what i read, what i thought

It must be the twilight zone!  How is it possible that I have read two books for fun in the first month of school.  How unheard of! I can almost guarantee that this will not happen again this school year as we ramp up on course content, grading, and technology integration. But somehow, magically and perfectly, I found myself with the gift of time and filled it with a second novel. It probably also helped that I was flying to Las Vegas and would be trapped on a plane for 5 hours each leg of the journey.

When packing for the trek out West, I brought along Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. I am not going to lie. The book’s cover art drew me in.

Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 10.00.55 AMThe simple design and the starkness that is illustrated is seductive. What could the pages of this neat novel hold? Curious and intrigued, I read through the story of Eleanor and Park on the flight to Vegas not knowing if judging a book by it’s cover would prove a folly.

The novel’s structure is unique and surprising. Each chapter is broken into short sections that take on the perspective of either Eleanor or Park.  They each tell their version of the event or emotion allowing the reader the unique opportunity to look out into the high school occurrences that each protagonist experiences through their eyes. Eleanor is introduced to us as a “big” girl with red hair, lots of curves, and an offbeat fashion style. Set in the 1980s and sprinkled with various references to music and culture from that time period, we learn that Eleanor’s situation at home is rough. It is the definition of rough and the reality of having to manage a house like that with high school is heart-breaking. At yet, despite every reason to complain, Eleanor pushes through each day. She cannot afford new clothes, pencils, real food, or a toothbrush. Her family struggles with their poverty and with an abusive stepfather in silence. And as a result of this, Eleanor is tagged as “other” by her peers.

Park is not quite popular but neither is he an outcast. Operating on the fringes of the popular group, his high school experience is quite typical. His family is not broken, he has access to trends, music, and fashion, and he has friends. Unlike Eleanor, Park has lived in this town his whole life and get its. He enjoys comics and alternative music and even dabbles in a little “guy-liner” to present the rockstar side of him. But, He has the poor fortune of sitting next to Eleanor on the first day of school. In the beginning, he stresses and worries about how she will drive down his social capital. And, yet over time they begin to bond over the comics and music he loves so much. His small kindnesses leave Eleanor love sick. This bus ride bonding becomes so much more as Eleanor begins to break down her many layered walls. Park represents safety, security, and good clean fun, all things that Eleanor is not given permission to even hope for.

Their burgeoning love though cannot hold back the world. As the New York Times reviewer noted, “Park’s parents — two of the best-drawn adults I can remember in a young adult novel — serve as evidence that sometimes love conquers the world, and Eleanor’s family is a reminder that sometimes it doesn’t. As for Eleanor and Park . . . well, I won’t spoil it.”

what i read, what i thought

I have seen this book on the shelves for quite some time. Yet, I never reached for it. Not even to read through its little synopsis on the back. I have this thing against reading a book whenever everyone else is reading it and raving about it. There is no real justification for this behavior, it is just a part of my reading practice. But I am so glad I finally made my way to it. It was the best way to end my summer of non-school related reading. And, it truly warmed my heart.

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As a puppy mom, I admit to believing that my dogs, Buster and Bella, are special and unique. I admit that I have at times felt like they were humans reincarnated. That their eyes reflected a wise soul within and that they not only understood everything I was saying to them but that they also had the capacity to respond. Obviously not vocally, although sometimes they do bark, but through their gestures, touch, and cuddles. If I was not married to David, I would absolutely be a dog lady and I would take pride in it. Buster and Bella are members of my family not just family pets.  For this reason, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein truly resonated.

From the very first paragraph I was completely hooked. I devoured the novel and its story of Enzo and his family. It beautifully wove the life cycle of the dog, Enzo, into the fabric of the family.  Told from Enzo’s perspective, it created hilarious moments as Enzo explained what a dog does each day when owners leave, how dogs see their place in the family, and how this particular dog soaked up each life experience as a part of his education for the future when he would one day be reborn a human (as he saw on a TV documentary about ancient dogs in Mongolia). Dogs are observant, clever, and loyal. These beautiful qualities were reflected in Enzo. He was often present when no other human was for his owners. He watched Denny, his owner, go through life from a bachelor, to a married man, to a family man, to a man seeking solace and redemption after a series of heartbreaking events. But, Enzo is always there providing touching commentary, reflection, presence, and tons of comic relief.

One of my favorite moments from the novel is when Enzo is going to stay over night at a friend’s house as Denny will be away.  Denny tells Mike, the friend, to bring Enzo to the house to collect his things, in particular to get Enzo’s toy stuffed dog by asking Enzo, “Where is your dog?”  You see Enzo loves this stuffed dog, it is his best friend and he hides it during the day so that the little girl in the house, Zoe, doesn’t acclimate it into her own stuffed animal collection. It is a reflection that you could only hear from Enzo. From the human’s perspective, Enzo hiding the dog is a quirk but to Enzo it is a strategic tactic! Enzo’s narrative throughout the novel demonstrates love, fear, danger, redemption, courage, and, for me, he explained exactly what Buster and Bella must be thinking each and every day!

The end of the novel is inevitable. I read the last pages out loud while lying in bed with David. Our puppies slept quietly on the sheets between us as Enzo’s story concluded. Despite the tears I shed, I truly enjoyed the novel. It made me laugh and cry and it was a fantastic ride which in the end is exactly what racing in the rain is all about…

“He died that day because his body had served its purpose. His soul had done what it came to do, learned what it came to learn, and then was free to leave.”

what i read, what i thought

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Each year David and I take a road trip from Boston to Ohio for Christmas and every other year we drive from Boston to Florida for Thanksgiving. While I am not a fan of driving long distances, I seem to always have such a great time with David on these epic trails. We listen to music, play with the pups in the back seat, make stops here and there, eat tons of junk food, and just watch the landscape fly by. Beyond these trips it never dawned on me to take a cross country road trip. To be honest the idea seemed a bit repulsive.  One or two days in the car was fine but did I really want to spend more then that just driving and driving and driving?

After reading Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson, I absolutely do!!  The story is told beautifully. Amy and Roger, two relative strangers, need to drive Amy’s family car from California to Connecticut. We learn early on that Amy’s father has died and the remaining family members are transplanting to start fresh out on the East Coast. Throughout the road trip, chapters are interwoven of life three months earlier right before the “accident” that took Amy’s father’s life and changed her family.  Overcome by grief yet overwhelmed by the move, Amy has not had time to process the loss really. This road trip which was planned out by her mother to be quick turns into an adventure as Roger and Amy take a variety of detours. Each brings with them a series of walls that surround them from the outside world. Yet as the trip takes on its twists and turns and lack of gas and crazy times, both Roger and Amy begin to break down these walls, live life, love, and move forward. What makes the book even more appealing are the personal touches sprinkled throughout.  Amy keeps a scrapbook on the trip collecting receipts, playlists, doodles, state mottos, and anecdotes that are hand drawn in the book. It made me feel as though I had somehow joined them by getting a glimpse into their collection of artifacts along the way. You later find out in the author’s notes that Matson had done this exact road trip herself stopping along the way at the characters’ rest stops.

What I liked most about this novel is its touching portrayal of loss. I read this book on the flight down and back from West Palm Beach where David and I visited with his family. And, as I read this on the plane, so many lines truly resonated:

“Tomorrow will be better.”
“But what if it’s not?” I asked.
“Then you say it again tomorrow. Because it might be. You never know, right? At some point, tomorrow will be better.”

I blinked them back, hard. I had a feeling that if I let myself start crying, there was a very real possibility I would never stop again.”

“A man on a quest. A Don Quixote searching for his Dulcinea. But keep in mind my good friend, Don Quixote never found his Dulcinea, did he? He did not. There sometimes isn’t much difference between a knight’s quest and a fool’s errand.”

“I’d found out that when you’re never going to see someone again, it’s not the good-bye that matters. What matters is that you’re never going to be able to say anything else to them, and you’re left with an eternal unfinished conversation.”

This last quote about goodbyes resonated with me the most. I dog-eared the page and sat there thinking about why this line about loss was having such an impact. I closed the book not knowing why but liking that it did nonetheless. The next morning, I found out that my grandmother passed away. I did not have the opportunity to say goodbye to her. And I felt the sentiments of this quote rush over me. The loss of my grandmother is painful and raw. Being left with our eternal unfinished conversation is making me feel as though there are not enough tears to express this deepest loss.

what i read, what i thought

Screen Shot 2013-07-10 at 12.15.51 PMHave you ever felt used by someone?  You know what I mean.  Have you ever felt as though some one was being your friend merely to gain access to your home, car, vacation spot, food, connections, lifestyle, advice, etc.?  I am guessing that the sensation of feeling “used” is quite universal. Perhaps the user is intentionally abusing your kindness, generosity, or naiveté, but probably they are seemingly unaware of how their behavior is coming across. While reading the book Prospect Park West  by Amy Sohn, I kept coming back to this idea of how we constantly use those around us. David has recently been reading How to Make Friends and Influence People  and, from what he shared, it seems the user-usee relationship is the integral relationship of human interactions. According to author Carnegie, the best way to interest someone is to compliment them in a genuine fashion and/or ask them about themselves or something/one they love. His advice stems from his belief that everyone is self-interested and that in being self-interested, we therefore use those around.  How to manipulate, control, or shift this primary occurrence is what is key to “success.”

In the book Prospect Park West, the characters are highly interesting. Each has a quirk, a compulsion, a fun side, and, quite frankly, a selfish side. As the book progressed, I was wrapped up in their trivial daily dramas but found that the characters are not likable people. Each character is using someone for their own personal or professional gain in overt ways. Rebecca uses Lizzie to feel loved since her “meanness” repulses her husband while Lizzie uses Rebecca to explore her sexuality until Rebecca put off by the affection Lizzie shows is then repulsed by Lizzie. Karen uses Melora as a crutch for social anxiety while she also uses her husband to gain access to premium property in the coveted Brooklyn neighborhood. None of the characters truly express love or genuine affection for any of the others and yet they are connected through their constant need to self-promote. While I cannot say that I liked the book and its variety of messages, it did get me thinking about the purpose of relationships, friendships, and made me more aware of how I and those around me self-promote or use in order to advance or get their way. While this is all part of human nature, I am hoping that this chick lit can be a breaking point for me. I truly want to try to avoid being like these women in this novel. Yes, their stories are sensuous, suggestive, and fun but the content of their character left me wanting. I can see some of those baser traits in myself and I want to do more to not only be aware of them but to shift them to something more positive. In the Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald describes Daisy and Tom as “careless” people.  I would describe many of the characters in Prospect Park West as similarly careless.  But, hopefully with this in mind, I can avoid a similar description.

what I read, what I thought

A few weeks ago, I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and wrote a little review on the book which was recommended to me by a friend. Having been intrigued by this dark thriller, I decided to read Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects while travelling from Boston to Minnesota and back this past weekend. In many ways, the books are similar with their disturbed protagonists who are unafraid (or at times driven) to inflict pain on themselves. Both stories revolve around murder and mystery that bring the protagonists perilously close to the murderers. Dark is a word that is exhausted while describing Sharp Objects. One of my favorite reviews is by Stephen King (Though I have not read any of this novels as I am too scared to do so), “To say this is a terrific debut novel is really too mild. I haven’t read such a relentlessly creepy family saga since John Farris’s All Heads Turn as the Hunt Goes By, and that was thirty years ago, give or take.”

Flynn’s style of writing is contagious. From the first sentence to the last she generates a fever in the reader that compels him or her to read through the tale of intrique as quickly as possible. Home is complicated place for many and Sharp Objects exposes these trials that members face within a particular family.  The “give and take,” the “love and hate,” and the “for and against” mentality of the family is exhibited for the reader who may or may not understand these opposing feelings about one’s childhood home.  Yet, this conflict whether as extreme as in the novel or more subtle (as I assume in more families), is present. Therefore even though this particular story represents a wild extreme, a reader is still able to identify with the characters and their humanity (or lack there of).  I mention this not to create normalcy out of the events that occur but to explain perhaps why I was so compelled to finish a story as troubling as Sharp Objects. I recommend this book, but only to those who can handle a story that is not in anyway a comfortable portrayal of family.

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what i read and what i thought

I can’t believe I just finished it!! Reading for pleasure during the school year is practically impossible, but when a friend passed along this book to me and said, “I cannot tell you anything about it but that is was amazing,” I knew I needed to make an exception. Each night I would come home with my stack of papers to grade and lessons to plan and stare at the book on the kitchen table.  When would I ever get the time to crack it open?

Then two weekends in a row the city of Boston was hit by tremendous snowstorms. I woke early these days to make my coffee, nestle in on the couch and begin reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

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As the snow fell in heavy flakes outside my window and as I emptied my coffee cup, the pages ticked off one by one. I wasn’t sure this book would capture my imagination.  The first few chapters were good but nothing that compelled me to want to dedicate my day to the story and to the protagonist, Nick Dunne. Early on I didn’t like Nick, so why finish his story? But, my friend had said this was the type of book that you should only read once you have set aside some ours to get lost.

It was about 50 pages in when I became hooked. As the story of murder, intrigue, and possibilities unravelled I found myself squealing with every new twist and turn.  Just when you think you have a handle on what is going on, the trajectory takes a sharp turn and leaves you biting your nails in anticipation. I could not gobble up the last 100 hundred pages fast enough. As I approached the last few pages, David called out, “You are almost there. You can do it.”  I was hypnotized by Flynn’s tale. Never a fan for CSI or Law and Order, I literally could not stop until the story came to its unexpected conclusion.  It was a twisted end and one I am still deciding it I really “liked” or not, but regardless I recommend this book to the next reader.  Enjoy the ride.

what i read and what i thought

The best part of being on break is being able to read for pleasure.  During the school year with grading and lesson planning forever consuming my precious “free time,” I rarely have the opportunity to pick up a book and just read for the sake of expanding my mind, going on an adventure, or indulging in the diversion of a good story.  This winter break, I was lucky to pursue this delightfully.

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This was a recommendation from the blog Eat, Live, Run. It was such a fast read and was truly the perfect book for a road trip. I read it in one day as the language and imagery of the author is beautiful.  Often stopping to reread sentences in order to truly appreciate the author’s depth, I enjoyed this historical fiction piece and the adventure it took me on.

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At school we have been focusing on the role of diversity in the classroom.  In a series of faculty meetings, members of the community presented on the work that is being done and the work that can continue to be done in order to harness and make real valuable space for discussions of diversity.  One of the facilitators recommended Whistling Vivaldi. While not a fast read like Blue Asylum, it did bring light to a serious dilemma facing all of us: stereotype threat. It was fascinating to read how we are consciously and subconsciously affected by our labels and how this can be reversed through significant and important interventions.

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While cozying up in Skye’s apartment the other afternoon, I stumbled across this book and asked to borrow it.  The author of this book is also the writer of one of my favorite blogs, SouleMama. While I do not currently have a brood of children, this book had such GREAT ideas on how to unleash one’s creativity and how to make being creative a part of an individual’s daily routine. I often let the creative side of me wait until the long list of to-dos is complete and by then, tired, I just roll into bed.  After reading through this delightful and warm piece on creativity and projects, I have a long list of ideas for my near-future creative endeavors!

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This last book of the winter break was a gift from an advisee.  Opening this present on the last day of school got me SO excited to go on break.  Clearly, this student (or perhaps his parents) understood that breaks are a perfect time to immerse oneself between the pages of a long novel.  While I am halfway through this story, I am enjoying the journey, mysticism, and strength of this historical fiction set in the time of the fall of Jerusalem.