Saturday, May 16, 2015

Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone

Samantha is the envy of most of her junior class. She's pretty and she's part of The Crazy Eights, the most popular group of girls in the school. From the outside, everything looks perfect, but what the rest of the class and even her best friends don't know is the silent struggles in Samantha's mind that are threatening to take her under. In Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone, Samantha has OCD, but unlike the compulsive hand washing that most people envision, Samantha's obsessions are mostly unseen; the dark thoughts she has are frightening and she can't turn them off. She fights everyday to stay in control and to make sure the friends she has had since pre-school never know, especially because even a new hair style they don't like can lead to severe criticism. When she asks them to start calling her Sam, they make it plain that is completely unacceptable. Her therapist has encouraged her to find new friends, but stepping outside of the Crazy Eights would be truly crazy. When she meets Caroline, however, she feels she may have found someone really special.

Caroline understands her and Sam isn't afraid to be herself. When Caroline offers to introduce her to something that may change her life, Sam is intrigued. Caroline takes her to Poet's Corner, a hidden room where a secret poetry club meets during lunch. Sam has never written poetry before, but once she begins, it pours out of her. The friends she meets there and the things she learns about herself really do change her life.

I genuinely loved this book. A girl in high school who is afraid not to fit in with the popular girls sounds like the worn out premise of thousands of mediocre YA books, but Stone does much, much more with this one. We are introduced to the terrifying nature of Sam's disorder from the very first chapter and it becomes clear to the reader that this book has something special. When Sam's mother tries to help talk her away from the thought that currently has her in it's grips, she offers this:

"How many thoughts does the brain automatically deliver in a single day?" Mom moves on to facts to help me center myself.
"Seventy thousand," I whisper as tears splash onto my jeans.
"That's right. Do you act on seventy thousand thoughts a day?"
 I shake my head.
"Of course you don't. This thought was one in seventy thousand. It's not special."
"It's not special."

Then she reminds her:

"Whatever you're thinking, it's okay. It doesn't mean anything about you. Got it?"

This struggle is heartbreaking to watch, but it is wonderfully handled.

I enjoyed watching Sam as she discovers a new side of herself within Poet's Corner. It is an interesting thing to consider how we allow ourselves to be pigeon-holed in high school, either by our friends or simply by our limited experiences. If Sam had never pushed herself to try writing, she may never have discovered one of her greatest gifts. I also enjoyed watching as she realizes that the person she once was isn't who she wants to be any longer. The topic of toxic friendships is one I think most of us who have survived middle school and high school can understand. Unfortunately, these types of relationships can even develop in adulthood when we believe we have outgrown them. The actors may be different, but the themes remain the same and reading about a young woman moving on can be inspirational for readers for any age. 

Finally, one of my favorite aspects of this book was all the poetry that the characters shared in Poet's Corner.  I have never considered myself a fan of poetry, but the pieces in Every Last Word are wonderful. I would love to share some of it here with you, but the context is so important that I really just want you to read the book yourself and soak it all in as it comes. 

One last note about this book: With mental illness such a significant part of this book, the author took great care in her Author's Note at the end to explain all the research she did to be sure to characterize this type of OCD correctly. She also makes it very clear that Sam's treatment is overseen by a qualified therapist and her parents and that any of Sam's improvements are due to her continued treatment. She also provides resources for readers that know someone who is or are themselves experiencing any mental health concerns and strongly encourages them to seek help. Mental illness is real and can be fatal. I will share the resources found in the book here. Please use them if this is something you need. I want all of my SmartGirls to be cared for and as healthy as possible.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Landline is written by the author of eleanore & park, Rainbow Rowell and it came highly recommended by several of the book blogs that I follow. It was also the choice of the online book club I've joined. I was shocked to see it on the shelf at the library and I snatched it up as quick as I could while looking over my shoulder ready to fight someone for it if necessary.

Landline features thirty-seven-year-old Georgie McCool (how great is that character name?), wife of Neal and mother to Alice, 7, and Noomie, 4. She is also a writer on a very successful sitcom and is just about to have the most important meeting of her career. Unfortunately, this meeting means she must cancel the trip to visit Neal's family in Omaha for Christmas. Neal is shocked when she announces this the night before they are set to leave, but not nearly as surprised as Georgie is when Neal decides he and their daughters will simply go without her. Hurt and worried that her marriage is failing, Georgie spends the next evening at her mother's house. When she attempts to call Neal from the old, yellow landline phone she had as a teenager (her cell phone is on the fritz), they have a very confusing conversation. It takes her a few days to understand, but Georgie has somehow found a connection to the Neal she knew just before they were married. Georgie in the present is able to talk with Neal of the past. Can she use this connection to fix her marriage even before the problems begin? Should she?

I really liked this book. It was an extremely quick read for me- I started on Sunday and finished Monday evening. We are able to hear about Georgie's current life as well as watch her courtship with Neal via flashbacks. This book is a conversation about what marriage really is. When Hollywood ends the story with "And they all lived happily ever after...", we all know there is more to the story. Or at least we say we do. Some of what Hollywood has done to make real life difficult, beyond all the impossible to achieve standards of beauty, is to tell us that if our lives, our marriages aren't straight off the screen of a romantic comedy we must be doing something wrong. Those grand gestures are lovely, but typically only sustainable for the two-hour run time of the film. Real life, real marriages, involve negotiating household chores, coming home from work tired to kids that need attention and leaving very little time for romance with one's spouse, trying to fit everything in while remembering who and what is most important. In Landline, we watch as Georgie realizes that she has let her marriage flounder a bit and we also get to see her remember all the things that made her fall in love with Neal in the first place.

Neal didn't take Georgie's breath away. Maybe the opposite. But that was okay- that was really good, actually, to be near someone who filled your lungs with air.

I adore that this book highlights the value of what is real rather that just what sounds the most romantic.

"Nobody's lives just fit together," Neal said. "Fitting together is something you work at. It's something you make happen- because you love each other."

And Georgie's marriage is important to her. She loves Neal, but she knows things have gone wrong.

When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems.

Of course, another thing that Hollywood doesn't usually get right is that having a family complicates things, but it adds so much as well.

Kids took a fathomless amount of time and energy....And they took it first.
...When Georgie and Neal were smiling at each other, it was almost always over Alice and Noomie's heads.
Having kids sent a tornado through your marriage, then made you happy for the devastation. Even if you could rebuild everything just the way it was before, you'd never want to.

This book was also really funny, but that should come as no surprise to anyone who has read Rainbow Rowell. I love the bit when Georgie is bra shopping and wishes she had a landline to her own younger self so she could tell her how lovely she was. And if Rowell didn't have my heart before, she certainly earned it with the references to Doctor Who, Harry Potter and A Wrinkle in Time

This was a great, quick, fun read; it would be perfect for the upcoming vacation season. However, there was also plenty of meat to it. I expect it would lead to some very interesting book club discussions. I know there are a lot of quotes in this post, but I just couldn't do without any of them. I hope you'll pick up a copy of Landline and I'd love to hear what you think about it. 

Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White

In Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White, Liberty is trying desperately to care for her eight-year-old sister, Billie. Liberty herself is only twelve and it has been a very difficult few months. When Billie and Liberty's mom dies suddenly, they don't know what they will do. When the father they haven't seen or heard from for years shows up with his camper and the promise of adventure, they hope that everything will work out as they had always dreamed. Unfortunately, their need for bravery is not done yet. When the two girls are left alone at a dilapidated old gas station in the middle of nowhere, Liberty is determined to get them safely back home. Her avid interest in animal behavior inspires her to adopt the survival strategies of all the different species she has studied.

Survival, and avoiding anyone she thinks might try to hurt or separate the two girls, becomes more adventure than they had planned. Secretly stowing away in two different vehicles, sleeping in lounge chairs at a hotel pool, running from the bullying older brother of a boy who tries to help them, rats... these things all keep the girls on their toes. Along the way, they cross paths with so many different characters, most of whom are assigned interesting descriptive names by Liberty: Star Wars Kid, Tattoo Guy, Pirate Doctor, Lavender Lady, Caterpillare Eyebrows, Apron Lady, Gray Guy. These are the things that help the reader remember that Liberty is only twelve-years-old and doing her best in an impossible situation.

This book stressed me out. I was so worried about what would happen to these poor little girls. The anxiety and pressure that Liberty felt was well translated to the reader. Even before her mother dies, Liberty is too aware of their family situation and their financial struggles. The sense of responsibility she feels toward her sister is really too much for a child, but perhaps the value of this is in relating that not all children live idyllic lives. On television and in movies, everything may appear to work out easily for the characters and maybe a book like this is necessary for children to understand that everyone doesn't have it better than they do. In that respect, it was successful.