Thursday, April 16, 2015

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

Hola, blog readers!  I have, once again, drifted into absentee bloggerism.  I do this sometimes. 
Sometimes I just get tired or busy or tired and busy or tired of being at the computer in my spare time when I'm at it all the time for work.  Sometimes I become a good reader and read books with reckless abandon to the exclusion of the blogging.  I'd like to think this has been one of those times.  Also, I've been, you know, tired....and busy.

The laws of random reading for the decision-impaired nearly landed me in a reading funk about a month ago.  The randomizer picked and I dutifully began and discarded a couple of books, which is good in the grand scheme of "I have ever so many books and must get rid of some, but also I read at a glacial pace" things, but not so great because after a few in a row, you're like, "Uh oh, do I just not like books right now?  Any books?"  Happily, just as I was reaching my saturation point with not liking books, the randomizer awarded me Just Listen by Sarah Dessen.  I won't say I'm a crazed Sarah Dessen fangirl - honestly I found Dreamland to be kind of a disappointment as far as YA issue novels go, but I had a fantastic experience with The Truth About Forever, so I was happy when Just Listen's number came up.

When I got to my own face, I found myself starting at it, so bright, with dark all around it, like it was someone I didn't recognize.  Like a word on a page that you've printed and read a million times, that suddenly looks strange or wrong, foreign, and you feel scared for a second, like you've lost something, even if you're not sure what it is.

Annabel Greene is the girl who has everything, or at least she plays one on TV.  When the commercial she features in starts popping up on TV screens, Annabel feels like she couldn't be less like the smiling girl in the pictures who is having the perfect high school experience.  Instead, something happened during the summer that she can't talk about, that is the talk of the school, that has sent all her best friends packing to avoid becoming a social pariah like Annabel.  Things are no better at home where her mother is struggling with depression, her middle sister is recovering from anorexia, and Annabel has no choice but to maintain the facade to keep her precarious family's boat from rocking.

Instead of letting the truth out, Annabel is limping through her senior year friendless and sick with worry.  That is, of course, until she meets the guy.  Owen Armstrong's not exactly a social butterfly either.  He's got kind of a frightening reputation for anger and a habit of always using his headphones to block out the world, but it turns out broody, honest to a fault Owen is the only one who can rescue Annabel from her own act and help her tell the truth, even to herself.

There is definitely something special about a Sarah Dessen book.  It's not that I relate terribly much to her trying-to-be-perfect teenage main characters or expect that an unexpected guy will always come to the rescue when life goes south.  However, Dessen does a great job of turning a "perfect" untouchable girl into a normal person with normal problems whose life isn't as great as it seems.  Annabel's life, in ways, is perfectly typical, filled with sisters who are rivals; loving, if distracted, parents; and a childhood friend or two who got dropped along the way.  It's that true-to-life high school experience that really helps Dessen's characters jump off the page and become truly lovable.

The romance that brings an unlikely couple together is satisfying, but more importantly serves as a way to draw out Annabel's character and her coming of age story.  Admittedly, Dessen books have a bit of a formula to them, but I think it's a great formula, and when Annabel finally comes to terms with her secrets, I was crying right along with her. Just Listen is a touching, satisfying romance with a musical bent and a main character who is learning just how much the truth can set her free.

There comes a time in every life when the world gets quiet and the only thing left is your own heart.  So you'd better learn to know the sound of it.  Otherwise you'll never understand what it's saying. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Quotable

This week's topic for Top Ten Tuesday at The Broke and the Bookish is "Top Ten Inspiring Quotes From Books."  I knew from the outset that I couldn't scrounge up an appropriate amount of inspiring quotes, so I just went with quotes from books that I really like.  There are three types of quotations that occasionally (I wish more often!) make me stop and take notice:  the ones that say something true just right, the ones that make me think, and the ones that describe something ordinary extraordinarily.  Here's a random sampling of ones I've actually managed to record in the course of my reading.  I've attempted to categorize them, but the more I think about, the more they blur the lines. ;-)

The Too True

1. Loneliness is like being the only person left alive in the universe, except that everyone else is still here.  - Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy

2.  "Dunno.  Why do you think she's scared of anything?  She's a grown-up, isn't she?  Grown-ups and monsters aren't scared of things."

 "Oh, monsters are scared," said Lettie.  "That's why they're monsters.  And as for grown-ups..." ... "I'm going to tell you something important.  Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either.  Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing.  Inside, they look just like they always have.  Like they did when they were your age.  The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups.  Not one, in the whole wide world." -  The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

3. Memory, which so confounds our waking life with anticipation and regret, may well be our one earthly consolation when time slips out of joint. - The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

Give Me Something to Think About

4. Today I am bothered by the story of King Canute. (...) The story is, of course, that he was so arrogant and despotic a leader that he believed he could control everything - even the tide. We see him on the beach, surrounded by subjects, sceptre in hand, ordering back the heedless waves; a laughing stock, in short. But what if we've got it all wrong? What if, in fact, he was so good and great a king that his people began to elevate him to the status of a god, and began to believe that he was capable of anything? In order to prove to them that he was a mere mortal, he took them down to the beach and ordered back the waves, which of course kept on rolling up the beach. How awful it would be if we had got it so wrong, if we had misunderstood his actions for so long. - After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell

5. There was ugliness to it, too, I didn't miss that, but church was full of ugly things - blood and crucifixion and thorns and swords and ears lopped off - that were part of God's perfect plan. - The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips

6. "Safe" said Mr. Beaver, "don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe.  But he's good.  He's the King, I tell you." - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (on Aslan the Lion)

7. That's the thing, tho. Noise is noise. It's crash and clatter and it usually adds up to one big mash of sound and thought and picture and half the time it's impossible to make any sense of it at all. Men's minds are messy places and Noise is like the active, breathing face of that mess. It's what's true and what's believed and what's imagined and what's fantasized and it says one thing and a completely opposite thing at the same time and even tho the truth is definitely in there, how can you tell what's true and what's not when you're getting everything?

The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking. - The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness.

The Extraordinary Ordinary

8. From that time on, the world was hers for the reading.  She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends.  Books became her friends and there was one for every mood.  There was poetry for quiet companionship.  There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours.  There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography.  On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read a book a day as long as she lived. - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

9. He still loves the sense of possibility that permeates every building and block. He loves the view of the Hudson from Riverside Park, loves watching the ducks paddle in the Central Park pond, loves the almost-too-pungent scent of gingkos on Manhattan Avenue in the summer. He loves watching his dog's tail wag when he pulls Ike toward Strangers' Gate. He loves the sounds of baseball games in Morningside, mah-jongg tiles on 107th Street, playing cards outside the Frederick Douglass Apartments, the subway underfoot, the flutter and clang of the flags atop the Blockhouse -- every bit of it is music. - Ellington Boulevard by Adam Langer

10. Yet on the other hand the snowstorm might mean a respite, a happy wintertime vacation. Schools would shut down, roads would close, no one would go off to their jobs. Families would eat large breakfasts late, then dress for snow and go out in the knowledge that they'd return to warm, snug houses. Smoke would curl from chimneys; at dusk lights would come on. Lopsided snowmen would stand sentinel in yards. There would be enough to eat, no reason for worry. - Snow Falling on Cedars David Guterson

What's your favorite quote from a book?

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Day in the Life

Can you believe it?  I almost forgot that today Trish from Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity is throwing a blog event where we all see get to share a day in our lives with each other.  I'll admit, upon seeing her introductory post for the event, I thought, "That's so much fun!"  Followed shortly thereafter by, "Oh crap, a day in my life is soul crushingly boring!" 

That said, I don't want to be a "taker."  If I'm going to be a creepy voyeur into the other bloggers' days, the very least I can do is offer up one of my own.  I wish that I could think of a clever way to do this that would make my life seem, less, you know, soul-crushingly monotonous, but I cannot.  Alas, I am left to pick one soul-crusher among many. 

I guess I could pick this past Monday when my day started at 1 AM because I was still on call for work.  My department supports lab computer systems for rather a large rural Pennsylvania health system.  My job function is a step below IT, and it's a good job with great co-workers, but it definitely is as boring as it sounds.  Except for when you're on call and awake at 1 A.M. trying to solve a problem that could probably have waited until a decent hour, then you kind of wish it was more boring. 

So, on Monday, I rose but I did not shine at 1 AM, then went back to bed, then rose again around 4 AM, and then went back to bed again, and then rose yet once more to the sound of my pager's song (Say, are you doctor?  Why no, I'm actually a time traveling 90s drug dealer, thanks for asking.).  So by 7 AM I was already up for the day.  The end of my tenure on call was in sight (Hello 8 AM!), which was obviously like a siren call for all the unsolvable problems of the lab technology world.  I kept working until 10 AM trying to solve the unsolvable, even though my actual workday doesn't start until 1 PM, so that 8 to 10 AM window is really when I should be (and usually am) reading The Martian (or some other bookish equivalent) over a delicious and nutritious breakfast of either lower sugar oatmeal or cold cereal with chocolate in it (depending on just how healthy I think I can force myself to be on the given day).

Having sacrificed my reading hours to the cause, I shuffled my weary bones off to work with some disgruntlement. Especially, after witnessing my adorable little cat doing what cats do so well.  She's doing the same thing now.  Jerk.

Aww, so cute.  Still a jerk.

Working from work is way better than working from home, if you don't count the travel time, the ridiculous parking situation, and, you know, having to wear socially respectable clothing.  I mean, at work, I have two monitors instead of my tiny laptop screen, and there are also co-workers there who amuse me and take me for walks before I get the chance to inflict grievous head injuries upon myself while dealing with the support structure of a certain major lab information system.  What more could a person ask for, right?  So, there's the 8 or so hours of monotonous working punctuated by random emotional outbursts and profound disappointment when that thing you totally thought would fix somebody's problem totally doesn't, meaning you pretty much wasted a good half of your workday only to call someone up and disappoint them by admitting that, at the end of day, you haven't the foggiest clue about why they're getting that obstructive computer error. 

There it is, the workplace, about 15 construction projects ago.

Then, with all the satisfaction a starving person feels after gnawing a tree branch, the first post on-call workday draws to a close (not with a bang but a whimper), and I report home guessed it...TV time!  Monday's feature of choice was Downton Abbey, of which I've recently become a fan (Behold the grammatical correctitude!  Punctuated with sentence fragments full of made up words in a badly placed parenthetical expression!  English teachers continue to spin in their graves with only the briefest of pauses!).  We're working our way through season two of Downton with the help of our newly purchased Amazon Fire TV stick which is, indeed, way better for TV reception/general entertainment than a seashell (thank you Fire Stick commercial!). 

After the token moment of TV, it's off to get ready for bed.  I, being a great multi-tasker (bwahahahaha!) use Monday night's getting ready for bed time to continue memorizing 1 Peter 2 for my Tuesday morning prayer group/Bible study.  Actually, I think the descriptor I was looking for above was "great procrastinator."  It's not like I didn't have a week to memorize.  It's just way more fun to memorize things while you're brushing your teeth and partly in a coma.  So, with Bible verses freshly committed to memory (hopefully), I stumble off to bed where I manage to read barely a page of the poor neglected Martian before the lost sleep of the night before returns to claim me and another day in the life is complete.

Ergo, so is this post.  Sorry there aren't more pictures, but master procrastinator that I am, I totally forgot to even write this until about noon yesterday.  Now you'd better hurry on over to Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity to have your soul re-inflated with some other blogger's day that is actually interesting. Thanks for tuning in!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Like to Revisit

This week's topic for The Broke and the Bookish's Top Ten Tuesday is "Top Ten Books From My Childhood/Teen Years I'd Like to Revisit."  That's a mouthful, but it's a pretty interesting topic.  When I started to brainstorm about what books to put on this list, I was surprised by how many of them are considered to be classics, especially considering my adulthood general avoidance of such.  Here are ten books I remember fondly from my "youth" and would love to revisit, should the right opportunity present itself.

1. The Little House on the Prairie Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder - I worshipped these books as a kid, and their TV show, too.

2. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery - Likewise, with Anne.  I always wished I'd continued with the series.  I loved Anne and loved Montgomery's beautifully depicted Prince Edward Island.  Is there person out there who's read this book and doesn't want to vacation to Prince Edward Island?  Seriously?

3. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene - This one gets a good honorable mention because it's among the few, the proud that I chose from a list of required reading options in English class and actually really liked.  I think I'd get even more out of it as a full-fledged adult.

4. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith - I can only just remember this one, but I'd be super interested to revisit bookish Francie in her hardscrabble life.  I think this is the first book that taught me how to appreciate how real life can disappear when you're immersed in a good book.

5. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor - This is the sort of historical fiction that instructs about racism and civil rights better than any textbook could ever hope to.  I love historical fiction that makes history live and breathe and this book and the rest of its series did it perfectly.

6. Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli - Oh Maniac Magee, all hometown legend and untying the big knot, and uniting a divided town.  Loved this book so much that I went to the author's undergrad Alma Mater for college.  Okay, maybe not on purpose, but it was still a happy coincidence.

7. The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen - I'm always talking about this book that set me on the path to being totally passionate about Holocaust/World War II literature.

8. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - Okay, I think I read To Kill a Mockingbird way too early in my life, and I'd like to revisit it for that reason alone.  I think my adult self would appreciate it waaaaaay more than my middle school self, and I'd love to find out.

9. Redwall Series by Brian Jacques - I had almost totally forgotten about this one when I spotted Jackie's review and it all came rushing back.  I discovered the Redwall books in middle school and loved, loved
reading about the animals' adventuring and their feasting and their everything at Redwall Abbey.  I still have a couple of these books on my shelves, and I'd loved to be immersed in this world again!

10. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell - Really, any of Scott O'Dell's books would do, this one just stands out in my mind because it's the more famous.  I think Scott O'Dell singlehandedly provided me with 95% of my knowledge of Native American history and culture, and made it just wicked enjoyable.

What books from your younger days are you nostalgic for?  Or do you have any that you didn't think much of then but are sure you'd love now?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson

It's happened at last, I've finally tackled my first Bill Bryson book, not to mention my first non-fiction of the year.  It happens that I own a stunning amount of Bryson's books and have read, until now, approximately none of them.  Such is the practice of the inveterate book hoarder. I mean, collector.  Of late, the helpful randomizer which I shamelessly rely on to choose my next read, rather than agonizing over whether to start this or that book of my overgrown collection, finally dictated that it was time to dust off my Bryson collection and give The Lost Continent a read.

Bryson, a native Iowan, abandoned the American midwest of his youth at the earliest opportunity to seek out a more refined and exciting life in England.  In the mid-80s, he returned to the United States, deciding to embark on a road trip to revel in an odd sort of nostalgia for the wretched vacations of his youth, and also to discover the ideal American small town of movies. As Bryson embarks on his tour of his native nation, I'll admit I was a little nervous.  I'm all for cynicism and sarcasm if it comes from a place of humor, but off the starting block Bryson comes off as a little too mean-spirited, shamelessly generalizing midwesterners into a group of well-meaning dimwits and deriding small towns a little too harshly for not being the idealized Hollywood small town.

However, as Bryson continues on his adventure, I found him a little less grating and a good deal more laugh out loud funny.  As he tours the unlikely tourist hotspots of the east side of the nation, I found myself giggling aloud more than once.  He revisits a few places from his childhood vacations discovering them to be both more and less attractive than they were the first time around.  He muses on his father's cheapness, peppers the narrative with random anecdotes that pass his time on the road, and makes critically funny observations about what he finds in each of his destinations.
I wandered through the crowds, and hesitated at the entrance to the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum.  I could sense my father, a thousand miles away, beginning to rotate slowly in his grave as I looked at the posters...  The admission fee was five dollars.  The pace of my father's rotating quickened as I looked into my wallet and then sped to a whirring blur as I fished out a five-dollar bill and guiltily handed it to the unsmiling woman in the ticket booth.  "What the hell," I thought as I went inside, "at least it will give the old man some exercise.
The best parts, for me, were when Bryson stumbles across places I recognized, mostly because most of the places I recognized were either so astutely, if cynically, observed by him or, uh, he actually liked them.  His trip to Lancaster, PA - the tourist capital of Pennsylvania Amish country - is accurately and hilariously rendered, though it's kind of depressing on the whole.  For example, this is, in all reality, what one does in Lancaster, when one has tired of dodging buggies on the traffic choked roadways... 
I kept eating.  It was too delicious to pass up.  Buttons popped off my shirt; my trousers burst open.  I barely had the strength to lift my spoon, but I kept shoveling the stuff in.  It was grotesque.  Food began to leak from my ears.  And still I ate.  I ate more food that night than some African villagers eat in a lifetime.  Eventually, mercifully, the waitress prised the spoons out of our hands and took the dessert stuff away, and we were able to stumble zombielike out into the night.
Also, imagine my surprise that Bryson passed through my very own small hometown, and for once, actually seemed to like it.  He does, however, comment on the shopping mall that was built nearby in my youth, and speculates that the shopping mall will cause the dereliction of another good small town.  I'm happy to report, the town is fine.  The shopping mall, on the other hand?  Pretty derelict.  I feel as if Bryson would be pleased by this fact.

I enjoyed Bryson's tour of the east with funny commentary and investigation of various and sundry small towns, and, honestly wish he would have stopped there.  Instead, a little over halfway through the book, Bryson heads west in the springtime, and the book loses its focus.  Small towns disappear as Bryson grumpily traverses the National Parks of the west pursued by one miserable weather system after another.  Readers are disappointed along with him as he finds many of the stunning landmarks of the west obscured by fog and is dispirited by having to drive absurd distances to get to towns where the one restaurant is closed for the evening.  The ending simply wasn't as humorous and kind of dragged along devoid of purpose until he nears home and discovers that maybe he's loved this great nation without fully realizing it all along.

This book is definitely more suited to the sort of person who likes to play Cards Against Humanity than to the red-state American patriot who will doubtless be offended by Bryson's codgery handling of his trip around their beloved nation.  However, if you're the sort of reader who can take his observations with a grain of salt and even see the occasional, sometimes unfortunate, truth in some of his harsher appraisals, there's a good chance you'll get a kick out of this book.  At least the first half.  All in all, even if this isn't Bryson's best, which I doubt it is, I'm still glad to have much of the rest of his catalog on hand for the next time I'm in the mood for a laugh out loud funny travelogue.