Tuesday, February 24, 2015

This Performance Totally Unenhanced

I'm drowning in stupid school assignments, and the puppy gets up at five or six and then she goes back to sleep but I usually don't, and Angus is on pitching rest because his elbow hurts and physio should help but he's worried and frustrated so I'm sad and frustrated. And he has an infected ingrown toenail and we had to get his kidneys checked because of the bloodwork because of his acne medication, and I had to take my dad for cataract surgery, so I've visited a goodly proportion of the hospitals and doctors' offices in this area recently. So I'm taking it a little bit easy right now, which I'm almost okay with. I got a fair bit done in the basement in January and anything major there is on hold, although sometimes I go down and do ten minutes of Swistle's little bit of something. Tonight I cleaned out a bag of Christmas gift bags, packaged them together and put all the wrapping paper in the now-empty long bag. Every few days I walk fairly slowly on the treadmill for half an hour. Eve and I went to a play that her friend had a small part in at Angus's school last week and it was fun.

My contacts keep giving me pink eye, which is kind of a first world problem, and I have new glasses that I like quite a bit, but I hate wearing glasses to work out and I'd like to have the option not to wear them occasionally when I'm dressing up. I have an appointment next week to investigate what the hell is up with that.

I'm in a squirrelly reading place; once Lucy's in her crate I can only read on the ipad because if the light is on she won't go to sleep (thank god I didn't get a dog before I had an ipad), and I feel completely daunted by the prospect of reading anything weighty, so I keep reading short stories and YA even though I said I was going to take a break from YA, but I HAVE A BABY DOG AND WE'RE IN NUCLEAR WINTER OVER HERE SO SHUT UP OKAY? Although please learn from my mistakes and do not, under any circumstances, start THIS particular YA train wreck. It sucks you in with a gorgeous cover and an interest-piquing premise and ends in a hot mess.

Anyway, tonight we managed to have dinner together at the table, then we were in the family room while Angus was icing his elbow watching Sportscenter and Matt was reading the paper and I was trying to get the dog to fetch her ball and Eve was reading the second City of Ember book on the couch. She would glance up periodically at the tv, as they were doing a piece on Alex Rodriguez and his use of performance-enhancing drugs. At one point a date span was flashed onscreen, as well as a front page with the headline "Regrets: He Has a Few". Eve burst out "that's so mean! He just died, and he was only, like, sixteen!" To which we all replied, "Huh?" And she said "it said 1996-2000". And Matt said "that was his career, not his lifespan, and you need to check your facts AND your math."

Dear February: Whatever you need to take to improve this performance, PLEASE DO IT FORTHWITH.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Surly Thursday: To the Friend of a Friend Who Was Bitchy to Me on Facebook

Contrary to what the post title seems to indicate, this is not actually a letter to the person in question. This exchange happened a few weeks ago so I'm enjoying blowing on the cooled embers of my righteous fury.

So someone had posted a recipe for something that called for almond milk. I had just bought my very first carton of almond milk to make banana-applesauce cookies, so it piqued my interest that someone posted on her recipe: "But almond milk is bad, don't use it."

I replied "almond milk is bad?" to her comment, hoping she would elaborate. Instead she replied "Yep." Uh, thanks, very illuminating. I said that I was asking for clarification. SHE said "best you look it up yourself. Google saves time and lives, I always say." This was followed by a smiley emoticon.

Hold up, sister. Did you just go all "Let me Google that for you" on my ass?

I tend to think the "Let Me Google That For You" response is appropriate, if ever, for questions like "how late is the Bank on Whatever Street open?" or "who won the 83 World Series?" To be fair, although I have never said it to anyone, I have pointed out its relevance in posts like this one, so I did ponder for a second whether her use of it was warranted.

I don't believe it was. I had, in fact, Googled it quickly between asking her for clarification and her response. Googling brought up several results on the health benefits of almond milk, and one article expressing reservations about the carageenan in it. There certainly weren't any clear-cut "almond milk is bad" results. When you express a negative opinion about something that a lot of people think is positive - voting in elections, say, or the long-form census, or vaccines - you might want to give some supporting information to avoid sounding like a strident yahoo, in my humble opinion. By asking for clarification, I was giving her a chance to do this - for all I knew she was a dietitian, or had just read a revealing article and had information that I didn't.

And then the scalding insult of the smiley face. Don't get me started (ha! just kidding, it's clearly way too late to not get me started) on the off-the-charts passive-aggressive cowishness of saying something bitchy and pretending you're not being bitchy. It smacks of those concern trolls who comment on articles something like "well, I'm terribly sorry to say it, but by feeding your baby formula you're practically guaranteeing that he'll grow up smoking pot and liking Justin Bieber - best wishes!" Or the people who write to Richard Dawkins "you're a fucking gay stupid faggot and you're going to burn in hell for all eternity - God bless!" If you're going to be stubborn and opinionated and refuse to substantiate your assertions, just own it already.

I didn't engage on the Facebook thread. I don't know her, I don't know if she's always like this, I didn't want to make my friend uncomfortable (on the off chance that she's reading this - sorry, but where else can I air my petty grievances with all humanity but on my blog?), and as hard as it might be to believe, I do try to uphold a modicum of classiness on social media.

But this is the response I gave in my head: "Fair enough. You don't know me, so I guess you had no particular reason to provide a response that was kind or helpful. I, of course, had no way of knowing that you're the kind of person that needs a particular reason to be those things."

Perfect mix of classy and snotty, don't you think?


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mood Disorder Clinic Appointment

So, regarding this:

I only cancelled one appointment before I actually made myself go, which is a bit of a victory. Matt was away and I was freaking out a little about driving there and parking because of when this happened. Three separate people offered to drive me, and I accepted one offer, but in the end decided to just gird my loins and go for it. The main parking lot was full, but unlike the last time, I saw a sign pointing to parking just before the hospital entrance, so I turned around and went back and there were quite a few spaces.

First hurdle over.

I got a bit lost looking for the place I needed, but I didn't start freaking out again until I was in the waiting room wondering what kind of person I would be dealing with. I had agreed to see a fifth-year psychiatry resident for the first part of the appointment and then be joined by her supervising psychiatrist. I'm all for teaching hospitals and helping medical students learn, but as soon as I'd agreed, I was possessed by the fear that I would end up with some gung-ho type-A overachiever who would think I was totally pathetic and not be seasoned enough to disguise it. Then I remembered that my lovely and delightful sort-of sister-in-law (Matt's brother hasn't officially married her but if they break up we're keeping her, so we consider it official) is also a resident, and she radiates compassion and kindness. So I told her I was going to hope for someone just like her and prayed that she would have curly hair.

She totally had curly hair. And was lovely and kind and understanding. I was afraid that when I said I had trouble using my CPAP all night she would say "so you just don't WANT to feel better?". Instead she said "a lot of people do". I was afraid she would say "don't you think you should be more accomplished at your age?" Instead she said "sounds like you're pretty hard on yourself." It was an exhaustive two-hour questionnaire that was clearly supposed to assess the presence of OCD or bipolar disorder as well as depression and anxiety. After I talked to her, I went back to the waiting room while she talked to the psychiatrist and then went back and talked to the two of them together.

So.... results?

Of course I knew that it wasn't going to be a case of them asking me a bunch of questions, then saying "okay, for cases like yours we do x" and sending me on my merry way, as much as a tiny bit of me hoped it would. I was assessed as dysthymic, which didn't come as a big surprise, and the psychiatrist had a couple of suggestions for combinations of antidepressants that I haven't tried yet (she clearly had a better understanding of possible interactions than my family doctor has), and for sleep aids that I either haven't tried or only tried before I was on the CPAP. She also gave me some resources for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

So. Have I gone back to my doctor yet? No, of course not, it's minus a million out and it takes me six weeks and a strong drink just to book a hair appointment. I actually felt surprisingly good in January, and it helps to know that I have a couple of options in my back pocket for if things go south again.

And there's something else that came out of this, as I was talking at length about the impact depression and anxiety has on my life. When she asked me if depression and anxiety has stopped me from doing things I want to do, I thought that in the past, it definitely has. There were times in high school or university where I didn't go for opportunities I wanted or couldn't bring myself to talk to people that would have been helpful. I was up for an award in university and the professor chairing it called me and asked me to stop by and talk to him in his office to tell him about myself, and I couldn't get myself to go, even though I knew this meant trashing my chances of winning the award. In grad school the mean lesbian professor of my French course had a party at her house and invited all of us - I would have sooner swallowed tacks than enter her house after being traumatized by her all term. One of my former professors was aghast when I said I wasn't going and clearly didn't understand at all what a battle it was for me to even enter her classroom every week.

But now? Well, other than the fact that I might - might - have finished my diploma and gone back to work a little sooner, I really don't think that there's anything I don't do. Did I feel anxious before going to BlogHer in New York by myself, or reading at Blogging Out Loud, or going to meet any of the bloggers in person that I had only known online? Yep. Did I chicken out? Nope. I volunteer at my kids' school extensively. I help run the book fair every year. I go to Blissdom and sometimes I don't even stay stapled to Nicole and Hannah's sides the whole time. Partly this is because I have amazing family and friends who know when I need nudging to do something. Partly it's because I kind of just know how I am now, and I can work around it. My life doesn't look like I thought it would at this point, and there are things I still want to do, but working with what I have, I don't feel like I've done too badly.

So it's good to know I have some resources if things need tweaking. It's also good to realized I'm not actually broken beyond repair. I'm just a little squeaky.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

So This Happened

The first story in Jeanette Winterson's collection The World and Other Places is called The 24-Hour Dog. I used to be uniformly smitten with everything I read by Jeanette Winterson, and the first time I read this collection I still thought she was one of the most original and imaginative writers ever. I still think a lot of her writing is inspired, but I've also come around to acknowledging that critics who call her pompous and overblown are not always entirely wrong.

I don't know if the unnamed, ungendered narrator in the 24-Hour Dog is supposed to be Winterson - it certainly seems like it could. The narrator captures a lot of the broad strokes of dogness beautifully: "I made him walk on a lead and he jumped for joy, the way creatures do, and children do and adults don't do, and spend their lives wondering where the leap went"; "This was a little bit of evolution that endlessly repeats itself in the young and new-born thing. In this moment there are no cares or aeroplanes. The Sistine Chapel is unpainted, no book has been written"; I looked at him, trusting, vulnerable, love without caution. He was a new beginning and every new beginning returns the world. In him, the rain forests were pristine and the sea had not been blunted."

She keeps the dog for a day and then returns him to the farmer because "he has found me out". The experience is too intense and the dog will be happier with "children and ducks and company", but he will not be "the kind of dog he could have been if I had met him edge to edge, his intensity and mine... What would I have done? Taught him to read?"

Holy hell, what kind of pretentious bullshit is that? It's a dog - it was never going to quote Shakespeare, and you gave him back because he howled all night and you like your sleep.

That said, I lay awake the first night Lucy cried piteously (not for all that long) in her crate at the foot of my bed, Matt on the couch downstairs, Angus in the basement and Eve down the hall with earplugs behind a firmly closed door, and I felt that same rush of terror and self-doubt and "why did I think I could do this?" that I felt when we brought Angus home. People do this all the time, but I don't deal well with change, and the kind of change that disturbs the night tends to tweak my anxiety/insomnia trigger. I was scared.

But she's not a baby. She's a dog. A small dog. Sometimes she leaves unpleasant substances around the house, but it's a small amount. Those babies that I brought home and was terrified at being responsible for are big, strapping people that can take on a lot of the responsibility for this furry little pain in the butt.

I was over at a friend's house and she was saying that her son was out on a date with a girl, and she was totally exasperated at the way she'd wanted her kids to hurry up and grow and now all of a sudden here they were, grown. And it's true. Actually even if you DON'T want them to hurry up and grow it's true. So I'm trying not to wish this away. I'm taking a sleeping pill now and then so I won't be lying awake waiting for her to need to go out. I'm enjoying watching tv with a lapful of warm puppy and trying not to worry about what else I should be doing. Last night I put her in her crate, went to get ready for bed, and when I came out of the bathroom both her and my husband were snoring happily.

She's a baby. She's a ridiculous upheaval in the routine. She's a rallying point for the family. She's a dire threat to my bath mat. She's a new beginning that returns the world.

She's just a dog. We're keeping her.


Monday, February 2, 2015

Five-Star Books 2014

I once read a review on Goodreads that started with the reviewer's 'personal system' for rating books. The first thing she said was something like "I never give five stars because no book is perfect."

Now, I don't know this woman anywhere near well enough to be getting unreasonably snotty about her personal book-rating system, but all I could think was that if she's never finished a book, closed her eyes with the strains of the last words floating in the air and thought "that was perfect", well, that's really quite sad. It also made me think (again, with no real justification) that she's probably like those teachers that will go out of their way to find tiny imperfections in any assignment to avoid giving out a perfect score, as if granting an A plus would scald their parsimonious little souls. In any case, the Goodreads rating system considers a five-star rating to denote "it was amazing", not "it was perfect". So, anyway...

Non-fiction: 

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin: Goodreads synopsis: A new edition published on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Baldwin’s death, including a new introduction by an important contemporary writer. 
Since its original publication in 1955, this first nonfiction collection of essays by James Baldwin remains an American classic. His impassioned essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and African Americans abroad are as powerful today as when they were first written.

I actually didn't rate this on Goodreads, but I didn't want to leave it out of the tally. I suppose it kind of flies in the face of my above rant, and there's a heaping helping of white liberal guilt behind my reticence, but I just don't feel qualified to rate this. I still don't understand a lot of it. It didn't move me the same way Langston Hughes' poems have, but I felt like I should make an effort. 

The Nigerian-Nordic Girl's Guide to Lady Problems by Faith Adiele: Goodreads synopsis: What’s a Nigerian-Nordic-American girl to do when she develops fibroids in rural Iowa? Battle the American health care System or summon Nordic mythology and traditional Nigerian medicine? While at the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop to write a book about meeting her African father and siblings as an adult, Faith Adiele develops a medical condition that can be interpreted—and treated—completely differently according to her three cultural backgrounds. Frustratingly, each tradition suggests that Adiele herself is responsible for her condition (and potential barrenness) for having violated gender or racial norms. While wittily detailing her struggles with doctors determined either to remove or to use her uterus as a Midwestern teaching tool, she draws parallels to history: her Nordic family’s immigration experiences, her Nigerian family’s independence struggles, and the fate of women, the poor, and folks of color in American medicine. Award-winning memoirist (PEN Beyond Margins Award for Meeting Faith; Millennium Award from Creative Nonfiction) Adiele takes a clear-eyed, sharp-tongued look at healing, from Western science to a good metaphor to Nigerian healers advertising the cure for “Lady Problems”.

I considered a four-star rating, but screw it, it WAS amazing. I realize it's not fair to expect superior writing from a memoir based on medical issues, but it is a sheer joy to be taken through this experience by an author so witty, self-aware and wry, in prose so supple, barbed and brilliant. And now I've said that I felt joy at someone's extreme misfortune and I feel like an asshole. I'm sorry. But this was so wonderful - the way she weaves together the strands of both her cultures, the way she relates to her own body and its invasion by illness. There is so much insight and humour and anger densely packed into this short work. (P.s. this was the review that taught me that you can't post a review to Amazon with the word 'asshole' in it). 


Fiction: 

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Goodreads synopsis: Cry, the Beloved Country, the most famous and important novel in South Africa's history, was an immediate worldwide bestseller in 1948. Alan Paton's impassioned novel about a black man's country under white man's law is a work of searing beauty.
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
The eminent literary critic Lewis Gannett wrote, "We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet and the novelist meet in a unique harmony."
Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, this is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.

This book broke my heart. It reminded me a little of Home by Marilynne Robinson (which was published later but I read it first) in its sensibility - an aching, infinite sympathy and sorrow for good people caught up in pitiless circumstances. So nuanced and beautiful and so incredibly sad.

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. Goodreads synopsis: In the remote winter landscape a brutal massacre and the kidnapping of a young Iroquois girl violently re-ignites a deep rift between two tribes. The girl’s captor, Bird, is one of the Huron Nation’s great warriors and statesmen. Years have passed since the murder of his family, and yet they are never far from his mind. In the girl, Snow Falls, he recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter, but as he fights for her heart and allegiance, small battles erupt into bigger wars as both tribes face a new, more dangerous threat from afar.
Traveling with the Huron is Christophe, a charismatic missionary who has found his calling among the tribe and devotes himself to learning and understanding their customs and language. An emissary from distant lands, he brings much more than his faith to this new world, with its natural beauty and riches.
As these three souls dance with each other through intricately woven acts of duplicity, their social, political and spiritual worlds collide - and a new nation rises from a world in flux.

Intense, and incendiary, and discomfiting. I was riveted. It brings history to life in the way only the very best written works can. Some of the violence is horrific, but I don't agree at all with people who thought it was gratuitous or excessive - it seemed completely integral to the story. 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Goodreads synopsis: On the faded Island Books sign hanging over the porch of the Victorian cottage is the motto "No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World." A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.
A. J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island-from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who's always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.'s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.
And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It's a small package, but large in weight. It's that unexpected arrival that gives A. J. Fikry the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn't take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J.; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.'s world; or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn't see coming. As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.
 

I started this in the middle of a sleepless night, and it went SO MUCH BETTER than the last time I started an ebook on a sleepless night. This book is full of beautifully improbable events and improbably beautiful coincidences, and has real ordinary people that love books and talk about books and connect over books and I LOVED IT SO MUCH. I gave it to several people and happily, unlike with many of my favourite books, everyone so far has concurred with my conclusion. 
The publisher provided a copy through NetGalley. I want to send the publisher a lollipop.


Native Son by Richard Wright. Goodreads synopsis: Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape.Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright's powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America. 

I don't really know HOW to rate this, or how to review it. I read it only after reading James Baldwin's pointed critique of it in Notes of a Native son, and I'm certainly less qualified than he is to offer an opinion, but in my experience it did exactly what it seemed to be meant to do. I felt physically ill while reading much of it, and I'm not generally that sensitive to unpleasant material. Some of it did feel a little preachy, I think only because that in the time it was written it seemed that things had to be laid out that bluntly and specifically, even didactically, to have an effect. It was horrifying.


Young Adult and Children's:


Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Goodreads synopsis: Two misfits.
One extraordinary love.
Eleanor
... Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough...Eleanor.
Park... He knows she'll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There's a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises...Park.
Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Another Little Piece by Kate Karyus Quinn. Goodreads synopsis: On a cool autumn night, Annaliese Rose Gordon stumbled out of the woods and into a high school party. She was screaming. Drenched in blood. Then she vanished.
A year later, Annaliese is found wandering down a road hundreds of miles away. She doesn't know who she is. She doesn't know how she got there. She only knows one thing: She is not the real Annaliese Rose Gordon.
Now Annaliese is haunted by strange visions and broken memories. Memories of a reckless, desperate wish . . . a bloody razor . . . and the faces of other girls who disappeared. Piece by piece, Annaliese's fractured memories come together to reveal a violent, endless cycle that she will never escape—unless she can unlock the twisted secrets of her past.

I give out 5-star ratings pretty rarely, and I've given two of them in a week, so it's possible that my reading psyche went on an "I love you guys" drunken tear in May 2014. This blew me away, though, particularly considering it's a first novel. I had no idea what to expect at any point, the writing is remarkably assured, and characters are allowed to be more than they first appear to be. I actually really enjoyed the non-linearity and the fact that things seemed impenetrable and ambiguous at times. It was fresh, original, unexpected and a near-perfect reading experience. 

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. Goodreads synopsis: When suburban Claudia Kincaid decides to run away, she knows she doesn’t just want to run from somewhere, she wants to run to somewhere — to a place that is comfortable, beautiful, and, preferably, elegant. She chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Knowing her younger brother Jamie has money and thus can help her with a serious cash-flow problem, she invites him along.
Once settled into the museum, Claudia and Jamie find themselves caught up in the mystery of an angel statue that the museum purchased at auction for a bargain price of $225. The statue is possibly an early work of the Renaissance master, Michelangelo, and therefore worth millions. Is it? Or isn’t it? 
Claudia is determined to find out. Her quest leads her to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the remarkable old woman who sold the statue, and to some equally remarkable discoveries about herself.

For years I kept thinking that I had read this book, then realized that I was confusing it with the E.L. Konigsburg book I had read and loved (The View From Saturday). This requires a lot of suspension of parental horror as well as disbelief, but if you can get past that it's possible that you will find it as utterly charming as I did. Or not. No pressure. 


Short Stories:
The Janus Tree and Other Stories by Glen Hirshberg. Goodreads synopsis: "Welcome back to Glen Hirshberg country, where griefs are at least as dangerous as ghosts. Where terror and wonder become not just inextricable but often indistinguishable. Where the worlds of imagination and everyday reality color and corrode and sometimes overwhelm each other. A country surprisingly like your own".

Just....just... disturbing and creepy and brilliant and sad and wonderful.

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell. Goodreads synopsis: A dazzling debut, a blazingly original voice: the ten stories in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves introduce a radiant new talent.
In the collection's title story, a pack of girls raised by wolves are painstakingly reeducated by nuns. In 'Haunting Olivia,' two young boys make midnight trips to a boat graveyard in search of their dead sister, who set sail in the exoskeleton of a giant crab. In 'Z.Z.'s Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers,' a boy whose dreams foretell implacable tragedies is sent to a summer camp for troubled sleepers (Cabin 1, Narcoleptics; Cabin 2, Sleep Apneics; Cabin 3, Somnambulists . . . ). And 'Ava Wrestles the Alligator' introduces the remarkable Bigtree Wrestling Dynasty' Grandpa Sawtooth, Chief Bigtree, and twelve-year-old Ava' proprietors of Swamplandia!, the island's #1 Gator Theme Park and Cafe. Ava is still mourning her mother when her father disappears, his final words to her the swamp maxim 'Feed the gators, don't talk to strangers.' Left to look after seventy incubating alligators and an older sister who may or may not be having sex with a succubus, Ava meets the Bird Man, and learns that when you're a kid it's often hard to tell the innocuous secrets from the ones that will kill you if you keep them.
Russell's stories are beautifully written and exuberantly imagined, but it is the emotional precision behind their wondrous surfaces that makes them unforgettable. Magically, from the spiritual wilderness and ghostly swamps of the Florida Everglades, against a backdrop of ancient lizards and disconcertingly lush plant life 'in an idiom that is as arrestingly lovely as it is surreal' Karen Russell shows us who we are and how we live.

I read this after being bowled over by Vampires in the Lemon Grove, her second collection, and loved it just as much. It must be said that several of my friends don't love her stories, so I should be clear that these are not plot-driven and there is often not what you might think of as a satisfactory resolution. The strange thing is, I usually don't love short stories that are short on story either, but somehow these work for me. The title story alone was amazing - it was like the most perfect allegory that would have been a wonderful story even if it wasn't allegorical. Yes, clearly this book has robbed me of the ability to be coherent and articulate. 

The Curiosities: a Collection of Stories by Maggie Stiefvater, Brenna Yovanoff and Tessa Gratton. Goodreads synopsis: From acclaimed YA authors Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff comes The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories.
- A vampire locked in a cage in the basement, for good luck.
- Bad guys, clever girls, and the various reasons why the guys have to stop breathing.
- A world where fires never go out (with references to vanilla ice cream). 
These are but a few of the curiosities collected in this volume of short stories by three acclaimed practitioners of paranormal fiction.
But The Curiosities is more than the stories. Since 2008, Maggie, Tessa, and Brenna have posted more than 250 works of short fiction to their website merryfates.com. Their goal was simple: create a space for experimentation and improvisation in their writing—all in public and without a backspace key. In that spirit, The Curiosities includes the stories and each author's comments, critiques, and kudos in the margins. Think of it as a guided tour of the creative processes of three acclaimed authors.
So, are you curious now?

How do I count the ways? Two of my favourite young adult authors plus one I hadn't yet discovered. I often don't WANT to hear about writing processes or what inspired which story or what an author had for lunch, but in this case I found all the notes and insights fascinating and charming, and I love the friendship and dynamic between the three writers. And I realize that the stories were chosen from many and edited, but the stories are REALLY FREAKING GOOD. Unrepentant fangirl.

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck. Goodreads synopsis: Enter the strange and wonderful world of Swedish sensation Karin Tidbeck with this feast of darkly fantastical stories. Whether through the falsified historical record of the uniquely weird Swedish creature known as the “Pyret” or the title story, “Jagannath,” about a biological ark in the far future, Tidbeck’s unique imagination will enthrall, amuse, and unsettle you. How else to describe a collection that includes “Cloudberry Jam,” a story that opens with the line “I made you in a tin can”? Marvels, quirky character studies, and outright surreal monstrosities await you in what is likely to be one of the most talked-about short story collections of the year.
Tidbeck is a rising star in her native country, having published a collection there in Swedish, won a prestigious literary grant, and just sold her first novel to Sweden’s largest publisher. A graduate of the iconic Clarion Writer’s Workshop at the University of California, San Diego, in 2010, her publication history includes Weird Tales, Shimmer Magazine, Unstuck Annual and the anthology Odd.

Holy fucking fuck. Seriously. English isn't even her first fucking LANGUAGE. These stories shimmer with weirdness and wisdom. I read feeling like I was discovering something completely new and yet something that should have always already been. 


Fantasy/Horror:

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. Goodreads synopsis: A breathtaking novel by the author of A Soldier of the Great War, this is a book about the beauty and complexity of the human soul, about God, love, and justice, and yet readers can lose themselves in it as if it were a dream.

I bought a crappy second-hand copy of this years ago and read a bit of it and was utterly enchanted. I got to one particularly cinematic bit about a very imaginative method of thievery which I would quote if I had any idea where the book was and wasn't too lazy to go and find it, and I laughed out loud and then I put the book down and away because I wanted to hold it in reserve. Years went by. I gave my sister a copy and she read it. I finally realized I didn't know what exactly I was holding it in reserve for and started reading it again, parcelling it out a few pages at a time. I was awestruck at the breadth of imagination and vision Helprin held in his mind and spooled out between the covers. And the Lake of the Coheeries, and the white horse, and Peter Lake, and New York and the way that the snow and ice sounded so pure and cold and silent and perfect, and the marsh and the fog curtain and people falling in love and dying and building fabulous empires, and magic and immortality, and the efforts to shatter time and bring back the dead. 

The ending, in fact, didn't seem perfect to me. I wanted something more, or something else. But altogether? This book was amazing. 

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. Goodreads synopsis: Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh.

No way, I said, a couple of chapters in. No way am I giving another five-star review. I have been WAY too profligate with five-star reviews lately.

But dammit - it's a five-star book. It's a flat-out edge-of-your-seat need-to-read, AND it has flawed, nuanced characters AND good writing AND some fairly unpalatable musings about humanity, AND the science makes sense.

And oh my god, does he stick the landing. 


The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Goodreads synopsis: Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Laneis told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.


To conclude my review of books read in 2014, I give you the very first book I read in 2014, on New Year's Day, in my comfy reading chair. I don't really know what to say about it, since I have used many many adjectives in these posts. It is short. Some people liked it, some didn't. I thought it was terrifying and sweet and sad and perfect in that way that makes you feel like it is a story that you've known since you were very very small, but always wanted someone to tell to you again so you could remember it just right. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Four Star Fiction and Non-Fiction 2014

Photo by roujo










All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. Goodreads synopsis: A novel of exceptional heart and imagination about the ties that bind us to each other, broken and whole, from one of the most exciting voices in Canadian fiction. 
     September, 1983. Fourteen-year-old Bo, a boat person from Vietnam, lives in a small house in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto with his mother, Thao, and his four-year-old sister, who was born severely disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange. Named Orange, she is the family secret; Thao keeps her hidden away, and when Bo's not at school or getting into fights on the street, he cares for her.
     One day a carnival worker and bear trainer, Gerry, sees Bo in a streetfight, and recruits him for the bear wrestling circuit, eventually giving him his own cub to train. This opens up a new world for Bo--but then Gerry's boss, Max, begins pursuing Thao with an eye on Orange for his travelling freak show. When Bo wakes up one night to find the house empty, he knows he and his cub, Bear, are truly alone. Together they set off on an extraordinary journey through the streets of Toronto and High Park. Awake at night, boy and bear form a unique and powerful bond. When Bo emerges from the park to search for his sister, he discovers a new way of seeing Orange, himself and the world around them.
   All the Broken Things is a spellbinding novel, at once melancholy and hopeful, about the peculiarities that divide us and bring us together, and the human capacity for love and acceptance.


Beautifully written, strange and moving. 

Ru by Kim Thuy. Goodreads synopsis: A runaway bestseller in Quebec, with foreign rights sold to 15 countries around the world, Kim Thúy's Governor General's Literary Award-winning Ru is a lullaby for Vietnam and a love letter to a new homeland.
Ru. In Vietnamese it means lullaby; in French it is a small stream, but also signifies a flow - of tears, blood, money. Kim Thúy's Ru is literature at its most crystalline: the flow of a life on the tides of unrest and on to more peaceful waters. In vignettes of exquisite clarity, sharp observation and sly wit, we are carried along on an unforgettable journey from a palatial residence in Saigon to a crowded and muddy Malaysian refugee camp, and onward to a new life in Quebec. There, the young girl feels the embrace of a new community, and revels in the chance to be part of the American Dream. As an adult, the waters become rough again: now a mother of two sons, she must learn to shape her love around the younger boy's autism. Moving seamlessly from past to present, from history to memory and back again, Ru is a book that celebrates life in all its wonder: its moments of beauty and sensuality, brutality and sorrow, comfort and comedy. 

Spare, but lovely. Unfortunately, the poetic nature of the writing seems to make it even more difficult than usual to remember details of the story. 

The Eliot Girls by Krista Bridge. Goodreads synopsis: For years, Audrey Brindle has dreamed of attending George Eliot Academy, the school where her mother, Ruth, has taught for a decade. But when she is finally admitted, she discovers a place of sly bullying, ferocious intolerance, and bewildering social standards. Ruth, meanwhile, finds her world upended by her attraction to a new teacher, and the ambitions and desires of both mother and daughter find themselves on a collision course. An acutely observed exploration of betrayal, cruelty, and fallen idols, The Eliot Girls deftly explores the intimacies and injustices of privileged female adolescence and the relationship of a mother and daughter for whom life will never be the same. 

Picked this up at random while at the library - something I do increasingly rarely. At first I found it a bit overwritten and self-consciously first novel-ish, and I still find that Ruth's character was sort of half-drawn, with some dimensions very finely shaded and others completely missing. I also wonder, in works like this, if there isn't a way to put in some characters that are normal, for lack of a better term. Everyone is always either the protagonist or a kind of caricature - all the other teachers are overly dramatic, or have dietary tics, or are too wrapped up in perfect motherhood. But on the whole I really enjoyed it - or admired it, is probably more accurate. It was a clear-eyed rendering of the savage arena of adolescent girlhood and of an incident of adultery, that made both things familiar and yet just different enough to be interesting. And the language was often quite striking.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. Goodreads synopsis: Miriam Toews is beloved for her irresistible voice, for mingling laughter and heartwrenching poignancy like no other writer. In her most passionate novel yet, she brings us the riveting story of two sisters, and a love that illuminates life. 
You won’t forget Elf and Yoli, two smart and loving sisters. Elfrieda, a world-renowned pianist, glamorous, wealthy, happily married: she wants to die. Yolandi, divorced, broke, sleeping with the wrong men as she tries to find true love: she desperately wants to keep her older sister alive. Yoli is a beguiling mess, wickedly funny even as she stumbles through life struggling to keep her teenage kids and mother happy, her exes from hating her, her sister from killing herself and her own heart from breaking. 
But Elf’s latest suicide attempt is a shock: she is three weeks away from the opening of her highly anticipated international tour. Her long-time agent has been calling and neither Yoli nor Elf’s loving husband knows what to tell him. Can she be nursed back to “health” in time? Does it matter? As the situation becomes ever more complicated, Yoli faces the most terrifying decision of her life.
 All My Puny Sorrows, at once tender and unquiet, offers a profound reflection on the limits of love, and the sometimes unimaginable challenges we experience when childhood becomes a new country of adult commitments and responsibilities. In her beautifully rendered new novel, Miriam Toews gives us a startling demonstration of how to carry on with hope and love and the business of living even when grief loads the heart.

I found this similar to A Complicated Kindness, by which I mean not that it was derivative, but that Toews has a remarkable gift for making the most unbearably sad situations hysterically funny without taking away any of the sadness. I love her. 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Goodreads synopsis: An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity. 
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur's chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them. 
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten's arm is a line from Star Trek: "Because survival is insufficient." But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave. 
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleventells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it. 

Reviewed on blog

There but for the by Ali Smith. Goodreads synopsis: Imagine you have a dinner party and a friend of a friend brings a stranger to your house as his guest. He seems pleasant enough. Imagine that this stranger goes upstairs halfway through the dinner party and locks himself in one of your bedrooms and won't come out. Imagine you can't move him for days, weeks, months. If ever.

Read for book club. It was unconventional but interesting - the story of the people connected to the main character are almost more moving and engaging than the story of the character himself. 


Requiem by Frances Itani. Goodreads synopsis: Bin Okuma, a celebrated visual artist, has recently and quite suddenly lost his wife, Lena. He and his son, Greg, are left to deal with the shock. But Greg has returned to his studies on the East Coast, and Bin finds himself alone and pulled into memories he has avoided for much of his life. In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, his Japanese Canadian family was displaced from the West Coast. Now, he sets out to drive across the country: to complete the last works needed for an upcoming exhibition; to revisit the places that have shaped him; to find his biological father, who has been lost to him. It has been years since his father made a fateful decision that almost destroyed the family. Now, Bin must ask himself whether he really wants to find him. With the persuasive voice of his wife in his head, and the echo of their great love in his heart, he embarks on an unforgettable journey that encompasses art and music, love and hope.
A story of great loss, a story of redemption, a story of abiding love, Requiem is a beautifully written and evocative novel about a family torn apart by the past and a man’s present search for solace.

The synopsis captures it pretty well for this one. This is a sad and affecting story, one of those that we need to help us put a human face on an ugly situation that can be hard to conceptualize in the abstract. 

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. Goodreads synopsis: Saul Indian Horse has hit bottom. His last binge almost killed him, and now he’s a reluctant resident in a treatment centre for alcoholics, surrounded by people he’s sure will never understand him. But Saul wants peace, and he grudgingly comes to see that he’ll find it only through telling his story. With him, readers embark on a journey back through the life he’s led as a northern Ojibway, with all its joys and sorrows.
With compassion and insight, author Richard Wagamese traces through his fictional characters the decline of a culture and a cultural way. For Saul, taken forcibly from the land and his family when he’s sent to residential school, salvation comes for a while through his incredible gifts as a hockey player. But in the harsh realities of 1960s Canada, he battles obdurate racism and the spirit-destroying effects of cultural alienation and displacement.
Indian Horse unfolds against the bleak loveliness of northern Ontario, all rock, marsh, bog and cedar. Wagamese writes with a spare beauty, penetrating the heart of a remarkable Ojibway man. Drawing on his great-grandfather’s mystical gift of vision, Saul Indian Horse comes to recognize the influence of everyday magic on his own life. In this wise and moving novel, Richard Wagamese shares that gift of magic with readers as well.


The star system is kind of meaningless for a book like this. "I really liked it"? Well, no, I didn't, it made me feel like throwing up and committing acts of mayhem every few pages. Is it brilliantly done and viscerally enragingly disturbing? Yes, it is. Is there maybe a little too much exhaustive detail about hockey in it for me? Perhaps, but obviously that's understandable. Goddamn, why do people suck so energetically hard so much of the time?

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam. Goodreads synopsis: From Giller Prize winner, internationally acclaimed, and bestselling author Vincent Lam comes a superbly crafted, highly suspenseful, and deeply affecting novel set against the turmoil of the Vietnam War. 
Percival Chen is the headmaster of the most respected English school in Saigon. He is also a bon vivant, a compulsive gambler and an incorrigible womanizer. He is well accustomed to bribing a forever-changing list of government officials in order to maintain the elite status of the Chen Academy. He is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, and quick to spot the business opportunities rife in a divided country. He devotedly ignores all news of the fighting that swirls around him, choosing instead to read the faces of his opponents at high-stakes mahjong tables. But when his only son gets in trouble with the Vietnamese authorities, Percival faces the limits of his connections and wealth and is forced to send him away. In the loneliness that follows, Percival finds solace in Jacqueline, a beautiful woman of mixed French and Vietnamese heritage, and Laing Jai, a son born to them on the eve of the Tet offensive. Percival's new-found happiness is precarious, and as the complexities of war encroach further and further into his world, he must confront the tragedy of all he has refused to see. 
Blessed with intriguingly flawed characters moving through a richly drawn historical and physical landscape, The Headmaster's Wager is a riveting story of love, betrayal and sacrifice.


The plot description really didn't pull me in on this one - I can't even remember why I finally picked it up, but I liked it much more than I expected to. It's not a setting I'm familiar with, so I enjoyed the strangeness of the sense of place, and the story - and Percival Chen as a character - were exceptionally well done. 

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Goodreads synopsis: From bestselling author Meg Wolitzer a dazzling, panoramic novel about what becomes of early talent, and the roles that art, money, and even envy can play in close friendships.
The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.
The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful—true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken.
Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters who come together and apart in a changing New York City, The Interestings explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life.

Reviewed on blog.

Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates. Goodreads synopsis: One game. Six students. Five survivors.
It was only ever meant to be a game.
A game of consequences, of silly forfeits, childish dares. A game to be played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University. But then the game changed: the stakes grew higher and the dares more personal, more humiliating, finally evolving into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results.
Now, fourteen years later, the remaining players must meet again for the final round.


I'm kind of a sucker for these "they were the best of friends...deep dark secret....blah blah blah" books, with a healthy dose of skepticism, because when done badly they can be unforgivably melodramatic. This one is done really well. The addition of a layer of British classism adds depth, as well as the shady manipulations of Game Soc. The heady mix of intellectual ferment and young adult freedom (and hubris) is captured perfectly, and the description of the personalities makes it easy to overcome the "but why wouldn't they just stop?" reaction. Above all, this book really brings home the truth that there's nothing an enemy can do to you that can compare with the devastation that can be wrought by a friend. 

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty. Goodreads synopsis: At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that’s not meant to be read
My darling Cecilia, if you’re reading this, then I’ve died...
Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .
Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, and a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything, and not just for her: Rachel and Tess barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they too are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.
Acclaimed author Liane Moriarty has written a gripping, thought-provoking novel about how well it is really possible to know our spouses—and, ultimately, ourselves.


I was expecting this to be more mystery than 'women's fiction', but I ended up really enjoying it. I agree a lot of it was contrived and implausible (although my friend Zarah would like you to know that the incredibly unrealistic part about the one woman's husband and his lover expecting her to feel bad for them because they were so sorry that they fell in love does actually happen), but it was internally consistent enough that I could get over that, and I did enjoy the various crossing paths and the thoughts about wifedom and motherhood. And if you're thinking that you already read about this one in a previous post, you did - I accidentally included it in the three-star books. Oops. 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Goodreads synopsis: It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don't know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.
As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.
The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher's calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

We read her previous book, The Secret History, in my book club years ago and I really didn't like it, and I was surprised at all the positive buzz about this one. I got it out of the library for my mother and she finished it so quickly that there was time before it had to go back, so I cracked it open. I ended up happily eating my words (or hers, as it turns out). This was as wide and deep and moving as The Secret History was shallow and flat and annoying (for me, anyway). I couldn't put it down.


Non-fiction: 

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. Goodreads synopsis: Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice. 
Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond.  Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.

I started this out feeling ever-so-slightly cranky about it, like Strayed was just using people's letters as a flimsy framework to hang her own flighty musings and memoirings on. As I read on, I started to think, well, after all, these people wrote to her in full knowledge that she's not a licensed therapist or psychiatrist, and she did it for free. In addition, there's some pretty goddamned good writing AND some fairly decent life advice on offer. So, yeah: Dear Self: Get over yourself.


Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened by Allie Brosh. Goodreads synopsis: This is a book I wrote. Because I wrote it, I had to figure out what to put on the back cover to explain what it is. I tried to write a long, third-person summary that would imply how great the book is and also sound vaguely authoritative--like maybe someone who isn’t me wrote it--but I soon discovered that I’m not sneaky enough to pull it off convincingly. So I decided to just make a list of things that are in the book:
Pictures
Words
Stories about things that happened to me
Stories about things that happened to other people because of me
Eight billion dollars*
Stories about dogs
The secret to eternal happiness*
*These are lies. Perhaps I have underestimated my sneakiness!


I always think a big part of the secret to eternal happiness is laughter - even about sad, horrible things like death and crippling depression - so I don't think she's really lying. She is gifted and hysterically funny, though. I gave this to Matt's uncle and his wife (who are not that much older than us), and their seven-year-old got hold of it, read a few pages and said "this book has every swear ever invented in it". He doesn't actually know all the swear words ever invented (I know - I quizzed him), but maybe exercise some parental discretion if that kind of thing bothers you.