Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani (2013)

It is 1930 and Thea Atwell has done something terrible. So terrible that she will not reveal what it was, but as a consequence she has been sent away to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp, an equestrian boarding school for young ladies of good breeding. It doesn't sound like much of a punishment - especially for someone who loves horses as much as Thea does - but she has spent her whole life isolated with only her family as company. Growing up in Florida, Thea's only companions were her twin brother Sam and her cousin Georgie. After arriving at Yonahlossee in North Carolina she must suddenly adjust to interacting with other teenage girls. But she is still haunted by the sins of her past, and only seems doomed to repeat them.

Thea is reckless and impulsive, and cared little about others' feelings. I know she's only 15 so it's believable, but it was tough to like her. Thea was emotionally distant. It's difficult, in a coming-of-age novel, to sympathize with a protagonist who you don't really know. The secrecy surrounding the terrible thing she did means that we can't really get inside her head and understand her motivations because we don't really know what she's been through. I suppose she grew and changed a bit in the novel, but it's hard to tell because her inner life is so masked. I'm troubled by the fact that she also seems to be making a similar mistake at Yonahlossee, and why would she repeat the very sort of thing that got her sent there in the first place? And without regard to the implications or consequences, when the result of her last mistake was so dire?

The big secret is eventually revealed through a series of flashbacks that slow work forward towards her departure for Yonahlossee. Unfortunately, it was mentioned way too often, with many references to the horrible thing she had done, her terrible secret, etc. It wasn't difficult to figure out what it was, so when it was finally revealed there wasn't much surprise.

The novel revolved a great deal around Thea's burgeoning sexuality, and I found her escapades a bit...icky. Now mind you, I have read everything from Flowers in the Attic to The Story of O without it bothering me - I'm not squeamish about these matters - but I had a hard time reading about some of her inappropriate shenanigans. This involved a man twice her age, though until his age was mentioned late in the book I thought he was much older. Perhaps it was his age that squicked me out, or maybe that combined with the level of detail about their encounters. Either way, it was pretty central to the novel and cast a smarmy light over the whole thing.

But there were some great aspects to the story as well. Thea's family lived in central Florida on a huge piece of land with only their closest relatives, and they hardly even knew any other people. The riding camp/school was another isolated little microcosm - it felt like the novel just moved from one little bubble to another, barely touched by the outside world, and it gave them each an otherworldly feel. Yonahlossee was a fascinating little school, full of traditions and history and a population of girls both mysterious and slightly sinister. Of course it was 1930 and lives were touched by the Depression, which did affect Thea's family and her friends at school in some ways. The best and most heartbreaking part of the novel was Thea's relationship to her twin brother Sam. I really liked reading about him and wish he appeared more.

Many pre-pub reviews are fairly glowing, but I was only able to give it 3 stars on Goodreads and just barely. It wasn't badly written and I can see why others would like it, but Thea was too much of a mystery for me to be truly engaged in her story.

I received my copy of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls as part of Penguin First Flights. It will be published in June.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Knitting

This may come as a shock to anyone who remembers how much I dislike knitting scarves, but since my rather gluttenous trip to Windsor Button not long ago, I've been compulsively knitting this scarf.

Compulsively. On the bus, while watching Dr. Who, while sitting and thinking about the other things I should be doing.

It's a simple 1x1 rib, striping every two rows. I'm using 3 colorways as the pattern recommends - I'm not sure why it recommends 3 colorways, but I couldn't find two balls of one neutral-ish colorway as I wanted to so it worked out that way anyhow. It's one colorway throughout the entire scarf, and then the more neutral one switches off halfway through to the other neutral colorway. I thought it would be less noticeable, but the neutrals are more different from each other than I thought. Well, I still like it.

It got a little dodgy around this part.

The yellow and tan combined in a most unflattering way, but luckily it all turned pink and grey again before things went too badly.

The beautiful and ever-changing colors are what make the knitting a pleasure, but probably the most important thing is how wonderful this yarn feels. Yes, I'm talking about Noro here, notorious for being scratchy, not to mention full of bits of twigs and whatnot. I kind of like finding those. (Not so much the knots, but I've only found one knot mid-skein so far, knock on wood.)

Noro Silk Garden, I should have bought you long ago, rather than just staring wistfully at you for so many years!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2012), narrated by Edoardo Ballerini

In a tiny coastal village in Italy, hotel owner Pasquale Tursi is surprised to welcome his first American guest. At first he is sure she came to Porto Vergogna by mistake, but no; she is sick, even dying, and she has been sent here because it is quiet and she won't be disturbed. She an actress named Dee Moray and she is in Italy to play a minor character in the movie Cleopatra.

Flash forward to present day Hollywood where Claire Silver fields movie pitches for producer Michael Deane while managing her loser boyfriend. But one day when she expects another bad pitch, instead she is faced with an elderly Italian man insisting on seeing Michael Deane to help him find an actress who stayed at his hotel decades earlier.

The two stories, past and present, are masterfully joined in a story spanning decades and continents. The wide array of characters could have been confusing in lesser hands, but here it enriched the story with so much more life and love and heartache. It's astonishing how much happens and how well we get to know so many different characters in the course of a book that's less than 350 pages long. But it feels languorous, not rushed, and each character becomes real and important.

Although the entire novel revolves around the actress Dee Moray, it does exactly that - happens around her. She takes surprisingly little action even as she remains central to the novel. Pasquale was my favorite character, young and eager back in the 1960s as he tried to take care of his beautiful and fascinating hotel guest. His mother and aunt were the best sort of meddling old Italian ladies. Another regular visitor to Porto Vergogna was Alvis Bender, an American who had befriended Pasquale's father when Pasquale was just a child and kept returning to the hotel work on his novel about the war. We got to read an excerpt. Similarly, an entire present day chapter was a pitch for the movie Donner! by Shane Wheeler, a minor character who along with Claire Silver became caught up in the central drama of the novel. Movie producer Michael Deane was the most despicable character, wreaking havoc on the lives of those around him as he chased fame and fortune, but even he was enjoyable in that train-wreck sort of way. Pat Bender, a drug-addled musician was surprisingly easy to sympathize with (though, hilariously, in the audio he sounds like Snake from The Simpsons.)

Though I've been wanting to read this for months, I was holding out for my library network's single copy of the audiobook on Playaway because I heard fantastic reviews of the audio production. It was well worth the wait. Ballerini does an amazing job reading - in fact, he's not reading so much as he is telling us a story. Accents required for this story include Italian, Scottish, American, American speaking terrible Italian, and more that I am forgetting, but he did each of them amazingly well. He brought each of the many characters to life individually and made it all sound completely effortless and natural.

Because I'm not the best listener and because I missed a few days of work here and there recently, thus breaking up my audiobook listening more than I'd like, I'm thinking of reading the print version as well because I'm sure I'd get more out of it. Beautiful Ruins is quite cinematic and it's no surprise that it has been optioned for a movie, which could be absolutely wonderful if it's done well. (You know, exactly the way it looks in my head.) In any format, this is a truly captivating story full of people I came to care deeply about. The beauty and romance and leisurely pace are utterly bewitching. Read it, and read it this summer - it would be perfect for those hot, slow months.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Breach of Promise

A Breach of Promise (William Monk #9) by Anne Perry (1997)

Oliver Rathbone is employed to defend a young architect in a breach of promise suit. Killian Melville is accused of backing out of his plans to marry Zillah Lambert, but he says he never proposed to her in the first place. Rathbone considers it a hopeless case; not only is it hard to defend someone for allowing plans to go so far without clearing up the misunderstanding, but he also doesn't understand why Melville is so dead set against marrying Zillah in the first place. He knows there's more to the case than this, but Melville refuses to reveal all. Rathbone employs William Monk to help him find out as much as possible about the family to help his case.

Meanwhile, Hester Latterly is nursing a returned soldier who has been grievously injured. Employed in the household is a woman who is interested in finding her two disfigured nieces who she lost track of years ago after her brother's death. She implores the visiting Monk to help her find them, and he agrees to take on what he sees as a hopeless case. Predictably, the two cases end up converging.

I thought I had the breach of promise case all figured out early on, but I was pleasantly surprised with how wrong I was. There was a twist that I didn't see coming at all! The plot is more complex than in the past books of this series. In fact, a lot of things came up in the end that would have resulted in another whole court case. I think we are left to assume that it was tied up neatly, but man, I wanted to see it happen. It was only very loosely related to the original case but was really very interesting. I wish the resolution of the original case had led into another book about this other case. But alas, the next book is something different entirely. It's strange how oddly rushed and incomplete the ending felt.

This is also a pivotal book for the long-coming romance between Monk and Hester. Unfortunately, it was just thrown with all the other wrapping-up that happened in a rush at the end. I've been waiting patiently since book one for them to recognize their affection for each other, so I was satisfied that it finally happened.

In many ways the books in this series are all the same. The same sorts of people appear over and over, Monk and Hester have the same sorts of conversations and arguments. They are also a little too accepting of things like homosexuality and women's rights considering the time in which they live (which I'm fine with, as it makes them more likable to me.) But these books are such comfort reads! Here in the Boston area last week, that was exactly what I wanted. I was far too distracted by the events surrounding the Marathon bombing to read anything else and was very glad to have this paperback on my shelf when I most needed it.

Despite my criticisms of the ending, I think the plots were among the most interesting and compelling of the series so far. As a side note, I don't think I ever notice the covers on these books - I can't even think what any of the others look like - but I really like this one. Something about the black and white photo, especially the lady with her umbrella, appeals to me. I'm looking forward to continuing on to the next book in the series!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)

In the 1960s part of Nigeria fought to establish the independent republic of Biafra. Caught up in this revolutionary time is young Ugwu, a 13-year-old boy who knows nothing about politics until he goes to work as a houseboy for a university professor. The professor's girlfriend Olanna is our second protagonist. The third is Olanna's sister's boyfriend Richard, a shy and soft-spoke man from England. Through these three characters, Adichie shares the story of what it was like to be in Nigeria during this turbulent part of history.

Ugwu was concerned more about getting the opportunity to touch a neighbor's breasts than anything important going on in his country, proving that teenage boys are pretty much the same everywhere. He was from a small village, though adapted well to living in his master's nice home surrounded by educated, cultured people. As the novel spanned several years we saw him grow up a bit, but in a lot of ways he remained rather simple. He generally did what was expected of him and when he made his own decisions, he didn't have the best judgment.

When his master told him of the imminent arrival of his girlfriend, Ugwu dreaded meeting her but he was quickly enamored of Olanna and she became quite protective of him. Olanna was beautiful and from a good family, though her relationship with her twin sister was rocky. Although set against a backdrop of political change, the interpersonal relationships between the sisters and their boyfriends, with all the accompanying tensions and betrayals, provided much of the compelling force of the novel.

The third protagonist, Richard, was from England but trying to make a home in Nigeria while writing about the country and its art. His attempts were mostly frustrated though; he wrote in fits and stops, never quite able to latch onto a good idea. He learned to speak the local language, Igbo, and when Biafra was born he considered himself Biafran as he was there during its formation. Of course, to the locals he was and would always be a white outsider.

I didn't know what to expect from this novel. Part of the reason I chose it is because I know so little about Nigeria (or any African country really) but it is currently one of just a few countries with a flourishing economy right now. Although I was interested in its history, I worried that the book would be dense. I had nothing to fear, because I easily flew through the more than 500 pages of compelling story about unforgettable characters. Adichie brought 1960s Nigeria alive with wonderful details about not just the political situation, but aspects of everyday life such as food, clothing and music.

Now I understand why her new novel, Americanah, is so eagerly anticipated. Although I heard of Half of a Yellow Sun several years ago and kept meaning to try it, reading her short story "Ceiling" not long ago spurred me to finally pick it up, along with my newfound interest in Nigeria. Now I can't wait to read everything else she's written.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Why Evolution is True

Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne (2009)

I don't know about you, but I learned very little in my high school science classes. I think we were taught the very basics about evolution and natural selection but although I believe it's true I couldn't tell you at all why (and this goes for many principles in science). Not long ago I read of this book somewhere - I wish I could remember where - and thinking it was a brand new book on the topic, put it on the top of my reading list. Turns out it's a few years old so I don't know how it ended up on my radar, but it's a great guide to understanding the basics of evolution.

As Coyne explains in the introduction, only 40% of Americans believe that humans evolved from earlier species of animals (compared to over 80% of Scandinavians, for example) and nearly two-thirds think that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the classroom. For those of us who like our science based on facts and not fairy-tales, this is alarming. It became clear to Coyne that a response to evolution as "just a theory" was needed, both to educate those who don't believe and to provide facts to arm those of us who need them to support our positions.

The evidence is presented clearly in chapters about the fossil record, embryology, biogeography, speciation, and other topics. A lay audience is assumed so even basic principles are thankfully explained (plus there's a glossary at the end!). But nothing is overexplained or delved into too deeply and the book, not including notes and references, is a manageable 233 pages. Out of that, there was probably a total of 2-3 pages that I somewhat skimmed because it was incomprehensible to me. Specifically, anything about genetics does not compute in my liberal arts brain. (I just requested a graphic novel about DNA and genetics from the library - I'm determined to understand these things.)

Every subject covered was new and interesting to me, but I was most fascinated by the chapter about biogeography, the study of the way organisms are distributed across the planet. There is a group of islands I had never even heard of before - part of the Juan Fernandez archipelago - upon which reside a staggering number of species of birds, plants, and insects that exist nowhere else in the world. (One of these islands was also home for several years to a castaway named Alexander Selkirk, the supposed inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.) The relationships between species in such isolated areas, and the ways some species have been able to travel widely, provide important clues about evolution and, in fact, only make sense in the context of evolution as opposed to intelligent design. And that is just a tiny taste of one chapter.

As someone who appreciates the outdoors a great deal, I feel a bit silly because of how little I know about the the natural world. I've made feeble attempts in the past to understand various bits of science and thought it was beyond me, but now I realize I just need the right tools to help me understand. Surely there are other books that are as simple and accessible as Why Evolution is True, I just need to find them. For now, I'm looking forward to a couple of other books on evolution that have been published in the last few months. The first is Last Ape Standing by Chip Walter, which focuses exclusively on human evolution and why we are the only human species to have survived. I'm also very interested in Between Man and Beast by Monte Reel, the story of a 19th century explorer who emerged from the African wilderness with important zoological specimens and found himself in the center of the evolution controversy. I will, of course, report back and tell you all about them!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday Knitting

Last week I was catching up on posts from the Yarn Harlot, and came across an interesting discussion about how much should be explained in patterns. It began when Stephanie was knitting late at night and came across this instruction in a pattern: "Reverse shapings to match other side." She tweeted that it was a bad instruction for so late in the evening, which generated a huge discussion about how specific patterns should be. YH was quick to point out that she had only been commenting that it was time for her to put down her project and go to bed, but thought in fact that it's ok for designers to assume a certain level of skills on the part of the knitter.

Although the Yarn Harlot concluded that it's just a matter of personal preference, I keep thinking about it and I'm not so sure. I think there's a big difference between the parts of a pattern that you can look up and figure out how to do, and the parts that can only be figured out if you know what's in the designer's mind.

For instance, if a pattern says to use a provisional cast-on, you can look up "provisional cast-on" because it has a name and requires a specific set of steps. Same goes for k2g, kitchener stitch, Dutch heel and so on. Even if a technique has more than one name, it is still the same thing and if occasionally there's more than one way to do it, it will presumably produce a very similar result.

If, however, the pattern says something like "reverse shaping" things get a little unclear. Which parts exactly do you reverse? I once made a cardigan front and for the other front the directions said something like "do all that, but in the opposite way." For the designer, it may seem obvious what that specifically means, but for a knitter who hasn't made that exact pattern before, it may not be. What exactly do I do the opposite way? Do I use ssk instead of k2tog? Decrease on the ends of the rows instead of the beginnings? On the other piece I decreased on the right side, so now do I do it on the wrong side? For that matter, do I increase instead of decrease? Ok, that's getting a bit ludicrous maybe, but it illustrates my point. Add in a cable or lace chart, or maybe some colorwork, and the waters become even more muddied.

Just a day or two after I began thinking about this, I received a message on Ravelry from a knitter who is working on the Cabled Baby Raglan and knit the first 4 rows, coming to the instructions "continue in pattern." She understandably had some questions, as 4 rows is hardly enough to establish a pattern. In fact, last summer when I made this garment, I ended up ripping back and starting again because I incorrectly interpreted that very part of the instructions. And I'm a fairly seasoned knitter who has read a lot of patterns, some of which were quite complicated. I realize that patterns are edited for brevity so they try not to be too wordy, but we need those words. They tell us what to do.

Now I'm not saying that every single row needs to be spelled out. But instead of "continue in pattern" it might be more clear to say "continue in stockinette with garter edge, increasing as set until you have (number) stitches." Instead of "work as for left front, but reversed," the instructions could say "work as for left front, but ssk instead of k2tog, and increase at the beginning of RS rows instead of at the end." See? That's not so hard.

Knitters, what do you think? Am I expecting too much of pattern designers? Have you run into roadblocks because of vague instructions?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Movement of Stars

The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill (2013)

Hannah Price is a young quaker who lives on the island of Nantucket with her father and twin brother. She has ambitions to be an astronomer, but it is 1845 and there are no women's colleges with astronomy programs. Still, even without a formal education her father and her teacher have both taught her well and she continues to watch the stars every night in hopes of a discovery that will make her name. One day she is approached by a black man named Isaac Martin, who is hungry for knowledge and also excluded from formal education. Hannah takes him on a student, but as their friendship develops she becomes the object of scandal and tries to reconcile what her heart is telling her with what her community will accept.

The intriguing premise of this book appealed to me for similar reasons as A Study in Seduction, but held more promise than a paperback romance could. The novel is based on real-life astronomer Maria Mitchell, though a great deal has been added and embellished. Plus, I like that it is set locally - New England books always hold a special appeal.

Brill's writing is eloquent and strong, keeping me engrossed throughout the almost 400 pages. The astronomy was kept fairly basic, so as not to scare off us non-scientists, but still lending an air of the excitement of anticipating a discovery. Hannah also had a job as a junior librarian at the Athenaeum, a membership library that sounded like a stately and beautiful building. No wonder Hannah enjoyed her job there so much. Hannah's family members, the various townspeople, and especially Isaac Martin, were fairly well fleshed-out and appealing.

I struggled to figure Hannah out a lot of the time. A Quaker, she was allegedly devoted to Meeting but seemed very surprised when tongues began wagging about her running around town in the middle of the night with a black man. Even though it was innocent, surely she must have known how it would appear. At the same time, she was quite judgmental about other women of her acquaintance, like her brother's fiance. She didn't even give them a chance and I couldn't understand why she dismissed them so quickly. Partway through, I began to really dislike her. But later I began to sympathize with her again and found her much easier to relate to. This uneven character development was troubling.

Still, on the whole it's an enjoyable novel that was a pleasure to read and even spurred me to check out a beginning book on astronomy from the library. I think it will appeal to those who like New England historical novels with ambitious female characters. The Movement of Stars will be published on April 18.

I received The Movement of Stars as part of Penguin's First Flights Program.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Glass by Sam Savage (2011)

Edna writes about her late husband Clarence, and about herself, and about the various interruptions that occur during all this writing. Her downstairs neighbor has left her to care for her plants, fish, and rat and Edna struggles in vain to keep them all alive while still putting many hours towards her work. Well, not her work exactly, because Edna hasn't gone to her job for a while now, for unspecified reasons. Her work now is her writing, which she refers to not as writing but typing. It seems that Edna types everything that flits through her disordered mind.

Glass is just one long monologue from a narrator who can't possibly be reliable, but is still irresistible. Her stream of consciousness meanders through her childhood and her marriage, revealing bits of her life and thoughts in a nonlinear fashion. There must be a method to her madness though, because it was easy to follow her strange train of thought back and forth through the past and present.

I liked Edna's voice a lot and have gone back to re-read parts I especially liked, such as this line about her mysterious return to writing: "One day I am staring out the window or quietly eating oatmeal at my table or, as I mentioned, weeping, and the next day I am typing." Her thoughts will turn suddenly from one thing to another, like when she discovers one of her neighbors' fish dead and, without even a paragraph break, begins talking about her father's death. Frequently it will be completely unrelated, like when she was thinking about a man who had just been killed in an explosion and suddenly interjects, "Nigel won't stop squeaking his wheel, despite my shouts." Nigel being the rat, of course.

For the most part Edna is unsentimental. "I imagine some people will prefer that I say something on the order of Clarence was the love of my life. I could just as well say that he was the boredom of my life, the annoyance of my life, the chief obstacle to higher things of my life, and so forth." Their marriage was indeed troubled, which we can gather from the fragmented story of Clarence's relationship with another women and Edna's time away at a place she refers only to as "Potopotawoc" which I think must be some sort of camp for the mentally ill. Leaving out so many important details makes it difficult to piece together the story of her life properly and many holes are left.

Yet she will now and then philosophize about something seemingly trivial. She once traveled through Europe on a train, waking up to find that to her surprise she was passing through Switzerland. Although sleeping through Switzerland is no different from sleeping through France she wonders "if the important thing is what actually happened in the past or only what we remember having happened." And the knowledge that she was in Switzerland may have changed her life in some minute way, but wouldn't it have changed in the same way if she misread the sign and only thought she was in Switzerland? (This can probably apply to many stories from her life!) But this is why I liked Edna so much - with all the wildly disparate things running through her head, it was impossible to predict which one she'd get hung up on and ruminate about for a page or so, and which she'd just gloss over in passing.

Like Savage's other books (Firmin and The Cry of the Sloth), Glass is short at 223 pages. Savage's writing is tight, colorful, and - even in a stream of consciousness book that's light on plot - concise. No matter how troubled, or even unlikable, his characters are, I always enjoys their perspectives. I'm looking forward to his newly-released novel, The Way of the Dog. If his other books are anything to go by, it's sure to be fantastic.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Eleanor and Park

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013), narrated by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra

Eleanor is the new kid at school, encumbered not only by her newness but by her size, the redness of her hair, and her limited wardrobe. When she boarded the school bus on her first day there was one vacant seat - next to an Asian kid named Park. As the other kids on the bus laughed and jeered at Eleanor, she and Park sat quietly next to each other every day, not talking. Until finally they did.

The two did not fall in insta-love. They begin by tolerating each other, then by sharing comics and music and, eventually, friendship. Quickly that turns to romance and they become devoted to each other. But there are complications. Eleanor lives in a very troubled household with her meek mother, abusive stepfather, and several younger siblings with whom she shares a bedroom. She lacks a lot of things that are basic to most teenage girls: a phone, washing machine, privacy for bathing, a toothbrush. Batteries for her walkman. Permission to have a boyfriend.

Park lives with his parents and younger brother. Their household is pretty stable, though not perfect. Park never quite lives up to the expectations of his father, a veteran who expects his son to be more manly than he has turned out so far. Park's mother runs a beauty salon out of the house and is fiercely protective of Park.

Eleanor was one of the most genuine and likable characters I've come across. She is fat, pale, and redheaded, quickly dubbed Big Red by her peers. She has a believable level of self-esteem, enough to get by but not much more than that. She writes lyrics from songs she's never heard on her book covers because it's music she wants to hear but doesn't have access to. (Oh, how I remember that from the 80s! The options were radio or buying cassettes and if you weren't near a decent radio station and had no money to buy cassettes you were screwed. I feel your pain, Eleanor!) She is wonderfully clever. In describing a mean girl from school she says, "She's what would happen if the devil married the Wicked Witch and they rolled their baby in a bowl of chopped evil." When Park asks why she likes him so much, one of her reasons is "You look like a protagonist."

And Park? I mostly liked Park because of how much he appreciated Eleanor. Knowing some teenage boys in my time, I was doubtful of his acceptance of this outlier. But he has his own problems with self-acceptance. He is, after all, the only Asian kid in their part of Nebraska. (His younger brother takes after their white father.) He is also unfortunately pretty. Park is convinced that nobody outside of Asia finds Asian guys hot. His many moments of charming awkwardness frequently included inadvertently insulting Eleanor when trying to complement her. "She should smile like that all the time," Park thought. "It made her face cross over from weird to beautiful."

Eleanor and Park had the perfect kind of sweet high school romance that made me super nostalgic for something I never had. I mean, who really had that kind of romance in high school? But we all wanted to. It was sweet without being saccharine, innocent without being too innocent and, like all good romances, doomed. (Which you learn in the very first paragraph of the novel.)

The only thing that could make this book any better is being read well, and the audiobook definitely delivered. My new favorite narrator Rebecca Lowman (of Rules of Civility) read Eleanor's chapters, while Park's were narrated by Sunil Malhotra, who I would happily listen to again. Both readers made the sweet parts sweeter and the clever parts funnier.

I'm so happy that Eleanor and Park is the big popular YA book this year (so far!). I love dystopias, but sometimes you need some real kids in the real world, having themselves a little romance. Rainbow Rowell is understandably being compared to John Green, and I'm very happy to learn that this is actually her second book, and she has a third coming out this fall. Also? Super bonus: Eleanor and Park has playlists.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sunday Knitting

I've made the Slipped Stitch Rib Socks before, but I don't remember them working up so quickly. Last time it took me five months, this time it was just under a month.

I especially like how the gusset looks a grid of tiny little squares.

This yarn is quite lovely. It's KnitPicks Stroll, which I expect to be durable as it's 25% nylon. It's soft and comfy and comes in a variety of beautiful colors. I received it as a gift, but I'm sure I'll be buying some in the future.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Burning Air

The Burning Air by Erin Kelly (2013)

Darcy Kellaway was denied a scholarship place at the elite school headed by Rowan MacBride and vowed revenge upon the MacBride family. Years later, as Lydia MacBride faces her own mortality, she considers the greatest regrets of her life, which she has kept secret from her family. After her death, the family gathers at a country house called the Far Barn. But there is a newcomer in their midst, one who threatens the family in a way they are completely unprepared for.

I read The Burning Air based on a starred review that compared it to Gone Girl. It's not like that book exactly, but has a similarly dark psychological mess, with twists. Revenge is a fascinating (and pretty foreign) concept to me. It's oddly enjoyable to watch someone plan payback over the course of years, the vindictiveness eating away at their life.

The MacBrides were a fairly typical middle class family, the sort you could find in any book of domestic fiction. Because of Rowan's position, all his kids received a private education (though this is in England, so it's called "public"), and none of them truly appreciate what they've been given both in education and in terms of their supportive family. They're not bad people, just not especially interesting.

I'd love to talk about Darcy Kellaway, but honestly the less said about that character, the better. Trust me. That is someone you need to get to know over the course of reading this novel.

The ending was a little unsatisfying and I have mixed feelings about it. But I suppose there are never good ways out of these situations, so I'll take it. Last weekend I was sick and did a ton of reading (hence the 3 reviews this week), and I managed to read this in just over 24 hours. It was so gripping it would have been a quick read under any circumstances. If you like crime or psychological fiction I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (2009)

Lia and her best friend Cassandra made a pact to be the skinniest girls in school. Even after their friendship ended, they each continued to pursue this goal. Then Cassandra was found dead in a motel room and Lia realizes that the phone calls she had ignored that night were from her. Suddenly Lia is haunted by her friend and is even more determined not to eat, no matter how hard her family tries to make her fat. They just don't understand.

Lia and Cassandra considered themselves "wintergirls" and that is how Lia also described the other patients at the clinic where she was sent a couple of times to recover. Because of her eating disorder Lia was often cold, and the text was infused with other wintery images as well. The climax of the novel even takes place during a snowstorm. Lia herself is frozen somehow, suspended in a place where she can't move forward, rather like her friend who has died and is still hanging around.

Lia's voice was a darkly poetic with strong visual imagery: "When I was a pink, hairless mouse, she took away the razor. I curled up in a matchbox filled with sawdust and covered my face with my cold rope tail." Regarding a struggle with her mother she says, "She tried to talk me out of it, but I pulled up the drawbridge, locked it with iron bars, and posted an armed guard." Fairy tale imagery is also sprinkled throughout, including at least two references to a "gingerbread path." But sometimes another voice came through, one more like a regular teenage girl in New England: "In the spring of fifth grade, the boob fairy arrived with her wand and smacked Cassie wicked hard." Frequently words and phrases are crossed out, which some readers may find an annoying affectation, but I think it works here. This character is not being honest with herself (or anyone) and I think these corrections just reinforce that.

At times I just wanted Lia to snap out of it and not be so self-indulgent. She was forcing everyone around her to make her the center of their worlds. There's a passage in which her mother tries to force Lia to eat. Lia says "You aren't supposed to push me. I have to feel safe with food." Her mother responds "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard." I agree! Lia doesn't ever feel safe with food and she needed someone to take a hard line with her. Her mother thought Lia's father and step-mother were going way too easy on her, which they were. Like Lia's mother, I began to lose patience with her behavior, which I know isn't fair - it's not as though Lia deliberately had an eating disorder because it was enjoyable.

Mostly I appreciated how the story was told through her experience, how she felt so threatened by everyone who was clearly just trying to help her, and how she was so unequipped to cope with the guilt surrounding her friend's death. It was this guilt that triggered Lia's behavior again (she had barely been recovering as it was) and it became clear just how much the two girls had enabled each other. Lia even admitted sabotaging Cassie's recovery: "I pulled her back into the snow because I was afraid to be alone." But now she is alone, and the horror of being left behind to live with the consequences is more than she can handle.

Eating disorders are rather a staple in teen books, and Anderson does a great job of weaving the issue into a larger well-crafted story. This is no after school special; it's exactly the kind of good storytelling I'd expect from a writer of this caliber. If you're not familiar with her, I also recommend Speak and Fever 1793.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Far From the Tree

Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon (2012)

Andrew Solomon's new book examines horizontal identities - those foreign to one's parents and which require identity from a peer group. He examines a variety of horizontal identities and posits that our strength as a society comes from this diversity, and that living with someone who is different from you in fundamental ways fosters empathy and tolerance. In the first chapter (entitled "Son") he lays out his assertions along with a story of his own horizontal identity (he is gay), and then explores a different one in each of the following chapters: "Deaf", "Dwarfs", "Down Syndrome", "Autism", "Schizophrenia", "Disability", "Prodigies", "Rape", "Crime", "Transgender", ending with a chapter called "Father," in which he sums up his research and discusses his own experience becoming a parent.

Far From the Tree has been incredibly popular since it was published just a few months ago, surprising not because of the subject matter but because of the length. I never thought I'd pick up a 900+ page nonfiction book, much less finish it. I wasn't even very interested in reading it until I read this review, in which the reviewer says that a) the world would be a better place if everyone read this book and b) you really only need to read the first 48 pages to get the idea. "Well," I thought, "I can read 48 pages." The thing is, it's really hard to stop there, because while you've gotten the author's main idea, you haven't even gotten to the good stuff yet. (Also, the last 200 or so pages are notes and an index, so the book is really only 700 pages.)

The most interesting chapters for me were the ones that dealt with various types of disabilities. Some of the parents, even of extremely disabled children, insisted that they wouldn't change anything if they could, and there were times when I found it difficult to believe they really felt that way. A couple of parents of severely disabled children admitted they wished their children weren't disabled and said parents who say differently are lying. Parents of a child with Down Syndrome said if they could wave a magic wand and make him normal they would. Life is hard for him. But for themselves, they wouldn't change a thing because it's made them who they are, and they are better than would have been otherwise. These parents greatly differed from those who found such strength in their identities, and expressed outrage at cures or prevention. And that is what's most fascinating about the book I think, and its greatest strength - the many different perspectives and opposing viewpoints from people dealing with the same challenges.

It wasn't all about disabilities though. The chapters on the mentally ill, children born of rape, those who are drawn to crime, and transgender children offered insights on other types of horizontal identities. I'll admit I got a little bogged down about halfway through when I hit the chapter on musical prodigies. I understand why it was included, how genius can alienate just as much as disability, but I just found the subject boring. The "Transgender" chapter surprised me because the experience has been described very differently elsewhere. Here, gender seemed to be defined by trappings like clothing and toys and certain colors, which are all social constructs. Previously I've heard the transgender experience compared to body dysmorphia, which makes a lot to more sense to me (though obviously that doesn't mean it's more accurate.)

One of the most touching parts of the book was in the "Crime" chapter when Solomon visited with Dylan Klebold's parents and found them an easy and wonderful family to spend time with. The visit raised more questions than it answered, but I was glad it was included. In fact, you could say the entire book raised more questions than it answered. (It would be fantastic for a book group, if you can convince other people to read such a lengthy tome) In his ten years of research, Solomon encountered and explored many other issues and identities he was unable to include. He also interviewed parents of children who were obese, had addictions, dyslexia, AIDS, cancer, or were religious fundamentalists, supermodels, or bullies. These could be fascinating as well. But I suppose in terms of his premise, it all boils down to the same thing - these people are different from their families and that experience is one of both challenge and growth.

Not being a parent myself, I have no insight into the experiences of parenting any kind of child. But the interviews and Solomon's own experiences as a parent were described in a way that made it easier to understand and believe. (Honestly though, if I was in any way tempted to change my mind and have a kid, reading this would have quashed that urge.) Even if you're not a parent, you have likely been part of a family, and can therefore relate to - and learn something from - some aspect of this book.

There is so much to say about this book, and indeed I've been talking about it to anyone who will listen. I wish I had read it for a book group, because I really would like to sit down with people who have also read it and discuss it extensively. It's incredibly fascinating, there's a lot to learn, and I think everyone can relate to some aspect of it since we all know someone who fits into one of these categories. I do recommend the first chapter as it lays out his premise and background for the book, but then you could easily just read the chapters that interest you and leave the rest. Don't be daunted by the length, as I was -I highly recommend giving it a try.