#CBR7 Review #126: If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Sometimes, my YA reads are self-selected, and other times, students encourage me to read books that will help me enter conversations with them. Gayle Forman’s If I Stay falls into the latter category. I didn’t know if I would like the book or not, and I certainly did not plan to see the movie without reading the book first. One of my students chose this for her book report last fall and recommended it to me. So I decided it was high time I pick it up.

If I Stay focuses on Mia, a high school senior with a loving family and bright future. That all gets wiped out in a snowy car accident that changes everything. With her life on the line, Mia experiences an out-of-body existence and watches herself as if from a distance, witnessing her anxious family and friends, and a host of deadly injuries that may end her life. Ultimately, Mia has to decide if she is going to stay or let herself die.

If I Stay was interesting to read as a Christian. Since I do believe in eternity, I was intrigued by the more agnostic aspects of death that this novel presented. I also wonder how I would react if I was having to make a choice about fighting for my life or letting go and dying.

From a novel aspect, though, I just didn’t know how to react. The family seems a bit too perfect, and at times, the backstory got a little boring. The relationship was, while somewhat realistic, a bit too dwelt-upon. I did not care for the character of Adam; I was far more interested in Mia’s cello career. And maybe I’m just a cynical adult, but sometimes, I have a hard time taking young love too seriously. Overall, If I Stay was interesting, even if it wasn’t perfect.

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#CBR7 Review #125: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

One of my students read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild for her book review and oral report this last spring and raved about it. I’ve had several friends recommend it to me, and I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I thought that summer vacation would be an excellent time to finally break into Wild. I’m honestly really sad that I didn’t read it a lot sooner.

When Wild opens, a 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed is in the process of losing her boots while in the middle of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s an apt metaphor for her life at the moment. Her mother’s death from cancer has unmoored her family completely. Her divorce is finalized after a series of poor choices. And she has dabbled in heroin. In short: she’s a complete mess. On a trip from South Dakota to her home in Minnesota, she discovers a guidebook to the Pacific Crest Trail and develops an idea. She spends a year planning, and then, in 1995, she finds herself hiking from California to Oregon in too-small boots and a too-big backpack. She encounters a series of misadventures that will test her courage, her mettle, and her very being.

While I am not a hiker or a reader of memoirs, I loved this book with every fiber of my being. Strayed is a compelling narrator, and perhaps my lack of familiarity with the PCT or backpacking in general made me more sympathetic to her. I can understand feeling like an idiot, and I wanted her to succeed. Witnessing the progression of her mental state from helpless to desolate to fighting to agency is inspiring and wonderful. I did a lot of self-reflection while I read, and I am the better for it. Maybe I won’t hike the PCT, but I can think about my choices and challenge myself more to things that make me uncomfortable. I think that Wild is on the shortlist of favorite for CBR7.

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#CBR7 Review #124: Eating Wildly by Ava Chin

I’m in the midst of reading for my Fall Composition class, and when I heard about Ava Chin’s Eating Wildly, I was intrigued by the concept of foraging. Would it be a survival skills book? A how-to in wild plants, herbs, fruits, and lore? Or would it be more dystopian in nature—a sort of book that explains how someone like Katniss Everdeen could eke out a living in a ruined landscape?

As it turns out, no. Chin’s book is a memoir in food. Eating Wildly documents an urban woman’s connection with nature and family through her foraging habits and commune with nature. Chin is the child of a single mother and no real connection to her birth father. Her grandparents have been influential in raising her, and it is through them that she learns about the wild plants, greens, and fruits that grow in Queens, where she was raised. The book goes back and forth in time, documenting her childhood, uncertain adulthood, and movement to the present moment, in which she learns to reconcile her past, her longings, and her aspirations in order to be a fulfilled individual. There are recipes and medicinal treatments for foragers, including a wild greens pie and pain relievers.

Eating Wildly was not at all what I expected, but that did not make the book any less enjoyable. Chin is an engaging storyteller, and her unique angle as a forager made her memoir unexpected and less full of the tropes that sometimes populate nonfiction genres. I do have one serious complaint, however: SO MANY MUSHROOMS. I am not a mushroom person at all. As in, I believe the world is divided into two types: those who love mushrooms and those who hate mushrooms. I had the good fortune of marrying a man who also hated mushrooms. And so we live in harmony. But still: reading about mushrooms was a bit icky for me. That doesn’t lessen my overall enjoyment, however.

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#CBR7 Review #123: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I’ve never thought consciously about public shaming, but I’ve seen its effects on the internet, and seen an alarming increase in the incidents occurring. One actually came to my university campus. I won’t mention names, but you can probably get a result via Google. A doctoral student in a humanities department (not mine) teaching a freshman-level gen-ed course was discussing the Rawles principle and current social issues that violated it. A student brought up bans on gay marriage, and she affirmed the student for the proficiency of the example. A different student came up to her to express his concerns about not getting a chance to dissent. When she explained that it was not a debated exercise and proceeded to engage the student, she noticed that he was taping her—with his phone. She asked him to stop, and he did. About a week later, a tenured professor in a different department from hers and mine and no actual professional relationship with her proceeded to name her and shame her on his personal blog, calling her a homosexual-lover and liberal and defier of university values (hint: I graduated from a not-secular university). And that’s when the trolls came out in droves.

This woman received death threats on her blog, on her professional email address, and in her physical mailbox. She was told that she should be raped, tortured, murdered, and other sorts of graphic details I shudder to think about. My university took a long time to respond. She eventually transferred to a university that had a previous issue with sexual harassment (oh, the irony). The professor was relieved of his teaching duties and told he could only come to campus when he notified the university and could be escorted by campus safety. He is suing the university citing “freedom of speech” on his personal blog. Of course, he failed to mention in one of the emails that he sent to the provost or dean (I forget now) that the male student who recorded the teacher was his advisee. And he is claiming that he is the victim of a liberal agenda. Of course. I’ll be highly interested to see how this turns out.

So it was with great fascination and horror that I read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson begins with a theft of his Twitter identity and the shaming of the thieves, and he discusses incidents in which social media has been used to shame individuals for seeming wrongs, whistle-blowing incidents, or evidence of fraud. How and why shaming has been occurring is of great interest to Ronson’s study. The incidents he describes in great detail are all too familiar: a plagiarized article; a photo posted on Facebook that leads to a public shaming and loss of job, reputation, and life; and a Twitter-fueled shaming in which there is no recovering a public persona. Ronson concludes that at the moment, there is no conclusion—we’re in the middle of a vigilante society, and that vigilante is the Internet.

I greatly enjoyed this read. I was horrified by what I read. And it got me to thinking about my own life on social media. I’ve been rethinking my public persona carefully. What do my profile pictures say about me? Do I swear on my Facebook feed? (actually, no, or my mother would get on my case about it) Will an employer not hire me for wearing earrings? (yes, that thought *has* crossed my mind) I’ll tell you this, though: ain’t no way I’m getting on Twitter. Ever.

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#CBR7 Review #122: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

I have to confess, I’m a casual reader of mysteries at best. I do enjoy the genre, when I find a good mystery that I love. But sometimes I just forget to read them. When I was browsing my library the other day (and in my household, that’s only a day that ends in y), there was a display featuring Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels. I thought, “Why not?” So I decided that my Fourth of July vacation week would be a perfect time to enjoy the first mystery, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. And enjoy it I did.

Flavia de Luce is a budding chemist and detective trapped in an 11-year-old girl’s body in 1950. Her mother Harriet died when she was a toddler, and her father and aloof older sisters keep to themselves. Flavia therefore cooks up concoctions to keep herself from being bored to distraction. Her specialty is poisons, including a poison-ivy lipstick she gives to her sister Ophelia. One morning, a crow lands on the family doorstep, dead, with a stamp speared through its beak. And then, she wanders through the garden to find a man dying in the cucumber patch. He whispers, “Vale!” and then dies, leaving her with a mystery on her hands.

I definitely found the novel entertaining and enjoyable. Flavia is a bit of a brat, but she’s endearing and delightful at the same time. Flavia’s bluntness and doggedness make her a heroine to root for, even if she’s a bit immature at times (but understandable for someone who is still a child). I am looking forward to reading more of the mysteries, as I found the mystery to be well crafted and engaging.

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#CBR7 Review #121: Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes

After reading Jewell Parker Rhodes’ most excellent Ninth Ward, I was excited to learn that her newest children’s novel, Bayou Magic, was released this year. So I quickly requested it from my library and devoured it on my train ride to my in-laws’ house. I’ve come to decide that Ms. Rhodes is one of my new favorite children’s book authors. She is a terrific writer with incredible capabilities in character development and mythology construction.

Bayou Magic takes place in the bayous of Louisiana, in more remote locations than New Orleans. Maddy is our heroine this time. The youngest of five sisters, she’s been summoned to spend the summer with her Grandmère, an otherworldly and respected elderwoman in her neighborhood. There, Maddy learns about her visions and the things that make her “different” from her family. She discovers hints that she may be able to discover a mermaid. And she has visions of a great disaster that threatens the beauty of the bayou she has come to love. There, Maddy must learn to become the heroine she has always dreamed of being, if she is to save others and herself.

Once again, Rhodes excels at depicting female familial relationships, the magic of Louisiana mythology, and the power of a young woman who loves her family and her neighborhood, whether structural or natural. She depicts scenes and relationships of great complexity that are both touching, humorous, and sweet (without being saccharine). This is definitely another must-read. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to devour the rest of Rhodes’s oeuvre.

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#CBR7 Review #120: Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

A few years back, I was browsing the children’s display at Barnes and Noble (in other words: a day that ends in y), and I noticed a book about Hurricane Katrina that had just won the Coretta Scott King Award. That book was Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ninth Ward, and it sounded intriguing. I’ve not read a lot of fiction about Hurricane Katrina, just a collection of poetry by Katie Ford (which, by the way is excellent. Check out Colosseum if you can). I can hardly believe it’s been ten years already, but I know there’s still so much to process about what happened.

Ninth Ward takes place in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Our protagonist is twelve-year-old Lanesha, a smart young lady who lives with Mama Ya-Ya, a fierce and compassionate midwife. Lanesha’s mother died in childbirth at the age of 17; her blood relatives have eschewed her. Mama Ya-Ya becomes her sole family, and it is Mama Ya-Ya who encourages her to understand the visions that she has, along with the ghosts of New Orleans that haunt their neighborhood. When a storm appears on the horizon, Lanesha must gather her resources and reserves to survive the coming catastrophe ahead.

This was a beautiful, heartbreaking book. Rhodes is an excellent writer—you understand the realness of the characters, the devastation of the flooding in the Ninth Ward, and the thrill of surviving a disaster. I definitely teared up in a few spots. Lanesha is exactly the kind of character you want to root for. This book is for more than just children, for sure. I highly recommend it.

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