Saturday, November 14, 2015

After You, by Jojo Moyes

In After You, Jojo Moyes allows us to see what happens to her characters following the heartbreaking events detailed in her bestselling novel Me Before You. I hate spoilers, so if you haven't read Me Before You, you might want to stop reading now. And if you do stop reading now, I must insist you pick up Me Before You instead. Really, it's one of those books you just should read. And considering the film version is scheduled for release in the spring, you may want to get to know these characters soon. The actors starring in it only add to the excitement.

And if you have read it, you will most certainly want to know how things turned out for Louisa Clark. As you can imagine, it has been a difficult two years for Louisa. Though she has traveled some and attempted to live the life Will hoped she would live, she once again finds herself in a dead-end job that she hates and floundering more than a bit. When an unexpected teenager (aren't they all?) pushes into Louisa's life, she begins to feel she may finally have a purpose. Of course, the drama and difficulty that accompany said teenager add upset to Louisa's already troubled waters, but it also teaches her so much about herself.

I liked this book and revisiting loved characters is always a treat. It didn't quite have the heart that the first book had, but it was still very good. The theme that I most appreciate in both of these novels is the necessity for each of us to really live our lives. When Louisa is visiting Will's father, they have this conversation:

"My son was all about living, Louisa. I don't need to tell you that."
"That's the thing, though, isn't it?"
He waited.
"He was just better at it than the rest of us."
"You'll get there, Louisa. We all get there. In our own ways."

And much later, in a discussion with a new friend, he tells her:

"You think I don't know how that feels? There's only one response, and I can tell you this because I see it every day. You live. And you throw yourself into every thing and try not to think about the bruises."

These may be words we've heard a hundred times and a hundred different ways, but it bears repeating that we need to really live our lives and not just wait for the living to begin some day in the distant future. How much of our time do we spend just filling the hours, killing time? Sometimes it takes hearing from someone who is running out of time to shift our perspective just a bit.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy

In Dumplin' by Julie Murphy, Willowdean Dickson is happy. She has a best friend she loves and she is comfortable in her own skin, even if other people wouldn't be. She describes herself as "cashier, Dolly Parton enthusiast, and resident fat girl." She doesn't mind it and she doesn't worry if other people do. Well, most of the time. There are times we all feel insecure about ourselves and Will is no exception, but she tries not to let it get the best of her. 

What about having huge, bumpy thighs means that I need to apologize?

In the small town where Will lives, the annual beauty pageant is the center of the universe for six months out of the year. And it's the near center of Will's universe as her mother is the one who runs it. Will has never considered entering until she comes across a years-old blank registration form that her beloved recently deceased aunt had hidden away in a drawer. It breaks Will's heart to think that her Aunt Lucy wanted to enter, but didn't, and somehow it gives Will the courage to try for it herself.

Julie Murphy is from Texas and oh, does it show in her writing. She gets all the little traditions and bits of the landscape that other writers miss: the sweet tea, the manners, the traditions. There were bits in this book that felt like direct quotes from people I know.

A southern lady always puts up a fight when anyone else volunteers to do the cleaning.

I love that Murphy is able to bring all this flavor to her book without it feeling like a parody. She just gets it and it's so refreshing to read that. This may be the best quote in that vein:

There is no higher achievement for a southern woman that the ability to eat barbecue and walk away stain free.

Perhaps someday I'll be able to claim that achievement.

In addition to all the fantastic Texasness in this book is the way it speaks up for any young woman who feel insecure about herself. And really, isn't that every young woman? And not-so-young woman? It's important that we find out who we are, that we admit and understand our mistakes and that we become someone we want to be.

I've spent and entire day being so myself. Not a daughter, or a niece, or a token fat girl. Just Willowdean....But I'm tired of other people making me feel this way. I'm ready to make myself feel this way.

And when it came time for the swimwear competition, just as we've all experienced at the pool or on the beach or in the ghastly lighting of a dressing room while swimsuit shopping, Will has to face who she is and find away to be happy about it.

I may be uncomfortable, but I refuse to be ashamed.

That, I think, is my favorite quote of the year. Really.

Finally, I'll leave you with the epigraph Murphy chose to start us on Will's journey. It is truly sage advice:

Find out who you are and do it on purpose.
--Dolly Parton

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb

Another book I heard about at Texas Book Festival is Kissing in America by Margo Rabb. Eva is a super smart sophomore in high school who is carrying a lot of grief around with her since the sudden death of her father two years ago. She is also falling in love for the first time and learning that it isn't exactly like the love in the 118 romance novels she has read. Actually she is obsessed with romance novels, particularly the historicals, even though everyone around her gives her a hard time about it, especially her resolutely feminist mother. When the boy that Eva loves moves from where she lives in Brooklyn to Los Angeles, she devises the most elaborate road trip so that she can see him. Joining her is Annie, her even smarter best friend, who is focused only on winning The Smartest Girl in America, a new game show, and getting in to MIT, but who also has a guilty pleasure of absorbing all the trashy celebrity and reality TV gossip she can.

(She liked to read about "Stars--They're Just Like Us!" and molecular biology simultaneously.)

I like road trip books quite a lot because I enjoy the idea of seeing the country, or even the world, and learning about oneself at the same time. The first thing someone says to the girls on the first leg of their trip is how they have to try the chili in Cleveland, served over spaghetti. They think this sounds disgusting, but then the person says :

"Most people you know, they want to stay in their little house and not change nothing. But when you hit the road....Everything you ever thought about the world is wrong. That's why you gotta travel. I'm telling you this cause you're young. You got time. You gonna eat chili on spaghetti, right? You gonna see the world, right?"

This is good advice for anyone, road trip or not. We become so accustomed to our own lives that we forget there is a whole world out there we've never seen, so many things we've never known.

I was especially thrilled when the route took the girls through Tucson. We lived in Tucson for nine years and I can't tell you how much we loved it. When people ask if we'd ever go back, I always answer with, "In a heartbeat." Eva loves it as well.

I'd liked Texas's giant dome of a sky, it's rolling hills and endless endless endlessness; I'd liked Cleveland and Tennessee and the swirling scenery of every state we rode through-- but I fell in love with Tucson.

I know exactly what she means. Reading her describe it made my heart swell and it was so fun reading about all the landmarks she visits. It's how I imagine people who live or have lived in New York feel reading all the countless books set in New York. 

My favorite part of road trip novels is watching the characters grow and change as they near the end of their trip. Eva learns to stand up for herself and she decides to stop being embarrassed by her romance novels. She sees the people she knows in deeper dimensions and reaches deeper within herself as well. Particular to this book is the growth Eva makes in dealing with her grief. She is devastated by the loss of her father, but she finds new ways to deal with her pain. This was a cute book, but it also has practical applications that could be very useful to its readers.
Read it and start planning your next road trip. May I recommend Tucson?