Sunday, October 19, 2014

Best New Books--Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho

Hi guys! I know I normally review classics and less recent YA books, but today I'm doing a newer one--Cristina Moracho's amazing realistic fiction novel, Althea & Oliver. I wrote a shorter review that was published in the kid's newsletter put out by The Corner Bookstore (great book selections and a favorite hangout of mine, check it out on 93rd and Madison!). This is the slightly longer version. Althea is tough, impulsive and eager for change. Oliver is pragmatic, sensitive and hoping for things to stay as they always have been. They've known each other since they were six, and improbably, they’re best friends in their junior year of high school. When Oliver starts to succumb to a confusing, nameless illness, change is on the horizon. The lines between healthy and sick and between friendship and romance begin to blur. 
Althea and Oliver is set in the 1990s, running from rural North Carolina to gritty New York City and more. The plot is pulse-elevating and tear-jerking, and so intensely detailed that it feels as though you’re sitting with Althea or Oliver as they try to deal with their latest crisis. The characters are true to life and lovable, making you want to reach into the book to help and protect them. The dialogue is witty and realistic. 
In all honesty, I cried at least twice while reading this book.  Actually, I may have spent the last third of the book in a very teary state.  It wasn't all that tragic, but there was something about the way Moracho's writing made me love the characters that made their sadnesses all the more poignant to me.  It encouraged me to care deeply about the book, which I think is really important in a good YA novel--or any novel, for that matter.  Althea and Oliver is sad–but it’s also funny, suspenseful, heart-warming and true. The book is, overall, impossible to put down.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book of the Month--September


It wasn't love at first read for The Perks of Being a Wallflower and I.  In fact, when I first read it a few years ago, I didn't like it at all.  I kept my copy of it buried in the back of my bookshelf, and forgot about it.  It was only recently, when I cleaned out my shelves for the first time in awhile, that I remembered this book.  I thought that I should probably try it again.  And this time, I liked it!
The Perks of Being a Wallflower chronicles 15-year-old Charlie's first year of high school.  He makes new friends, comes into his own as a teenager beginning to be independent, and deals with many tough experiences along the way.  What sets this book apart from your typical coming of age novel is that Charlie isn't what one might describe as a "regular kid".  He's extremely sensitive and gifted, and the issues that him and his friends grapple with are scary and all too true to life, including suicide, sexual abuse and trauma.
It's not an easy book, and a prospective reader should be prepared to be confused and frightened by some of the events of the story.  Part of what makes the book so difficult is that we don't want to believe that the issues that these high schoolers are dealing with are a reality, but in fact, many of them are, even for teenagers.  The characters are relatable, and lovable despite their faults.  Charlie makes a good point when he says that "sometimes, I read a book, and I think I am the people in the book."  I can understand where he's coming from, although I'm not sure if I thought that I was the book's characters.  Rather, the book's realism allowed me to feel that I was a friend, sitting silently by the characters and watching the story unfold.   Wallflower is also beautifully written.  Chbosky has a gift for language and for story, making this book a rare hybrid of a can't-put-downer and a serious novel.  It reads like a poem--I love that.
Ultimately, Wallflower is scary and sad.  But the writing is wonderful, and it's one of the best novels I've read in a long time.  Just add this experience to the long list of reasons to give books a second chance.  If I hadn't, I would definitely have missed out.
A note:  I have not seen the movie.  If anyone has, let me know how it stacks up in the comments--I'm curious!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Definition of Literary

Sorry for the gap in posting!  School's start has been busy for me, but I did have a very interesting question posed to me in English class, which I wanted to share.  Imagine you've been assigned by Merriam-Webster to write a few definitions.  Your first assignment?  Define "literature."
At first, it seems easy.  Written word--but what about Us Weekly magazine, Twilight, even stop signs?  Did those count? So it needs amending.  But then you get too personal and too opinionated.   I thought about "written word that is meaningful to someone," and for a time was confident that I had found the answer.  Then my teacher asked if his email to his mom--"Mom, you're the best!"--counted as literature.  The class agreed that it didn't.  But it was still meaningful to his mother, he said.  Then I had to start over.
Who would have thought that such a simple word, one that I use, or reference, in almost every blog post, could have proved so inscrutable?  The problem lay in the fact that everyone has their own opinion of what counts as literature.  Some people stand by the classics, others argue that fandom-inspiring novels such as Twilight and the Harry Potter series can count as well, while some exhausted students just said written word and left the definition in its broadest form.  What do you think?   Is there a limit to what we can and cannot call literature?
For the record, Merriam-Webster's website has several definitions for the word, but I think the most fitting to this post is: "writings in prose or verse, especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest."  A clever definition in that it still leaves room for opinion.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Summer Reading Report

Hi all!  I'm back from camp and now ready to give a tell-all of my summer reads.  I was not able to read all of the Original Eighteen books that my friend and I brought, which was probably fortuitous (I had to eat, after all).  However, of the New Twenty (adding two books that were delivered to us during camp), I read twelve, and adding the two extra books that I borrowed from friends, that makes fourteen books in seven weeks.  Not too bad, I think!  And they were good books, books that made me laugh, shake my head, furrow my brow and even tear up a little.  So here's the report, in the order that I read them.
1. The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories by Simon Rich.
2. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.  As my first foray into the beat genre, I liked how the characteristic detachment of the Beats worked to tell an urban murder story that was chilling, not terrifying.
3. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.  This book, along with #12, took me forever to read.  I struggled to fully understand it, and while it was a bit over my head, I'm glad I took the time because I feel that I got more out of this amazing book (one of my favorites of the summer).  To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee names it as "the only war novel [she'd] ever read that makes any sense" and I have to agree with her.  There's no praising of the war.  Rather, the book shows the ironic parallels in each character's wartime actions in ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes scary and sometimes sad (I can name this book as the occasional tearjerker of the bunch for me).
4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.
5. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
6. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  I have to say that the half Russian, half gibberish slang through which the book is told threw me for a loop at first, but once I got into it it wasn't too hard to keep up with.  There were some interesting points about the evils of government and the problems that extremely advanced science can bring upon society, but I most enjoyed getting absorbed in the harsh yet beautiful language of the book.
7. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.  Another favorite!  I loved the way that Morrison wove family, community and the plight of a race to create this beautiful novel, while also adding suspense and one hell of a storyline throughout history-laden sidebars and fascinating clashes of the unique and engaging characters.
8. Attachments by Rainbow Rowell.
9. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.
10. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.  Yet another favorite (there are some pretty great books  in this bunch!).  One of the only books I've read that ties the narrative itself back to the main character, I really enjoyed the way this book was told.  The book read like one of Kilgore Trout's science fiction stories, a sort of "guide to earth", and also featured the narrator as a crucial character (the book was told in third person and first person).  It was occasionally inscrutable, always intelligent and ultimately felt really fresh and interesting.
11. Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.  I think this is the only book of this bunch that could be comfortably classified as a YA read, though it could also be great for adults.  This book was about relationships--sister to brother, sister to sister, niece to uncle and friend to friend.  Not all of the relationships were "correct", and some could be brutal, but Brunt told the story without pointing fingers or condemning a single character.  Rather, she showed that there was well-meaning and good in every person.  There was a great moral tone to the book, and I definitely benefitted from reading it.
12. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X (told to Alex Haley).
13. On the Road by Jack Kerouac.  Another awesome Beat book!  I found it amazing that, despite there being no dramatic plot twists and, really, not too much plot at all, this book was still really interesting.  I loved Kerouac's language and his involved characters.
14. Beloved by Toni Morrison.
School starts in two days!  I'm ready to read some new books and get to doing some new posting.  A note:  no Book of the Month for June, July or August (although several of the above books more than pass muster), but there will be one this September and then hopefully uninterrupted for the rest of the year.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Camp Books--Part 2

Update:  I now leave for camp in only two days.  Whoa.  So, here's part two of my perhaps-unattainably-long camp book list.  Oh well.  New motto: one can never have too many summer reads.  Without any further ado, here are the final nine.
10.  Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison.
11. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.  I took a Buzzfeed quiz on "Which Classic Female Author Are You" and I got Toni Morrison, so if you ask me that's more than enough inclination that I'll love this book.
12. The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories by Simon Rich.  Title story: God struggles with balancing his job (creating the world) with his girlfriend (evidently demanding).  Everything about this book suggests hilarity, which in this litany of classics is definitely going to be welcome.
13. Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Blunt.  Two people come together after the man they both loved dies of AIDS.  I'm calling this as most-recommendable novel of the summer. (Too early? Nah...)
14. The Bell Jar by Silvia Plath.
15. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  In terms of sheer sum of character-plot excitement, this book has a lot of fun in store.  Futuristic fright + government conspiracy + lovable punk main character + a slang dialect, Nadsat, which I look forward to annoying co opting = apparently, this book.  Too good to be true?  I hope not.
16. Iris Has Free Time by Iris Smyles.  This book is "subtle, complicated, funny, bold, sad and wise."  All that and the cover has a tutu-wearing girl on it who I think I already love.
17. 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.
18. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.  According to a hilarious back cover photo of the two authors wrestling, these Beats seem to have been good friends.  Add that dynamic to an urban murder mystery, and you have great bedtime reading material!
And now, I must bid you all adieu for seven weeks.  Not to worry--I will be reading away in my cabin, and I look forward to providing an account of (hopefully) all eighteen books.  Have a readilicious summer, everyone!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Camp Reads--Part 1

I am thrilled to share that I depart for camp in exactly seven days.  I think I've previously mentioned that camp is one of the best places in the world to do some reading, and thus is my pre-camp book shopping a rite of mid June that brings with it joy and, mostly, anticipation for the amazing books that I will get to devour in--let me say it again--exactly seven days.  This year a close camp friend and I decided to try something new.  We bought eighteen books together, and divided them up into nine and nine to bring to camp.  These books will belong to both of us at camp, which for me is just double the suspense--getting to own 18 books for seven weeks is very exciting.  Here are the first nine books--next installment coming soon!
1. The Great American Novel by Philip Roth.  Super psyched for this one. The back cover sounds like a blend of humor and good old fashioned American storytelling, which I really don't read enough of.  Described as "ribald, richly imagined, and widely satiric" on the back cover.  I would like to write back covers for books because it seems like a pretty exciting job.
2. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.  I loved Slaughterhouse 5, and, according to the back cover, we get to learn more about Kilgore Trout, the semi-crazy science fiction author from Slaughterhouse and a really fascinating character overall.
3. On The Road by Jack Kerouac.
4. Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare.
5. East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  A reimagining of Genesis, which I've wanted to read ever since my English teacher drew a metaphor to it in a very interesting lecture last semester.
6. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
7. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.  This is my second out of three World War novels (this one is World War I) included in the eighteen.   I plan to be an expert in the subject by August.
8. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.  Main character Oscar Wao is "a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R.Tolkein and, most of all, finding love."  Again with the back covers!  This one also mentions a curse that has dogged Oscar's family for generations and an immigration story.  I'm already sucked in, and I haven't even cracked open the cover.
9. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
My book buying strategies are many.  First, I'm a sucker for books with cool covers.  If I like a book's cover design, it tends to be a tip off that I'll like the book.  Second, if I've read the author before and enjoyed them, I'll read them again.  Maybe it gives me a sense of security or something, but it works almost every time--a good author is a good author.  Most importantly, I always read a section of the book before I buy it, to get a feel for the author's style and see if I like it.  I can tell straight away whether the book is slow moving or fast, poetic or tell-it-like-it-is, dialogue or inner-thoughts heavy.  The only problem with that strategy is that it led to me picking up the unfortunate habit of reading a section from the middle of a book, not being able to put it down and reading to the end, and then never reading the beginning.  Which I suppose doesn't really count as reading the book, which does make the entire experience a bit of a waste of time.
Read any of these?  Liked 'em?  Comment me some encouragement!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Trying New Things--Science Fiction

I've said it before and I'll say it again--I'm a realistic fiction girl.  I like my characters relatable and my settings within the realm of earthly possibilities.  But how do you learn anything new in reading if you don't take risks?  Science fiction is way outside my reading comfort zone.  So, naturally, I'm giving it a try.  And I don't hate it!  Here are a few of my sci-fi favorites.
1.  Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.  In the future, as earth battles an alien race, the government is breeding child genuises to fight the Buggers.  Ender Wiggins is earth's best bet; a quiet, incredibly gifted child who, although a terrific fighter and leader, struggles with many deep rooted psychological issues.  I'd be hard-pressed to think of a book I've read that is more fantastical than Ender's Game, yet somehow it seemed as real and interesting as any realistic fiction book.  The characters were incredibly down to earth, although the setting and premise was "out there", like literally in outer space.  A good gateway book for people like me who are just venturing into the realm of sci-fi.
2.  A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle.  This book and I have a bit of a history.  In fourth or fifth grade, when all of my friends were loving this book, I decided to give it a try--and hated it.  I couldn't make any sense of it and it felt like a waste of my time.  I came to the conclusion that it was just one of those books that you either like or hate.  But, in the spirit of this blog, I tried it again a few months ago.  And, wow.  It's pretty good!  Meg and her little brother Charles have to, with the help of their friend Calvin, rescue their father from the fifth dimension, where he has been imprisoned.  They travel from planet to planet, encountering various aliens and finally reaching the sinister Camazotz, where they must battle The Black Thing to free their father.  Yeah, it's about as complicated as it sounds.  But the characters are lovable, and I liked the staging--the way that each new planet felt like an adventure.  L'Engle is not a writer to be trifled with simply because this is a kids book--her writing style is sharp and almost poetic.  How did I almost pass this novel up?
3.  How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu.  I just finished this a few days ago, and it could not have been a more welcome challenge.  Charles Yu, the apparently self-titled protagonist is part counselor, part repairman as a time travel technician on Minor Universe 31.  Together with his side-kicks--TAMMY, his flirtatious operating machine, Ed, his non-existent but still pretty darn cute dog, and various incarnations of himself--he has to resolve his issues with his past and find his father, the tortured genius who lost himself in time.  This book was really confusing--although, by the same token, groundbreaking.  In a setting in which time travel is the basis for life, and parallel universes the norm, Yu makes time travel sound like a real, scientifically valid concept (and maybe it is!) through detailed, well thought out explanation.  I loved the way he took common concepts and reappropriated them to sound like scientific terms (such as nostalgia: "weak but detectable interaction between two neighboring universes that are otherwise not causally connected.  Manifests itself in humans as a feeling of missing a place one has never been"). And this sci-fi storyline was not without plot--I loved Charles, who was somewhat nerdy and sometimes uncertain, but I was always rooting for him.  What a ride!  This book made me struggle and gave my brain a stretch--I don't normally have to comprehend advanced physics in my daily reading, but I kind of liked it. Lesson of the day:  look outside your comfort zone, and you might find some refreshing reads.