Taking the Flower: A Review of Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking”

Photo courtesy of brainpickings.org

Photo courtesy of brainpickings.org

Amanda Palmer shows up in my dreams.

I don’t mean this in the weird-creepy-stalker way. She shows up almost like a fairy godmother…if fairy godmother’s were kickass ukelele-toting chicks in combat boots and kimonos.

Just last week, I dreamt that my husband and I had dinner with her and Neil Gaiman.

All this to say that I love her and what she does. Amanda, as far as I can see, is living authentically. That is rare. And it is so beautiful.

This beauty is captured in her book The Art of Asking. Here is my video review of the title:

Cliffs Notes on the video:
– This book is not a guide on how to ask for help, as I thought it might be. Rather it is a memoir where she tells her story of how she learned to ask through her adventures as an eight-foot bride, a musician with oodles of Twitter followers, and lots in between.  She leads by example, all while being honest with her doubts and vulnerabilities.

– I really dig what she does.

– This book came to me at such a great time, what with being a newlywed and starting to get my poetry and art off the ground and to the eyes of the public.

– I read an excerpt from her book that really stuck with me. Take the flower = take the donuts = graciously receive help in whatever form it takes

– Even if you don’t have tons of Twitter followers (I certainly don’t, and that’s OK!), you still have a community. And we all have enough when we pool our collective resources. If that’s your kind of message, then read The Art of Asking.

– If you are not able to afford a copy of the book (it can get pricey in hard cover), head over to Mass Mosaic. Tons of people are making copies available (myself included) and asking for copies. See? We have enough when we pool our collective resources 🙂

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Tables Turned: A Review of Junot Diaz’s “This is How You Lose Her”

(A word from our sponsor: Not sure how to avoid plagiarism? I use Grammarly because copy and pasting is for kids that eat Elmer’s glue.)

Image courtesy of Goodreads.com

Image courtesy of Goodreads.com

This book made me miss my train stop.  ‘Nuff said.  Oh, you actually want to hear what the book was about and what about it kept my attention rapt? Well, then I will continue.

I was introduced to Junot Diaz by a friend a little over two years ago. Since then, I’ve read one novel and two short story collections of his, including “This is How You Lose Her.” I’ve loved his sassy, authentic, Dominican characters.  This particular collection focuses on Yunior, a twenty-something born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York. He can’t seem to help but cheat, and I was worried that this entire collection would just be tales of his escapades. But, of course, Junot Diaz is too good of a writer to simply create one-dimensional characters.

I was delighted to find that Yunior has a rich backstory since, on the surface, he seemed like the stereotypical macho Hispanic man. This book served to remind me that everyone acts the way they do for a reason or several reasons.

This collection chronicles Yunior from the teenage years and above. There are women he’s loved and lost, some of which he actually cared about. Diaz also develops the relationship between Yunior and his brother, a macho man idol in Yunior’s eyes. The brother becomes ill with cancer, devastating our main character. It is these bumps in the road that mold and harden Yunior.

These bumps can be seen, and are fully explored, in the last short story, “A Cheater’s Guide to Love.” In this tale, Yunior’s fiance finds out he has been cheating on her during all the years they’ve been together. They split, and the journey begins. Diaz divides the story into 6 parts, each representing one year of Yunior’s life post-breakup. Karma catches up with him, which had the vengeful Latina in me cheering. And yet, by year 2 or 3, I found myself feeling sorry for him. By then, I felt like he got what he deserved and should be able to move on. But he couldn’t. Any attempts to genuinely start a better life for himself were thwarted not only by mental anguish, but by physical pain and friend problems as well.

Is there such a thing as too much pain or punishment? Diaz subtly poses this question and many more in his book. He makes the reader question “right” and “wrong” because he paints the human experience in the richness of gray and complexity.  Another aspect of his writing that I appreciate is the fact that he includes Dominican history and snippets of the Spanish language. While some may argue that this makes his work inaccessible to some, I’d argue that it lends another layer of authenticity to his stories.  Personally, while I am half Dominican, I am not familiar with that part of my heritage, and I’m thankful to Diaz for filling me in. His use of Spanish and Spanglish makes his writing feel like home to me. It is the kind of writing that makes me break the surface of reality two train stops late…and I’m ok with that.

I’d recommend this book to those who would like Latin-inspired fiction that is by turns conversational and profane. Also, if you want another good Diaz read that gives backstory on Yunior’s father, I recommend “Drown.”

Lastly, below is a speech/Q&A given by Junot Diaz. In it, he talks about “This is How You Lose Her” and Yunior’s character. I was surprised to find that there are still more layers to the character that have yet to be written about.

Beautiful Sadness: A Review of “The Middlesteins” by Jami Attenberg

Photo courtesy of Goodreads.com

Photo courtesy of Goodreads.com

In Goodreads, I have a category called “This might depress you, but it’s worth it” because  I tend to read depressing books. Maybe I’m crazy, but I find depth in sadness.  I feel like joy is only fully realized when darkness has precluded it.  And not necessarily right before, but at least I’ve found that when times are really good, I appreciate it all the more because I know what it’s like to not be so happy.  

“The Middlesteins” by Jami Attenberg fits nicely into this Goodreads category.  The book details the journey of a family that includes Edie, a wife, mother, and grandmother who is diabetic and overweight. Despite her conditions, she continues to gorge and not watch her eating habits or blood sugar.  Her family wants to help her, but every attempt fails.

This book asks an important question: What do you do when someone you love is in trouble, but he/she does not want help?  There are attempts to get Edie to eat healthier and to remind her that she should be healthy so she can enjoy her life. But these attempts and pleas go unconsidered. Edie continues to go to her favorite Chinese food joint.

Perhaps other reviews may focus on the obsession with food depicted in this story as a commentary on American culture. That aspect is certainly present, however, along with asking that important question, what stuck out to me the most was the very realistic portrayal of the family members’ reactions. Whether you hate or love a character in this book, you must give them room to react in their own way since everyone deals with grief, even pre-grief, differently. One is militant in her resolve to get Edie on a strict food and exercise regimen. One is somewhat indifferent. Edie’s grandchildren are a bit too young to fully understand, yet Attenberg captures their naivete and subsequent realization of the gravity of the situation so deftly.  Her ability to weave in humor, and even the mundane tasks of real life, in such a way that makes them seem important is truly stunning. It takes hard work to make everyday life resonate.

In addition, I found the book totally quotable. I kept writing in my journal as I read.  One quote that I still think about today (perhaps because diabetes runs in my family) occurred when one of the grandchildren muses on her grandmother’s illness. The family is Jewish, and Biblical imagery is sprinkled throughout the text.  The granddaughter thinks about the plagues and how that kind of widespread destruction is the definition of biblical to her since it is so grand. After seeing the negative effects Edie’s uncontrolled diabetes has wreaked on her family, the girl thinks, “Diabetes felt biblical.” This, to me, is wonderful writing: nuanced and grounded in the characters’ world.

Attenberg’s writing style is very reminiscent of William Faulkner. The book is arranged in sections, each chapter written to follow a different member of the family.  I appreciated the different perspectives because it mirrored the situation so well: Dealing with an ailing family member (and one who’s in denial of her illness) is such a multifaceted situation, and the author captured this effectively through the novel’s structure. Additionally, the writing style of “The Middlesteins” is probably among the best I’ve encountered in a while. It’s accessible, funny (sometimes darkly humorous), and always rings true to life.  I’m excited to read more from her.

I highly recommend this book to all readers looking for some well-thought out characters with emotional depth, all of which wrestle with some tough life choices. Also, it’s a good read if you’re willing to delve into some depressing, yet important, subject matter.

The Real Fabric of Reality: A Review of “Crewel” by Gennifer Albin

I haven’t posted a book review since January. I have been reading quite a bit since then but haven’t written down my thoughts. I’d like to change that.

My goal is to catch up on my book reviews, both of Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) and other books I think are worthy of note (sometimes I just like to read without thinking that I later have to write a review for all to see), by the end of the year.  Right now, I have about 10 reviews (8 books, 2 albums) with 3 more coming down the pike as soon as I finish the books. With about 6 and a half weeks left in the year and my goal of posting at least twice a week on the blog, this is totally doable. So here goes!

Photo courtesy of rainydaybooks.com

Photo courtesy of rainydaybooks.com

I’m kicking off this end-of-the-year goal with a review of “Crewel” by Gennifer Albin, which I received an ARC of. While I read this about a year ago, I actually think of the premise quite often as it is one of the more intriguing concepts I’ve encountered in a while (And it’s dysopian. I love dystopian).

In this novel, the world is made of “time” fabric that only a certain few can see (This book is very appropriately titled since “crewel” is a type of embroidery). These few are typically girls, and they are recruited. If you can see the fabric, you can weave it. These recruited few are whisked away to live a life of luxury with pretty dresses and banquets. Or so it seems.

The book focuses on one girl in particular: Adelice. She is one of the very few (I’m talking one in every few decades) that has exceptional vision for the this “time fabric” and can weave it with stunning ease and dexterity if she chooses to.  And yet, she doesn’t want to. She wants to live a normal life, not one away from her family, no matter how glamourous it may seem.  She knows there is something off about weaving the literal fabric of time. Deciding what to do with others people’s lives, and even ending them, or erasing society’s memory of a particularly heinous event is not what she’s into. But because of her exceptional ability, she is recruited anyhow.  To add to the cast of characters, Adelice meets Jost and Erik while assimilating to her new life as a weaver.  Thus begins Adelice’s adventure…and the downward spiral into romance.

While this book was very promising, the development of the idea fell short for me.  I love the concept of the world’s events and lives and everyday occurrences being literally wrapped in a fabric that can be shaped, cut, and added to. I thought it was a very nice metaphor for life in that we all collectively form a tapestry, a work of art (that a select few want to keep control of because they are power hungry. A good villain is always needed). However, I felt as if the book focused more on the typical teenage romance than the (very dangerous) circumstances surrounding wanting to rebel against a tightly-woven (pun definitely intended) society with veiled yet impenetrable security.

As mentioned in my review of “Divergent,” I’m very picky when it comes to romance. I’m ok with it as long as it seems necessary. For me, the love triangle in “Crewel” wasn’t necessary and fell more in line with “this is what needs to happen in a YA novel, so here it is.”  I wanted to see more action, by which I mean more explosions and fighting and sneaking around, but I got kissing instead. This made Adelice, while not a weak character, appear wimpy and, at times, one-dimensional.  This is not to say that literary women in relationships are weak, I just prefer female characters that spend most of their time kicking ass rather than making out.

The ending also seemed a bit rushed, though I think it was more intended as a cliffhanger. Although there were some flaws with this book, the writing was solid, and I’m interested enough in the world to see what happens next.  I just found out that the sequel (“Altered”) is now out, and I’ll be picking that up soon.  Sometimes book series can have a slow start with the first installment since it is the introduction to the world. It’s certainly possible (and I’m hopeful) that Gennifer Albin picks up the pace with “Altered.” Here’s hoping for more explosions!

Simple Question. A Myriad of Possibilities: A Book Review

MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD

MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD (Photo credit: roberthuffstutter)

I don’t always publish posts in a series, but when I do, I like them to have a theme.

I thought it would be appropriate to begin the new year by publishing three posts that have to do with bucket lists. A while back, I found two blogs that published their bucket lists. I wrote down mine, and they have sat as drafts in my WordPress account for far too long. I’ll be unleashing the goods later this week.

Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

I’ll start with a book review. Some of the best books I find while randomly browsing library shelves.  A few months ago I browsed the “New Book” shelf at the library and found “What Do You Want to Do Before You Die?”  The cover intrigued me, and I found myself not really knowing how to answer this question because so many ideas came to mind.

It turns out that this book came about because four guys, who named themselves “The Buried Life,” became dissatisfied with how their lives were going (graduate college, get a 9-5 job, etc).  They decided to forge their own road and go on a road trip armed with a list of 100 bucket list items.  This trip turned into a movement. Everywhere they went, they not only tried to cross off items on their list, but also on the lists of strangers they met.  They’ve asked countless people “What do you want to do before you die?” and the answers are by turns comical, outlandish, and heart-warming.

The Buried Life

The Buried Life (Photo credit: University of Central Arkansas)

The book is a mix of Buried Life testimonials giving account about how these four guys have achieved their own bucket list items as well as how they helped others achieve something of their own.  Some accounts are directly from people they have helped.  But what I found most interesting is that most of the book’s pages are comprised of collages illustrating a single bucket list wish.  Pages and pages are filled with wishes, both extravagant and simple, rendered in a very quirky ways.  I loved flipping through this book again and again just to look at the artwork.  A few of these wishes have even made it onto my bucket list because they sound like so much fun.

This book is a fairly quick read, but  it’s so rich.  I’d recommend this book for anyone looking for inspiration, both personally and creatively.

Divergent, Insurgent…Detergent?

Divergent

Divergent (Photo credit: prettybooks)

I recently stumbled upon the Divergent series thanks for a library friend of mine.  She said it was being heralded as the new Hunger Games.  I was skeptical.  I loved the Hunger Games and didn’t think anything could come close to it in YA fiction again.  But I have to say that Veronica Roth does a very good job.

The heroine of the Divergent series, Tris, is strong-willed and useful, the two qualities I love in female characters.  This is not because I am a Femi-Nazi.  It’s because I like tension in my characters.  While reading about Tris, I found myself getting frustrated with her.  This is not the frustration one feels when one encounters a poorly written character, but rather the organic frustration that inevitably comes when you get to know someone.  Their quirks bug you and sometimes (though you value their strength) you wish they weren’t so stubborn.  I have wrestled with Tris as I wrestled with Katniss.

Now for the obligatory summary (without too many spoilers, I hope): This dystopian series is set in a society where people are split into 5 factions which hold a particular virtue above all others: Candor (honesty), Dauntless (bravery), Erudite (intelligence), Amity (peace), and Abnegation (selflessness).  When children turn 16, they get to choose which faction they will stay in for the rest of their lives.  This means they will conform to the rules of that particular faction, wear faction-specific clothing, and if you choose a faction different from the one you were born into, you never get to see your family again.  No pressure, right?

This book follows Beatrice Prior, who is born into Abnegation.  She ends up choosing Dauntless.  This seems pretty straight forward — a young girl who feels too selfish for a life of selflessness tries to break out of her prescribed mold by being daring. To be sure, Beatrice, who renames herself Tris, faces many fears throughout the first book and really gets comfortable in her own skin.  She finds it’s ok to have desires, to have free time and spend it any way you want, and even (gasp!) get tattooed.  The first book is really about Tris coming into her own.  The end of the first book and the entire second novel are about the war (it’s a dysptopia…of course there’s war).  But it’s more than that.  Like Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth does a wonderful job of developing her characters.  I actually cared about what happened and that kept me reading.  Tris is a girl thrown into a war-torn society and has to make quick use of all the information she has learned while “growing up” in a few short weeks since leaving her primary faction.  The twist?  She can make it all stop.  You’ll just have to read the books to find out how 🙂

Courtesy of Goodreads.com

Courtesy of Goodreads.com

As you can tell from this review and others I’ve posted recently, I really enjoy character development.  While I definitely yelled at Tris quite a few times because of her unnecessary recklessness or stubbornness, I really liked her.  She meets so many people, like her love interest, Four, and various friends.  Not only does the political dynamic shift, but also the interpersonal dynamic.  People choose sides. People die.  And it’s what happens in the aftermath that I find so interesting.

One such event is her romance with Four, one of the Dauntless leaders.  I’m really not a fan of romance in novels because it’s usually done in a very cheesy manner, especially in YA fiction.  But Tris and Four’s romance seemed born out of necessity for authentic human contact, a longing that is ever present when everything around you is falling apart.  That is something I can believe and genuinely root for.  Kudos to Veronica Roth for doing romance right!

Now, you may be wondering about the title of this post.  The first two are the titles of the books of the trilogy so far.  Since the third is yet unnamed, my library friend has dubbed it “Detergent.”  I flew through the first two books.  I honestly can’t wait to see what happens to Tris and the gang.

The Divergent series has been a series of the most quotable books I’ve read in a while.  For a YA trilogy (well, the two books that are out so far), it’s got quite a bit of wisdom.  As we come up on the new year, I thought I’d share some of the gems I’ve found with you:

I do trust you, is what I want to say. But it isn’t true — I didn’t trust him to love me despite the terrible things I had done. I don’t trust anyone to do that, but that isn’t his problem; it’s mine.”

“It reminds me why I chose Dauntless in the first place: not because they are perfect, but because they are alive. Because they are free.”

“I am his, and he is mine, and it has been that way all along.”

“I read somewhere, once, that crying defies scientific explanation. Tears are only meant to lubricate the eyes. There is no real reason for tear glands to overproduce tears at the behest of emotion. I think we cry to release the animal parts of us without losing our humanity.”

“Grief is not as heavy as guilt, but it takes more away from you.”

“Noise and activity are the refuges of the bereaved and the guilty.”

“’May the peace of God be with you,’ she says, her voice low, ‘even in the midst of trouble.’
‘Why would it?’ I say softly, so no one else can hear. ‘After all I’ve done…’
‘It isn’t about you,’ she says. ‘It is a gift. You cannot earn it, or it ceases to be a gift.’”

Explosions the Book: A Review of Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris’ “Phoenix Rising”

A new star is added to my shelf of fame!

A new star is added to my shelf of fame! (Photo credit: Paulette Jaxton)

This book, like Big Machine, took me about a year to read.  And again, it’s not the that book was bad, I just have reading ADD.

“Phoenix Rising” is a book in the series “Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences.”  It is a steampunk novel that takes place in the late 1800s.  Enter Agents Braun and Books, a lady with a wild streak and an uptight nobleman who has a knack for research, respectively.  You meet these two at the very beginning of the novel.  But it was this quote that really caught my attention:

“‘The Ministry remains rather underfunded by the Crown, Books, and I was given the choice of either more backup or more dynamite.’  She held up the stick. ‘I went with what I could trust.'”

After reading this, I was hooked.  A girl who likes explosions is my kind of protagonist.

But this book isn’t all mindless entertainment.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that we join our daring duo on a deadly mystery.  They research a secret society that was thought to be long gone, but is, in fact, very much alive.  I know, I’ve seen that movie too.  But what makes the plot interesting is the characters.  Yes, they are mismatched, but they learn from one another.

Perhaps what I enjoy most in fiction is characterization.  The two authors of this novel really hit the mark with Books and Braun because they are at once likable and flawed, leaving room for growth.  You know characters are well developed when you talk to the characters.  There is one scene when, on an undercover mission, Books tells  the people he is with that Braun is mute.  Given that Ms. Eliza Braun is a brazen, corset-wearing woman who likes to speak her mind, I immediately said, “Oooh, you’re going to get it later, Books!” (Wait, you don’t talk to book characters?   …I guess I’m just weird).

Another aspect of the story that I liked was the fact that it does not take place in contemporary America.  It is set in late 1800s England.  Sometimes the dialogue took some getting used to, but I enjoyed hearing about analytical engines and reading about horse-drawn carriages.  Call me old fashioned, but it was refreshing to read a book that didn’t include iPhones and the Internet.

This novel isn’t ground breaking, but it is fun.  Ballentine and Morris do a great job balancing action, suspense, and humor.  I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a light, enjoyable read.