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Loud Emily, Alexis O’Neill, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

I was browsing in a bookstore with my sister-in-law Emily a few weeks ago, and I decided I had to give this book a read. I grew up hearing countless songs about women with my name (although the only one that ever seemed to have been written about me was “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria”); it instilled in me a deep love of all things name-related – ugly key chains, charm necklaces, and yes, of course, picture books.

Really, I just grabbed it as a lark, and because I wanted to tease Emily with it a bit (she’s not in the least loud, but that was neither here nor there in the moment). I didn’t expect to get teary over it. I wasn’t planning to refuse to let Emily have my copy (although as the younger “sister,” it’s my prerogative to be stubborn about silly things like that). I certainly didn’t think I would lend it to so many of my friends with baby girls to remind them of how absolutely wonderful it is to meet a woman with an unapologetically loud voice.

But I did. I’ve cried every time I’ve read it, in fact. Just at the part when her family and teacher are admonishing young Emily to keep quiet because they fear she won’t have an easy life if she speaks so loudly, and then again when she finds her first advocate in the cook, who is delighted to find “a lass who speaks up!”

There’s something about the connotation of the word “loud” that led me to believe this would be a book about the importance of learning to be quiet. It’s a garish term, a reprimand in itself. The crowd or the class or the children are too loud, and they bring to mind headaches and frustration and a complete lack of control. One of the only times we encourage people to be loud specifically (rather than boisterous or enthusiastic) is at sporting events. In almost all other circumstances, we’re more likely to associate it with ostentatious, vehement, deafening.

When I was teaching preschool, I used to spend about five minutes before we sat down for circle time – the most focused part of our day when I would need the class’ attention for fifteen minutes – leading the children in the loudest songs I could come up with. We stomped and gnashed our teeth; we screamed and clapped and laughed and were as loud as we could possibly be. At the beginning of every school year though, it was a struggle to convince the class that I really meant for them to let loose and use the biggest expressions their bodies could come up with because they had been taught by word and example that loud was bad.

In this book, the message is loud is useful. Loud is necessary. Loud is endearing to the right community, and loud is not something to change, but to count as a strength. There are too few books encouraging people, especially children, to speak up. This one manages it without stigmatizing loud’s opposite. Instead, loud is a part of something greater, a single color in a kaleidoscope of traits that are neither good nor bad. Emily is loud. It does make it a challenge for her to find the place where she fits best, but that’s true for all people, especially when they choose not to change to fit in. Finding a story that celebrates that journey is as wonderful as learning to love a little girl who is loud.

For more about Alexis O’Neill, head over here. To learn about Nancy Carpenter, go here.

Well, in my enthusiasm to test out my video skills in anticipation for my vacation in October, I accidentally shared a post about an absolutely amazing book that you should not wait to run out and read (Journey, by Aaron Becker. Seriously, I’ve had to pry it out of the hands of every person I lend it to). Consider it a bonus preview the rest of the world won’t get to see until I’m happily driving south! It only seems fair, considering that there are, as of this moment, 15,478 of you following Books j’adore! I am so happy to be a part of this community. I have had only the nicest experiences here with my fellow book lovers, and I’m incredibly happy to be able to share so many wonderful books with you. Even when WordPress conspires against me…

On the plus side, this is seems like a sign that I should be procrastinating on all future projects, and instead devouring a box of those sea salt and turbinado sugar chocolate almonds from Trader Joe’s!

The Cardturner, Louis Sachar

I picked this book up used at one of my favorite old haunts when I was visiting my family on the east coast in July. I think I noticed it because a decade ago I loved Holes (both the novel and the movie), and a decade before that, I was a fan of Sachar’s Wayside School stories, so I was already primed to try a new book by him. My husband ended up reading it first (in-laws are all fine and good, but by week two, escape – in any form, even your wife’s YA obsession – is necessary) and he loved it.

His devouring the book actually made me wary. My husband prefers novels like Cannery Row and Reamde. He’s reading The Grapes of Wrath right now. For fun. I mean, sure, I read it in high school and liked it a lot more than the rest of the class (in retrospect, I was probably the only one who read the whole thing), but I would never pick it up now, much less stay up half the night reading it.

When he’s not reading great American literature, he prefers to work his way through non-fiction like Cockpit Confidential and Traffic, and while our tastes occasionally intersect (we’re both Paulo Coehlo fans, and we’ll read any crazy book AJ Jacobs comes up with), he rarely convinces me to try his pick of the month (Flash Boys: A Wallstreet Revolt? Seriously?! It’s not happening). The one exception has been Don Quixote; we’re reading it together, although at the rate we’re going, we’ll probably be finished in about fifteen years.

So for him to grab The Cardturner and read more than a chapter without tossing it aside? I was intrigued. And wary. Then I started reading it, and I understood right away. This is a YA book, yes. But it’s also a book about playing bridge, and my husband absolutely swoons over games. He’s not picky – in the last few years, he’s picked up Mahjong, Dominion, and Quiddler with equal enthusiasm. Much like my mother, he will happily play any game at any time, even if he has to spend an hour teaching everyone else the rules, AND, even if after teaching them, he loses. He’s an incredibly good sport and has the patience to learn rule minutiae that I would probably ignore/never know about in the first place (I don’t even look at the rule books if I can help it). After reading The Cardturner, I’m actually shocked that he hasn’t asked to play bridge with me.

The amazing thing is, even though I rolled my eyes when I started the book (and occasionally had to force myself to pay attention to the longer rule sections in the story), I was genuinely excited about bridge by the end. Is that even a thing? Do people still get excited by bridge? Sachar surely is, and his passion is catching. The book was an absolute delight, and now that I’ve finished it, I find myself wishing I had a genius bridge playing uncle – or a teenage enthusiast – to get me started…

 

For more about Louis Sachar, head here.

Glitter and Glue: A Memoir, Kelly Corrigan

The thing about mothers, I want to say, is that once the containment ends and one becomes two, you don’t always fit together so neatly. They don’t get you like you want them to, like you think they should, they could, if only they would pay closer attention. They agonize over all the wrong things, cycling through one inane idea after another: seat belts, flossing , the Golden Rule. The living mother-daughter relationship, you learn over and over again, is a constant choice between adaptation and acceptance.

The only mothers who never embarrass, harass, dismiss, discount, deceive, distort, neglect, baffle, appall, inhibit, incite, insult, or age poorly are dead mothers, perfectly contained in photographs, pressed into two dimensions like a golden autumn leaf.

That’s your consolation prize, Milly Tanner. Your mother will never be caught sunbathing in the driveway in her bra or cheapened by too much drink. She’ll never be overheard bitching to the phone company or seen slamming her bedroom door in fury. Your mother will always be perfect. (p 56)

Kelly Corrigan’s memoir about her experience as a live-in nanny for two children who had recently lost their mother is a five month journey braided beautifully into her complicated relationship with her own mother. She perfectly captures the post-college struggle – the optimism and the crushing defeats, the rude awakening of reality mingled with the unbelievable pleasure that accompanies tiny successes. Her mistakes, her passion for gobbling up life, and her totally off-base expectations for what it meant to “grow up” were all so painfully, beautifully familiar. I couldn’t help but laugh at Corrigan’s younger self because she was laughing too. She was well-aware of how naive she’d been, and yet she loved that past self, and was gentle with her.

That’s not an easy line, and yet Corrigan manages to walk it, not just for herself, but for her mother. She and her mother are not close in the way I am with my mother, or the way my mother was with my grandmother. I come from a line of women who knit very tight, who love fiercely, but who are, ultimately, as challenged by the relationship of mother and daughter as are women who find too much space there, or anger, or confusion, or disappointment.

I’m not an expert on all daughters and mothers; I only know how I love my mother, and how I perceive her love in return. I remember how selflessly she loved me through my own prideful, challenging years, and how it must have hurt to watch me, without interfering, making foolish mistakes with all the gleeful ignorance of youth. I know how protective I am of her, how I effortlessly hate people who say or do anything to undermine her, how I cling to her voice when she’s across the country and am short-tempered when she’s across the breakfast table. Then, of course, there is the desperate desire for infinite years with her because the alternative is unthinkable.

This book is a confrontation of that unthinkable place. It’s the intersection of the death of a mother with two young children and the maturation of a young woman doing her best to navigate the jagged hole left by such a death. It is the recognition of love for mothers who are less than perfect, and daughters who are unbearably judgmental, of women who flex and brush against each other in as they try to work out the knots of their frustrating love.

 

For more from Kelly Corrigan, go here.

 

 

Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan

If you picked up a copy of Two Boys Kissing in an airport bookshop, you’d probably think it was a teen melodrama. I know this because when I bought it, I thought it might be that, or at least in the ballpark of YA romance. I’ve also unsuccessfully tried to convince two friends to read it, and they’ve both taken one look at the cover and flat-out refused – not because it isn’t a lovely nice cover, but because it suggests a very different story than Levithan has written. I get that, I really do. The person who coined the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” was clearly talking about people and not actual books because every person I’ve ever met does just that. I do it all the time. (I also judge books by the type of font used, the kerning, the number of words on a page, the feel of the paper used…)

If you are a teenager now, it is unlikely you knew us well. We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, the author of that book you found in the gay section of the library. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. We are the ghosts of the remaining older generation. You know some of our songs.

We do not want to haunt you too somberly. We don’t want our legacy to be gravitas. You wouldn’t want to live your life like that, and you won’t want to be remembered like that, either. Your mistake would be to find commonality in our dying. The living part mattered more. 

We taught you how to dance. (p 3)

That’s not to say this isn’t a novel about two boys kissing. It is. It is about two boys, exes, who decide to try to break the Guinness Book of World Record for longest kiss (based on a true event from September 18, 2010, when two college students, Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello kissed for thirty-two hours, thirty minutes, and forty-seven seconds). The story is told to us by ghosts, gay men who died during the height of the AIDs epidemic now watching over one small town and lives of seven gay teenage boys over the course of a single, important weekend. Levithan balances each element of the story with candid grace. He leans in to both the funny and frightening aspects of love and youth and being a little outside the circle.

We wish we could show you the world as it sleeps. Then you’d never have any doubt about how similar, how trusting, how astounding and vulnerable we all are. (p 20)

The book reads like a love letter, not just to or for gay boys, but to youth. To the exploration and mistakes we make when we’re unformed, blind, stupid, happy, on the edge of death, exploding with life. Each of the boys in this book has his own story, his own tiny piece carved out. Each of those pieces feels familiar, maybe because there’s something about going through adolescence in the United States that brings the most diverse people together with the recognition of how close to the heart seemingly far flung experiences land us. How similar , how trusting, how astounding and vulnerable…

We wish we could have been there for you. We didn’t have many role models of our own – we latched on to the foolish love of Oscar Wilde and the well-versed longing of Walt Whitman because nobody else was there to show us an untortured path. We were going to be your role models. We were going to give you art and music and confidence and shelter and a much better world. Those who survived lived to do this.  But we haven’t been there for you. We’ve been here. Watching as you become the role models. (p 194)

 

For more about David Levithan, head here.

Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth, Tamar Myers

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While I was visiting my family earlier this month, my mother and I sat down to talk through some of our notes about the mystery we’re starting to write. One of the biggest challenges we’re facing is creating a world for our characters that’s richly developed without being cliché, as well as filled with a fleshed-out supporting cast with the potential for romance, friendship, petty grudges, and of course, murder. It’s not that we have a shortage of ideas – not at all. The problem is that we’ve both read so many cozy mystery novels over the (ahem) decades, we’re afraid of covering over-farmed territory.

In general, when I look at an author’s bio after reading a book or series with a well-drawn community, it turns out that person lives (or lived) in a place very similar to the one in their story. This makes perfect sense. I’m always more comfortable writing about someplace I’ve spent a lot of time, and the details ring truer when you aren’t fabricating them, or trying to write them based on satellite views from Google Maps. (Not that I’m disparaging that method – I’ve done it many times myself – but isn’t it tougher to write when there’s constant breaks for research? It is for me.)

The challenge for us, as a writing team, is that I feel that the town where both of us lived for many years is a less interesting location than some of the places we’ve lived separately. Unfortunately, if we want to write about one of those cities instead, one or the other of us will be at a huge disadvantage. It’s a conundrum. It’s proving to be a roadblock for other elements of the story, which is of course also frustrating.

I suspect that’s why I found the setting for Crooks to be so delightful. It takes place in a bed and breakfast in an Amish and Mennonite community in Pennsylvania, and by choosing such a location, Myers has given herself the perfect constraints to work within. Hernia is a small community, and an old one, so families and neighbors are deeply intertwined (for better or worse). It’s also a town where religion and culture are braided together, and both have to come up against the modern world on a daily basis, in no small part due to the fact that protagonist Magdalena Yoder invites that world into her home in order to make a living.

When I went to Myers’ website, I was fascinated to see that she also has a series that takes place in the Congo. I’m sure this is possible primarily because she spent her first sixteen years living there, and I have to admit to being jealous of such an incredible (albeit dangerous) experience. Could I write a book about the Congo? Sure, I suppose so. Maybe with about twenty books open at a time (not to mention an infinite number of tabs on my computer!), years of detailed research, and maybe a trip to see it for myself, I could consider an attempt. But even then, it wouldn’t come close to the perspective of a person who has lived there for many years and taken that cultural experience into her soul.

The reason I’m so obsessed with this part of my own novel is that I believe setting and community are what set this particular genre apart from other mysteries. Sure, plot is important. Dramatic tension is necessary. Unexpected twists and a healthy sense of humor (especially about murder and incompetent police work) are appreciated. At the end of the day though, fans of the cozy mystery come for the people, and for a seat at the table in a well-drawn world.

 

For more about Tamar Myers, go here.

The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost

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Photo by D Karr

Photo by D Karr

Robert Frost? Really? It feels a little on the nose when I’m spending time with my family in New England, but the truth is, I grew up listening to his words, and to those of Emerson and Thoreau. I used to go swimming every summer in Walden Pond, and we’d walk to the replica of Thoreau’s little cabin some afternoons, and some part of me has always felt tied to that little room. It’s only slightly strange then that years later, I would go to Emerson College to get my degree – only slightly, because certain writers ( along with Alcott, and Wharton, and Dickinson) have always filled me with a sense of my own history. Even though I no longer live here, reading their familiar lines is a coming home all of its own.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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