Saturday, July 22, 2017

Falling into Place by Amy Zhang

Liz Emerson is a terrible person. Absolutely awful.

In Amy Zhang's Falling into Place, Liz has decided that she has made enough of a mess of this world and it's time for her to go. As she meticulously plans her suicide, she has three rules:

First, it would be an accident. Or it would look like one.
Second, she would do it in a month. Well, three weeks.
And three, she would do it somewhere far away. She wanted a stranger to find her body, so no one she loved would see her broken.

Liz is a seventeen-year-old junior and one of the most popular girls at school. She has spent years cultivating her popularity and achieving it through any means necessary. The list running through her mind of all the people's lives she has ruined to secure her popularity, to maintain it, or just because she could is painfully long. It's painful even to Liz. She hates what she has become, what she has done to the people around her, even the people she loves and never meant to hurt.

Some nights, Liz looked back and counted the bodies, all those lives she had ruined simply by existing. So she chose to stop existing.

She hated what she was and didn't know how to change.

Liz is desperate. She knows she is an awful person, but she doesn't seem to know how to fix what she has done. She feels that the world will be a better place without her in it. What she doesn't know is how differently the people around her feel. Certainly, the hospital waiting area is filled with drama-seeking classmates who aren't really her friends, but her two closest friends, her mother, and a boy she ruined freshman year are also there praying she will survive.

I really liked this book. It was a very quick read and it kept my interest. Two of the most interesting aspects of this book are the time line and the narrator. The time line jumped around quite a bit- it begins on the day of Liz's suicide, but then it bounces between counting down a few months before, a few days before, and a few minutes before the crash. None of it is in order and I felt like that added to the intensity. We learn about Liz and why she is doing what she is doing bits at a time. If it were all laid out chronologically I don't think it would have been as interesting.

Adding to the intrigue is the question of who is telling us this story? It is someone who has been with Liz her whole life, someone who has seen her at her most vulnerable, someone who knows Liz better, possibly, than she knows herself. This may be my favorite narration technique. I was confused at first, but when it dawned on me, I loved it.

I can see how some readers may be concerned that this book excuses, or-more frighteningly- encourages, the use of suicide to atone for the horrible things someone has done. I don't see that. When I read this book, I see that the people around Liz are affected by her decision in ways she doesn't foresee. I see a distressed young woman who doesn't recognize all the options before her. She need help, but she doesn't know how to ask for it. I think when readers join Liz on her journey, those options are more obvious to them than they are to the main character. I think this book gives insight into the life of someone who needs to speak up and maybe by reading this book, it will help the reader speak up, to seek help.

If you or someone you know needs help, please speak up. If you don't know who to ask or you don't know what to say, please know that there are people who want to help you.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Crisis Text Line
text LISTEN to 741-741

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

In The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick, Arthur Pepper is a lonely, nearly 70-year-old widower of one year. He is stuck in his routines, wearing the same kind of clothes every day, eating the same kind of breakfast at the same time every day. He finally decides it is time to sort through his wife's belongings and find the right place to donate them. Perhaps a cat charity? When Arthur stumbles upon a charm bracelet he has never seen, he becomes curious about the life his wife lead before they married. This curiosity leads him on a journey to discover not only his wife, but also himself. He questions his routines and why he does the things he does. Why does he continue to wear clothes he doesn't like? And how did he allow so much distance to grow between himself and his grown children? When he finally allows himself to ask the questions, he is surprised by the answers.

This was a sweet book and I was just as curious as Arthur when he began his journey. I would say that the first 75% of this book was very interesting, but the climax and last few chapters left me wondering what happened with the writing. It seemed to wrap up quickly and the feel of the story changed. By the last few pages I felt this had been corrected and was left with a satisfactory ending. This was a quick read with lovely characters, some of whom I would have liked to get to know better. Overall, this was a nice book, perhaps good for a little light summer reading.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What I've Seen- The Handmaid's Tale

Nearly three years ago I read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I liked it, I was horrified by it, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. Today I finished watching Season One of the Hulu version of this book and I now know how I feel about it. I love it. And I'm still horrified. Starring Elizabeth Moss, we watch as women are subjugated to positions of singular purpose- wife, maid, child bearer. Women no longer have the right to own property, work, read, write or make decisions about their own bodies. This is all under the control of a new theocratic government that has displaced the previous rule of law.

Fertile women are rounded up to become handmaids for infertile couples. After severe training that requires absolute humility and meekness, they are sent to live in households with the hopes of countering the drastically reduced fertility rate.

This show is so hard to watch. I admit to covering my eyes and peeking through my fingers at least once per episode. When the introduction from Hulu warns that it is for "Mature Audiences Only" they are not kidding. Don't even have this on while your children might accidentally walk through the room. Beyond the scenes that you don't want children to see is the repellent subject matter. A government that refuses women any rights at all, that kills any objector or anyone the government deems sinful, that holds absolute power is something to fear. I found myself wondering how possible this actually could be. Could a rogue group stage a coup that could actually overturn the American government? What would be necessary to enslave a entire gender? Wouldn't there be places to hide and how long would the resistance last? How would people fight back?

Margaret Atwood, who makes a cameo appearance in Episode One, was heavily involved in the screenwriting and production process. The show has so many more details than the book and explores story lines that were not pursued in the novel and it is comforting to know this was all done with the author's approval. If you haven't read this book yet, it is time. And then you need to watch this show. Don't watch first- read first.

And then wait with me on pins and needles for Season Two!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Working through the tall stack of books on my bedside table, I finally made it to The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. With alternating view points and timelines, one featuring Molly set in 2011 and another a little girl with an ever-changing name starting in 1929, the reader experiences the life of two different orphans. Molly has been shuttled between foster homes since she was nine and has recently gotten into some legal trouble. The other little girl, named Niamh (pronounced Neeve), then Dorothy, then Vivian, loses her entire family in a fire. As new immigrants from Ireland, there is no other family to take her in and so steps in the Children's Aid Society. Their solution is to ship train loads of children to the midwest, placing them with any family that will take them. While well-intended, I'm sure, this didn't always lead to happy lives for these children.

As these two orphans with widely different ages come together they each find someone who understands the other's experience and perspective, someone to whom they can finally tell their stories. These words spoken by one accurately describe the other, no matter than they were spoken decades apart:

I feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary. So I am learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel. I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.

This heartbreak is woven throughout the whole book making the reader wish she could reach out and help these girls.I find it so difficult to understand the cruelty in this world and how anyone can treat another person so poorly. And yet, the story of orphan trains is real. This was all based on actual events and the author includes references in the back of the book.

I enjoyed reading this book, even if it did make me sad. The only complaint I had was that the ending felt rushed. The story progresses at a moderately slow pace when suddenly in the last twenty pages or so, it is all wrapped up and put away. Not everything is resolved and much is just skipped over. An open ending provides the opportunity for the reader to come to her own conclusions, but it is also a bit unsatisfying. Still, I liked it and would recommend it.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

What I've Heard- Furiously Happy

Back in March, I read Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson and I really enjoyed it. I happened to be laid up on the couch and it was the perfect distraction. It is funny and sad and encouraging and just what I needed at the time. This week I listened to the audio version and just like her audio version of Let's Pretend This Never Happened, it was read by the author. I really think that makes all the difference in an audio book- the author understands his or her intention so much better than a random professional reader and this is, in my opinion, especially important with a memoir.

I love Jenny Lawson. I love her humor and I love her ability to be candid about her mental illness. (What was that I was just saying about mental illness being a running theme in my books lately?) She doesn't mind admitting that she struggles and she is open about the ways she deals with her illness.

Jenny knows what it is to fight off her own demons and she knows that some days are harder than others.

There is plenty of absurdity in this book (killer possums in the pool, murderous swans by the pond) and it perfectly lightens the darker, more serious moments.

Jenny talks a lot about her mental illness and about how she works to protect herself from herself. She explains her experiences and she attempts to help people who don't suffer from mental illness understand how hard it can be.

 She says a lot about the medication she takes and the hours she spends in therapy. She encourages her readers to remember that "depression lies" and to reach out for help when they need it.

This is a wonderful book. It goes a little off the rails at times, but don't we all? I loved listening to this book. I would love to meet Jenny some day. She doesn't do a lot of appearances, but maybe someday I'll get lucky. Until then, here is my new goal in life. I hope you'll make it yours, too.