Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (2011)

I spent a windy, icy Sunday afternoon re-reading Attachments by Rainbow Rowell. Upon finishing, I decided that this book is one of my favorite love stories: funny, touching, and romantic in equal measure. I dare you not to fall in love with Beth and Lincoln!

Attachments Cover

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Originally posted on May 14, 2016:

This is the fifth Rainbow Rowell book I have finished in less than two weeks. I think it is possible that I have moved from a fan of her work to a super-fan; a title I will proudly embrace. Since I have reviewed all of her books on this blog, I am giving her her own tag “Rainbow Rowell” so that other fans of her work can find all of my posts in one place. (Note: I purposely decided not to separate out her adult novels from her young adult novels since — speaking as the mother of a teenager — I believe them to be mild enough for teen audiences.)

Attachments is the story told from the point of view of Lincoln, a twenty-something man in Nebraska living in 1999, who is deeply lonely and unable to find a path to happiness. After weathering a staggering heartbreak in college, Lincoln largely closed off from socializing, choosing to focus on school and work. After finishing grad school, he moved home to live with his mother (a delightfully funny hippie) and slowly let go of the things in life that gave him happiness: friends, dating, sports…in short, fun.

It is only after taking a job at a newspaper office that has just upgraded its staff to computers that Lincoln’s life slowly starts to open up. Night after night, Lincoln comes to work well after the reporters are gone in order to read all of their email and report to the boss who is misusing their work-site internet access. Without having to build relationships with his actual colleagues, Lincoln is able to build fictional ones with them; coming to know them through their emails and web searches.

It is the close relationship between two female employees at the paper that most intrigues Lincoln and, even well past the point of propriety, he finds himself drawn to their email conversations. Lincoln comes to “know” Jennifer and Beth as funny, loving, kind women and he comes to learn of their most intimate moments: loves, losses, and heartbreaks while never once even seeing their faces. He longs to meet them, but feels trapped. Getting to know them after reading their emails for almost a year, he argues to  himself, would be starting out their friendship with a huge lie: like making money “off insider trading tips.” So he witnesses their friendship from afar and soon realizes that he is in love with Beth. And then, the magic starts!

What follows are a beautiful, if nontraditional, love story where the universe (or at least, the Internet) brings two people together who might have otherwise worked side-by-side without ever knowing one another.

Attachments is classified as a romance novel, but I feel that perhaps it is better categorized as a rom-com. Although the book is undoubtedly a love story, one of its most charming characteristics is its delightful sense of humor; and its quirky male narrator, Lincoln. In addition to being distinguished by its humor, the friendship/love story between Beth and Jennifer, which is central to the book, also lends more heartwarming appeal to what is already a unique and lovely novel.

Dare Me by Megan Abbott (2012)

Dare Me is an in-depth and deeply disturbing look into the complex social hierarchies of teenage girls, their cutthroat politics and ruthlessness often making them simultaneously best friends and worst enemies. At the center of their universe is their queen bee: the most ruthless and reckless of them all, a girl whom the others are both terrified of and desperate to befriend. As if caught up in her spell, the girls grant the queen bee a terrifying amount of control over their lives: taking her abuse and accepting her challenges, all for a chance to be pulled into her inner circle. “Queen of the hive. Don’t mess with the queen.”

The story told in Dare Me focuses on a high-school cheerleading squad, a group of gorgeous young girls drunk with their power: a mix of popularity, sex appeal, and exclusivity. At their helm is their hard-as-nails Captain, Beth Cassidy, whose wildness sets the tone for the entire squad. At Beth’s side for years is Addy, the story’s narrator and Beth’s “Lieutenant,” always up to harass the other girls or stay out late drinking and taunting lustful boys. Hardly anyone dares cross Beth and Addy — certainly not other girls, not even adults — and they both revel in their freedom to be as wicked as they please.

Enter Colette French, the school’s new cheerleading coach and former Queen Bee of her own teenage life. She is young, beautiful, and tough: the girl’s on her squad are immediately enamored with her and her glamorous seeming life. In hardly no time, Coach French has maneuvered herself into the power position, dethroning Beth of her team captaincy, her head-girl status, and her best friend, Addy.

The girls are all frantic with longing for their adult lives to begin, spending their time trying on behaviors the associate with growing up: drinking stolen bottles of vodka, popping their mother’s pills, and tempting men with their new-found sexiness.

“Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girls needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something — anything — to begin….We are all waiting, wanting things we don’t understand. Thing we can’t even name. The yearning so deep like pinions over our hearts.”

Colette offers to the girls on the squad a place to try on their grown-up selves; hosting them for parties at her home where she doles our cigarettes, diet pills, and wine…sharing some of her secrets with the grasping girls. In return, Colette gets adulation and, more importantly, a chance to reconnect with her youthful self: before marriage and motherhood tamed her.

Soon, however, the adult world she has brought the girls into — especially Addy — grows all too real. Addy, longing to be claimed as Coach’s favorite, jumps into a wild, after-hours life that Colette begins to lead, discarding many of her own pursuits to play wing-man (and alibi) to her Coach.

Dethroned and wild with rage at her growing impotence, Beth channels all of her conniving into finding out Coach French’s secrets so that she can cost the woman her job at least, ideally her entire life. When she learns that Addy is a willing accomplice to Coach French’s double-life, Beth realizes she has the power to not only bring down Coach, but also to punish Addy for her disloyalty.

The author repeatedly refers to the girls in terms of their “witchiness,” and describing them as having power over one another and over others, especially men and boys, a power that often wield without understanding the consequences. Selfish and self-absorbed with themselves — keeping their tiny bodies tiny and their boyfriends interested — the girls on the cheerleading squad fail to see any of the potential pitfalls that might ensnare them. Their coach is also blinded: her desire to recapture her youth and the power she feels having the girls in her thrall blind her to the risks she is taking with their lives.

The author creates a creepy, realistic world in which young and beautiful girls play fast and loose with their bodies and with their very lives. A truly wonderful and haunting novel.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer (2016)

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I am well aware that Amy Schumer’s brand of humor is problematic for many women and men, due in large part to her constant willingness to candidly discuss issues related to sex, body image, drinking, dating, success without concern to how uncomfortable her jokes can make audiences. While this does make her stand up and her television show cringe-worthy at times, it also clearly establishes her as a strident feminist who is unwilling to ignore the paradoxes of modern womanhood: be sexy and not slutty; appreciate your body as it is but work tirelessly to change it; stop worrying about pleasing men but make sure that their pleasure is secretly more important than your own; strive for success but be self-depreciating when it is achieved.

That said, if you find her comedy unappealing, you will might not enjoy this book. However, I feel that it is important for readers to remember that Schumer is using her unconventional and purposefully vulgar sense of humor to say important things about being a woman and it is only because of her trademark lack of decorum that her ideas are being heard. Had she stuck with being more ladylike, she might be more palatable but then a lot of the feminist issues she is raising would continue to remain unexplored.

“This book has no self-help info or advice for you. I’m a flawed fuckup and I haven’t figured anything out, so I have no wisdom to offer you. But I can help you with is showing you my mistakes and my pain and my laughter.” From the introduction to The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

In her first book of essays, Schumer does not disappoint her fans: she displays the same irreverence for propriety, the same disregard for rules, and she tackles issues (dating, orgasms, rape, abuse ) that women often shy away from discussing. And, of course, she does so while being at times vulgar but always very, very funny.

What may surprise potential readers, as it did me, was the fact that many of her stories are not at all scandalous or obscenity riddled. Many are touching, heartfelt accounts of experiences in her life. She talks candidly about what it is like to be rich after years of barely getting by; she shares the hard truth about her first non-consensual sexual experience and her abusive relationship; she tells of the relentlessness of making it in comedy and the extra work she had to put in because she is a woman; she talks honestly about break ups and illness and her intense need for solitude…all essays are that thought-provoking and powerful without being at all incendiary. But there are some racy essays too, because, let’s face it this is Amy Schumer and raunchy is her bread and butter.

A fun, fast read that made me like and appreciate her even more than I already did.

 

A Wedding In Provence by Ellen Sussman (2014)

More American couples get married in June than any other month, and so the start of summer means that a huge number of us will be celebrating an anniversary, a guest at a wedding, or perhaps, getting married ourselves. Weddings bring out a host of strong, conflicting emotions for all involved which makes them a popular topic for novelists to mine.

A Wedding in Provence uses the wedding on a couple in their fifties, both entering into a second marriage, as the setting in which to explore the complex issues surrounding love, marriage, commitment, loneliness, and family. Set at a gorgeous inn in the hills above the Mediterranean Sea, Olivia and Brody have flown from American to celebrate their wedding weekend with a small circle of friends, including Olivia’s two adult daughters. The heightened importance of the occasional strongly affects all of the guests; soon each person is forced to face their own feelings about marriage and relationships… both the good and bad.

Although the novel is short and uncomplicated, it offers a lovely set of stories about love and romance in a beautiful setting, and was worth a read. Although I feel I must add, my favorite book about weddings and the emotions they stir up remains Elin Hilderbrand’s Beautiful Day. Be sure to check that one out as well.

Managing Family Library Loans for Summer

My family and I are extraordinarily heavy library users all year long. Our family of five visits our library, in person or on-line, every single day of the year in order to place on hold or check out books, magazines, movies, CD’s, e-books, audio-books, and to attend library programs, including book clubs for all ages.

In the summer however, when school is out and the long, lazy days of summer stretch out in front of us, we become downright professional library goers. Since I do not sign my children up for summer camps (other than one week of overnight camp for the 8+ crowd) and because they are very prolific readers, they spend several hours every single day reading or listening to books. And that is just on regular summer days; the long, hot car rides to and from family beach and camping vacations mean even more books are needed than usual.

My husband and I, prolific library book readers in our own right, also kick in to high gear in with our summer book check-outs, since we have hours of lounging by the pool or on the beach (while our kids splash and play) to read; not to mention those hot summer evenings when there is nothing better than sitting on the porch sipping wine and reading novels while the fireflies light up the yard.

Since we are regularly checking out the maximum 99 items from the library in the summer, I am often asked things like “how many books a week do you lose?” or “how much do you pay every week in fines!?” It is generally assumed that , in order to keep up with all of this reading, we must pay a price. But that is not the case! We have only lost one book in nine years and the only fines we pay are for books we just have to finish but cannot renew. People do not believe me when I tell them this, but all of the librarians at our local branch can vouch for us…in fact, it is a running joke among the librarians that my family single-handedly boosts our branch’s circulation.

As the child of a librarian (who was also the mother of five readers, not including her and my father who also read constantly), I grew up with a regimented system for organizing library books which I employ for our family and it has been near fool-proof.

Here are our secrets:

  • We only use ONE library card for the entire family. I know that many parents argue that library cards are a powerful symbol to children that using their local library is a privilege they should treasure, and I would NEVER disagree with that. All my kids have one but no one is allowed to use them. The reason for no kid cards (or if you have a forgetful spouse*), is that if your kids can check out books without your knowledge — not to mention DVD’s which have a $1 per day fines! — that can be a recipe for enormous fines or revoked cards. Everyone, even my husband and I, use one primary card. One card = one record = no surprises.
  • We use the online library system constantly. At any time I can review our account online to see what we have checked out, on-hold, on the e-readers, and when everything is due. We can put books that we are dying to read on hold so that we don’t have to endlessly search the shelves for best-sellers. It is easy enough that my 13 and 9 year old’s can request holds as much as they would like. The online system also sends us to get electronic notices of due dates; when holds arrive at our local branch; and we can see where “in line” we are for books on hold. Our library also has an app that allows us to stop anything we are doing — shopping, talking to friends, listening to the radio — and put books on hold!
  • Library books have one home. Every reader in my house as one large, shallow basket that holds all of the books they have checked out. The basket has only books for that child (or adult) and is always stored under their bed. Those books can only leave the basket to be read and must be returned to the basket each night before bed or put in the “finished” basket to go back to the library. Even my husband and I have our own baskets!
  • Library books do not leave the house without pre-approval. No one in my house can take library books to school, to sleepovers, to the pool, or even in the car without getting my okay. This ensure that no library books are lost outside of the house (because, let’s face it: lost in the house just means they need to look harder.)
  • Library books do not go on vacation (and only rarely to the pool). It is simply far too easy for a library book to get lost or damaged on vacation — especially at the beach — and so I have a firm rule that they cannot come along. Instead, we all go to the local thrift shop and stock up on paperbacks that we can read without fear of damage. As for the pool, my kids can take ONE book to the pool assuming there is no other non-library book in the house to read (or if the one they are reading is just too good to stop) and they must follow strict rules about not getting the book wet.
  • We employ the Returns Basket. We have a sixth basket which we can the “returns basket” or sometimes just the “finished basket” in which every single book, immediately upon completion is deposited: the only exceptions are books that are going to be re-read or read by a family member (in that case they are deposited into that person’s personal basket). This is also where all CD’s or DVD’s go the minute they are ejected from the player. That way, every day when we head to the library we have a stack of books ready to return. This means fewer books to keep track of, as well as room for more on our card!
  • We discuss “book status” with one another.  We are constantly sharing books in our house, so we are constantly checking in about where they are, how much longer one reader might need it, and which basket it might be in at the moment. This allows us all to have a sense of what books are checked out on our card. For example, my two older sons are obsessed with cars and often each checks out several non-fiction books and magazines about cars. They check in with each other to swap, and sometimes even to say “hey, have we read this one yet?” before putting something on hold. We also do the family-wide check in to say “how many days until this is due?” or  “can this be renewed?” so that everyone — not just me! — has a sense of which books to get along with finishing first.
  • NO LIMITS or RESTRICTIONS (within reason)! This is my favorite rule. My children are allowed to check out as many library materials as they want, of any kind that they are interested in, with only minimal scrutiny (for example, our teenage son can watch PG13 movies, but not R) and the only limit is the number of materials the card will allow. We NEVER restrict the type of material: e-books and audio-books are equal in our minds; we embrace comic books and graphic novels completely; and we are loose with the term “age appropriate.” If they want to read it — even if it is an 1000 page encyclopedia on car engines — we are happy to oblige. Censoring or limiting books would lead to less reading, and that is the opposite of what we want for our kids.

Happy Library Lending!

*In his defense, my husband is an academic and is used to having books he checks out from the university library for six-months, which makes it easy for him to forget that in the real world we only get them for three weeks.

book stack Oct

My oldest son’s book basket (which slides out from under his bed.) Below are the baskets beneath his brothers’ beds.

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn (2014)

This is a short blog post about a short story, written by Gillian Flynn of the bestseller Gone Girl and dedicated to George R.R. Martin, for whom she said “asked her to write him a story.”

In this unsettling short story, we meet a young con-woman who is looking to move up in the world, to give up street begging and get into a more legitimate grift. Enter Susan Burke, a desperate young mother who believes her house is haunted and her stepson deeply, perhaps homicidally, affected by its evil. Sensing a large score, our narrator agrees to cleanse the house and stop the terrifying events that are traumatizing the family.

The story gives a nod — quite literally, as it was named on page nineteen — to the undeniably wonderful classic horror story The Haunting of Hill House  and which I reviewed on this blog in October 2015, find it here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-15 .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night Shift by Stephen King (1978)

This post was written by my husband, a literature professor and fellow book lover. He reads as many scary books as I do in October, so I asked him to write a review of one book that stood out for him this season. Here it is…

Outside of creative writing classes, the short story doesn’t command a large readership these days. We can still see the vestiges of the short story’s former glory days in mainstream magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper’s, but the short story has, by and large, been relegated to more academic publications. Novels are the literary form of choice for readers at a time when screens provide most of our short-form narrative entertainment.

That being said, the brevity and intensity of the short story still maintains a challenge to the length and depth of the novel in the horror genre. Horror starts with folk tales and bedtime stories told by firelight on cool nights in the autumn and winter months. Horror is developed in the short, concentrated explorations of the creepy and the weird by Poe and H.P. Lovecraft and Flannery O’Connor and, in our generation, Stephen King. The short story is the perfect vehicle for horror, allowing us to experience the mind-bending and be utterly frightened, but only for a moment, as we come back to the relative safety of our real worlds.

I was probably twelve or thirteen when I first read Night Shift, snagging it one latch-key after-school afternoon from my parents’ eclectic bookshelf. I remember starting with one of the easier stories, almost appropriate for a twelve year-old boy, the playful “Battleground.” In this story, an apparent hitman is one-upped by his next mark, who cuts the assassin off at the pass by sending him a very unique letter bomb. The package contains a platoon full of live—and heavily-armed—action figures. Once our protagonist realizes that these G.I. Joes are serious, he has to quickly shake off his disbelief and fight back. King invests as much in this shaking off and fighting back as he does in creating the strange horrors that his characters have to face.

The now-famous story, “Children of the Corn,” follows much the same pattern: regular folks must face horror and find out if they can live long enough for it to change their lives. In both “Jerusalem’s Lot” and “One for the Road,” we get two points in the history of what will become the wonderful novel, Salem’s Lot, and in these stories, regular Down Easters have to face the apparent reality that has come to a small Maine town.

In “Gray Matter,” we get something a bit more difficult to handle, a man who is overtaken by the botulinum-ish something that has infected one of his beers. Poor Richie becomes something unthinkable. Likewise, the grounded astronaut in “I am the Doorway” must come face-to-face, or at least hand-to-hand, with an experience beyond comprehension.

King’s Night Shift takes up the work begun by Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, meaning that he uses these stories to explore two similar but distinct responses to what scares us. For Poe, the grotesque refers to the kind of fright that drives one instantly mad, the gory and the unspeakable, while the arabesque seems to refer to something that is horrible and repulsive but that profoundly absorbs our attention. The grotesque is the horror that we just cannot even…; the arabesque is the horror that we need to deal with, and terror is how we deal with it. Night Shift gives us both kinds.