Looking for Alaska- John Green

I “read” this one on audiobook.  Prior to the last couple weeks, my only experience with audiobooks has been a few David Sedaris books my husband and I would take with us on the long drive from Arizona to Oklahoma.  They really helped the time pass by more quickly and more pleasantly.  It did not occur to me to listen to audiobooks during my pretty short commute until I read about some other bloggers doing it.  There are some flaws, though, in my audiobook choosing… If I had checked Looking for Alaska out in book form, I’d have been done with it in 2 or 3 days, I’m sure.  Instead it took me ten days to finish and that included some weekend listening in bed during which I fell asleep and missed a chapter of the book.  Oops.  But the voice acting on this book was pretty awesome (the characters had Alabama accents or old man voices or whatever, it was great!) and they even read the acknowledgments (I love acknowledgments).

Anyways… Looking for Alaska features Miles “Pudge” Halter, a high school junior who leaves his lonely, boring life in Florida to “seek the great perhaps” at boarding school in Alabama.  At boarding school, Pudge finally makes friends and falls in love with the girl down the hall, Alaska Young.  Something bad happens, leaving Pudge searching for answers to life’s most pressing questions: where do we go when we die, how do we escape human suffering, etc.

As with my other encounter with John Green, I loved his characters.  Green creates teenagers you will love.  They do stupid teenage stuff (drink, smoke, kiss the wrong girls), but they are smart and funny and really perceptive.  In short, they are like REAL teenagers.  Also, Pudge’s religious studies teacher, Dr. Hyde, might have been one of my favorites in this book.  He was one of those hard ass teachers who truly loved teaching and connecting with students.  My favorite sort of teacher.

The only real flaw I thought it had was that it could have ended a bit sooner and more ambiguously than it did.  We really did not need all the explanation of what Pudge learned from his journey at the end.  I enjoyed what he had to say, but perhaps would have liked the ends left loose.  It seems it would have been more appropriate to end this left with the fact that there are no good, stable, or certain answers to life’s big questions.  Overall, though, this is a great book and I would definitely recommend it.

Mini-Reviews: Part 2

A continuation of the mini-reviews of my January reading.  Part one is here.

The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman

You know how Homocide is like a gritty Law and Order?  I was told that The Magicians was a gritty Harry Potter.  Gritty?  Yes.  Harry Potter?  Vaguely.  The story is about Quentin, an incredibly intelligent young man who gets accepted into a secret magic college.  He learns some magic and then graduates and is left, like many young adults, wandering drunk and aimlessly into adulthood.  He and his magician buddies experiment in inter-world travel and end up in the magical, Narnia-esque land of Fillory.  Adventures of a gritty and not-so-heroic and not-so-happily-ever-after nature ensue.  When I started The Magicians, I complained to my husband that it was paced too slowly and that I wasn’t really into it.  And then immediately after I got so absorbed by the book that I could not put it down, finished it quickly, and decided to go get the next book from the library.  The Magician King was also paced slowly, but was really absorbing.  Wait these out, they are so worth it.  If you like fantasy, but also intelligent and funny, books, read these.  Grossman has a way with words that is just delightful and amusing… I wish I had saved some of my favorite quotes to illustrate why I kept laughing out loud while reading.  Also, I read a little of his blog (google it, if you need a sampling of his humor).  The dude can write.  Anyways, I am eagerly awaiting the next installment and the TV series that might come out of this, too.  And, by the by, these books have inspired me to actually read the Narnia books, since I seemed to have missed them as a child.

The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

I read The Hunger Games series over Christmas and had read that this trilogy was of a similar genre.  Ness’s series is really wonderful (and I would say it is even better thanThe Hunger Games)– intense and heartbreaking.  The premise of the books is that a boy, Todd, lives in a world of all males where everyone can hear one another’s thoughts, which are called “Noise.”  One day Todd comes across some strange things, silence and a girl.  The girl, Viola, and Todd go on to become major players in a war that threatens to destroy their entire planet.  There is a lot of meat on this bone.  Issues of maturity/coming of age, gender roles/equality, racial (well, interspecies) conflicts/equality, power, and violence/warfare all come into the story.  Perhaps the most important issue Ness brings up is the power of information or the Noise- how it unites people, divides people, and controls people.  If YA dystopia appeals to you, this is a must-read series.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I had seen good things about this book everywhere and enjoyed what little I had read of Rubin’s blog, so I decided to check out the book (after a loooong wait on the hold list at the library).  I have been thinking a lot in the last six months or so about ways in which to improve my quality of life, so I enjoyed that this book offered concrete examples of simple and straight-forward ways in which the author increased her own happiness without making any major life changes (no divorce, moving to India, religious conversion, or the like).  This book has inspired me to be a little more active in trying to make my own happiness, especially in the areas of physical health and also in organizing my clutter.  Her tip to tidy up 15 minutes every evening really helps smooth my mornings out… although I haven’t been perfect in following through with it.  The unhappiness in my life right now is largely career-related and Rubin was already so settled and happy in her career that her advice in that area wasn’t that helpful to me.  An interesting read for sure, but perhaps a bit overrated.  It may just be that I am not totally into self-help, but this was not as life-changing as I was led to believe it would be.

Mini-Reviews: Part One

Because I had not decided to blog until February, I did not post reviews of my January reads.  So in an effort to remember what I actually read this year, here are mini-reviews of some of January reads.

Between Sisters by Kristin Hannah

I picked this up because it was about the sister relationship.  I have two sisters and usually love books dealing with sisterhood.  This book wasn’t bad.  I am pretty sure I read it in two days.  It was, however, cheesy and the sister story wasn’t anything special.  There was estrangement, bad childhoods, improbable romance, cancer, single moms… cliched for sure.  Sometimes, however, cheesy hits the spot and in the few days of rest I got between holiday family time and going back to work, this was what I wanted.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

I’d heard many good things about John Green and decided to start with this book, as the premise sounded interesting.  Also, the library cover of this book was really cool, a hologram or something.  The book is written with the two authors alternating chapters in the first person.  Each author writes from the point of view of a boy named Will Grayson.  Green’s Will Grayson lives by the rule of keeping his mouth shut, thereby isolating himself, and is often in the shadow of his larger-than-life gay best friend, Tiny Cooper.  Levithan’s Will Grayson is depressed, gay, and is also pretty isolated.  The two Wills meet randomly and the boys come into the own as a result of the chain of events that follow this meeting.  The best part of this book is the characters.  Both Wills are funny and easy to relate to.  Tiny Cooper is a really interesting and funny character, too.  My least favorite part of the book was the ending, which felt a bit silly and contrived.  Although, the characters were so fun, I will definitely try other books by these authors.  (In fact I am in the middle of another John Green book right now!)

First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung

For some reason, I decided I really wanted to read something about the genocide in Cambodia.  I was craving something serious and historical.  This book is the memoir of a woman who was a small child during the civil war/genocide/Pol Pot years in Cambodia.  The story was told from the perspective of a child living through extremely distressing situations, which made for some moving scenes.  For example, the descriptions of starvation and fear and social withdrawal and loss were quite well done.  I left this book having learned something and would like to know even more about Cambodia.  I’d say that is a successful memoir.

The DNF Files: Angelica by Arthur Phillips

I hate not finishing a book.  Even more, perhaps, I hate trying to slog through something when there are many good books out there waiting for me to pick them up.  So, I try to cut my losses.  Especially when the book is from the library and therefore cost nothing and has a due date.

My latest failed attempt to finish a book was Angelica by Arthur Phillips.  The interwebz tell me that this is a ghost story set in Victorian England and told from three perspectives.  That sounds fascinating, no?  Except I couldn’t even make it through the first character’s perspective.  The first point of view is that of Constance who is obsessed with her uterus.  The fact that a real live child issued from that uterus, the fact that her uterus can’t handle any more bebes, the fact that sex with her husband could kill her, the fact she fails as a woman because she can’t have bebes or pleasure her husband.  She was absolutely insufferable.  I don’t want to negate the trials of living with infertility or of living in a society where womanhood is defined by motherhood and sexual submission to one’s husband, but I also don’t want to read about a character who has nothing in her life or brain except her uterus.

Whether the ghost story/three points of view redeemed this book… I have no idea.  Perhaps they did.  This book gets really mixed reviews on the amazon, so I suppose it is a love it or hate it sort of book.  I will leave the loving vs. hating up to you, since I can’t trouble myself to finish this one.

Monday Memories: We Have Always Lived in the Castle- Shirley Jackson

I am planning on doing a weekly post called “Monday Memories” in which I talk about my book and reading memories, post about re-reads, or otherwise reflect on the literary life (that phrase makes me feel like such a snob, but I can’t think of a better way to put it).  Books have been a major force in my life and I’d like to take a little time to acknowledge the various ways in which reading has shaped me.

Shirley Jackson has been a favorite author of mine since my teenage years… I discovered Shirley Jackson the way (I assume) most people do- as a middle schooler reading the short story, “The Lottery.”  Coincidentally, a movie version of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was released around the same time we read “The Lottery” in school.  I used to fancy myself a fan of ghost stories, so I was pretty excited to watch The Haunting… I don’t think I knew going in that it was based on a book by Shirley Jackson or that it was the same Shirley Jackson who’d written the short story I’d loved in school.  I think that there was a “based on the book” credit in the opening, so watching the movie (which I remember as being not great, although it helped explain why Owen Wilson’s nose is so flat) inspired me to check out Jackson’s Haunting and at some point I made the connection that she was the writer of “The Lottery.”  I later went on to read all of her published work.

At some point in high school I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle and I was tickled to come across a few blog reviews which reminded me of how awesome Jackson was and inspired me to get my re-read on.  I decided to borrow the audiobook from the library, so that I could stop listening to radio commercials while I drive.

This story is creepy.  The narrator, Merrikat Blackwood, lives in relative seclusion with her older sister, Constance, and her elderly Uncle Julian… the rest of the Blackwoods are dead.  The Blackwoods are taunted and hated by the villagers for reasons that slowly come out as the book progresses.  This book offers a look into the mind of someone who is, at the very least, out of touch with reality.  At the same time, though, Merrikat is so very tied to the everyday (Today we neaten the house. Tuesday and Fridays I go to the village…etc) that her craziness sneaks up on you and fools you and you sympathize with her.  This is what Jackson excels at- twisting the everyday, the ordinary, and the usual into the creepy and disturbing.  That is exactly the sort of creepy that is worth reading and re-reading.

I am now compelled to go re-read all the Shirley Jackson I can find.  (Sadly, I think my mom got rid of all the books I left at her house during college and that I may have to rebuild my collection.)  If you have not read Shirley Jackson, I highly recommend you do.  She is a fabulous writer and I only wish she were more prolific!

What I Was- Meg Rosoff

Well, I just finished What I Was by Meg Rosoff and I find myself a bit underwhelmed.  I wanted this book to be great and it ended up being interesting, but not as great as I had expected.  On the one hand, there were lots of important/interesting topics in this book – gender, class, sexuality, coming of age/coming into one’s own, the passing of time – but on the other hand, I wasn’t really in love with the characters and I guessed the plot twist early on, spoiling the surprise for myself.

The plot: Our narrator, an upper middle class boy named Hilary, gets sent to his third boarding school and, while there, meets a boy, Finn, living in a shack by the sea without adults.  They become friends in secret, with Hilary sneaking off any chance he can get to see Finn.  Finn works hard; Hilary admires him.  Then their friendship become painfully public after the plot twist.  This is ultimately the story of a friendship and of adolescent identity formation.

The author was successful in making me think about issues of identity (particularly of the gender/sexuality/class sorts).  Hilary seems to just be floating, lost and bored, through life until he meets Finn.  Finn teaches Hilary masculinity, maturity, and independence.  Hilary is clearly disillusioned with his upper middle class lifestyle and embraces Finn’s (romanticized) hardscrabble life of subsistence.  Hilary feels a deep admiration of Finn, which almost borders on romantic feelings, though this book does not go there.  As a result of his encounters with Finn, then, Hilary’s gender, class, and sexuality are all challenged and in some ways drastically changed.  It was nice to see Hilary, the slacker rich boy, learn to care about something and grow from that caring.

However, Finn was pretty inaccessible as a character, as he rarely spoke and mostly worked hard.  It was hard for me to admire him as much as Hilary did and as a result it was more difficult to understand the enormity of the impact Finn had on Hilary’s life and identity.  Also, guessing the plot twist was disappointing and I got a little impatient with the story as a result.

It seems that I may have picked up the wrong Meg Rosoff book as I hear far more great things about How I Live Now (after I go back and re-read the review and comments that got What I Was onto my TBR list).  If the good parts of What I Was are present and improved upon in How I Live Now, then it would certainly be worth a shot.  This book, however, will not make my list of favorites.

P.S. In looking around the internet, I think this has been received as a YA book.  My library classified it as adult fiction and I could see reasons for shelving it in either category.  I think, however, that this is the sort of thing that might be more jarring and interesting to a younger person than myself (I am thinking in the 5th-8th grade range) and would be a very teachable book.