Six Must-Read Teen Novels

It’s been awhile since I reviewed a book, so I thought I would go all over-achiever on you all and talk about SIX books!

Why six, you ask? Well contrary to how little I have been posting about books, I have been a reading machine. I’ve read something like eleven books so far in 2014 and six of them were books that my seniors are currently reading for their Book Clubs.

All six books knocked me right out with how awesome they are, so I thought I would share in case you need an awesome read, that will be quick, yet keep you hooked throughout the whole book.

teen novels

The Fault In Our Stars by John Greene

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsAlmost everyone has heard of or read this book already, but if you have not, here is the quick version:

Hazel is a 16-year old living with cancer. Her parents force her to go to a weekly support group so that she will socialize and “make friends”. She hates it. Until she meets Augustus Waters. Augustus is a 17-year old ex-basketball star who is living without a leg thanks to cancer. Sparks fly. Things are funny. Things are devastating. Things are awesome.

I had girls gasp in delight when they realized this was a choice. I had guys quietly write this as their first choice because they had loved ones with cancer. This book changes your heart.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Perksofbeingwallflower1Again, this is not new to most people, but if you haven’t read it, you need to.

In a series of letters to an anonymous “friend”, 15 year-old Charlie pours his heart out about his fears of starting high school, his concerns for his sister, and his difficulty meeting new people. The letters start shortly after one of Charlie’s only friends commits suicide. Then, in his quest to “participate” more and be “normal,” Charlie meets Patrick and Samantha (Sam) who help him to learn what real friendship and love is.

A lot of my quiet kids signed up for this because they thought Charlie sounded like he was a lot like them.

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

curious caseThis one has been on my To Read List for quite some time. I have picked it up and set it back down a THOUSAND times in Barnes & Noble, so it was great to finally read it. And it was even better than I thought it would be.

Christopher is a 15-year old boy who lives in England. He knows all the countries of the world and their capitals, He can do math like a whiz, and he detests the color yellow. He has autism. When he finds his neighbor’s dog murdered with a garden fork, he decides to do some detective work which leads him to “be brave” in ways he has never had to before.

This book is the most advanced reading of all six, and it’s the most complex to understand because the reader is limited to what Christopher tells. The interesting thing is that the reader also understands events more than Christopher does. I was happy to see that my highest readers were attracted to this book showing that if you give students a choice, they are usually not going to go with the easiest, but what seems to fit their interest AND ability.

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

downloadI had never heard of this one; it was suggested to me by our media center specialist who knows her stuff. It was a hard read. Really hard. Not because it wasn’t amazing, but because it made me so incredibly mad and sad.

Set in on a cotton farm on the Mississippi Delta in 1946, Mudbound is told through the eyes of the characters involved: Henry McAllan who has bought the farm; Laura his city-bred wife, and Florence and Hap, black sharecroppers working on the farm. As the WWII ends two other characters appear – Jamie, Henry’s younger brother, and Ronsel Jackson, eldest son of Hap and Florence. Jamie and Ronsel’s experiences in Europe during WWII challenge the racism they were brought up with, so when they come back re-adjusting is almost impossible.

I didn’t have many kids interested in this one. I think because it’s historical fiction and they didn’t immediately see connections to themselves in it. The kids who were interested in it though were my history buffs and my activists. It will be interesting to discuss this one with them and to see if they are as moved by it as I was.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

truediaryI’ve read other books by Alexie and love him, so this was a fun read and very quick.

Native American fourteen-year-old Arnold Spirit, Jr (also known as Junior) is a budding cartoonist who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He also has several disabilities and is made fun of and beat up by almost everyone on the reservation. On the recommendation of one of his teachers on the reservation, Arnold decides to attend an all-white high school off the reservation in a nearby town. This book is unique in that it includes 65 cartoons that serve as punchlines, but are also parts of the plot of the story and reveal Arnold’s character.

A lot of my guys jumped at this. Especially because Arnold is a basketball player. It’s a very “dude” book.

It’s Kind of A Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

funny storyThis was another one I had not heard of (apparently it’s also a movie), but it might have been my favorite of the group.

Craig, who is 15 years old, lives in an upper-middle class family in Brooklyn. He attends a super elite prep-school that he studied hard to get into, however once there the academic pressures really start to get to him. The stress causes an eating disorder, pot use, and suicidal thoughts. He quits taking his meds and when he is on the verge of suicide gets himself admitted to a mental hospital. There Craig meets Noelle, a girl who cuts her face with scissors as a way to cope with sexual abuse. Isolated from the world, and with the help of Noelle, Craig confronts his anxiety.

This was hands down the number one choice of most of my students. I felt so sad that so many of them felt like they thought they could relate to Craig, but so happy that there was a book that so many of them really wanted to read. As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, I found myself in Craig too. It was unsettling and comforting at the same time.

I absolutely cannot wait to get back from break and sit in on the discussions my students will have about these books. I can’t wait to hear what their favorite quotes are and what they connected with and what made them mad, sad, happy.

I will say that all of them have strong language, sexual content, drug content, and/or violence. I am sure most, if not all, of them would be “banned” or “challenged” in many districts. I know I am lucky that I get to put these important books in the hands of over a hundred teenagers.

Soon I will tell you about these Book Clubs and a HUGE curriculum change I am piloting with my students. YAY!

So tell me, have you read any of these? What did you think?

On Writing by Stephen King

I’m probably one of the last people on earth to read this book, and nothing I will say here will be new. However I like to get down my thoughts for posterity and if there is a chance that you write and you haven’t read this book yet, well here you go.

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Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference (74).

Even with all of my writerly friends telling me I have to read this, it was never high on my To Read list because I don’t believe I will ever write fiction. I just don’t want to.

A few months ago, my friend Leigh Ann told me she had an extra copy and would I like it? It showed up a few weeks ago and due to lack of space on my book shelves, it sat next to my bed.

Since I have been plowing through books this year already (seriously, as I type this it’s January 6 and I am on book #3 of the YEAR already!), I ended up grabbing it since it was handy. I’m so glad I did.

You see, my idea that this book would only be useful to those who want to write fiction or write novels was totally off-base.  It is  geared toward a newish fiction writer crowd, but King’s advice and anecdotes can be applied to any kind of writing, really.

The book is five parts, the first part, “C.V.” being King’s writerly memoir. I enjoyed this part so much because it’s always so interesting to me to see where writers “start”. What makes them writers and what was their life like? How much of their life is in their writing and what is behind all those successful millions of pages written and published?

I already knew I loved King’s writing and intellect about writing (and reading), but–aside from the love of science fiction–I never knew how much of myself I would see in him.

On the surface we are no where near comparable, but under all the differences he and I share a love of words and language.  We also have something extraordinary in common: the unconditional support and love of our spouse. His wife doesn’t just support his “dream”, she believes in it.  That is how Cortney is with everything I do.  He is my biggest fan.

stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t fee like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re doing is managing to shovel shit from a sitting position (77).

King’s honesty is also refreshing. He never, ever makes writing sound like an easy job. And he never ever makes it into something that every person has it in him to do.

Which–as controversial a stance as it is, especially for a writing teacher–is something I believe too.

I don’t think everyone is cut out to be a great…or even good writer. Just because you have something to say, doesn’t mean it will sound good in writing. I believe everyone has a story. I believe every can write that story down. I do not believe everyone can be a skilled writer.

Writing is an art and it takes an artist to do it.

I don’t really consider myself a “great” writer, but I think I’m a good writer and I believe it’s a talent I was born with. I want to be better, but most days it feels like I am “managing to shovel shit from a sitting position.” But I keep trying.  And reading King’s words are like reading Anne Lamont’s words about keeping at it. About constantly writing.

Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page (106).

The next part of the book is called “Writing Is”. It’s brief–only 5 pages–but it defines how writing should be viewed by the writer.

After this King has the “Toolbox” section where he discusses vocabulary and grammar. My teacher heart loved this part. Naturally.

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life (147).

The fourth section, “On Writing” is where King talks about the process of writing. Even though he relied on examples from his own creative process for writing fiction, there were so many things I could apply to my own process.  The big two that I really need to let myself do more of are 1) Read more and 2) Write more.

It sounds easy, but it’s actually easier for me to put all the other things in life ahead of this.  Things that make my life less happy and more tangled up. And since I vowed to disentangle this year, I need to take these tips to heart.

So much of his process could work for me (write first with the door closed, find an Ideal Reader, etc) that I am excited to get on making it happen. Even if nothing comes of it but more “good” blog posts.

Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life (249).

His last section, “On Living”, recalls the accident in 1999 when he was struck by a van and almost killed.  I immediately remembered the news reports from when this happened as I read the details of his journey from taking an afternoon walk to almost killed and on through a long, painful recovery.

The story is used to illustrate that the will to get back to writing (and the love and support of his wife) is what brought him through such a tough time.

How many of us can relate to that? I know I can. I know I was nodding my head along and thinking about all the tough blog posts I have written because I was trying to “live through” something awful.

I am not really sure how I went so long without reading On Writing, but I feel like my reading it now is for a purpose.

That makes me excited.

It also made me go pick up my copy of Carrie, but that is another blog post.

A Lady in France by Jennie Goutet

I have a friend named Jennie who wrote a book.  And then she published that book. Then we all clamored to get the book because our friend Jennie wrote it. A few of us jumped a the chance to review it before we even read it.

As soon as my copy showed up and I held it in my hands, my stomach turned over.

I love Jennie. What if I don’t love her book?

Then I told myself that I was being silly. After all, I love to read her writing on her blog, so why wouldn’t I like this?

I’ve read books written by bloggers before and to be honest, I thought it was going to read like a collection of blog posts (like the other ones did).  I was a little nervous. I didn’t think a memoir should read like a blog.

My worry was for nothing. Jennie’s book is a book, not a blog, not a collection of blog posts.

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I was captivated from the very first chapter where Jennie describes her time as a study abroad student in France. The detail she uses is rich and lovely and takes you with her to each place she lived: France, Asia, Africa, New York City.  I’ve only ever been to NYC, but I feel like I’ve been to the other places now.  Or at least in my head I have been there.

A Lady in France is a journey. Jennie takes us around the globe, but also deep into her own heart as she battles addiction, finds Christ, finds her love, has children, loses people she loves, and overcomes adversity with a deep-rooted hope.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part chronicles her life before she accepted Christ into her life. She describes three different times she was invited–unsuccessfully–to follow God, and the one time she accepted.

I’ll be honest. A big concern of mine going in was this “finds Christ” part of the book.  I was nervous that Jennie’s book would sound more like a testimony rather than a memoir. I was nervous that it was only going to be geared for a small audience–which I am not part of–that enjoys reading about people finding God and becoming Christians.

Somehow she avoided marginalizing her audience.  I know, you don’t believe me. I mean, the entire first third of her book is about being called and ignoring until she finally says yes. But it’s also not. I mean it is,  but it’s not about that. It’s about her life. About what she goes through, and becoming a Christian is just part of it.  She tells this without sounding didactic or preachy. It’s simply her life.

The second part of her book is the hard work she puts in to fight her alcohol addiction, how she fell in love with her husband, and the trials they go through in the first few years of marriage–including a mission trip to Africa. If the first part drew me in with beauty and detail, this part both broke my heart and warmed my heart.

The last part of the book starts with Jennie becoming a mother. It also takes her reader to her life now: in France. Pregnancy was not easy for Jennie, but she endured it four times and has three beautiful children with her and one angel in heaven.

By the time the book ends, you wish you could live next door to Jennie and have tea with her and ask her questions about the journey you just read about. You want to know more, but more importantly you want to know Jennie.

As someone who has met Jennie in person, I can tell you that her hug is just as comforting as you think it will be when you read her book. Her smile is just as genuine as you imagine. She listens to you in an earnest and loving way.  She is exactly the way you picture her when you read her book.

When I finished her book, I was lying on the couch with my feet in my husband’s lap. I closed it, and sighed with a huge smile on my face.

“What?” Cortney said to me, “That good?”

“I just finished this book in a matter of days because it’s such a good book. And my friend wrote it. And her hugs comfort you when you didn’t know you needed comfort. And she wrote this book. And it’s amazing. And I am so SO proud of her,” I said to him.

*************

A Lady in France is available for purchase on Amazon in either paper or digital format (not an affiliate link).

You also have a chance to win a copy of Jennie’s bookA Lady in France (or one of eleven other prizes) in the GIANT New Year’s giveaway on the blog!

 

 

Hands Free Mama by Rachel Macy Stafford

I have a bit of a problem with over-extending myself.  Perhaps you have noticed.

I get asked all the time how I do it all, and three times over the holidays I have seen aunts and uncles and other relation who tell me “I follow you on Facebook/your blog and you are BUSY!”

I never know what to say to that.  Thank you?

I used to be proud to rattle off all the things I do: teach high school full-time, take two online class toward my next pay increase, teach a college course, blog, freelance, oh and I’m a mom and wife too.

I realized this month that when the third person (one of the members of our church) commented on how busy I am, I started to feel the blood rush to my cheeks in embarrassment. I know they were only making small-talk. It was a lead-in before telling me what  nice job Eddie did in the Christmas program and before a comment on how cute it was when Charlie pointed and yelled “EDDIE!” during the program. This person was just showing interest in our family and being kind.

But I was embarrassed. Ashamed at how much time I spent on other things besides my family.

The day before Christmas break started, I had planned to give my students an in-class essay assignment so I would have two full weeks to get through grading the 120 of them.  Nature had other plans. We got a wicked ice storm Thursday night, school was cancelled, and Christmas break started early.

I had zero work with me at home to do.

So I started reading a book.

Hands Free Mama

Right away I knew this book had come to me at exactly the right time when I needed it.  Rachel Macy Stafford is a mom and a writer who found herself in much the same predicament as I am constantly in: over-ridden with STUFF.

She describes the first two years of her younger daughter’s life as a time when she was constantly distracted by the internet, her phone, and social media. I hated reading it because I saw so much of myself in her words.

I am constantly going all day. I leave the house by 6:45am and I don’t get to daycare until after 4:30pm. I check my Chromebook while I make dinner, read the newspaper during dinner, and check my phone during bath.  During the quiet down time before bed when we have Curious George on, I have been caught on my phone too. I just can’t seem to do “nothing”.

After the boys are in bed, I bust out my laptop and check all the social media and blog and freelance.

I tweet about my lack of time to get anything done while my husband sits on the couch…ignored.

Reading Rachel’s story hit home in a very VERY uncomfortable way. In fact, I wanted to judge her and find all the ways hers was somehow different and worse than my situation.  I mean, I was a work-outside-the-home mom. That was something, right? I mean, I had less time to do all those…unimportant things.

Sigh.

“The truth hurts, but the truth heals and brings me one step closer to the person I want to be.”

I immediately took this book to be the confirmation I needed of something I suspected for a couple months…I was putting the entire world before my family, and my soul hurt because of it.

Each story Stafford delicately unfolds about beautiful moments and near-miss loveliness convinced me further to leave the laptop powered down and set aside the phone. My favorite times of the day, after all, were the ones when I was just looking at/watching my children. Really seeing them and hearing them.

Completely related, I’m sure, is how happy the boys are and how less stressed I feel when we are just together “being”.  Everyone gets along much better when I am not trying to make them conform to my schedule of “To Do’s”. Things go more smoothly when I plan for more time than less when we have to be somewhere or get something done.

I have learned it’s Ok to have more time than necessary.

One story Stafford tells in particular struck a chord with me. It is about a stressful meltdown she had when her daughters were younger. She didn’t think they remembered it, but they did. She went on to point out that we are creating our children’s childhoods. We are making their memories.

There have been many, many, many times during Eddie’s first few years and my depression that I prayed he would not remember those moments. I like to think I have come a long way from those dark days, but in exchange for crying and hiding from the world, I have perhaps thrown myself too much into it.  Given myself to too many other people and projects and not enough to my family.

I’m far from being a Hands Free Mama myself, but Stafford’s book has strategies and reflections and encouragements I can come back to over and over to remind me of what I could be missing if my face is plastered to a screen rather than engaged with my children.

Reading Hands Free Mama was the nudge I needed to stay the course of trying to let go of all the control, all the To Do Lists, and all the screens.

disclaimer: I was sent a copy of Hands Free Mama for review purposes only. No other compensation was given. All opinions and thoughts in this blog post are my own.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

I like Saturday Night Live.

Ok. That is not really an accurate statement.

I really really love SNL and if you play against me in the SNL Trivial Pursuit, I will hand you your booty on a platter. And I won’t be a good sport about it.

Out of all of the glorious female cast members over the past 35 years, Tina Fey is one of my favorites. I think it’s because she started out as a writer. She was only cast to do the news with Jimmy Fallon. She was head writer. She was brought back after she left to play Sarah Palin. She…well, she is weird and awkward and hilarious and I want her confidence.

I had put off reading Bossypants because…well, I have no idea other than I didn’t want to buy the hard cover version, but I also didn’t want it for my Nook. I wanted to own it. So when I found the tiny paperback version for like $4.99, I was on it.

bossypantsI love the way Tina Fey writes.

I mean, I love the way she acts too because she just doesn’t care. That is the best actor. The one who will look like a total fool and just go with it.

But I love her writing.

She is funny, yo. Her sketches on SNL are killer, and reading her words about her own life? So awesome.

She writes about her life the way I wish I could. I could hear her voice as I read the book. I pictured her mannerisms as she delivered stories about her dad, about Lorne Michaels, about working for Second City, about having a child.

The book is set up almost as little vignettes.  No, not vignettes, but each chapter is a separate story about her life and she usually has a point to it.  Some bigger life lesson.  I know, that sounds “after school special” to say, but there really are lessons she has learned looking back that she is giving to the reader.  She doesn’t choose stories that have not changed her in some way.

She begins, well, at the beginning. She tells the readers a snippet about her family, but not too much. She doesn’t over share stories that are not her stories to tell. She focuses on all the awkward that is the teen  years and even into college. About being the smart brunette during a decade that celebrated the flighty blondes.

Her views about feminism and the glass ceiling are serious ones, but she delivers these hugely serious–IMPORTANT–points with hilarious stories and personal anecdotes.  I think my favorite chapter on being a woman was “Amazing, Gorgeous, Not Like That” where she gives the readers lessons and tips for how to survive a photoshoot.  She tells about all the uncomfortable things like not fitting into the sample sizes and feeling not really worthy to be there. But she also doesn’t hide that it’s actually fun (free coffee and getting pampered). She talks about loving Photoshop and that feminists to the best Photoshop because “they leave meat on your bones”.

I also love how she loved on the people she worked with over the years, especially her BFF and partner in crime from the days of Second City, Amy Poehler. I admit to loving the name dropping.

I love how she talks about her daughter and her husband. I love that she shares her doubts as to whether she wants another baby…or if she could even do it with how much other responsibility she has in her life.

She is so honest and funny.

And I think I just went all fan girl on her.

Who are your favorite celebrities and would/have you read their book?

 

Does This Church Make Me Look Fat by Rhoda Janzen

“The stories we surround ourselves with can either move us forward or hold us back. A word in the mind is like a pebble in the shoe: both can bring our journey to a full stop.”

Because I enjoyed her first memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, so much, I was eager to read Rhoda Janzen’s follow up, Does This Church Make Me Look Fat.

30699While her first book took a quirky and funny look at what it was like to go back to her parents’ Mennonite lifestyle after living a scholarly, very NOT Mennonite life for so long, this book had a more serious tone.

Oh Janzen was still amusing and used funny anecdotes to illustrate her points, but this memoir picks up into her next journey in life: meeting a new man, falling in love, getting breast cancer, getting married, fighting breast cancer, and finding her way back to religion.

Many reviews I read were disappointed with this book because it didn’t deliver the laughs the first one did. While I agree the topic isn’t as light, I disagree that it didn’t deliver.

While I have not been dumped by my husband for a guy named Bob on Gay.com, nor do I have Mennonite roots, nor am I married to a man with a teenage son, I do live in the same town Janzen does (she’s local to me! Holland, Michigan…holla!), I’m an English teacher with the degrees and countless hours of interpretation and criticism to back it up, and I tend to share a similar scholarly, liberal view of the world.  But mostly I could relate to how she grappled with organized religion.

Much like her first book, Does This Church Make Me Look Fat, Janzen tells her story through chapters that are themed on a particular aspect of her journey. For instance, when she tells about how attending her boyfriend’s church for the first time, she fills the chapters with personal anecdotes about what going to church was like growing up in the Mennonite church. She contrasts that with how different services seem here, and she does it humorously. From the stringent, quiet rules of Mennonite worship to the joyful, expressive worship she experiences now, the reader is put into those services.

One of her main struggles with religion is the organizedness of it (yes, I made that word up). The rules and the rituals are what first drove her away, but are now what also draw her back in. As an academic, she still battles ideas about the Bible and taking it literally versus figuratively, but she is willing to set aside the arguments for something bigger: spiritual fulfillment.

“Overinvestment in the life of the mind had brought me neither peace nor joy. I was ready to try something else. I decided to sit very still and see what God would do with this new circumstance.”

Like I said, I really identified with this book and I am glad my mom introduced me to Rhoda Janzen’s writing. I would never have imagined that I would enjoy reading about someone’s “spiritual journey,” but her heart vs mind struggles are similar to mine.

Do you struggle with religion vs spirituality?

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

Oh but I do remember when I was scared. Everything  was so wrong like somebody had knocked something loose and my family was shaking itself to death. Some wild ride broke and the one in charge strolled off at let us spin and shake and fly off the rail. And they both died tired of the wild spinning and wore out and sick. Now you tell me if that is not a fine style to die in. She sick and he drunk with the moving. They finally gave in to the motion and let the wind take them from there to there. ~Ellen Foster

The cover of Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons has a quote from Walker Percy claiming, “Ellen Foster is a southern Holden Caulfield…” That is what hooked me. A female, southern Holden?  Sold.

Other than the fact that they were both on their own throughout the novel, there really were no similarities.

ellen-fosterHolden was a wealthy, prep school kid who was suffering from PTSD and probably depression after the death of his brother Allie.  Ellen Foster is dirt poor and lives with an abusive drunk father and a mother who is too sick (probably from the father) to fight back for either of them.  Eventually Ellen becomes orphaned.

Holden was a teenager, Ellen was about ten.

Holden chose to runaway for a weekend.  Ellen chose to keep fighting for her own destiny which sometimes involved leaving places.

Holden was a victim of the terrible mental health system for everyone, but mostly for kids in the 1940′s.  Ellen was a victim of poverty, abuse, and a system that favored family ties over the good of the child in the late 1980′s.

Enough about the differences between the books and on to why Ellen Foster is a great read.

The title character, Ellen Foster, is an upper-elementary school aged child who tells the extraordinary story of how she went from living in fear and poverty to predictability and comfort…the story of how she came to live with her “new momma.”

She doesn’t beat around the bush with how awful her life was as a little child: “When I was little,” the novel begins, “I would think of ways to kill my daddy.”  She then goes on to talk about how she wouldn’t feel bad if he died and how nice it would be to have him out of the way.  She also tells the reader about her sick mom, her best friend who is black and lives in the “black part of town” (the novel takes place in the South), and how she gets passed around her awful family after she can no longer live with her parents.

Gibbons does a remarkable job at putting this first person narrative into the mouth of a 10-year old, perhaps that is why Ellen Foster has been compared to Holden Caulfield.  The way Salinger wrote from Holden’s perspective–the slang, the uncertainty, the bragging–is exactly what Gibbons captured with Ellen.  You feel like a 5th grader is telling you a story, but in a good way.

And much like a 5th grader, she doesn’t spend a lot of time on things that wouldn’t concern a 5th grader.  There are no long, flowery descriptions or tons of back story.  You get the info she gives you to make her story move on.

And much like talking to a child, the reader has questions that don’t get answered.  Why was your mom sick?  Was it the abuse? Was it mental?  What happened to your dad’s family?  Why couldn’t you live with them?  Why were your parents the way they were? And so on.

She gives us her story and nothing more.

It’s a quick read, but there is a lot there.  It’s a novel filled with humor, sadness, sass, and determination.

Ellen Foster is definitely a novel you will read through quickly, but you will be glad you picked it up.  It’s lovely.

Tell me, do you enjoy books with kid/teen narrators that are not considered Young Adult Lit?  What are your favorites?

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

It’s my mom’s fault I am such an avid reader.  In the 35 years that I have known my mother, I have never known her to have fewer than five books checked out of the library at a time.  There is a spot near their fireplace that is a bottomless piles of books–the titles change each time I am there, but the pile is constant.

mialbdMysteries are my mom’s brain candy of choice and I would not be surprised if she has read every mystery in our local library.  Twice.  From time to time she will read a non-mystery book that someone recommends to her.  (In fact, she picked up The Great Gatsby after my review of the movie.)  A couple weeks ago she asked me if I had ever read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen.  It was autobiographical and pretty “cute” my mom said.

Oh, I should also mention that my mom also reads Christian stuff from time to time.  She’s a pretty conservative Christian.

I love funny memoirs. Jen Lancaster and Laurie Notaro are just two of my favorites, and while I recommend books to my mom from time to time, their brand of humor is not exactly what I picture my conservative Christian mother loving.

So when my mom recommended Janzen’s memoir to me, I figured I would give it a try.  Why not.  The title sounded familiar to me, and when I peeked at the book jacket, I realized that Rhoda Janzen is a local author who teaches at the local Christian College where my mom went.  I figure I probably heard of her in the local paper or something.

Then I started reading and in the first chapter she talks about having a pee bag due to a botch up in a surgery.  I just couldn’t see my mother thinking that a whole section about a pee bag was funny.  Of course I was giggling fiercely.

And then the author’s husband leaves her for a guy named Bob from Gay.com.  And then she uses the “f” word.  And then talks about pubic hair.  The book was funny.  But it was somehow even funnier that my mom thought it was “cute”.

The book is a memoir about the author’s mental and emotional journey after her divorce with her husband who left her for a guy  named Bob from Gay.com.  Janzen has a PhD, teaches English at Hope College, and has a Mennonite background.  After her husband leaves her, Janzen heads back west to her Mennonite parents…and past.

Janzen spends a good deal of the book talking about her mother, a  nurse.  I related so much to their relationship.  No, my mother is not a Mennonite, nor did she dress me in homemade dresses when I was younger, nor did she forbid dancing or blue jeans or TV.  But my mom and dad were pretty conservative and I didn’t exactly follow the same religious path they did.

My mom, like Janzen’s, cooks for people when then have babies or deaths.  My mom can support her life choices with scripture.  My mom didn’t get super BFF with me when I was a kid and have secret “girl talks” about my body or sex or anything.  But at the same time, my mom supports me even though I am just like her and not like her at all.  At the same time.

She offers me unconditional love and grounding…even if she doesn’t approve of my damn swearing or of how I bring up the subject of poop frequently.

That’s probably why, even though I laughed at the fact that my mother’s recommended a book where the author was “crass” (as my mother would say) and talked about “smutty” topics (as my mother would say), I was not totally surprised.

I loved how Janzen weaved the traditions of the Mennonites with her own thoughts on religion and spirituality as well as with her own personal narrative of growing up in and then leaving the community.  She is intelligent (her vocabulary makes me swoon…English Majors unite!) and witty.  Things don’t always come up roses for her (um, Bob? Gay.com?  Not really awesome), but she has a great attitude and it’s clear she attributes it to the community she was raised in, even if she doesn’t share some of their same hardcore beliefs.

I think I also connected with Janzen’s story because her spiritual journey is a lot like mine.  I have been attempting from time to time to hammer out some of my thoughts on the blog, but she is much more eloquent about it…even when she uses the word “shit”.

I really enjoyed the book.  It got mixed reviews both on GoodReads.com (where you can “friend” me) and from the people to whom I mentioned I was reading it.  I read it in five days, (which is fast when you are running a house and have two demanding small boys–one who has all but dropped napping), so I would classify it as a great summer read.

Tell me, have you read this book and what did you think?  Do you enjoy funny memoirs or do you stick to fiction?  Talk to me, Goose.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

41b3Bv+i7ULThere is nothing more frustrating to me as a reader than when characters fail to communicate with each other and get angry and make life-changing choices based on that miscommunication.

It’s also what propels me through a book the fastest because I have to know how messed up they are going to make their life by doing instead of talking things over.

This was my love/hate relationship with The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards.

The novel begins on a blizzardy night in 1964 when Dr. David Henry is forced to delivery his own twins–a boy and a girl–with only his nurse by his side. While his wife, Norah, is still under from the anesthesia, David discovers that his daughter has Down Syndrome.  Before Norah wakes up, David convinces his nurse, Caroline to take the baby away to an institution while he tells Norah the baby died.  Instead, Caroline takes the baby, Phoebe, and raises her as her own.

The book shows the parallel lives of David and Norah and their son, Paul and that of Caroline and her “daughter” Phoebe.  It moves forward in time and shows Paul and Phoebe and how different their lives are.  It also shows how secrets–even if created for what seemed like a good reason at the time–will eventually ruin things.

I read this book really quickly, although I will admit I liked it, but I didn’t really love it.

For one, I was mad at all the characters all the time. Mostly my problem was with the female characters.  Norah seemed self-absorbed and whiny while Caroline seemed like a dish rag even when I think she was supposed to be strong and brave. Bree was far too under-developed and Phoebe’s personality felt flat. The male characters also had their annoying traits, but those seemed more purposeful to the story.

The story is also fascinating to me, but another fault is that I am not sure who the story is about…who the protagonist is. Is it a tragic story about the “hero” David Henry?  That is what I am tempted to claim, however if that is true, there is too much “after story” to the novel after David Henry is gone.  Many of the characters go through drastic changes and it seems that Edwards tried to make them all dynamic in some way, which actually makes it feel like they are all competing for “main character” status (some better than others).

Like I said, the story itself is astounding and Edwards has a real talent for description. Even though the characters bothered me, the word choice, language, and plot propelled me through the book.

I would definitely recommend this as an easy, interesting summer read. I know lots of people really loved it, and I was hoping to also.  I think maybe I haven’t been on summer break long enough, and I’m still looking at books through the eyes of an English teacher and not just a reader reading for entertainment.

Have your read this book?  What did you think?  Have you ever run into the problem of hating the characters, but loving the story idea?

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. ~Vladimir Nabokov, 1956

lolita

I like to use summer as a time to catch up on the classics…or at least to read a couple I have never picked up, but have always been interested in. I have been intrigued by Lolita ever since I was old enough to understand the lyrics to “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by Sting.

It’s no use, he sees her
He starts to shake and cough
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabakov

Part of me was so very disturbed by the thought of the premise of the book being about an old dude obsessed with a pre-teenage girl, but the literature teacher in me knew that there had to be more to the book.  Nabakov is a brilliant writer and the book is a classic, so I knew it wasn’t just pedophilia porn.  There had to be something else.

The novel is loosely this: Humbert Humbert is a thirty-something attractive man who meets and becomes obsessed with the young “nymphet” Dolores Haze. But knowing that Lolita is a postmodern work, I know it’s more about the style, the language, and the aesthetic appeal rather than the plot.

If you’re a yucky person and are looking for nasty sex scenes between a thirty-five-year old man and a fourteen-year old girl?  You are not going to find it.  The novel is a fictional memoir written from Humbert Humbert’s first person perspective while he is in jail.

The thing about postmodern lit is that it’s all about the writing.  So Humbert is a European who is highly educated.  He uses puns and word tricks and even admits his short-comings to a certain degree, all to make him more of a person and less of a pedophile in the mind of the reader.  He gives his upbringing, his failed marriage, and finally how he comes to meet and “woo” Lolita by marrying her mother.

It is clear from the start that Humbert doesn’t have a very good grasp on reality.  He is incredibly self-centered (which most postmodern unreliable narrators are) and believes that Lolita seduced him.   He has hallucinations of being watched and followed because he knows what he is doing is wrong.

Lolita is not a light summer beach read.  It’s one that I think anyone who calls themselves a fan of literature should read though. English was not Nabokov’s first language which makes the intricate language choices even more fascinating. The 300+ pages are filled with gorgeous prose that almost…ALMOST…make you forget that you are reading a diary of a pedophile.

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