouble was, church, even the Catholic Church, didn’t take up the whole of your life. No matter how much you knelt and prayed, you still had to eat three meals a day and have a job and live in the world.

Sunday- the doctor’s paradise! Doctors at country clubs, doctors at the seaside, doctors with mistresses, doctors with wives, doctors in church, doctors in yachts, doctors everywhere resolutely being people instead of doctors.

A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her. Still, she had obviously decided to forgive me.
“We’ll take up where we left off, Esther,” she had said, with her sweet, martyr’s smile. “We’ll act as if this were all a bad dream.”
A bad dream.
I remembered everything.
To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as  a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.
A bad dream.
I remembered everything.

There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice- patched, retreaded and approved for the road.

 

 

Review of Eleanor & Park

In the beginning of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, Eleanor mocks Romeo and Juliet: “[They’re] just two rich kids who’ve always gotten every little thing they want. And now, they think they want each other […] It was ‘Oh, my God, he’s so cute’ at first sight.” Eleanor is skeptical of teenage romance. Not that she’s ever experienced romance, or love, but considering the way her stepdad treats her mother, Eleanor’s not sure that either of those exist. Park isn’t looking for romance, either; he’s got his friends, his comic books, and his music, and he doesn’t need anything else. He especially doesn’t need the weird new girl Eleanor sitting next to him on the bus day after day. She dresses strangely, her hair is messy and orange, and the fact that she’s a target makes him a target. But despite their misgivings of each other, Eleanor and Park start to become friends, connecting over music and comic books and similar senses of humor. Things aren’t easy; Eleanor’s life isn’t great and she can’t believe that anyone could like her- let alone love her. Park is inexperienced in life and love and enjoys being a loner; is he really willing to give up the ease of that life for some weird chick?

Rowell’s book is exquisite. It’s a love story, but it’s a friendship story first, and it’s never cloying. Eleanor and Park are experiencing these feelings for the first time, and they’re wary of them. Eleanor, especially, can’t let herself believe it. Her life is tough and could easily become overdramatic, but Rowell avoids making it so. Instead, we feel how trapped Eleanor’s mom is by a bad marriage and how much of a danger the stepfather is  to Eleanor and her siblings. Eleanor isn’t used to be cared for, even by herself, and to allow Park to do it is terrifying, especially because she’s not conventionally beautiful.

That was another wonderful thing. In pretty much any teen novel, when the overweight girl is loved by someone, she works behind the scenes to lose weight for her significant other (even if the S.O. didn’t request it.) Though the authors want this to symbolize that the girl is feeling better about herself and has something to look forward to, it just sends the message that any girl over a size eight can’t be loved long-term. Eleanor is a busty, curvy redhead at the beginning, middle, and end of the book, and Park’s feelings never waver for her, not even when her self-loathing comes out as anger toward him.

But even though he loves to love Eleanor, Park has his own problems. Next to his tall, muscle-y younger brother (whom the Korean half of the genes skipped somehow), Park feels like the girly Asian kid in his almost-all-white neighborhood. His father broadcasts to him that Park’s interests are not what he’d like from his son, and Park just feels out of place. Maybe that’s why he likes being with Eleanor- she’s out of place, too, and that common ground is enough to make them both feel safe.

The only issue I took with the story is that Rowell set the novel in the 80s… for seemingly no reason. While it’s certainly not a crime for a book to be set in the more recent past, they’re generally set there for a reason. Rowell’s chosen decade didn’t really affect the story. Sure, the main characters really liked 80s bands, whom they listened to on Walkmans, and the ridiculous hairstyles of the time are mentioned once, but there were no elements of the time period that made the story more interesting.

Despite the pointless time period choice, Rowell’s novel is excellent. As I reached the end of the book, I started to panic because there weren’t enough pages for all the THINGS that needed to happen. Rowell’s novel is about the scariness of a first love, feeling comfortable with yourself, and making the right decision, even if it’s a painful one.

Choice quotes:

Even in a million pieces, Eleanor could still feel Park holding her hand. Could still feel his thumb exploring her palm. She sat completely still because she didn’t have any other option. She tried to remember what kind of animals paralyzed their prey before they ate them…
Maybe Park had paralyzed her with his ninja magic, his Vulcan handhold, and now he was going to eat her.
That would be awesome.

“Don’t be mad at me,” he said, sighing. “It makes me crazy.”
“I’m never mad at you,” she said.
“Right.”
“I’m not.”
“You must just be mad near me a lot.”

He put his pen in his pocket, then took her hand and held it to his chest for a minute.
It was the nicest thing she could imagine. It made her want to have his babies and give him both of her kidneys.

Eleanor made him feel like something was happening. Even when they were just sitting on the couch.

Review of Between Shades of Gray

7824322

Unfortunately for author Ruta Sepetys, her YA novel Between Shades of Gray debuted around the same time as the decidedly not YA book Fifty Shades of Gray also hit bookstores. However, though I haven’t read the latter, I’ll venture a guess that Sepetys’ book is better.

Between Shades of Gray begins in Lithuania in 1941. World War 2 is becoming more threatening by the day, and Stalin is determined to clear out all those who threaten his reign- namely professors, artists, and intellectuals. Lina’s father, a professor at a Lithuanian university, is on his list, and Lina, along with her mother and brother, find themselves herded onto a traincar in the middle of the night, headed for an unknown destination. Lina’s father is not with them, having been sent to a Siberian prison and sentenced to death. A budding artist, Lina documents her experiences through drawings, even though, if the pictures were found, she too might find herself on the wrong end of a gun. After weeks on a train, during which Lina and her fellow passengers band together, the entire car is dumped on a beet farm and forced to work in unimaginable conditions. As her fellow prisoners die steadily, Lina, her brother Jonas, her mother, and her new friend Andrius try to keep up their morale and hope to make it out of the imprisonment alive.

Many World War II books take place in England, Germany, or another location that was affected by Hitler and the Holocaust. While no doubt a story that deserves to be told, I couldn’t believe that I had never really heard about the evacuations of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. The stories are similar in that a power-hungry ruler bent on “purifying” Europe deported (and ultimately killed) millions of people, imprisoning them inhumanely and convincing their fellow countrymen of the victims’ “criminal record.” Neither can be called crueler than the other; in both cases, innocent human beings were punished and killed. I found Lina’s story, which is fictional but takes threads from many true stories, infuriating and saddening.

These stories are often told from a teen’s point of view because teens feel emotions more deeply, observe happenings more closely, and  are still learning who they are. To have the latter process interrupted by constant tragedy is what makes these stories so fitting for a teen voice. Lina is a great character, because she is caring and intelligent, as well as being impulsive, a little bratty, and thrust into a world she could have never imagined. Especially because she is an artist, Lina sees the world differently from a lot of those she’s imprisoned with, and risks her life to record what happens to her.

It is obvious when handsome Andrius is introduced in the beginning of the book that he is intended to be Lina’s love interest, but I was relieved to find that the romance, while present, was very secondary to the rest of the story. Though Lina certainly likes Andrius, she has bigger things to worry about than what Andrius thinks of her. I think that makes the brief moments they spend together on the page even sweeter- they’re rare happy moments in Lina’s life, the kind she should have had more of at her age.

Sepetys doesn’t shy away from the disgusting way the prisoners, but especially the women, are treated by the officers and guards. For the first few weeks at the camp, many of the prisoners shun Andrius’ mother, sure she must have agreed to spy for Stalin’s officers because she is kept warm and clean. They ostracize her further when they learn that she is sleeping with the officers. Only discovering the truth- that the men threatened to kill Andrius if his mother didn’t sleep with them- makes them retract their harsh judgments. At one point, when Lina’s mother starts to receive extra rations, Lina wonders (and Jonas wonder aloud) if her mother isn’t doing the same. Her mother is shocked and hurt by this accusation from her own children.

While it is certainly not a statistic that all YA books (or all books in general) end with a happy or even hopeful ending, I must admit that I was shocked by the bleak ending of Between Shades of Gray. But it’s only appropriate; Lena’s story may be fictional, but it was a very real truth for those imprisoned that serving 15 years in these camps was not an empty threat to keep them obedient. The citizens actually did serve that many years, or more. Those who went in as children emerged as adults. Worst, their time in the camps was, and still is, denied by many in their respective countries. Unlike the Holocaust, the camp imprisonment of the Lithuanian, Estonian, and Finnish people is never spoken of, and even today, the few that are left are still begging for the recognition of Stalin’s crimes. This book, while a fictional testament written by a young girl, is more than that. It’s also a way to get the message out to a different audience, one that might listen.