In which I consult my readers

Hello everyone-

I’ve been remiss in writing blogs recently. In my defense, I’ve been busy. But I really care about this blog and about my readers, and I’ve been working on creating time in my life for this.

Recently, I’ve been doing some creative writing of my own. I’m going to post a short story that I’m working on here on the blog. I would love to hear your opinions, if you want to share them. For the record, the piece was inspired by a true story.

Death Valley vs. Me

The tow truck pulled up slowly, and I glanced at my cousin Hannah out of the corner of my eye. She blinked at me twice, like a stunned owl. I sighed and we stepped forward together and waited for the tow truck driver to open our door. We stepped into the cab of the truck and a very surly tow truck driver looked us up and down, scowling.

He glared and revved the engine, muttering to himself and then turning to look at us.

“What in the hell are you two doin’ in Death Valley?”

I smiled, hopefully beatifically, and said (hopefully winningly) “we’re on an adventure.”

He snorted and started the car.

 

This whole disaster was the fault of a rock. We had been trying to escape Death Valley and the various horrors it had bestowed upon us, when it dealt us the final blow; a kamikaze rock which punctured the oil pan of my beloved VW Golf. We sat in the hot sun until I got brave enough to flag down a trucker, who drove us to a payphone.

I sat in the cab of the tow truck as our driver rattled on about his military life, and how various psychologists had diagnosed him as a sociopath after discharging him. I cracked my knuckles repeatedly and leaned my head against the window. This was supposed to be our perfect road trip. We were supposed to visit Yosemite, and then continue on to San Francisco. Neither Hannah nor I had ever had car trouble, and now we were taking a VERY expensive jaunt in the opposite direction of where we needed to go, with a clinically diagnosed sociopath as our companion.

I stared out the dirty window at one of the better parts of Death Valley, the gliding rocks. These are giant boulders which move, seemingly of their own accord, in oval rings around a circular valley. Ironically, these rocks reminded me of a saying which is taught to us from a very early age.

Just keep moving forward.

These giant boulders, which glide eerily across boiling sand—they never stop moving. There’s no reason or rhyme as to why they do it, although there must be some scientific reason why it happens. I want to live a life that defies the ordinary. I want to keep moving, even when things are difficult. I want to constantly be reminded of all of the wonderful and startling things that the world bestows upon us. I want to be the kind of person who, even in the most difficult situations, finds the brightest things around me. Whether it is a diamond in the rough or an ethereal boulder in the valley of desolation, I want to seek it out.

And so I turned to the tow truck driver, whose name was Larry, pulled out my journal, and asked him the question I ask everyone.

“So, Larry, tell me about your mother.”

Let’s Get Lost by Adi Alsaid

I was sitting in a bookshop reading Isla and the Happily Ever After (which this blog is not about) when a boy sat down across from me.

“I’m really sorry to interrupt you,” he said, “and I know this is kind of weird. But you have to read this book. The girl looks a lot like you.”

I blinked at him and he set the book down on the table and left. I’m not joking, I’m not making this up, this is not an attempt to be clever; this actually happened. I picked up the book, thinking that it was unlikely that a total stranger could peg the perfect book for me to read. Call it fate, or serendipity or whatever; this book was exactly what I needed.

“Five strangers. Countless adventures.One epic way to get lost. 

Four teens across the country have only one thing in common: a girl named LEILA. She crashes into their lives in her absurdly red car at the moment they need someone the most.  

There’s HUDSON, a small-town mechanic who is willing to throw away his dreams for true love. And BREE, a runaway who seizes every Tuesday—and a few stolen goods along the way. ELLIOT believes in happy endings…until his own life goes off-script. And SONIA worries that when she lost her boyfriend, she also lost the ability to love. 

Hudson, Bree, Elliot and Sonia find a friend in Leila. And when Leila leaves them, their lives are forever changed. But it is during Leila’s own 4,268-mile journey that she discovers the most important truth— sometimes, what you need most is right where you started. And maybe the only way to find what you’re looking for is to get lost along the way.” -inside cover of Let’s Get Lost

In Adi Alsaid’s debut novel Let’s Get Lost, the heroine, Leila, takes a long trek across the US seeking the Northern Lights. She encounters her fair share of adventure and heartbreak, and with each new character, I found myself getting more and more invested in her story. The book is told in five different segments, four by different people Leila helps on her adventure, and the fifth by herself.

This is one of those rare books that grabs you from the first page; Leila herself remains an enigma from the beginning of the book until almost the end, and Alsaid hides the truth so artfully that when all is revealed, all you can do is laugh (and cry a little bit) at the realization that you were staring the answer in the face all along; you just didn’t know it needed finding.

Most debut novels are well written; the prose is beautiful or the characters are very well developed, but you usually can look forward to watching an author grow, to their next book being even better. I don’t know if this is possible for Alsaid; his writing feels like it’s alive, the language is smooth, his characters practically leap off the page. I look forward to reading his next book. I’ll be waiting impatiently.

Red- the modern story of Little Red Riding Hood

Hello readers,

It’s been a little while. I wrote this story in creative writing class and wanted to share it with you. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

 

Red

A modern fairytale

The box was brown, wrapped in red twine. A red and white card hung off the side, reading “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” in block letters. I scooped the box up and balanced it on my hip as I stuck my key into the door and swung it open. I dropped the box and my backpack on the couch, swooping into the kitchen to kiss my brother Nate on the cheek. My mother poked her head out of the hallway.

“Who’s the box from?” she called.

“Not sure, haven’t opened it yet,” I responded, hopping off of the counter and snagging a potato chip from Nate. I snatched the box off of the couch and glanced at the card as I tore off the twine.

“From Grandma,” I yelled, and crumpled the paper up as I threw it into the trash can. I pulled something red and velvety out of the box, held it up, and stared. Nate leaned around the kitchen door, and chuckled. I bit the inside of my cheek.

“What is i-” my mother walked into the living room and laughed. I held the red velvet cape a little lower, and peered over it.

“When,” I asked, “am I ever going to wear a red cape?”

“I asked your grandmother for one, when I was twelve,” said my mother. “I wonder if it’s her odd way of reminding me.”

My mother was a person who, as a child, dreamed of being the tooth fairy, or Mrs. Claus. It made sense that her birthday wish at twelve might have been for something out of the ordinary. I felt something sickening in my stomach. Weirdly, though, it seemed to me as though it was more than my grandmother’s way of reminding her. Grandma hadn’t called lately, and when she did she called me the wrong name- my mother’s name, Althea.

I dropped the cape onto the couch and shrugged.

“Who knows? I have a few things to pick up before tonight, so I’m just going to go out and grab them.” I patted my mother on the shoulder and went to my room to change from leather boots into Uggs. My mother entered the room, toting the red cape and a basket.

“I know that you really like fairytales, but I’m not wearing that into the city.”

Mom sighed, and threw the cape over my shoulders, looking into our reflection in the mirror. She brushed my hair off of my forehead. I almost look like her, although I am dwarfed in comparison. She claims that I get my height from my fathers side of the family; that I look more like them in general. But looking at us in the mirror, I see more similarities than differences. Her eyes, like mine, are blue- but hers are darker. We have curly hair, though mine is a vibrant shade red and hers is complementary to her pale skin. We both have freckles, but I have less. I look like a faded image of my mother, a pale imitation; an abstract sketch- close, but not quite right.

“Wear the cape, just this once, and take this basket to Grandma. Her birthday is tomorrow, after all. And it will make her happy to see you in it. After that,” she threw her hands up, “you never have to wear it again. Come on, Red, do it for me.”

I cross my eyes at the old nickname, smile and kiss her cheek, picking up my purse and the basket.

New York is a universe unto itself, complete with its own monsters and demons. The skyscrapers tower above the city like overlords, blocking out the sun. Homeless people congregate near the street, while the rich run around them like water over rocks. These are the two types of people that you almost never see on the subway. But that does not take away from the complete oddness that is a New York subway. The subway is a catalogue of unusual characters; human and otherwise. An overweight woman clutches a goldfish bowl, complete with two goldfish. They swim around their bowl, looking lost and out of place, which, on a subway, they definitely are. There’s a guy, probably 19, who is covered entirely in tattoos. A black widow spider glares at me from the palm of his hand. A twenty something with a parrot is occupying a handhold, and the people around him are giving him a large berth. The parrot caws and spews insults at another passenger who gets too close, and I understand why. I lean back against the metal ridges on the doors as the fluorescent lighting flickers irritatingly. The familiar three bell warning sounds, and I step away from the door and force my hand into an already occupied loop, getting a dirty look from parrot man. The blackness outside is severe, this city filled with an awkward darkness that street lights seem not to illuminate.

I hop onto the sidewalk, feeling the contents of my basket bumping around. I sigh and hike the strap of my purse up, brushing off my cape and realizing the reason for the odd looks I keep getting. Swiping my subway card, I step out of the terminal and into the oddly bright darkness of the city. I buzz my way into my grandmothers apartment, bypassing the elevator to walk up the dark and dirty stairs. The last time I was here, the elevator broke and I was stuck for three hours with a woman who spoke not a single word, but drank the three mini bottles of vodka that someone must’ve stashed behind the baseboard. In her defense, she offered me some of it.

I knock on her door, and walk in. The door is unlocked, and it’s dark inside, except for a light shining from the end of the hall. I set the basket on the coffee table, and turn towards the hallway. My heart starts beating in my stomach, having sunk out of my chest. I remind myself that my childhood fears do not need to emerge, and stuff them into the back of my mind. Shaking my head, I walk slowly down the hallway, dispelling nightmarish thoughts. The doorknob is metal, and warm to the touch. I realize that it’s freezing in the apartment- odd for November, when the heat should be on. I turn the knob, and step into the room. There’s a lump under the covers on the bed, and I breathe a deep sigh of relief, striding over and placing my hand on grandma’s shoulder. But it’s not my grandmother that sits up in the bed, and it’s not my grandmother who claps a rag over my mouth and pulls me towards him.

“Ironic cape,” he hisses in my ear. I try to scream, feeling myself drift into blackness.

I wake up screaming, tears streaming down my face. Sweat drips down my skin, and my head spins. My stomach aches, and I shiver. I swallow, my mouth dry and cottony. Tears drip onto the floor and I sit up slowly, pressing my palms against the floor. Concrete, I think, and covered in something grimy. My eyes start to adjust, and I move my head slowly, taking in the room. There are bars in the wall, a room on the other side. It’s almost completely black. I lift my hand up and stare until I can make out the silhouette. I drop my hand into my lap, and behind the silhouette of my hand, another dark figure appears. I scream, feel my stomach drop. My breath grows ragged and my heart is making desperate efforts to escape my chest, which is shrinking rapidly.

“Shh,” the figure says. Male, definitely. The same man as before, I think. He bends down and I feel him staring at me. I can’t make out the features of his face. There is a dim crack of light beneath what must be the door. The light illuminates him, brightening the outline of the man.

“What do you want.” I choke out, drawing my knees up to my chest. My throat cracks and I swallow hard.

“Nothing. Just to tell you how things work… around here.” He stands and takes a step back

I take a deep breath and cough as cool, putrid air hits the back of my throat.

He clears his throat.

“You do as you’re told. Not that there is much. This,” he gestures at the space          around us, “is your new home. There’s a candle near the door.”

He turns slowly, and his profile is illuminated. I gasp and press my spine into the cold concrete, my fingernails etching scratches into my thighs. I let my head fall back and thunk gently against the wall.

 

A few days have passed. At least, I think they have. I found a bucket by the door, full of what I hope is water. It tastes rusty, but it’s better than dying of thirst. I haven’t seen him again, since he came in that first time.

My mind bounces between this unknowable reality and memories of happier times. I’m afraid that eventually, the reality will fade away, and I will exist in my past. I open my eyes in the darkness, and reach out for the pack of matches that I found by the door. There are only a few left. I strike one, and light the candle he left for me.

“Happy Birthday,” I whisper to myself. If I’ve been counting right, I am officially 18. An adult.

 

In my dreams, I am five, and Nate is tugging on my red curls from the way back of the car. He’s telling me that my new nickname is Red. I call to my mother that he is playing with my curls, trying to bother me. She calls back to us to play nicely, and I stick out my tongue at him. He grabs it, which is our old game, but when I look at him, I realize it isn’t Nate, but my kidnapper. In the light of my dream, his face takes on the distinct wolfy features that I thought I imagined in his silhouette.

 

I wake up breathing hard, and look around my cell, still illuminated by the last of the candle. It’s concrete, and it’s filthy. There is black sludge in the far corner. The ceiling looks as though something is leaking through it, something red-brown and rusty. The wall to my right has a window in it. At first I was excited to discover it, until I realized that the window looks into the next cell, which is empty, and black bars stretch from top to bottom, like the windows of a prison.

I hear footsteps in the hallway, and I stand, pressing my back against the wall. My door opens, and a foot appears between the frame and the door. Just as quickly, the door closes. I walk closer to it, slowly, and I think I hear voices. There’s the wolf, definitely… is he talking to himself?

The Wolf’s raspy voice hisses a question at whatever poor soul is standing in the hallway.

The voice that responds is male. Maybe in his twenties. His words are very round, and he sounds a little scared.

I hear footsteps walk away, and I press my forehead into the door. So close, and yet so far. I would have screamed, but the Wolf would kill me, and now there’s no point.  Even Superman can’t hear through foot thick walls of concrete and metal doors. I crawl back to my area at the back of the room, and wrap the red cape around me. It really does nothing to protect against the dark chill in this room, but it’s a tie to my grandmother.

Footsteps. A door opens. But it’s not my door. Light streams in from the cell next to mine. I close my eyes slowly, and open them again to find a flashlight pointed at my face.

“Oh my god,” says a male voice; it’s the boy from the hallway. I scramble towards the cell window. He drops the light in such a way that it illuminates both of our faces. I gasp, this time. It’s the boy from the subway. The tattooed boy. He reaches out his hand, and I take it slowly. He sinks to the ground and stares at me. His eyes are green, like sea glass, and he has day old stubble across his cheeks. I push up his sleeve and stare at the black widow spider inked into his skin. This, for some reason, is important right now.

“Why a spider,” I whisper, tracing the black lines.

“For my dad,” he says slowly. He pulls his sleeve up slowly, pointing out different symbols for different people; his sister, his grandmother, his brother, his niece and nephew. He looks at his tattoos, and I look at him. He is aristocratic looking, almost; delicate features, straight teeth. His ears are pierced, and on him it works.

“Where did you come from?” I murmur, and he answers me. His name is Trevor. His father owns a lumber company which also does carpentry, and the place that I’m in is undergoing renovations.

“It’s a really disgusting place, actually, and I don’t think dad would do the work, normally. But, money’s hard. So if you’ve got to patch up old bars and strip clubs, it’s what you do. Do you know where you are?” he asks.

“He told me,” I say, and shake my head, “that I’m in the Belly of the Beast.” He blinks and laughs a little bit.

“That’s true. It’s a bar. You’re below it.”

I’m stricken by all of the panic of the past few days.

“Please, please get me out of here.”

He nods, a promise, and leaves the room. I wait for what seems like hours, and then I give up. Hot tears spill over my cheeks, and I am terrified by the sound of my own misery. And then a crash from the hallway, and my door opens, and Trevor stands there in the hallway with New York’s finest. The officers are shell shocked, and I am too. I walk towards them slowly, and then I run.

The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

Click here to visit Jasper Fforde's website!

Click here to visit Jasper Fforde’s website!

The Big Over Easy is the first in the Nursery Crimes Series (The Fourth Bear and The Last Great Tortoise Race are the sequels), and it is delightful in every possible way. Jasper Fforde is famous for the Thursday Next series, and though the Nursery Crimes books are pretty different, both series revolve around detective work and fantastical worlds, and both are written with the kind of finesse I have rarely found from any author; especially when they are attempting to intertwine children’s stories with real world situations.

Of course, the series has it’s critics. Many readers have said that it lacks the sophistication and smooth style of the Thursday Next series; however, I can say wholeheartedly that I think they are wrong. I will admit that The Big Over Easy took me a little while to get into. Once I really got into reading it, I finished it in one night: it is incredibly engaging, and if anything, Mr. Fforde ought to be applauded. There is more going on in this book than most, and along with it comes remarkably intricate character development and a great deal of wit. Honestly, I laughed out loud at some points, and one of the most delightful aspects of the book was realizing that a character with quirks and habits is actually the cow that jumped over the moon or the boy who cried wolf.

The book revolves primarily around the solving of the murder of Humpty Dumpty, though elements from quite a few other children’s stories are woven into the plot. I can understand how someone might say that this book lacks a sophisticated style (it does revolve around children’s stories, after all), but I think that the type of person who might say such a thing is one who is entirely too well-adjusted. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a favorite children’s story (mine is Rapunzel), and seeing such stories brought so vividly to life only contributes to the witticism of The Big Over Easy. I think that an important part of being an adult is having the ability to reconnect to being a child; to remembering why you used to love Little Bo Peep. I think that Jasper Fforde has given us a path back to childhood, and he does it so well that you don’t know you’re on it until you’re already there.

His other series, Thursday Next, is definitely aimed towards a more literarian (a word which here means “a person who is enamored of old/very famous authors such as Shakespeare or Dickens”) demographic, and I enjoyed that as well. I think I prefer the Nursery Crimes series because none of the references went over my head. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy his other work, but there is something so delightful in finding new ways to look at something familiar.

“Jasper Fforde’s bestselling Thursday Next series has delighted readers of every genre with its literary derring-do and brilliant flights of fancy. In The Big Over Easy, Fforde takes a break from classic literature and tumbles into the seedy underbelly of nursery crime. Meet Inspector Jack Spratt, family man and head of the Nursery Crime Division. He’s investigating the murder of ovoid D-class nursery celebrity Humpty Dumpty, found shattered to death beneath a wall in a shabby area of town. Yes, the big egg is down, and all those brittle pieces sitting in the morgue point to foul play.”-The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde (back cover)

I truly loved this book. Every aspect of it is seamless and well written. It never felt forced or clumsy, and the vocabulary is spectacular; this book speaks to the logophile in all of us.

“If it weren’t for greed, intolerance, hate, passion and murder, you would have no works of art, no great buildings, no medical science, no Mozart, no Van Gough, no Muppets and no Louis Armstrong.” -The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

beauty queens

Last week, I went ice skating with some friends. Unfortunately, however, a person much larger than I lost their balance, ran into me, and then tried to use me to save himself from falling. This was a terrible idea. I know that many of you don’t actually know me, but for reference, here’s a picture of me at homecoming with some friends. I’m the one in the red dress.

girliess

In other words, that plan did not end well for him. Although, actually, he wasn’t hurt. I, on the other hand, bounced on the ice with my head. We went to the emergency room, where we discovered that, luckily, I have no structural damage. Just a pretty standard concussion (thank god).

But even with a standard concussion, there are precautions that have to be taken. No reading, writing, texting, watching tv, etcetera. In short, it is a very dull experience. I discovered rapidly that I had to somehow entertain myself, or else be incredibly, painfully bored. My mother hit on the idea of an audiobook, and though I had been opposed to them before, I was very willing to try. I picked Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray, for two reasons. 1) I had been wanting to read it ever since I gave it to a friend and 2) I had loved The Gemma Doyle Trilogy, also by Libba Bray.

The book turned out to be entirely lovely, but not at all what I had expected. Having read Bray’s previous works, I had anticipated a more serious tone. What I got instead, was a very satirical novel which brings to light major issues in reality tv, the beauty industry, sexuality, identity, and beauty. I loved all of it. We all need a little bit of silliness in our lives sometimes.

“Survival. Of the fittest.

The fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream Pageant thought this was going to be a fun trip to the beach, where they could parade in their state-appropriate costumes and compete in front of the cameras. But sadly, their airplane had another idea, crashing on a desert island and leaving the survivors stranded with little food, little water, and practically no eyeliner.
What’s a beauty queen to do? Continue to practice for the talent portion of the program – or wrestle snakes to the ground? Get a perfect tan – or learn to run wild? And what should happen when the sexy pirates show up?
Welcome to the heart of non-exfoliated darkness. Your tour guide? None other than Libba Bray, the hilarious, sensational, Printz Award-winning author of A Great and Terrible Beauty and Going Bovine. The result is a novel that will make you laugh, make you think, and make you never see beauty the same way again.” -Beauty Queens, Libba Bray.

This book is not Lord of the Flies inspired, as far as I can tell, although that is what I expected based on the premise of it. This is a clash between Mean Girls, James Bond, and Lost. It is witty, satirical, hilarious, and important. Even in the most technologically advanced age to date, even despite the products and the infomercials and the creams and the lotions, and the general “better-ing” products, we are among the most insecure teenagers to ever have lived. But is it despite these products- or because of them? Anywhere you look in the media, there is someone telling you that you can be better. It is a very subtle maneuver, so much so that one has to truly pay attention in order to see it. Nothing about you is ever good enough, in this culture. Even your eyelashes need to be working a little harder.

And the line between feeling beautiful and beautifying yourself for the sake of others is a very, very thin one. I’ve crossed it. You’ve crossed it. I don’t think it is inherently wrong. I love makeup, and makeovers, and clothes. There is something empowering in making yourself the best that you can be. The place that we lose ourselves is the same place that tells us that blue eyeshadow is slutty. That is a stigma, and, like most stigmas, it’s wrong. The eyeshadow isn’t slutty. You’re not slutty. You’re just you. And maybe other girls will think you’re a slut if you wear blue eyeshadow. But maybe those are the same girls that got up an hour early so that they can be beautiful for someone else. Maybe, just maybe, those aren’t the girls that you should listen to. Sometimes you have to make a big statement. Sometimes, that big statement is as small as blue eyeshadow, and red lipstick, and saying yes to what makes you feel like the best and most beautiful version of yourself. You can’t please everyone. Don’t limit yourself. Someone will dislike your choices. That much is inevitable. So you, at least, should choose that which makes you feel happy.

“I’m not a slut or a nympho or someone who’s just asking for it. And if I talk too loud it’s just that I’m trying to be heard.” -Miss Nebraska, Beauty Queens

There was one character in the book with whom I identified deeply. I felt as if the conflicting feelings that so often plague me had been painted smoothly onto the canvas of this novel. This character is one who feels like there is so much feeling inside of her that surely it is too much for one body. This is a character who wants to be wild and live a big life. This is a character who feels stuck between what she is supposed to do, and what really makes her feel alive.

“Occasionally from the school bus windows she would see other wild girls on the edges of cornfields running without shoes hair unkempt. Their short skirts rode up flashing warning lights of flesh: backs of knees the curve of a calf a smooth plain of thigh. Sometimes it was just a girl waiting for a bus but in her eyes Mary Lou recognized the feral quality. That was a girl who wanted to race trains under a full moon a girl who liked the feel of silk stockings against her skin the whisper promise of a boy’s neck under her lips who did not wait for life to choose her but wished to do the choosing herself. It made Mary Lou ache with everything she held back.”

Not everyone feels this. Some people, I think, are content in the lives they are living, comfortable in their own skin. I don’t think it’s often that people feel as though they are too much for one body. There is so much that I want to do. And that wild feeling, that shivers-up-the-spine feeling, is one I know too well. It’s an addiction. But maybe, just maybe, not all addictions are bad. We cast such a negative shadow on that word, and yes, I recognize that there are negative aspects of it. But isn’t that true of everything? We all have a dark side. Every label, every word, can be twisted into something frightening. But we forget that there are two sides to every coin. There is something beautiful about being addicted to the feeling of a pen on paper, of moonlight on your face, something beautiful about loving the feeling of falling. True, all of these things can keep you up at night. True, you might wake up at three in the morning and run across your bedroom to write frantically for an hour. True, your mother may yell at you when she finds you at five in the morning, writing to save your life. And also true, there is sadness in this lifestyle. In recognizing that good and the bad inside yourself.

But there is so much beauty to be found inside the blank pages of yourself, in the places where your heart beats too fast and someone’s voice inside your head whispers no. Libba Bray lives there, I think. At least her writing does. She does not merely touch on controversy, she dives into it. This book is not written to please anyone, and in fact is important in that it taps into such real world issues as what it means to be transgendered, lesbian, or discriminated against because of race.

If you happen to subscribe to the love is love is love philosophy, as well as have a sense of humor, this may be the perfect book for you. If not, I recommend you do not read it.

Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat by Lynne Jonell

emmy and the incredibleIn my life recently, I have felt like my world is expanding rapidly. I think a combination of factors are opening up my world, such as being able to drive, and having trusting and wonderful parents. But I also remember a time not so long ago that felt really restrictive to me, a time when my world was still small, but I was old enough to know that there must be more. I think I was about 11 when I started feeling that. So in honor of that sentiment, I’m going to write a review about a book I loved when I was 11- Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat.

Emmy’s parents inherited a fortune and went traipsing around the world, leaving her behind. Left in the care of her sinister, cold-hearted nanny, Miss Barmy, Emmy tried very hard to be good. She did her homework without being told. She ate all her vegetables, even the slimy ones. And she never talked back to Miss Barmy, although it was almost impossible to keep quiet, some days. But even good girls can have a mischievous streak, which is why she liked to sit by the Rat. The Rat was not good at all. It was actually quite nasty, as rats can be. But it was also quite unusual, as Emmy discovers when it bites her, flipping her very ordinary world on its end.

This book has been awarded the seal of approval from the Society of Rats for a Better World.

- blurb from the back cover of Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat.

This book is clever, and funny, and though it’s methods of moving the plot forwards may be a little fantastical at times, I think that it uses a really wonderful suspension of disbelief. It’s fun to read (I even laughed out loud as I was re-reading it), and it is wildly creative. This is one of those books that makes you wonder how people can be so inventive, especially if you are a person who can’t write convincingly about talking rats.

That said, I read a few other reviews about this book, and a common complaint is that the rat gimmick prevents the true depth from shining through. And honestly, I can see how a person could feel that about this novel. But as an older reader especially, I think it’s important to keep in mind that this book was written for children. Having read it at both 11 and 17, I can safely say that I found it to be a very effective gimmick. It’s funny, and engaging, and totally takes hold of the plot. When a person reads to seek depth, that person should be able to see past the characters and read between the lines. If an author has to spell out the deeper meaning, they probably haven’t communicated those ideas effectively.

I loved this book when I first read it, and I still do. In terms of effective literature, basically the entire novel is a thinly veiled metaphor, and it is truly a pleasure to read. I would recommend this book to someone who is feeling a little bit stuck; it’s very captivating, and a wholly enjoyable read.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain- an AP Lang essay my teacher did not like.

Huckleberry finnLet me just start by saying that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a book I would have read on my own. I tried once, when I was eleven, and was bored out of my mind. I could not fathom why anyone would ever read this book. This year, however, it was assigned reading for my AP Language arts class. I bemoaned the required reading of the book. I groaned. I whined. And then I picked it up. And I was shocked to discover that (once I saw past the difficult dialect and generally casual style) I actually liked it. At this point, I looked it up and discovered that it is one of the most banned books of all time. Discovering this, if anything, endeared me to Huck Finn even further. I am a sucker for bold statements, and in terms of radical declarations, Huckleberry Finn may well be the most out there. It is shocking to me that anyone could doubt Huck Finn’s status as a classic. I would say that among novels which are written to make a statement, Huck Finn may well be hailed as the fairest of them all.

I think that Huck Finn should be considered a classic, and I think that anyone who reads this book with an open, unprejudiced mind would agree; because at the time that Mark Twain wrote Huck Finn, his book was radical, and I believe that radical works are the ones which most influence history and the future. I think that Huck Finn is an important book especially as we are so inclined as to not repeat history. I lean towards believing that change is brought about by reminders of our past. As the great Edmund Burke once said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

The thing I struggled with most as I read various criticisms was the overwhelming opinion that Huck Finn is a racist novel. This claim makes me want to tear my hair out, for several reasons, but primarily because it indicates to me a fundamental failure to understand what Mark Twain was trying to illustrate.

One critic in particular stood out to me in this arena. This critic is the champion of pretentious people who are searching for something to be indignant about. As most provocateurs do, Julius Lester attempts, in his shallow critique, to portray the African American people as having been perjured by Twain’s thoughtful and satirical novel. Lester would love for his reader to think him an educated martyr. He asserts, in the first sentence of his criticism, arrogantly titled ‘Morality and the Adventures of Huck Finn’, “I don’t think I’d ever read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Could that be? Every American child reads it, and a child who read as much as I did must have.”

Lester is attempting to tell the reader that if he has not read Huck Finn, then surely it cannot be a classic. Unfortunately for Lester, however, I do not believe that a person can truly know something unless they are willing to think deeply about it, and Lester, though he would like the reader to think that he has ruminated prudently about the merit and morality of Huck Finn, has overlooked critical pieces. The key element of Huck Finn, and, in fact, it’s most brilliant facet is that Huck Finn was not written to please its reader. It was written by a man who wanted to make a statement. The blatant racism in Huck Finn is blatant for several reasons: 1) at the time Huck Finn was written, racism was blatant, and 2) Twain wanted to draw attention to something that he, a forward thinker, thought was wrong.

I found myself so vehemently opposed to Lester’s assertions that I had to sit back for a moment, take a deep breath, and seek out a more thoughtful critique. In doing so, I found Toni Morrison’s beautifully written and delightfully thoughtful “This Amazing, Troubling book”, in which Morrison states that “the brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument is raises.” At this point, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I was, apparently, not alone in liking Huck Finn. The criticisms I had read up to this point had varied in their theses, but none has been zealously inclined towards Huck Finn. The consensus about Huck Finn had been, widely, negative. I had been seeking a careful, kind criticism, and I did not find exactly that in Morrison’s critique; what I did find, however, was a sense of clarity, a new vantage point from which to survey the rest of the criticisms I would read.

A common complaint about Huck Finn is that it “rambles”. And I will confess there were times in which I urged Twain to just get on with it already- I have heard enough about the river, and the bible, and whatever else. At these times, I found myself both frustrated and delighted by Twain’s refusal to just “get on with it already”. Twain, despite having a sometimes long-winded means, does achieve the ultimate end; his characters are very real. After all, Twain is merely embodying one of his main characters: the river. As rivers are so inclined to ramble on, so is Twain. Some might argue that a river cannot be a character, as it is, after all, inanimate. To those people, I would say that I think that nature can inspire just as much emotion and verve as any turn of phrase. T. S. Eliot believes, in fact, that the two critical pieces of Huck Finn are “The Boy and The River.” It is the River that, according to Eliot “controls the voyage of Huck and Jim; that will not let them land at Cairo, where Jim could have reached freedom; it is the River that separates them and deposits Huck for a time in the Grangerford household; the River that re-unites them, and then compels upon them the unwelcome company of the King and the Duke. Recurrently, we are reminded of its presence and its power.”

huck finny miralThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is represented beautifully in the Huck and Jim mural by Thomas Hart Benton. The image depicts Huck and Jim on the river, Jim in a paternal stance, near a steamboat named the Sam Clemens which is pumping out vast quantities of black and white smoke, juxtaposed against the sky. Dark and Light contrast everywhere you look in this image. Huck and Jim, the tree and the sky, the dark and light smoke. All the central pieces of Huck Finn are pulled together in this image, from the rolling river to the implications of a simple, but by no means unfortunate, existence. Even Pap is implied in this image, in the bottom left corner; the arm slung drunkenly over the shelf, clutching a jug of alcohol. What this image has to say about the book is fundamental. This book is not about either Huck or Jim. It is not about race. Even as it points out flaws, it also transcends racism. The relationship between Huck and Jim is sweet, and simple. The negative pieces of the book are not the foreground of the story, or the image.

Huck Finn is a novel which has been worked into the framework of our history. It is most definitely controversial, but it is not a novel which was written to invoke rage- it is a novel which was written to make a statement about the need for social change. It is a novel which has been worked into the patchwork of American literature. It is the novel which shaped the rest of American literature in its genre, and a novel that is so important that people are drawn to it, whether they feel negatively or not about the subject matter. Huck Finn has inserted itself firmly into American culture. It has shaped our past, and will continue to be an example for authors attempting to bring about social change.

North of Beautiful by Justina Chen

North of beautiful

“How far would you go to find True Beauty?”

North of Beautiful is a book which makes me feel like the person I want to be. Each and every time I open it, the pages fill me with a kind of hope and nostalgia that I just don’t have words for. It isn’t everyday that a book fills you with such zeal, so much ardor and enthusiasm. It isn’t everyday that I find a book that can center me so easily. It isn’t so much a book about finding love as it is about finding yourself. One of the most delightful things about it is that I don’t find myself yearning to find the perfect person when I flip through the pages. What I find instead is an immense desire to be who I am in the purest, most wholesome sense. If love follows me down that path, then so be it. I can’t spend my life seeking wholeness, but following a map with the wrong coordinates. I want exactly what Terra wants; to find that thing, or person, who makes my heart beat faster. That is true beauty. There is a big difference between the beauty that you see, and the beauty that you know deep inside, the kind of beauty that makes your heart go POW, and North of Beautiful is a users guide to understanding that kind of beauty.

Terra Rose Cooper has been hiding her whole life, literally, and figuratively. She wants to blend in, be anonymous, normal. She wants to wish away her birthmark, the red map of Bhutan forever imprinted on her cheek. Whether it’s a mistake in Terra’s genetic code or a physical way of warning everyone that Terra is different, it’s a mark that is there to stay. Terra is an artist. She seeks True Beauty at its purest strain. But Terra’s art is not art- according to her didactic, manipulative father, and so Terra is pursuing business, entrepreneurship. Her father drove her brothers away years ago, and Terra and her mother are stuck. Terra’s mother, who used to be kryptonite, a beauty queen, gained weight years ago, and she is too weak to fight the dichotomy of herself- before Marriage, and After.

As he continued to stare, I wanted to point to my cheek and remind him, But you were the one who wanted this, remember? You’re the one who asked-and I repeat-Why not fix your face?

When Terra is given a pamphlet which claims to be able to rid her of her port wine stain, she tells herself that it is a futile, pointless endeavor which has failed, past and present. But knowing that it will make her mother happy is the push she needs to try it, one last time. But at Terra’s first appointment, she skids across the ice and and almost hits a goth. The goth turns out to be Terra’s true north, Jacob, whose mother is a well traveled, independent woman. So when Terra and her mother are invited to visit Terra’s brother Merc, who is living in China, and Jacob’s mother Norah offers to take them, it’s an invitation they can’t refuse.

This is a book about life, and love, and truth. Not truth itself, but finding the truth in things that we take for granted; ourselves. Beauty. Our fate. These are things that often seem obvious, but can be distorted by the lens of society, or even the lens of ourselves.  This book brings tears to my eyes every time I read it, and I have read through many times. Interwoven throughout are references to geocaching and cartography, which put an interesting twist on the coming-of-age theme.

I often find myself wondering how it is that authors depict such raw emotion. I am a girl who loves to write more than anything else, and I cannot think of a better example of flawlessly provocative writing as North of Beautiful. Justina Chen is an author whose work I admire across the board. Other books by Chen include Girl Overboard, Return to Me, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies), and What Now.

“There must be a few times in life when you stand at a precipice of a decision. When you know there will forever be a Before and an After…I knew there would be no turning back if I designated this moment as my own Prime Meridian from which everything else would be measured.”

-Terra Rose Cooper, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen

Red Glass by Laura Resau

Red GlassRed Glass is the ultimate coming of age story. Told through the eyes of a teenager named Sophie, this is a novel about love and loss, and about not just overcoming one’s fears but facing them head on.

Sophie lives in Tucson with her mother and her stepdad Juan. Oh, and Dika, a Bosnian great aunt who might not even be related to them, but came to live with them nonetheless. When a group of immigrants tries to cross the Tucson border to Mexico, Sophie and her family find themselves taking care of Pablo, a five year old boy whose parents died in the desert. Pablo is unhappy at first, but throughout the book little miracles conspire to make Pablo a lovable character with a deep bond to Sophie.

Dika meets a man named Mr. Lorenzo, who immediately becomes her boyfriend. So when Pablo’s relatives are found, Dika, Mr. Lorenzo, Mr. Lorenzo’s son Angel, Sophie, and Pablo set out on a trip to his village so he can decide where he wants to live- in Tucson with Sophie and her family, or in Mexico with his family. The trip is seamless, until Mr. Lorenzo and Angel split off and Angel is wounded, so Sophie sets off to find him and his father.

Sophie is a character who has been penned in her whole life. She expects to be afraid all the time. She expects to be sick; she expects to get rashes from the sun. She writes this all off as an effect of having been born too early. A self diagnosed wilting violet, she has been treated her whole life life a delicate flower, down to her manos tiernas- delicate hands.

I personally empathize with Sophie. Sometimes, I find my fears to be too insurmountable. I worry that the perceptions of me will be hard to lose, that they’ll follow me my whole life. But, like Sophie, I figured out a long time ago that a perception is only that, and they are, in fact, easier to shatter than a mirror, and won’t give you seven years of bad luck.

This book is beautifully written. The way that the characters interact with each other is so real, the anger, the love, the fear. It’s like you’re there with them, like you could reach out and touch Dika’s scars, Sophie’s soft blond hair, Angel’s sunglasses. Their quirks and flaws are interesting– compelling, even. Every page is fraught with emotion, and the words flow together so seamlessly, it feels less like reading and more like a sort of literary osmosis. These characters are so brave, and filled with so much life. The love between Sophie and Angel is both sweet and bitter, but I think all the best things are. You can’t have darkness without light. I love every one of these characters. I love the way reading this book makes me feel. I love the idea that the ultimate delicate flower can change.

Can become not delicada, but fuerte.

Not delicate, but strong.

“What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…”

-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

 

What Sammy Keyes has meant to me; the end of a series (Sammy Keyes Series by Wendelin Van Draanen)

Sammy_keyesI first read Sammy Keyes when I was eleven, and boy, did I ever love it. At the time, I was homeschooled, and though I think homeschooling did a lot for me, it can be really lonely at times- I read a lot then, even more than I do now, and Sammy Keyes is a series that I kept going back to. I think I’ve read every book in the series at least three or four times, some of them many, many more. There were 12 books when I first started reading them (the first was written in 1998). Sammy Keyes is a character who has stuck around for more than a decade. She is the modern day Nancy Drew- but a little bit funnier, a little bit sassier, and a little more charismatic.

I love Sammy Keyes for a lot of reasons (she’s a good role model, she doesn’t take things lying down, she’s brave), but mostly because I’ve grown up with Sammy. When I was sad, angry, happy, confused, books were always there, and books are always constant.

I’m seventeen now, and though the books may be geared towards slightly younger readers, I love them. The Sammy Keyes series is exciting and brave, and everything that an 11 year old living in a rural town in Colorado could ever want to be. But it’s also everything I want to be, six years later. I want to live a life that’s bigger and brighter than what I’m worth on paper, a life that can’t be measured in material things. I want to do the right thing, and be a good person. I want to be braver than I think I am- braver than other people think I am. And even now, there is no better role model than Sammy Keyes. She is one of the bravest literary characters ever (as far as I’m concerned). She’s a little impulsive, yes, but she has a big heart, and she does what it takes to make things right. She can teach you a lot of lessons, but mostly she can teach you that being yourself is the answer, always. Hiding who you are, whether it’s behind red hair dye and expensive clothes or old clothes and high-tops, never ends well. And Sammy makes mistakes, sure. She lies, she cheats, just like everybody else. But she always, always, rights the wrongs she commits. She isn’t always the bigger person, but she can always rise to the occasion. She’s smart. She doesn’t take things lying down. She doesn’t care about boys (and if WordPress would let me highlight, underline, bold and put that sentence in all caps, I would). Boys are a part of life, but they are not the most important part, and whether you’re 11 or 17 or even 30, your life shouldn’t revolve around whether or not boys (or anyone else for that matter), likes you. Boys, and people, come and go, but who you are is pretty constant. The person you are stuck with for life is you.

“Life is what happens when you’re making other plans” – John Lennon

Boys, and even other people, come along when you least expect them- when your life is full and big, when you feel the brightest and the best. Being your most authentic self and living your most authentic life are so much more important than someone else’s approval. Sammy Keyes is a living embodiment of that lesson. She lives a life (and yes, it’s fictional, I know) that is so much bigger than the sum of its parts.

And so, I’m writing this series review because I love this series more than any other. Sammy Keyes may not be the most prestigious book on my shelf, but it’s always been my favorite. The penultimate book in the series comes out in a month, and it might sound silly to say that I’ll miss her, because obviously the books will always be there, but I’ll miss knowing that the Sammy Keyes books will keep on coming.

But what goes up must come down, what begins must end, and Sammy Keyes is no exception. So, though it’s bittersweet, I couldn’t be more excited to read the finale to the Sammy Keyes series.

“There are no happy endings,

Endings are the saddest part

So just give me a happy middle,

and a very happy start.”

- Shel Silverstein