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Review of You Should Have Known (spoilers!)

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I bought the audiobook of  Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel You Should Have Known on a whim. The last time I did that, the chosen book sucked, but this one sounded promising. From the back:

Grace Reinhart Sachs is living the only life she ever wanted for herself. Devoted to her husband, a pediatric oncologist at a major cancer hospital, their young son Henry, and the patients she sees in her therapy practice, her days are full of familiar things: She lives in the very New York apartment in which she was raised, and sends Henry to the school she herself once attended. Dismayed by the ways in which women delude themselves, Grace is also the author of a book You Should Have Known, in which she cautions women to really hear what men are trying to tell them. But weeks before the book is published a chasm opens in her own life: A violent death, a missing husband, and, in the place of a man Grace thought she knew, only an ongoing chain of terrible revelations. Left behind in the wake of a spreading and very public disaster, and horrified by the ways in which she has failed to heed her own advice, Grace must dismantle one life and create another for her child and herself.

I simply loved this book. It was one of those books that you get addicted to. I can’t remember the last time I just laid in the bed and listened to a book, and I even listened to it while doing a workout video because I couldn’t bear to wait 25 minutes to find out what happened next.

Grace is a wonderful character. She’s caring but straightforward, confident but utterly human in her insecurities, smart and inwardly cutting when she’s stressed. ‘Likeable’ is the wrong word to describe Korelitz’s character, though I did like her. I guess she’s just… perfectly human. The perfect example is her psychology book, which bears the same title as the novel: Grace cares very much for the down-on-their-luck women/patients who prompted her to write the book, but they frustrate her. Why can’t they see that the men in their lives informed them long ago of their own deficiencies? Your husband’s “experimental phase” with men was not experimental; he told you he couldn’t handle money on your first date; you should have realized that when his gaze lingered on other women when you were engaged, that it wasn’t going to be stopped by a ring. You just should have known.

The book, which isn’t even published yet, gets huge attention. She appears in Vogue, the New York Times, and her agent secures her a spot on The View. But the book is just one part of her life. Grace spends considerable time helping out with her son’s school, also her alma mater. It’s at a meeting about the latest fundraiser that she meets the to-be murder victim. Their contact is extremely brief, but it’s enough to get Grace grilled by the police once the woman is killed. 

The thing I loved most about the book is how internal it is. Grace’s mind is so active, and the murder puts her into a complete tailspin, especially when combined with the worry over her husband Jonathan’s whereabouts and handling the way to explain all of this to her adolescent son. Her memories, combined with her knowledge of the human mind, makes her inner journey engaging and exciting. Korelitz’s timing with Grace’s memories are great, with only one exception: for some reason, to explain how Grace came to own a lakeside house in Connecticut, Korelitz takes us all the way back  to the early fifties so we can see her grandparents’ life together. All we really need to know is that Grace’s grandmother is her namesake and that she left Grace the house, but Korelitz regales us with the life of a 1950s housewife, which might be interesting except THERE’S A MURDER BEING SOLVED 50 YEARS AHEAD. 

Speaking of the murder, the solving of it is also perfectly timed. Many readers complain that it’s obvious that Jonathan committed the murder- and it is. That’s because its clarity isn’t the point; it’s the fact that.Jonathan is a psychopath that is also a doctor who is married to a shrink Sure, as soon as I read that Jonathan made sure he couldn’t be contacted, I figured out that he was probably the perpetrator, but the thing that gave me actual chills was learning why and how he could possibly be that kind of person. I cannot get over how interesting and smart it is that a psychologist who wrote a book on pinpointing flaws early on ends up marrying a legitimate psychopath… and not realizing it for 17 years. It’s not because she lacks smarts as a human being or a therapist; it’s because she has exactly the same hang-ups as her target audience. As she figures out the truth about Jonathan and her life with him, she is forced to do some serious, painful soul-searching. 

The novel is possibly a bit too long at the end; I don’t really need a whole chapter on how Henry is convinced by a Connecticut musician, at least for a night, to set aside his classical violin to pick up a fiddle. But I’m willing to forgive Korelitz’s overwriting because the book as a whole is amazing. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. GET THIS BOOK NOW.

 

Review of Hyperbole and a Half

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Allie Brosh’s hysterical blog, Hyperbole and a Half, has been one of my favorites for years. Her stories, comprised of carefully combined words and pictures, would bring me to tears, I would laugh so hard. Her book, subtitled Unfortunate Situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened, is no disappointment. While reading the book on a plane, I had to try my hardest not to disturb my seatmate.

Brosh’s book includes some classic stories from her blog, such as The Simple Dog (starring her probably mentally challenged canine), The God of Cake, and The Party (wherein little Allie begs her mother to let Allie attend a party while heavily sedated), and adds in a handful of never-before-read stories, which are just as side-achingly funny.

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Then there are the more sobering stories. After regaling her large audience with funny tales for a few years, Brosh fell suddenly silent . There were no more new blog entries and this book, set to be published in September of 2012, didn’t appear on shelves that month. Everyone wondered where she went, and a few months later, she reappeared with a post entitled, Depression, Part 1, about her continued struggles with mental illness. While Brosh relayed her story with her usual comedic skill, there was a lot of startling, sobering, unfunny parts of this story. It was possible that Brosh’s audience would have shied away from this sudden change, but what happened instead was a reinforcement of dedicated fans’ support, and the gaining of a lot of new readers. Brosh’s book includes a continuation of the depression story, which explains that while she’s better. she’s still not cured, and probably never will be. Telling a different kind of story was a risk for Brosh, and one well worth taking. 

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I think the best part about Hyperbole and a Half is that it feels fresh when you’re reading it. Her new stories are devoured and her “old” stories are looked forward to eagerly. The book reads quickly and is a study on the (mostly) fantastic absurdity of life. I think I speak for all of Brosh’s fans when I say, Keep on keeping on, Allie. 

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Choice Quotes:

(It’s hard to capture Brosh’s greatest quotes, since many of them are in picture form. I’ll try, but buy her book, too.)

“Hey! What are you doing?”
“Playing a game.”
“What game?”
“‘What’s Wrong With Me?’ It’s like an Easter egg hunt for things that make me feel weird.”

…For a little while, I actually feel grown-up and responsible.I strut around with my head held high, looking the other responsible people in the eye with that knowing glance that says, I understand. I’m responsible now, too. Just look at my groceries.  

I kept eating out of a combination of spite and stubbornness. No one could tell me not to eat and entire cake- not my mom, not Santa, not God- no one.

Review of Dark Places

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Gillian Flynn has recently come to the attention of many readers due to the popularity of her latest book, Gone Girl. It’s so popular, in fact, that it’s impossible to get ahold of in most libraries. Because of this, I decided to read another book of hers while I waited: Dark Places. After all, it sounded like exactly the kind of book I enjoy: creepy, thrilling, and smart. It did not disappoint. 

Dark Places is about thirty-one year old Libby Day, who, twenty-five years ago was the sole survivor of the Kinnakee Satan Sacrifices, when her then-fifteen year old brother Ben snapped one night and massacred her mother and her two older sisters. Since then, Libby has been trapped in a depression of sorts. She’s unable to function normally- writing a check exhausts her, she can’t control her anger, and instead of working, she simply lives off of the fund to which people have contributed since her family was murdered. The problem is that in the past few years, Libby’s story has grown stale to the public and people rarely donate to her cause anymore; her money is running out. But then Libby gets an offer from a group called the Kill Club, a group of people for whom Libby’s story is not old news. In fact, they’re sure that facts were overlooked and will pay Libby thousands of dollars to make appearances, give interviews, and sell her family’s possessions. Libby is so desperate to keep up her miserable but comfortably solitary life that she’s willing to do all this, until it becomes apparent that what she thought were facts when she was seven, might not be at all.

I admire writers who aren’t afraid to write unlikable characters. Flynn took the risk of her readers hating Libby when she wrote her main character. LIbby is so angry and so troubled that she’s hard to empathize with. However, as a reader, I was able to accept her for who she is; she does, after all, have every right to be that way. She also doesn’t apologize for her character, and for some reason, that made me like Libby more. And even though the stubborness doesn’t go away, it support Libby’s slow change of heart regarding the murders: Libby may be money-grubbing and cynical, but it’s those traits, among others, that propel her to find the real answers. 

The book is mostly written from in Libby’s voice, but every few chapters, a third person narrative gives us the perspective of either Ben (Libby’s brother), Runner (their father), or Patty (their mother.) This gave the reader some relief from Libby’s heavy voice and allowed us to piece together the story ourselves, instead of Flynn presenting the answer in the final chapter in a cliche “crazy killer speech” moment. The best part of getting the additional points of view was seeing a small thing that was already or would shortly be a remarkable fact, whether it be a family story that was insignificant to one character but meant the world to another or an object present in the scene. Flynn leaves these little gems around casually, but does it artfully, so that when the reader comes across it, it’s like a bomb going off. 

I hadn’t read a thriller novel in awhile, and reading Dark Places made me miss doing so. Flynn has a great style- it’s entertaining and unapologetic, and chock-full of skill. If Gone Girl is anything like Dark Places, that long wait is completely worth it.

Choice quotes:

“Like I said, [Kill Club] is basically for solvers. And enthusiasts. Of famous murders. Everyone from like, Fanny Adams to-“
“Who is Fanny Adams?” I snapped, realizing I was about to get jealous. I was supposed to be the special one here.
“She was an eight-year-old, got chopped to bits in England in 1867. That guy we just passed, with the top hat and stuff, he was playing at being her murderer, Frederick Baker.”
“That’s really sick.” So she’d been dead forever. That was good. No competition.

I steal underpants, rings, CDs, books, shoes iPods, watches […] The actual stuff my family owned, those boxes under my stairs, I can’t quite bear to look at. I like other people’s things better. They come with other people’s history.

After another forty minutes of driving, the strip clubs started showing up: dismal, crouched blocks of cement, most without any real name, just neon signs shouting Live Girls! Live Girls! Which I guess is a better selling point than Dead Girls. 

Review of Why We Broke Up

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When I picked up Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up in the library, I was astonished by its weight. It wasn’t until I opened it that I realized that the book doesn’t just include art- it also includes artwork. In a collaborative effort, Handler (who revealed himself years ago as the true author of the Series of Unfortunate Events books) worked with artist Maira Kalman to weave a story made of words and pictures.

Why We Broke Up is Min’s (short for Minerva) story about all the reasons why she broke up with her boyfriend, Ed. The whole relationship began as something unbelievable; after all, Min is (as she detests being described) “artsy”, and Ed is the star of the basketball team. But for whatever, he takes an interest in her and who is she to say no to Ed Slaterton? From the beginning, people have deemed their relationship “…different,” which Min decides not to take as a warning sign. Instead, she and Ed soldier on, putting aside their differences and working into each others’ lives the best they can. Their friends don’t make it easy- Min’s friends think Ed is a dumb, rude joke, and Ed’s friends think it’s pathetically hilarious that the couple hasn’t physically gone beyond “everything but.” Eventually, try as they might, Min and Ed can’t make it work, and in one big box, Min shoves everything from their relationship to leave on Ed’s front stoop. This book, with pictures of each memento described, is her letter to him.

I love Handler’s style of writing. I’ve never read his Series of Unfortunate Events books, so perhaps this is his usual style, but I love the way Min’s inner voice works. Sometimes she’s poetic: “I don’t smoke, although it looks fantastic in films. But when I light matches on those thinking blank nights when I crawl my route out onto the roof of the garage and the sky while my parents sleep innocent and the lonely cars move sparse on the faraway streets, when the pillow won’t stay cool and the blankets bother my body no matter how I move or lie still. I just sit with my legs dangling and light matches and watch them flicker away.” Sometimes she has an almost jerky way of reporting dialogue: “Because I’d be,” I said, “you know, your date.” It’s the kind of writing that is only different enough to keep the reader on their toes.

The most remarkable thing about Min, and I suppose about her relationship with Ed, is that no matter the emotion, she wants to feel it deeply. A lot of characters, if they’re not too proud to admit emotions, note that they’re annoyed/sad/happy, but before they can talk about it, get distracted by something. Not Min. She lives life and its emotions to the fullest:

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“A note, who writes a note like that? Who were you to write one to me? It boomed inside me the whole time, an explosion over and over, the joy of what you wrote to me jumpy shrapnel in my bloodstream. I can’t have it near me anymore, I’m grenading it back to you, as soon as I can unfold it and read it and cry one more time. Because me too, and fuck you. Even now.”

In a novel titled Why We Broke Up, written by the person who did the breaking up, one might expect Min to be vindictive, mocking, insert bad-person adjective here. But while Min can be all of those things toward Ed, she also hasn’t forgotten that the relationship held good things  too. She knows that she’s not completely blameless, and toward the end of the book, Min goes on a three-page, almost single-sentence rant against herself:

I’m not anything, this is what I realized to Al  crying with my hands dropping the petals but holding this too tight to let go. I like movies, everyone knows I do- I love them- but I will never be in charge of one because my ideas are stupid and wrong in my head. There’s nothing different about that, nothing fascinating, interesting, worth looking at. I have bad hair and stupid eyes. I have a body that’s nothing […] I scratch at places on my body, I sweat everywhere, my arms, the way I clumsy around dropping things, my average grades and stupid interests, bad breath, pants tight in back, my neck too long or something. I’m sneaky and get caught, I’m snobby and faking it, I agree with liars, I say whatnot and think that’s some clever thing.

And on and on it goes, in an almost disgusting display of self-hatred, but it’s only disgusting because we’ve all had that moment at least once and it brings us back to that moment, like all good writing can do. And all of this good writing is complemented by Kalman’s youthfully imperfect artwork, pictures that are a labor of love between exes. And so this book, too, is a labor of love, and a great one at that.

Choice Quotes:

“He asked you out. Ed Slaterton.”
“He’s not going to call,” I said. “It was just a party.”
“Don’t put yourself down,” Jordan said. “You have all the qualities Ed Slaterton looks for in his millions of girlfriends, come to think of it. You have two legs.”
“And you’re a carbon-based life form,” Lauren said.

I liked, I admit, that we didn’t pretend there hadn’t been other girls. There was always a girl on you in the halls at school, like they came free with a backpack.

Ed, it was wonderful. To stutter through it with you or even stop stuttering and say nothing, was so lucky and soft, better talk than mile-a-minute with anyone. After a few minutes we’d stop rattling, we’d adjust, we’d settle in, and the conversation would speed into the night. Sometimes it as just laughing at the comparing favorites, I love that flavor, that color’s cool, that album sucks, I’ve never seen that show, she’s awesome, he’s an idiot, you must be kidding, no way mine’s better, safe and hilarious like tickling.

You shook your head. “She’s,” you said, “well, she’s OK, Jillian, but you can’t seriously be jealous. Look at her.”
“Most people would say,” I said, “that she’s beautiful.”
“That’s because she’s been with most people,” you said.

“Coach says coffee’s bad for you.”
“Unlike drinking every weekend.”
“You can get addicted to caffeine.”
“Yeah,” I said with another sip, “you see them living under the overpass, caffeine addicts.”

In the bathroom mirror there was a smudge of dirt on my neck, and I wiped it off in a hurried flush […] and then, meeting my own eyes, stood for a sec and tried to figure, like all girls in all mirrors everywhere, the difference between lover and slut.

“It’s kind of personal.”
[Al] turned off the water and watched me in the doorway with the towel on his shoulder. “OK.”
“I mean, it’s not like my period or my parents beating me, but personal.”
“Yeah, it’ rough when your parents beat you and you have your period.”

Review of As You Wish

As You Wish (1)

Viola’s life took a nosedive when her boyfriend (and best friend) Lawrence broke up with her seven months ago. Though Viola can’t blame Lawrence for being gay, she still wishes that someone would love her the way she thought Lawrence did. She wishes so hard for this that she accidentally summons a young genie, whom she calls Jinn. Jinn is not happy to have been pulled from his perfect world to grant three wishes to a an indecisive high school girl. Viola is too terrified of the repercussions of making wishes, forcing Jinn to live in the human world he detests for longer than he’s ever had. But the longer he stays in Viola’s world, the more he understands her world, and most importantly, her. Viola, too, becomes more attached to Jinn, and eventually she becomes reluctant to ever use her wishes, because once she voices number three, Jinn will disappear forever.

As You Wish is Jackson Pearce’s first novel, but she handles the dual-character storytelling with skill. Viola and Jinn alternate chapters, and it’s great to watch them progress through the story together. Jinn grows believably from a snide, bored genie to a being that feels human emotions to the point where he almost longs to be human. Viola possesses a large number of insecurities, but somehow never comes across as whiny. Her hurt at Lawrence suddenly coming out to her is believable (besides the fact that everyone else seemed to know, he decided to tell Viola as she was gearing up to sleep with him), but the reader doesn’t fault her for staying friends with  him.

Pearce has a great way of raising the stakes throughout the book. Besides Viola being afraid to wish, first because of the repercussions and then because she likes Jinn, Pearce adds in that most of the time, when humans don’t wish, they get a “press”- that is, one of the higher-ups in the jinn world makes something happen in the human’s life that will force them to wish, usually something traumatic.  Usually Jinn is eager for a press, but when he starts to reciprocate Viola’s feelings, he does everything he can to prevent it. Unfortunately, he can’t, and the worry about how the higher-ups will press Viola kind of eats away at you for a few chapters.

The best part of the book are the relationships: Viola’s determined dedication to Lawrence, his slightly pitying (platonic) love for her, and Jinn’s growing affection for Viola as he recognizes the earnest longings within her. The only relationship I disliked was that between Viola and her parents. Pearce falls into the stereotypical YA trap of giving Viola conveniently absent parents, and it’s actually worse that she comments on it. Viola’s parents don’t seem to care about their daughter at all.

As You Wish isn’t good for a first novel, it’s just good. It’s unfortunately hard to find, but find it you should!

2012 in Review

RACHEL’S 2012

I’m so happy Stuart and I started this blog. Looking back, I can see how much this project has changed the way I approach books and reading. When I was in college, I did a shamefully small amount of recreational reading. This blog challenged me to make time for the thing I’ve loved to do my entire life: read books I’m interested in reading. Because I tried to review fairly regularly, not only did I get to return to some of my favorite books, I also read novels that had been sitting on my shelf for years, untouched, as well as pick up books that I’d always wanted read but never got around to. I read books I loved, books I hated, and books that made me go “eh.” I just read. That’s the most important part: I finally got back to reading.

Because I knew I would reviewing almost every book I picked up, I also approached reading them in a new way. I’ve always been one to mark passages that I like, but I was also searching for the skill of the writing, the character development, plot points, and the overall merit of the book: things I’d always stored away subconsciously but rarely voiced. Writing this blog has made me a more thoughtful reader and has provided me with a deeper reading experience. Also, because I spent my final semester of college ensconced in my playwriting thesis, I rediscovered then and now how important it is for a writer to read. Not only does it allow you to experience other writers’ voices, but it helps you to find your own.

I can’t wait to keep up these experiences in 2013. I’ve got a few reviews waiting in the wings of the blog already, and I just went to the library and picked up a few new books to get me through the slow season at work. My goal is to read some more classics. I will admit that it probably won’t be many; I dislike classics in general. However, I would like to have a deeper knowledge of literature, and reading some earlier books certainly wouldn’t hurt. I also want to branch out into other genres, both within my usual area of YA and outside of it.

I also want to write more. I did quite a bit of writing in the first half of 2012 simply because I took a poetry and fiction writing class, and of course, my thesis was writing a play. I also had a very fruitful summer, writing-wise. I also had a play of mine selected for production. But in dealing with some issues that began in September or so, I really petered out. I started to write a play and put it aside as I tried to do NaNoWriMo for the fifth year running. For the first time since 2008, I failed to pen 50,000 words in November because I just couldn’t make myself write; now I’ve lost the momentum on my play. But I’m itching to get started on another serious writing project, so hopefully the juices will be flowing again soon.

My big resolution for 2013 is to be kinder to myself: to allow myself to make mistakes without beating myself up over them. That goes for this blog. Contributing to it is important and helpful to me, but from now on, I won’t feel guilty if I go a few weeks without a post, or if I’m reading more slowly than usual. I’m going to take things as they come and perform to the best of my ability, as a reader, a blogger, a writer, and a human being.

STUART’S 2012

Like Rachel, I am delighted that the two of us started this blog. In college, I spent the vast majority of my time engrossed in my studies and research in physics, making little time for pleasure reading (or much reading at all outside physics and astronomy, much to the chagrin of my literature and history professors). When the two of us decided to start this blog, I was excited because I knew I would force myself to take more time to read for myself, for pleasure, something I missed immensely.

What I did not expect was the way this would change me as a reader. I have always read critically—that’s something I try to do so every time I pick up a book. But at the end of it, I would put it down and move on to something else. Working up a review after reading a book has made me take the time to piece together my thoughts, to assemble an image of the work as a whole, to form my opinions from a thorough analysis. Instead of just drawing on my personal engrossment and final catharsis, I became a reader engaged after the book was finished and back on the shelf. Which, for me, has been good.

As a writer, I have changed dramatically. When this blog started, I was stuck in a horrendous muck of writer’s block. Reading again and being more engaged in that reading helped to dredge me up from that ditch and put me on the path to writing again. I then found that being more focused and thoughtfully involved as a reader has caused me to pay attention to details of character development, dialogue, conflict, imagery, and other such stuff which composes a work of literature. While in the past I have drawn on “good” literature to help myself learn and grow as a writer, this scrutiny has helped me to truly grow as a writer as I began to focus on these details in my own work.

That being said, I also took the time to glean some really good ideas from the better pieces I reviewed for the blog, such as Stoppard’s Arcadia, Frayn’s Copenhagen, and Glück’s Ararat, and have started to mull them over in my head before putting into writing some of my own reflections on issues such as the nature of time and reality, the role of knowledge in life, the context of the individual within the whole of society.

This last point has forced me to consider something crucial to my identity as a writer: my audience (I am reminded of the rhetorical triangle that many of us have encountered in our experience as young writers). Yes, I am only one voice in seven billion. But if I am to make that voice heard, to make it powerful and affective, I must understand that I am not one just one voice in an endless cacophony of noise: my writing can reach people. And while I am not published and barely make enough time for this blog, I find myself challenged and inspired by the question David Mitchell asks at the end of Cloud Atlas:
“Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

With that in mind, I have begun efforts to produce a play that I wrote (and revised maybe a dozen times—writing is rewriting!) and am finishing revisions of several of my better poems to submit for publication in literary magazines. I’ve come to realize, through my experiences with Ambidexteri this year, that writing can make a difference. And it is my hope and vision to share my written voice as drop in the sea of voices, even if only to better a few and not the entire ocean.

Review of Let it Snow

IT’S THE HOLIDAY SEASON! So what better book to read than one about snow, Christmas, and romance?

Let it Snow is a collab book, written in three parts by a few of YA’s biggest names: Maureen Johnson (oh, sorry, are you surprised?), John Green (you’re shocked again, right?), and Lauren Myracle. I don’t know what the process of writing this book was really like, but I kind of picture the three of them getting together and saying, “Let’s write a book that has weird, crazy adventures mixed in with cute, sweet romance!” If that’s not how the meeting went… well, that’s the book they turned out, anyway.

Just like chick-lit, I’m not much of a romance reader. I enjoy books with romance here and there, but I could never see myself enjoying a book that was completely about romantic relationships. Then this book came along. And maybe it’s because it’s YA romance (not slightly terrifying erotic romance), or because the relationships are just so darn cute, or the quality of the writing, but I LOVE this book. I bought it in 2008 and I’ve read it at least once a winter since then.

Each of the authors writes their own story, starring different characters, but like movies such as Valentine’s Day and Love, Actually, a major character in Story A is a minor character in Stories B and C. As opposed to a regular anthology or a book with two authors’ stories melded into one, Let it Snow keeps the awesome constant, but changes up the cast every hundred pages or so.

The first up is Maureen Johnson’s The Jubilee Express. Her main character Jubilee begins the story by swearing she is not a stripper (“You probably think I have heard the call of the pole. But no. If you saw me, you’d get the idea pretty quickly that I’m not a stripper [… I play field hockey, which lacks the undulating, baby-oiled grace that is the stripper’s stock and trade.”) When Jubilee (or Julie, as she introduces herself to people) finds out on Christmas Eve that her parents have been jailed due to a riot over a decorative Christmas piece, she hops on a train bound for Florida and her grandparents. Due to the gigantic snowstorm hovering over the south, the train is unable to make it and Julie meets a Target employee named Stuart at a Waffle House, where she’s gone for warmth and to get away from all the cheerleaders on her train. Upon finding out Julie has no place to go, Stuart asks her if she’d like to stay at his house with his mother and sister. Julie accepts, but the walk doesn’t go as planned; while crossing a frozen creek, the ice breaks. Since nothing bonds you to a stranger more than rescuing each other from hypothermia, Julie and Stuart become fast friends, both of them being fussed over post-hypothermia by Stuart’s mom, who has a slightly creepy determination to get Stuart and Julie together after Stuart’s recent heartbreak. Julie herself suffers heartbreak that Christmas Eve. Her perfect-in-pretty-much-every-way boyfriend Noah is being weirdly absent, even after Julie tells him she almost died in a frozen creek. After Stuart tells her for the millionth time that that is not how a good boyfriend behaves, Julie breaks up with Noah and, in order to keep herself from crying, kisses Stuart right afterward. The weirdness of their kiss prompts her to sneak out of the house, headed for her train or home or Florida- anywhere that is not Stuart’s house. But he follows her, if only to say good-bye, an encounter which turns into a much less awkward, adorable kiss. As they walk back to his house, Julie requests that Stuart not tell his mother about the kiss. ‘What?” he asks. “Don’t your parents cheer and stare when you make out with someone? Is that weird where you come from?”

Story #2 is John Green’s A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle. Stuck in the same snowstorm, Tobin and his friends JP and the Duke (the latter of whom is a girl) are perfectly content hanging out on Tobin’s sofa and having a James Bond marathon. But then their friend Keun, who works at the Waffle House, calls them to let them know that fourteen cheerleaders have just taken up residence in the restaurant. He invites them to come for some cheerleader action, and while Tobin and JP practically die of excitement, the Duke can only be persuaded to come with the promise of hash browns. Getting to the Waffle House proves more difficult than they planned, however; Tobin’s mom’s car may have 4-wheel drive, but it’s no match for the several feet of snow outside, and the car ends up stuck in a wall of snow. As they walk the rest of the way to the Waffle House, stopping every now and then to push each other over into the snowbanks, Tobin can’t help but notice how the Duke is walking. Or how pretty her curls look covered in snowflakes. Or how she’s so much more like a person than most girls are. When the trio finally reaches the Waffle House, only to be ignored by the cheerleaders, Tobin watches the Duke’s maybe-winter-formal-date Billy flirt with her and decides to retaliate by talking to a cheerleader. When the Duke leaves the restaurant upset, he follows her outside only to discover that it’s not Billy the Duke is interested in: it’s Tobin.

In the third and final story, by Lauren Myracle, Addie is not happy that it’s Christmas Eve. It’s her one-year anniversary with her boyfriend Jeb… or it would be if she hadn’t cheated on him. No matter who tries to cheer her up, Addie isn’t having any of it. Her guilt over what she did to Jeb is all-consuming, so it’s probably not the best time for her friends to tell her that she’s a little self-absorbed. They do, though, and to prove how selfless she is, Addie offers to pick up her friend Tegan’s final Christmas present: a (very expensive) teacup piglet. But the next day, while working the dawn shift at Starbucks, Addie allows trouble in Addieland to distract her, and by the time she gets to PetWorld, someone else has bought the pig. Though her break is long over, Addie is determined to track down the buyer of Tegan’s pig and get him back. Doing so requires battling snow, missing cars, the boy with whom she cheated, a classmate who hates her, and her own selfishness. In the end though, she manages to get the pig back to Starbucks and nestle him in a snow-themed coffee mug before Tegan comes to pick him up, while at the same time letting us know what happened to new couples Stuart and Jubilee, and Tobin and the Duke.

Johnson’s contribution to the book is an almost completely comic tale, so her wacky sense of humor really shines in The Jubilee Express. My roommates probably think I am crazy because I was lying on our couch cackling as I read the story for the millionth time. Stuart’s mother’s desperation to fix his broken heart and ridiculous. She constantly leaves the room to give Stuart and Julie “private time,” and at one point when she suggests the two cuddle up under a blanket, Julie comments, “Under any other circumstances, I would have assumed that meant, ‘Cuddle up under two separate blankets, spaced several feet apart, possibly with a lightly chained wolf between you,’ because that’s what parents always mean. I got the feeling from Debbie that she was fine with the situation, however we wanted to roll. If we felt the need to […] share a blanket to conserve body heat, she was not going to object. In fact, she was likely to turn down the heat and hide all the blankets but one.” Johnson does takes Julie’s relationship with Noah seriously, though- it takes Stuart pointing out what a crap boyfriend Noah is for Julie to recognize that Noah essentially keeps her around because she works in the picture of his life, not because he actually likes her. Julie doesn’t break up with Noah lightly- she makes constant excuses why he might be acting strangely- but when she does it, she’s sure and not at all sorry.

I also love Green’s story. Like Johnson’s contribution, it’s much more lighthearted than his usual style, but it’s a nice change. Green does funny and romantic very well, and I loved the slow reveal of deep-friendship-into-love between Tobin and the Duke, especially because neither of them was brave enough to admit how they felt about each other until they each made the other jealous. I think I’ve mentioned before that Green’s books can be a hit or miss for me, but besides loving this book, I also love his writing style, regardless of my feelings for the actual plot.

My opinion about Myracle’s piece is a bit different however. I’m not a fan of Myracle’s and haven’t been since I read one of her teen books many, many years ago. While most of the YA authors’ books that I read are composed by authors who flawlessly capture the teen voice, Myracle either tries too hard to incorporate “youthful” lingo, to the point where it sounds unnatural, or has her characters use their own “teen-y” words, which has the same effect. I also feel like she dumbs down her stories- at least three times, she takes several sentences to a paragraph explaining a term (such as “adopt out”) that the reader could easily figure out. Her teens, I suppose, are just too stereotypically teen-y for me. I prefer Johnson and Green’s characters, who are real people who just happen to be in their teens. While I don’t deny that young adults (and people in general) can be very selfish, Addie was so annoyingly self-absorbed (even after her magical “Christmas is for giving and being a better person!” realization) that I don’t want to spend any time with her. The only redeeming factor of Myracle’s contribution is that we get to find out what happened to the other couples.

But since you’re two-for-three with this book, you should definitely read it. I never get tired of it, especially this time of year.

Choice quotes:

“Do you still want to go out with me?” I asked. “Be honest with me, Noah.”
The other end of the line went silent for a long time. Too long for the answer to be “Yes. You are the love of my life.”

In the living room, Rachel was noodling around with the Mouse Trap, which still sat on the table. She gave me a big, toothy smile.
“Were you playing with Stuart?”  she asked.
The question  was loaded. I was a filthy, filthy woman, and even the five year-old knew it.

“I followed your footsteps,: he said, in answer to the unspoken question. “Snow makes it easy.”
I had been tracked, like a bear.
“I didn’t have to go that far, really. You’re about three streets over. You just kept going in loops.”
A really inept bear.

[JP] had found something terrible in the dark corner of my father’s closet: he wore a puffy, periwinkle onesie with tapered legs, an ear-flapped hat atop his head. “You look like a lumberjack with an adult baby fetish,” I said.
“Shut up, asshat,” answered JP simply. “This is ski-slope sexy. It says, ‘I’m just coming off the slopes after a long day saving lives with the Ski Patrol.”
The Duke laughed. “It actually says, ‘Just because I wasn’t the first female astronaut doesn’t mean I can’t wear her flight suit.'”

Oh, well. Stuart was with a lovely girl named Jubilee, and she wasn’t a stripper. That’s all that mattered.

Review of On the Verge

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Time-traveling Victorian ladies. Impressive, almost overwhelming wordplay. Strange men at every turn. Such is the world of Eric Overmyer’s On the Verge. Occasionally disoriented but always adventurous, Mary, Fanny, and Alexandra bravely enter into a new time period almost every scene, eggbeaters at the ready. Did any of that make sense? No? That’s a little what reading On the Verge is like. And yet, while exchanges like, “I have always traveled solo hitherto… Occasionally encountering a sister sojourner on a trek-” “Pausing briefly for the pro forma cuppa-” “And then going our separate ways alone” can be bewildering, it’s always intriguing.

The play finds Mary, Fanny, and Alexandra already full immersed in their time-traveling. These are no neophyte traversers; entering a jungle in 1920 and exiting into 1955 doesn’t impress them nearly as much as the new Kodaks and the debate about the acceptability of trousers. In each era they meet a man (all played by the same actor) who exemplifies the an extreme version of someone from that time. Between 1888 and 1950, they meet Alphonse, a German-French-Dutchman, who is not actually Alphonse, but the cannibal who ate Alphonse. Somewhere in between years, they meet a rapping teenage bridge troll. In a dream, Fanny converses with Mr. Coffee, an icon who informs her that her beloved husband Grover, to whom she spends the play writing letters, killed himself after the crash of ’29, but not before having his time-traveling wife declared dead and remarrying. When they finally reach 1955, the final year of the play, the ladies meet Gus and Nicky, a greaser and a casino owner, respectively. It’s these two men that have the biggest effect on the ladies. Gus answers their biggest questions and Nicky changes Alex and Fanny’s lives by helping Alex score a career as a lyricist and winning Fanny’s heart. And Mary, the seemingly most straight-laced of the trio, decides that 1955 is not for her, and moves further into the future on her own.

 The synopsis on the back of the book compares Overmyer’s style to Tom Stoppard and Thornton Wilder, which is very accurate. Overmyer combines Stoppard’s clever wordplay and intricate plot with Wilder’s historical monologuing style. Each scene ends with one of the women composing a letter or “writing” in a journal (though no physical writing actually happens), in which they reveal their innermost fears and most candid observations.

The most striking thing about this play is its dialogue and vernacular. I can’t even fathom how Overmyer’s brain works to have written this play. At the beginning of the play, Mary finds a button with a Latin phrase engraved into it, which she pronounces phonetically as “Hec-kwhod-ont.” None of the trio can puzzle out what it might mean until they find an “I Like Ike” button later in their travels and discover that they two button are companions: “I like Ike.” “Heck, who don’t?”

And who couldn’t like this play? It’s silly, it’s confusing, it makes the reader think about life and relationships, what it means to be alone and together, and how seeing new places and meeting new people can change you for good.

Choice quotes:

FANNY: You won’t see what you’ve Kodaked?
ALEX: Not until we return home.
FANNY:  How do you know that it works?
ALEX: You trust. You “click.” You store. You protect. You wait.

“Alexandra, the civilizing mission of Woman is to reduce the amount of masculinity in the world. Not add to it by wearing trousers.”

“I would sooner saunter across the Sahara sans sandals than don trousers. An umbrella comes in handy. In the jungle.”

MARY: Why is there evil in the world, Alexandra?
ALEX: To thicken the plot.

“I dream abut mysterious machinery, discover strange objects in my baggage, and strange phrases in my mouth: ‘Air mail,’ ‘Blue-sky ventures.’ ‘So long.’”

31 Plays in 31 Days: Week Two

Readers, it cannot be hidden anymore that I am behind on my plays. I was waiting to update until I had caught up, which was supposed to be Thursday… and then I got called into work and it all went to pot. So here is the shameful amount of plays that I did managed to write during week two of the project:

DAY EIGHT: Pretty Underwear. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like, in monologue form.

DAY NINE: The Future, Ended. A girl wakes up to find that she hasn’t actually woken up, because she died of unknown causes in her sleep.

DAY TEN: How. Two friends go through some of the stages of grief following their friend’s suicide.

DAY ELEVEN: Fine is the Wrong Word. A monologue about the proper reaction to death, and how one death compares to another.

DAY TWELVE: A First Time for Everything. Based on the case of Patricia Douglas, a 1930s dancer is assualted by her movie executive boss.

Days Thirteen and Fourteen were a wash, but I’m working on them now! I don’t know where all these unhappy topics are coming from… except my brain, which is scary.

31 Plays in 31 days: Week One

This first week as a 31D31P playwright has been eye-opening and super fun. There’s nothing like being forced to write things down to teach you some things about yourself.

The first thing I noticed as I wrote my plays is that I have changed so much as a writer in the past few months. I’m braver, bolder, and more willing to write anything that comes into my head. As I probably stated before, one of the appeals of events like this is not having enough time to cater to your inner editor. There have been many times this past week where I’ve gone, “You can’t write about that!” and answered back with, “No time to think of something else. Forward march!”

I thought writing 31 short plays would be harder than writing an entire novel or play in the same amount of time. With the latter, you at least have an idea of the story every day and you’re living with the same characters. But actually, I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy spending time with new characters every day. Most days, I start with just a small idea or one line and allow the play go where it may. I used to be afraid of things not working out, but now I just think that if it doesn’t, who needs to know?

I’m also pretty relieved because I’ve written a few funny plays, and after a semester of writing about Victorian girls sent to mental institutions, I wasn’t feeling very amusing. Everything I wrote was sad or at least serious, and I was worried that I might never write anything funny again. But forcing myself to just write and not overthink things allowed me to be silly again, and it’s great.

Without further ado, the basic info of the first seven plays I’ve written:

DAY ONE: God’s Voice. A girl laments her confusion about religion and prayer.

DAY TWO: A Valiant Effort. Two bumblebees discuss the meaning of life.

DAY THREE: Compatibility. Two people try to figure out if they’re right for one another and if they, as a pair, are right for the world.

DAY FOUR: ‘Til Death Do Us Part. The guy killed someone. The girl doesn’t care.

DAY FIVE: Ten Year- Old Thoughts. Anna talks about why she’s different from all of her friends.

DAY SIX: I Just Thought You Should Know. A couple discovers that love isn’t always powerful enough to keep us here.

DAY SEVEN: Reunion. Allyson runs into the school bully, Katrina, at their ten-year high school reunion to discover that the movies lie about these sorts of things.

Anyone else doing this?