February and Flat-Out Love

February has been a pretty scarce month for me as far as reviews. I promise to make up for it.

First of all, in one of my last posts I mentioned the crazy reading list I had for college. I made it through them all, thankfully, but only have more to add now (of course!) This week I’ll be reading Three Kingdoms, which is a historical novel from China. I also hopefully will be posting on here soon about North and South, which I recently read and LOVED for British Lit.

But anyways! So I’m home on break this week and I had the fantastic opportunity to take a Young Adult writing class at the Loft. The two teachers (Laura Bradley Rede and Carrie Mesrobian) sent us away with a reading list of about sixty books, so I definitely have my work cut out for me! It was pretty amusing actually – we went around in a circle and talked about our own ideas at one point and then they “prescribed” books for us to read and learn from. Really great.

I just read Flat-Out Love by Jessica Park and absolutely loved it. I devoured the book in about two days on my NOOK. The main character, Julie, has just moved from Ohio to Boston for her freshman year of college, and finds herself without a place to live. Luckily, her mom’s college roommate lives in Boston, and she moves in with the family. Julie fits right in and loves the quirky family, down to the 13-year old girl Celeste who carries around a cardboard cutout of her oldest brother, Finn, who is apparently away travelling the world. Julie gets along with Matt when she’s not poking fun at his nerdy choice of t-shirts (his favorite is one that self-proclaims “Geek”) and starts to feel at home with her new family.

However, underneath, the family is far from normal. The parents are strangely absent and Matt is left to care for Celeste, which eliminates any chance at a normal college experience for him at MIT. Celeste is on the verge of being kicked out of her advanced school for lacking social skills, and Finn sends emails and Facebook messages to Julie offering cryptic advice. On top of all of this is a surprising love story that develops.

Julie, of course, decides to take this all on and help the family connect, despite her lack of knowledge about what makes them all so estranged from each other. She cares about them all deeply and feels embedded in their lives. She begins to change things and draws them all closer together. I won’t give anything away, but the last few chapters of the book would not let me leave because the outcome is so unexpected.

My favorite thing about this book is that Park has created such a believable narrator. Julie is so real – she ends up being parts of you, parts of your best friend, even parts of the girl you can’t stand sometimes. She’s funny and clueless in love, but has compassion and a drive to do what’s right. Any girl can relate to her. I wish there was more to the story, because I was really sad to leave Julie behind in the pages. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes stories about young adults, adjusting to college, romance, or family dramas.

On a related side note, the website for the book is http://flatoutlove.blogspot.com/. The author is working on an app for the book, which blows my mind. All of the Facebook status updates and messages, songs, and video content, will be transferred into some crazy cool interactive experience that will totally suck you into the book. It took me long enough to come around to the idea of an e-book…and now there are interactive apps of books! I wonder what will be next.

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Bird by Bird

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. What made this book so interesting, as opposed to other books about writing, is that she mixes life and writing until the two aspects are inseperable. And of course, that is perfectly fitting because we write about life and to experience it again, and we live because we express things, often in writing.

Rather than reading like a memoir, the book is like having a very long Q&A session, in the most amusing and entertaining way. Lamott has thought about all the questions she usually gets from her writing students, and organized them into a very thoughtful book. She covers just about every topic of writing – characters, dialogue, plot, publishing, a writer’s group, and how to write to make sense of life. She gives examples of her own life and how writing helped her understand and accept difficult experiences. She’s pretty hilarious throughout the book, and I found myself laughing a lot.

I went through the book as I read and marked about a million passages, either for Lamott’s wit or original style, the practicality of the advice, or the beautiful craft of the language. Some of my favorite tips for writers that she offered were look through everything as if through a one-inch frame (aka, focus on small assignments), being a good listener (to your characters, to the world around you), and advice on how to stop worrying that you’re not good enough. She also made a good point that we write for ourselves, and although publication is often the ultimate goal, writing for yourself is important and you shouldn’t go chasing after readers. She wrote, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”

I would recommend this book if you are interested in writing at all, whether or not you are a seasoned writer or just want to start writing. It also provides an interesting perspective on life. It is far less spiritually-focused than Travelling Mercies (which I read earlier this year) but still gives a clear picture of what Lamott’s personal outlook is, which is heavily influenced by faith.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

This book, by Heinrich Boll, was a quick read (103 pages) but left me feeling kind of strange.

It opens with Katharina Blum turning herself in for the murder of a reporter. Then it backtracks to tell the events that led up to that murder. Katharina, a timid housekeeper, met a man at a party and had him spend the night at her apartment. The next morning, she was arrested. It turns out the man she danced with all night was a wanted robber and criminal, and she is now under investigation for helping him escape.

From there, the book launches into full description of the police investigation. It gives the point-of-view of the family Katharina worked for, some of her friends’ opinions, and shows how the media twisted all these interviews to incriminate Katharina in the News, the local paper that everyone reads. We get a pretty clear picture of who Katharina is and that it’s ridiculous that she knowingly helped a criminal escape from the police. The investigation seems to be clearing up when Katharina’s mom, who just underwent major surgery for cancer, died the day after a visit from the reporter, who snuck into her room to get a quote. This seems to be Katharina’s breaking point, and she very calmly invites him over for an exclusive interview and shoots him. The book returns to the scene of Katharina turning herself in for murder but then goes a little beyond, stating that she and the man she ‘helped’ will be getting out of prison at the same time and can start a life together (apparently they found true love in each other that one night). It also tells a little about how the lives of others involved (like the family she worked for) fell apart after this investigation.

The structure of the book is interesting. There are a bunch of short chapters that give small pictures of the investigation. The story is told journalistic-style, which reminded me a little of In Cold Blood, although without Capote’s imaginative descriptions. The book gave an interesting perspective on how the media can ruin a person’s life, but for me it was altogether too short and too choppy. This book is for my Lit & Film class, so we’ll be watching the movie soon, and I really wonder how they’ll tell the backstory of Katharina that, in the book, was a few short paragraphs as she explained her life to the police. This isn’t a story I would have picked up and read on my own, but I would recommend it to people who like ‘real-life’ fiction and stories about police investigations.

Friday Reads

With a weekend ahead, it’s nice to know you can curl up with a good book or two….or three…or five…

I just looked over my homework for the weekend and realized that I have a lot to read! For Lit and Film I will be reading The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll, for British Lit we are starting North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and for my Asian Cultures in Lit and Film we’re starting Monkey by Wu Ch’Eng-En.

Needless to say, I will have to take a break from the other two books I’ve been reading (the ones on the side of the page).

But, it’s Friday, and the awesome thing about Fridays is that if you follow the Barnes & Noble NOOK blog, they give away a free e-book every Friday! And if you are on Twitter and search #weekendgoodreads you can see what all sorts of people are reading for the weekend.

The Marriage Plot

I’m not sure how I felt about Jeffrey Eugenides’s latest book, The Marriage Plot. It was interesting, but I reached the end feeling like everything I had read up until that point was rendered moot by the outcome. I enjoyed the journey, but I’m disappointed there wasn’t more to the end.

This review WILL contain spoilers.

The book opens on the morning of college graduation in the early 1980s, and alternately introduces Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell. Mitchell is in love with Madeleine and convinced that he is going to marry her someday, despite all evidence to the contrary. After graduation he plans on travelling Europe and India on a spiritual journey, trying to find peace and overcome his feelings. Leonard has a fellowship lined up where he will study yeast cells, but has a mental breakdown and is unable to graduate with the others. We learn that Leonard is manic-depressive, and feels like his medications cause more problems than they solve. Madeleine, the heroine, is in love with the idea of saving Leonard, which she mistakes for actually being in love with him. She loves Victorian novels and throughout the course of the novel, works on an article for publication, titled “The Marriage Plot.”

The first 100 pages revolve around the day of graduation and deep character exploration. When they finally paraded down the streets, I was surprised to realize that a little over 100 pages had passed, and not even 24 hours had gone by in the book. The structure switches back and forth between these three main characters, giving us intimate knowledge of their personalities and motivations. While this is very interesting, at times the character sections dragged. They picked up toward the end, as every character’s life changed, and wove together the what had happened over the course of the year after graduation.

Basically, Madeleine and Leonard date. But Mitchell loves Madeleine. Madeleine and Leonard break up.  Leonard has a meltdown. Madeleine takes him back. But she kisses Mitchell while she is drunk. Mitchell goes abroad. He undergoes several spiritual transformations, all while pining over Madeleine and hoping she doesn’t marry Leonard. Meanwhile, Madeleine and Leonard move in together. Leonard starts to get better(ish). Madeleine and Leonard get married. Mitchell gets unbelievably sad. Leonard gets worse. Mitchell returns home and has a conversation with Leonard about religious experiences. Leonard leaves Madeleine. Madeleine and Mitchell move in together, in Madeleine’s parents’ home. Mitchell finally gets to sleep with Madeleine. The next day they decide to stay friends. The end.

Was that super annoying to read? I hope so.

The book isn’t as shallow as I’ve just portrayed. Like I mentioned, Eugenides offers incredible depth into the characters’ minds. Leonard must deal with side effects from lithium that change who he is, and he struggles with controlling his own dosage when he believes the doctors are wrong. Madeleine must separate herself from the “Stage Ones” that get married right after college (even though she does anyway) and work hard preparing grad school applications, wrestling with her future, and dragging Leonard with her. And Mitchell just kind of floats along, trying to identify with different religious practices.

I did enjoy the read – Eugenides is a good writer – but by the end I was just…disappointed. It was such a let down, after all that build-up, when Mitchell and Madeleine didn’t actually work out (although, by that time I didn’t want Mitchell to settle for being Madeleine’s second choice). And Leonard just annoyed the hell out of me throughout.

If you like character exploration and literary novels, I would recommend this. Or if you like Eugenides and want to read more of his oeuvre.

Here is another review of the book (and some of Eugenides’s other work). The last paragraph proposes an interesting situation.

Now I move on to a much different read – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!

The Constant Gardener

The Constant Gardener, by John Le Carre, is a novel filled with mystery and intrigue. I’ll try not to give anything away in my review so I don’t spoil the outcome for anyone.

The book opens with the murder of Tessa Quayle. Tessa’s husband Justin works for the British High Commission in Nairobi, and Tessa takes it upon herself to visit African women in the villages. On these visits, she discovers a drug cover up – the medicine Dypraxa, for TB, actually does more harm than good. She discovers the people responsible for this terrible cover-up, but tells her husband nothing. When Tessa is murdered with her partner Bluhm, Justin does not know anything about Tessa’s secret mission.

However, some people in power within the High Commission do know what Tessa was up to, and why her murderers had motive. They rush to cover up the story – gather all of Tessa’s information and reports and destroy them. Justin is able to save Tessa’s laptop and a few of her private documents and hide them from his superiors. He then disappears. He pretends to be on sick leave, and the High Commission spreads rumors that he is mentally unstable and work furiously to find him before he discovers the truth. He remains one step ahead of his enemies and follows Tessa’s trail, unearthing what she discovered. Justin sends letters periodically to his lawyer’s aunt, staying under the radar but in communication. In the end, Justin goes to the spot where Tessa was murdered. I won’t reveal what happens, but the ending, although sad, leaves you with a sense that Justin found a way to win despite the odds.

Fun fact, the actor who plays Justin in the film (Ralph Fiennes) also plays Voldemort
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was another one required for my Lit & Film class, so we’ll be discussing it in class and watching the movie. I haven’t read a mystery in a long time, and this one was great. Le Carre is a strong writer with a good command of language, and he knows how to weave a tale that kept me on the edge of my seat. Although the book is pretty hefty (480-some pages), it seemed to fly by. The reading was quick, filled with suspense. Le Carre also gives us glimpses into Justin and Tessa’s past, and the minds of other workers in the High Commission. It is very interesting to delve into these subplots; the inner workings of all the character’s minds add another layer to the mystery.
I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who likes mystery, intrigue, drama, and romance. I’m excited to watch the movie and see how it compares! Meanwhile, I’m still reading The Marriage Plot. 

Swamped!

Even though I am completely swamped with homework, it’s important to remember to make time to read!

Right now I’m still finishing The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre for class, and I’m also almost done with The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. After that I plan to read a book that I swore I would never read – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I’m borrowing it from a friend and actually really excited to see what it’s about. I love P&P…and I’ve never read about zombies…so, best to introduce new ideas on familiar ground? Oh well. I just have to remember that once I was morally opposed to e-readers, and now I own (and use, a lot) a Nook. It’s always good to try new things.

 

I googled "swamped with homework" and this picture popped up. I do kind of feel as dejected as poor Simba looks...but now I also really want to watch the Lion King.