Blood and Salt by Kim Liggett

Blood and SaltI adore a dark and twisted story. I suppose it started in 6th grade when someone gave me a dog-eared paperback of Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. Today, her name conjures up a very different type of novel, but back then (when they were still  actually written by her) they were perfect for me: narrated by a girl my age, a world that was at once fantastic and realistic, and black as an angsty teenager’s heart.

My parents (and specifically my Mom) never forbade me to read anything. But she was aware of what I was reading and would often read it too and then talk about it with me. Because of this I have always been of the opinion that it doesn’t matter what you read, it is what you take away from it. Yeah, I read a lot of stuff that was adult but I will tell you it never led me to bad behavior because it gave me ideas. I think a lot of it went right over my head anyway.

Kim Liggett came on my radar through Twitter. A few weeks ago Blood and Salt was released and there was a launch party in New York. Jodi Kendall, another author who is represented by my agent (Alex Slater @ Trident Media Group) tweeted pictures from the party, which looked amazing. So the title was in my head and when I was at the bookstore last weekend, I saw it on a table of spooky reads in the YA section, so I bought a copy.

(Can I just make a small digression here? I am so thrilled with the way YA literature has exploded over the past decade. When I was of the age there was very little in that area, hence, me reading V.C. Andrews. But now there is an ENTIRE TABLE of YA books that are just of the creepyspookyscary nature and I think that is outstanding. It appeals directly to the dark side of being a teenager. And let’s be honest, that’s a significant chunk of a teen’s personality, no matter what it’s dressed in.)

But to the book at hand: I loved it. Kim’s writing is lovely, and she doesn’t dance around the edges of darkness–she plunges right in. Ash Larkin and her fraternal twin Rhys live in New York City with their mother. Right from the beginning we realize there is something strange about Ash: she has been seeing the vision of the same dead girl, hanging from her feet and dripping blood, since she was very small. She connects it to the cult her mother escaped as a young woman and she isn’t wrong. When her mother disappears she and her brother head straight for Quivira, hidden on the cornfields of Kansas. From the moment the twins step foot inside the isolated community mystical occurences, unexplained deaths, and deadly whispers from the corn itself surround them. Ash, who has always been the alpha twin, realizes she needs to find out what’s happening fast or risk both of their lives.

But let’s throw some romance into the plot, shall we? Ash has never met a guy who made her feel anything but nausea. But when she clamps eyes on one tall, dark and handsome named Dane, everything changes in a bolt of proverbial lightning. Everyone in the small community is connected by blood, and the connection Ash has to him is a very interesting one indeed.

Kim’s writing is funny and snarky with a uniquely original voice. To give you a taste, here is one of my favorite lines: “I had no idea what my face was doing, but inside it was complete hormonal anarchy.”

See? It’s lines like that which make books worth reading. I hate it when I hear people scoff that YA books aren’t real literature. It’s not just teens who are reading them these days. My reading diet has a steady supply of them and I can say unequivocally that there are some amazing, deep, thought-provoking, adventerous, scary, real books being written for this age group by some very talented writers.

Teens, like any human being, don’t like to be talked down to. They don’t need you to shield them from all the scary things out there in the big bad world. Most likely they have already been acquainted with some of them. Kim Ligget doesn’t hold back when she tells her story, and I am glad for it. Ash’s story is thrilling, scary, and heartbreaking and you really need to read it.

 

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

FuriouslyHappyJenny Lawson (aka the Bloggess) is someone who has come into my world fairly recently. Last month I read a review of this book in the library publication Booklist, and thought it sounded intriguing. Since it had not yet been published I hunted down her first book: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. I read it on vacation and came to two conculsions.

The first is that Jenny Lawson is a total wingnut, swears like a truck driver with Tourrette’s, and has a family that rivals the Adams Family when it comes to weirdness.

The second is that Jenny Lawson is completely and unequivocally hysterical.

There are some misguided people in this world who are easily offended by cursing, and I feel deeply sorry for these people. I believe the time one spends taking offense is inversely proportional to the amount of fun one has. I also know that trying to explain this to someone easily offended is like trying to convince a conspiracy theorist that no, McDonald’s is not own by Satanists.

The title Furiously Happy is rather poignant. Jenny Lawson has made her writing career talking frankly about dealing with mental illness. She suffers from depression and anxiety and a host of taggers-on. She has good days and really terrible days. Her theory is that on her good days she needs to live them to the fullest–the craziest, brilliant, most memorable times she can conjure. Then, when the bad days return she will have those memories and be able to tell herself they will come again.

To quote Furiously Happy:

“When cancer sufferers fight, recover, and go into remission we laud their bravery. We wear ribbons to celebrate their fight. We call them survivors. Because they are.

When depression sufferers fight, recover, and go into remission we seldom even know, simply because so many suffer in the dark… ashamed to admit something they see as a personal weakness… afraid that people will worry, and more afraid that they won’t. We find ourselves unable to do anything but cling to the couch and force ourselves to breathe.”

This.

I will admit that I have suffered from anxiety and depression. That’s not an easy thing to admit, especially when the whole purpose of this blog is to demonstrate my talents as a writer, and showcase my brilliant wit and sparkling humor. But I need to be true to who I am. Yes, I have struggled with anxiety and depression, but I would guess 99% of the people who have ever met me would never know it. I can speak in front of huge groups of people and not blink an eye. I give every impression of being warm, funny, and completely well-adjusted.

I have to say that being married has done wonders for my state of mind. My husband, who is a self-proclaimed “happy jackass,” is the best medicine. He makes me laugh every day and really helps to keep me on an even keel. True, I may get tired more easily than the average person, I may need more downtime to recuperate after social events, but I am proud of the progress I have made in the last 20 years. If you would have told me when I was 21 that I would one day be married and not be the drama queen in the relationship I would have laughed and laughed. Funny how things turn out.

I do warm to Jenny’s idea of living furiously happy when the opportunity presents itself. I already know that traveling has made the best memories I keep and I want to do as much of it with my happy jackass as I can in this lifetime.

The happiest I have been while not on the road is when I am writing, and creating stories. The worlds I create are so real to me that my husband and I speak of my characters like they live and breathe out there in the world somewhere. My greatest wish is to be able to do that as a full-time job instead of being a librarian. Don’t get me wrong, librarians are terribly important. But learn from my mistake and don’t ever expect to find fulfillment in a career you chose mostly because you needed a paycheck.

To all of you out there who are like me and have struggled with anxiety and depression, I salute you. Keeping going when all you want to do is hide in your bed is no small feat, even if compared to the rest of the world it seems small. We are working with a serious disadvantage and have to toil much harder to stay even with the rest of the pack.

I highly recommend Furiously Happy to anyone who suffers with mental illness or anyone who lives with one. It will make you understand things on a new level, give validation that you aren’t alone, and make you snort coffee out your nose.

Which is why I don’t recommend reading it with a beverage. That really hurts.

 

Dietland: A Novel by Sarai Walker

dietlandI don’t even really know where to begin with this book review. I have so many emotions upon finishing this novel, and most of them are complex and not easy to articulate.

Good grief, am I writer or not? Like any good book review (or book report, because let’s face it, Mrs. Dietrich, my second grade teacher got me started down this road), I’ll tell you a little about the plot.

Plum Kettle is awkward, shy, and really just wants to be invisible. This is especially hard since she weighs over 300 pounds. She works for a glossy teen magazine, answering the Dear Kitty advice letters sent to the editor-in-chief. Plum works from her laptop at her neighborhood cafe and barely socializes with anyone. She has scheduled a gastric bypass operation and is living a half-life waiting for the thin woman inside to emerge.

A few months before the surgery takes place she notices she’s being followed. An odd girl with bright colored tights and black boots begins to turn up everywhere Plum goes. It’s unnerving for Plum, who only understands that attention=ridicule. The mysterious girl leads her down the proverbial rabbit hole and everything Plum assumes about herself and the world is challenged. At the same time a shadowy force named Jennifer begins a worldwide assault on men who objectify and degrade women.

This last bit had me feeling more than a little euphoric (and a bit guilty about it). I see every day the way the world still belongs to men and how women still fight for equality. I hate that feminist is seen as a dirty word. In my opinion it feminist means that I want to be seen as a human being and not a pair of tits. Obviously the author was not suggesting we wage a guerrilla war on men–she is making a point.

Sarai Walker really puts the inequalities in your face, from fashion magazines to pornography. She is unflinching and unapologetic of her descriptions of their graphic, brutal nature. But in being so blunt, she offers this about sexual objectification of women: “You need to face it… too many women look away… they close their eyes.”

This is a valid point. While women have made tremendous strides towards equality we still aren’t truly free. Sure we can vote, join the military, and pretty much work in any field we choose. (At least in this country.) But there is a billion dollar beauty industry that has women sold on what we need to wear, how we should look, and what is appropriate behavior. Men and women hold women to a higher standard–it is much less acceptable for a woman to be fat, hairy, or god forbid, bald. And if she expresses an opinion that isn’t popular? Good heavens, we need to crucify the bitch. True, these standards have been ubiquitous since the dawn of patriarchal society, but it’s the pink, bedazzled elephant in the corner wearing the stilettos and g-string that no one mentions.

And yet I am conflicted because humans also gravitate towards beauty. Is it wrong to take delight in something that pleases the eye? Am I a bad feminist because I love my Kate Spade sunglasses and getting pedicures? I think the point here is that we put too much value on the beautiful and the current ideal and not enough on people as human beings. According to the nearest fashion magazine I am not nearly thin enough, I don’t wear enough makeup or heels, and I am not hairless as a Barbie doll.

But how do we separate the two? Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living, but focusing on one specific kind of beauty sets us up to fail. It’s easy to end with platitudes like “be kind to others,” and “look beyond the surface.” I certainly don’t follow those every day. I make unfair judgments all too often. Perhaps being mindful as we move forward is the key.

I know I don’t address all the points Sarai Walker articulates so beautifully in her book. I apologize if my thoughts are scattered or disjointed. It’s too complex an issue and wrapped in so many conflicting thoughts and feelings.

But that is exactly what a good book is supposed to do–make you think.

You should read it.

Dear Committee Members: A Novel by Julie Schumacher

dear-committee-members

Let me start with this: Dear Committee Members has the best flap copy ever:

“Finally, a novel that puts the ‘pissed’ back in epistolary.”

I hadn’t been aware it had ever been there.  Regardless, this book had me laughing out loud from beginning to end, and squirming at the places in between.

Jay Fitger (who shall be referred to hereafter as Mr. Crankypants) is a Creative Writing professor at a small Midwest college. He is middle-aged, burnt-out, and disillusioned. The English Department is (as per usual) getting the shaft when it comes to funding and office space while the Economics Department is feted royally. His star grad student’s brilliance is being ignored, and his love life is in shambles. Sadly, these last two are the direct result of Mr. Crankypants’ antisocial behavior. It isn’t a coincidence that a porcupine’s ass graces the cover of this book.

The familiarity of the subject matter is given a fresh look through it’s delivery–the entire thing is written in the format of letters of recommendation (LOR). Anyone who has spent time in higher education (whether as professor or student) is aware of the ubiquitous nature of the LOR. Julie wrote a sassy article about it for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In this article she demonstrates the declining usefulness of these letters, even pointing out that she has on more than one  occasion received and opened a LOR she herself had written.

Julie quite remarkably uses a series of LORs to give a view into the frustrations and absurdities of Mr. Crankypants’ life in academia. If it weren’t so funny it would be quite sad. Especially considering that most of the time (I suspect) LORs often go unread. They are a requirement for grad school and often first jobs, but the formulaic nature of such things leaves little room for creativity or imagination. At least that is what one would expect. Mr. Crankypants puts forth evidence to the contrary.

Julie Schumacher is a Creative Writing professor at the University of Minnesota. She was also my Creative Writing professor way back in 199-none-of-your-business. She dedicated this book to her students, which makes me feel a little better since I am 99% sure she wrote me a letter of recommendation once. Hence, all the squirming.

Now that I think about it, this whole review is an LOR of sorts, isn’t it?

Rock on, Julie!