What I'm Reading: We Were Liars

Thursday, February 19, 2015

E. Lockhart's We Were Liars was a pleasant surprise for me.  It's one of those books where the description doesn't tell you much.  Here's the synopsis from Goodreads:

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.
We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.

Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

Pretty sparse, right?  So I didn't really know what to expect going into it, and although the book feels as sparse as its description in many ways, I actually thinks this works well for the story, and I really enjoyed it overall.  It's not the most complex or nuanced story, and it's clear that it's all about the mystery, not the characters, the background, the details, or even the plot really.  

In this way, We Were Liars reminded me a lot of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.  The characters aren't really flushed out or developed.  In fact, they feel pretty archetypical.  Cady and the other liars feel like typical teenagers, and her mom, aunts, and grandparents feel like typical east coast WASPs.  The language itself is equally stripped down, and Lockhart doesn't give lengthy descriptions or long, complex passages.  She uses just enough words to convey her story, never more than necessary.
Some readers may find the stripped down nature of We Were Liars to be dissatisfying.  But I thought it worked, as it kept me focused on trying to figure out what happened that summer that Cady can't remember.  Not every book has to be an in-depth character study that delves into the complexities of human nature, and that's OK.  Like I said, I think Lockhart was focused on delivering a tightly crafted and satisfying mystery that keeps readers guessing, and in that regard, I think she delivers.  I definitely don't want to spoil anything, but I thought that the twists and revelations in We Were Liars were really good.  The final twist in particular felt incredibly gratifying, and I think I let out an audible "Whoa" when I reached that part.  It really took me by surprise, and it was so good. 

We Were Liars is a quick and relatively easy read, but it delivers a satisfying mystery that pulls readers in.  Four out of five stars. 

Waiting on Wednesday: P.S. I Still Love You

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Today I'm participating in a meme hosted by Breaking the Spine.  Here's a look at an upcoming release that I'm excited to read.

P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han
Expected publication date: May 26, 2015

Here's the description from Goodreads:

Lara Jean didn’t expect to really fall for Peter.

She and Peter were just pretending. Except suddenly they weren’t. Now Lara Jean is more confused than ever.

When another boy from her past returns to her life, Lara Jean’s feelings for him return too. Can a girl be in love with two boys at once?

In this charming and heartfelt sequel to the
New York Times bestseller To All the Boys I've Loved Before, we see first love through the eyes of the unforgettable Lara Jean. Love is never easy, but maybe that’s part of makes it so amazing.

I mentioned earlier this week that I spent my Valentine's Day reading Jenny Han's To All the Boys I've Loved Before.  I love when a book pulls you in so much that you can't put it down, and this is exactly what happened to me.  Lara Jean is such a sweet, imperfect, and fun teenager, and I think she embodies this transitionary and often difficult period of life so well.  She's awkward at times and unsure of herself and her feelings, but she feels so deeply and wants to find her place in her family, her peers, and the world around her.  

I particularly loved how Han captured the relationship between the three Song sisters.  As one of three sisters myself (and a little brother at the tail end), I could relate to their relationships so much, with all of their complex and complicated nuances and beautiful moments.  Being a sister feels impossibly difficult and utterly amazing, often all at the same time, and Han really understands this.  Lara Jean's younger sister Kitty was one of my favorite characters, and I can't wait to see what she's up to in the sequel.   

And of course Peter and all the other boys who Lara Jean loves.  Their stories aren't finished, and I'm anxious to find out what happens next!  I have some strong opinions since I love Lara Jean and Peter so much and really want to see them come together, but I guess I'll just have to see where Han takes their story.  

Is anyone else excited about P.S. I Still Love You?  What books are you most looking forward to?        

Where My Books Have Been: Bluestocking Books

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Even though Jordan had to work this weekend, he was able to take a few hours off on President's Day to check out Bluestocking Books with me.  Located in the beautiful Hillcrest neighborhood in San Diego, Bluestocking Books is an independent bookstore that specializes in new, used, and rare books.  In fact, if there's a particular edition or hard-to-find title that you're looking for, they can help you track it down.

Bluestocking also carries a variety of vintage records, posters, magazines, and artwork, and the store is especially popular with people who want to trade credit for their used books.  This means that their inventory changes every day!  Jordan and I would take advantage of this, but we hate parting with any of our books, and having moved all of them upward of seven times over the last five years, I think we're committed to keeping every single one of our books.    


 Some of the cool posters and artwork that Bluestocking has.

Like most used bookstores, Bluestocking is perfect if you're looking to peruse.  They definitely don't have everything, but that's part of the fun!  Their collection isn't so huge that it feels impossible to simply look around and see what grabs you.  Jordan and I weren't looking for anything in particular, so we spent our time wandering the aisles and checking out different titles.  It was perfect.  Even though it was President's Day, the store wasn't too packed, which made for a relaxing and quiet experience.  I found a lot of really beautiful and unique editions of some of the most well-known works of literature, and it was difficult for me to pass up an especially striking copy of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.  

Bluestocking boasts a really diverse array of sections, including everything from YA literature and plays to religion and spirituality and collectible editions.  Jordan especially loved their science fiction and fantasy section, and he spent most of his time there.  They have a lot of really classic titles that most chain bookstores don't carry, and he took home two very cool books that he's really excited about. 

I ended up going home with Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune, which I haven't read since high school and have been wanting to re-read.  I also grabbed one of Bluestocking's bookmarks, which says "Read a F*cking Book."  How could I not? 

Where are your favorite places to read and/or write?  

It's Monday! What are You Reading?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Today I'm participating in a meme hosted by Book Journey.  Here's a look at what I've been reading lately and what's coming up for me.

Finished Last Week:


I really enjoyed The Girl on the Train and thought it was a tight, suspenseful, and satisfying mystery/thriller.  You can read my review of it here.

Jordan has had to work all weekend, including on Valentine's Day and President's Day, so it's been a pretty quiet three-day weekend for us.  I picked up To All the Boys I've Loved Before as a sort of Valentine's Day treat to myself, and I read it in a single day.  It was funny, relatable, heartfelt, sweet, and cute.  The writing was impressive, and it's always refreshing to find a YA author who can write beautifully.  Just because the primary audience is younger doesn't mean they don't want good writing, and Jenny Han really delivers.  I loved spending my Valentine's Day with Lara Jean and all the boys she's loved before, and I was pulling for her and Peter K. to end up together.  They have such a natural ease and tenderness between them, and I liked how much they challenged one another as people.  You'll have to read it yourself to see where Lara Jean ends up! 

Currently Reading:

This is a sort of "I'll try anything once" pick.  I remember seeing The Selection when it came out in 2012, but I wasn't that interested in the premise.  Since then, it's become one of the most popular and talked about series.  So I figured I would read the first book and see if I wanted to continue with the series.  I'm about halfway through, and I'm not loving it.  The writing is very underwhelming, and the characters feel pretty one dimensional and underdeveloped.  Plot-wise, this reminds me so much of The Hunger Games, what with the caste system separating the wealthy and impoverished, lottery contest, televised selection process, etc.  But we'll see.  I didn't like most of Divergent until the very end, and then I was totally hooked and it became one of my favorite dystopian YA series.

Coming Up:

I'm so excited about Where'd You Go, Bernadette.  I'm interested to see how Bernadette's fears and neuroses come alive on the page and to follow her daughter's search for her mother when she disappears.  I've heard so many great things about this novel, and I can't wait to dive into it. 

What have you been reading lately? 

Favorite Quotes Friday: Life After Life

Friday, February 13, 2015

I previously talked about my love for Life After Life by Kate Atkinson a couple of months ago.  This was probably my favorite book of 2014 - it's simply stunning, and it still leaves me kind of speechless when I try to talk about it.

There are so many wonderful lines from this book, and its opening is one of the best I've ever seen.  But this quote in particular really struck a cord with me:

Ursala craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum that she couldn't even begin to solve.

I feel like when Atkinson wrote this, she must have been thinking of every writer ever.  It's such a short and simple quote, but oh my word does it perfectly sum up the life of a writer.  As a writer myself, I identify with this sentiment so much.  The practice of writing is incredibly solitary.  So much of the work is done completely alone - it's just you and the words in your head and trying to figure out how to get them onto the page.  It's a difficult process for sure, but most of us who choose this path are like Ursala: we crave solitude.  We have so many thoughts and feelings, such a rich internal life that we need to be alone with ourselves, trying to create something out of the tangled mess of our innermost beings.  It's a daily struggle, and we have to put in so much toil and effort to make even a little progress, but it's so worth it.  It's beautiful and kind of magical, to live with stories and characters and experiences that feel as real as anything else in your life and then to see them come alive on the page.  To reach into the deepest part of yourself and find the truths that you want to share and then to create something entirely new out of it.  To look at that new thing and think, "I made that.  Me.  All by myself."  Solitude can be so divine.

But it can also be lonely.  The flip side of being a writer is that most of us also want to not only talk about the world around us, but to share our writing with others.  So it's kind of strange: the act of writing, of creating something new is so solitary, but it is driven by a desire to understand and to be understood by others.  Even when we writers are delving into the deepest and most personal parts of ourselves, we are often searching for something universal, something that we can present to the world so that others may connect with our thoughts, our feelings, our experiences.  This desire for connection, to understand and to be understood, it's such a huge part of the writer's process, and it's strange that something that is meant to be shared must be created by a single individual who is often completely alone.  And this loneliness can be profound.  It's an odd thing to sit at your desk, all by yourself, and to try to create something that is meant to be shared, to imagine and think about an audience that is not there.  It can make you aware of just how lonely the writing process can be.  

This passage also makes me think about our society's general anxiety about being alone.  It's something that I myself have struggled with, craving the sort of solitude that Ursala describes while also being so afraid of being lonely.  I think that a lot of this has to do with how much our society values extrovert ideals, and my own anxiety in this area has been amplified by the fact that I have lived in some of the busiest and most populous metropolitan cities in the United States, places where you are expected to have a full social calendar, where the value of your life is often measured against how many activities you have planned and the number of friends you have.  

For me, as both a writer and a person, I want to find the balance between solitude and loneliness.  I want to continue to cultivate deep and meaningful friendships, investing in those people who love and accept me for who I am, who listen when I have an awful day and celebrate with me when I have good news.  I think that when you have these kind of relationships, solitude isn't such a scary thing.  You know that you're never really alone, that your friends will still be there and totally understand your need for a little solitude.  Sometimes there's just nothing better for the soul.

Also, cats make solitude so much better.

Has anyone else read Life After Life?  What's one of your favorite quotes?

What I'm Reading: The Girl on the Train

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

A compulsively readable, emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller that draws comparisons to
Gone Girl, The Silent Wife, or Before I Go to Sleep, this is an electrifying debut embraced by readers across markets and categories.

It seems like everyone has been reading this lately, and I have to say that, despite the hype, the mixed reviews, and the frequent comparisons to Gone Girl, I actually quite enjoyed The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.  I think Hawkins crafted a tight and engaging mystery/thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock.  This book especially reminded me of Rear Window, and the idea of a woman getting caught up in a mystery surrounding the people she voyeuristically watches from the train every day is pretty intriguing.  Hawkins does a good job of delivering on the interesting premise of her novel - I felt very wrapped up as the mystery unfolded, and the ending left me satisfied, as all of my questions were answered and any loose ends resolved. 

A lot of people seem to dislike the main character Rachel, describing her as stereotypical, weak, and unrelatable.  I didn't have as many problems with her, and I actually liked that she is a seriously flawed character.  She's struggling with the demise of her marriage, depression, the loss of her job, and alcoholism.  It's frustrating to watch her make bad decisions, most of which begin with a drink (or two or three), but addiction is complicated and messy.  The fact that Rachel is dealing with deep seated mental health and emotional issues with alcohol instead of therapy and medication just compounds all of her struggles, and this made her a compelling and interesting character to me.  I don't like that her life is so difficult and that she makes such stupid decisions, but she's human and I can understand her situation and struggles.  I definitely think that Hawkins could have done a better job flushing Rachel out; at times, her alcoholism does feel a bit like a plot device, but I don't think Hawkins set out to write a tightly crafted character drama.  I just liked following a main character who is struggling with some really difficult things in her life, things that a lot of us have experienced to some degree but don't often get talked about in literature, and I thought that Hawkins used Rachel's struggles to make her novel quite rich and engaging. 

The other characters felt less dimensional to me to certain degrees, with Megan being the most complex after Rachel and Anna being the most archetypal.  Hawkins certainly seems very interested in issues surrounding womanhood, marriage, and motherhood, and she explores a lot of the difficulties and emotional struggles that many women face when getting married and having children.  It was interesting to look at the sort of domestic neuroses that can grow out of these situations through three very different women, though I found Anna's sections to be the most difficult to get into.  She felt like such a stereotype of the selfish mistress who only cares about herself and the man she loves, never considering that her actions might hurt others, particularly the wronged wife.  I think that a richer examination of Anna's internal life would have made her a more realistic and relatable character. 

In terms of plot, I thought that The Girl on the Train was very satisfying.  When it comes to mystery/thrillers, I'm not one who can just "enjoy the ride."  My overall impression rests so much on how everything comes together at the end, what answers we are given for the questions that the story raises.  It's hard to pull this off, and I think that a lot of books in this genre try to do too much, setting impossibly high expectations that cannot be satisfactorily resolved by the last page.  It's almost as if the mystery itself is too big and there's no way for everything to be tied up neatly at the end.  The Girl on the Train isn't the most original and unexpected mystery, and its twists and reveals aren't huge and totally out of left field.  But by not making the mystery itself too big, I thought that Hawkins was able to craft an engaging story that feels very full and complete by the end.  I wasn't left thinking, "Well that would never happen," or "What about this unexplained aspect of the plot?"  I liked that the story kept me guessing and wondering "whodunit" throughout and that the final explanation fit with what had come before. 

A good read for fans of the mystery/thriller genre.  Four out of five stars. 

Waiting on Wednesday: Rainbow Rowell

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Today I'm participating in a meme hosted by Breaking the Spine.  Here's a look at two upcoming releases that I'm excited to read.

It's no secret that I love Rainbow Rowell.  I discovered her writing last January when I happened to pick up Eleanor & Park at the bookstore, and I've been hooked ever since.  I read all four of her novels last year and loved every one of them, though Eleanor & Park remains my favorite.  Rowell is so good at creating interesting characters who feel incredibly real.  They come off the page, and I can feel their emotions pulsing with every word.  Rowell also writes such hilarious and heartfelt stories, and from the first page, I feel completely immersed in her books.  I simply adore her writing, and I seriously want to be friends with her in real life.

Rowell is currently working on two upcoming projects: two YA graphic novels and Carry On, which is slated to be released in October 2015.  Fans of Fangirl (hehe) should be especially excited about Carry On, as it follows the fictional Simon Snow and Baz that Cath wrote about in Fangirl.  


I can't wait to see Rowell dive into the fantasy world of Simon Snow.  I loved learning about Simon in Fangirl, and I think it will be interesting to see him at the center of a novel.  It's also clear in Fangirl that Simon's story is a thinly veiled reference to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, and I'm excited to see how Rowell flushes out Simon's story, making it more his own.  

There's very little information about Rowell's upcoming graphic novel project.  She's working on the first graphic novel with Faith Erin Hicks, and she seems really excited about it.  But that's pretty much it!  Although historically I haven't read many comic books or graphic novels (I've probably read every Calvin and Hobbes strip, and two years ago, Jordan got me to read the Y: The Last Man series - but other than that, nothing), I'm so excited to read this.  Mainly because it's Rainbow Rowell and she's awesome!  I will happily read anything from her.  

Is anyone else excited about Rainbow Rowell's upcoming projects?  What books are you most looking forward to?   

Where My Books Have Been: La Jolla Shores

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Southern California has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, in my opinion.  Clear blue water, yellow sand beaches, lush greenery, and tide pools that are perfect for exploring, the beaches here are some of my favorite spots to visit on a lazy weekend day.  The water can be a little cold, especially in the winter when temperatures hover closer to 60 instead of 70 (sorry to all of my friends back east!), so I haven't been doing any swimming lately.  But Jordan and I love walking along the coastline, taking in the fresh ocean air and enjoying the sound of waves crashing against the shore.  It's the perfect way to relax and recenter after a long week, and I don't think I'll ever grow tired of these amazing sites.  There is so much natural beauty in this world, it's hard not to marvel at it all.   

One of my favorite beaches is the La Jolla Shores.  La Jolla is such a fun and charming beachfront city, and its coastline is pretty breathtaking.  I usually bring my journal and current read, grab a cup of hot tea at Living Room Coffeehouse, and then head over to the shore for a nice long walk before finding an out of the way spot to sit and just be.  Even though this beach draws locals and tourists, it's never hard to find a quiet place to relax and look out at the ocean.   

These seals have the life!  


There are so many beautiful tide pools to explore along the coastline.  

That surfer is braver than me - I'm too worried I'll get eaten by sharks to try it out!

On this particular Saturday morning, Jordan and I found a rock that was tucked away from other visitors, and we sat there enjoying the sound of the ocean and refreshing sea breeze.  It was the end of a stressful week for me, and being able to spend time outside, taking a moment to be still and truly appreciate my beautiful surroundings - it was exactly what I needed.  

Where are your favorite places to read and/or write?  

It's Monday! What are You Reading?

Monday, February 9, 2015

Today I'm participating in a meme hosted by Book Journey.  Here's a look at what I've been reading lately and what's coming up for me.

Finished Last Week:


I was disappointed in both I'll Give You the Sun and I Was HereI'll Give You the Sun felt very romanticized, sentimental, and melodramatic.  The language was flowery and overly poetic, which felt out of place for teenage narrators.  Although it explores a lot of significant issues, including loss, grief, anger, betrayal, hurt, love, disappointment, and forgiveness, I thought the book's handling of these oscillated between over the top and simplistic and even trivial.  I'll Give You the Sun is filled with intense melodramatic moments that are then brushed aside or wrapped up without much fuss.  The plot itself was pretty unbelievable at parts, and the way that different threads intersected with one another and everything just sort of came together perfectly at the end didn't feel very true to life. 

I Was Here is such a missed opportunity, and I would be very hesitant to recommend this to a young adult reader, particularly one who is struggling with any mental health issues or suicidal thoughts.  In her author's note, Gayle Forman says she wrote this book after learning of a bright young college woman who suffered from depression and ultimately committed suicide.  Forman says that she wanted to explore why people like this woman would feel like suicide is their only option, as well as how their deaths affect those they leave behind.  Knowing that this is Forman's inspiration, I Was Here feels completely out of place.  The word "depression" isn't even used until the last few pages of the novel, and Forman doesn't explore mental illness at all.  Beyond that, I thought that the characters were archetypical and one dimensional, the plot and character development illogical, and the writing pretty simplistic.  The romantic storyline was ridiculous and fairly inappropriate, and I didn't like how much dangerous behavior the main character engaged in without the book really cautioning against this kind of behavior, which feels irresponsible considering the book's audience. 

Currently Reading:

I'm going to finish The Girl on the Train today, and I'm hesitant to say how I feel about it so far since so much hangs on how everything comes together in the end.  It's been an engaging and thrilling read, and I think I'm less irked by the main character than other people.  Yes she may seem "weak" and reactive, but I think it's interesting to follow a character who is clearly dealing with her depression by self-medicating and has subsequently become an alcoholic.  I don't think these things make her a weak character, as we tend to write off weakness as a personal failing.  She is struggling with very real mental health issues, and her depression and addiction make it difficult for her to get help and sometimes they even lead her to do really stupid things.  She feels like a very human character, a woman who is going through a rough time in her life and who, like all of us, can be incredibly frustrating at times (put down the gin and tonic!). 

Coming Up:

I have so many books on my to-read list, and it's hard to decide what to read next!  I packed all of these for a road trip that Jordan and I went on this past weekend.  I'm leaning toward starting Gretel and the Dark or The Night Circus next.  Anyone want to help me decide?

What have you been reading lately?

Favorite Quotes Friday: The Office

Friday, February 6, 2015

Today's quote is more on the silly side, but sometimes you need a little silly, especially at the end of a long week.  I've been watching old episodes of The Office on Netflix, and oh man, Dwight Schrute just kills me.  This is one of his most ridiculous exchanges with Jim Halpert, simple yet laugh-out-loud hilarious.  I kept repeating it over and over again the other night, cracking myself up.  I don't think Jordan knew what to do with me!

Dwight: What's your daughter's name again?  Pee Pee?
Jim: Peepa.
Dwight: Peepa.  That's great.  

Ridiculous, right?  But also kind of genius.  I think part of what makes Dwight such a hilarious character is how rigid and serious he is, how even when it's clear that someone is pulling his leg or giving him the runaround, he always sticks to their logic, even if it doesn't make any sense.  Like here.  Peepa is clearly a ridiculous name, and Jim is clearly joking with Dwight.  But Dwight takes Jim's joke at face value without even missing a beat. 

It's like when Dwight and Jim get into a fight over the Party Planning Committee and the Committee to Plan Parties:

Jim: As ranking number two in this office, I am starting a committee to determine the validity of the two committees, and I am the sole member of the committee.  The committee acts on this now.
Dwight: OK, this is stupid.
Jim: Could you please keep it down?  I'm in session.  [long pause]  I have determined that this committee is valid. 
Dwight: What?  No!  No!  Wait!  Wait, wait, wait.  [thinks about it]  Permission to join the Validity Committee?
Jim: Permission denied.
Dwight: Damn it.

Instead of calling out Jim, Dwight plays by his rules, even though they're clearly ridiculous and meant to get a rise out of him.  He's so trusting and rule-bound that even when people are simply making things up to get the better of him, he unwittingly plays along.  And I think it's hilarious!

Like when Jim moves Dwight's desk to the bathroom:


When Jim calls Dwight's phone line, he simply sits down and starts answering Jim's questions matter-of-factly.  Because that's what you do when your phone rings.  Even if your desk is in the bathroom.  

Does anyone else like The Office?  What's one of your favorite quotes?   

What I'm Watching: Cake

Thursday, February 5, 2015

It's taken me a while to admit this about myself, but I can be quick to write things off based on snap judgments and preconceived notions.  And it's very hard for me to overcome my own bias once it's there.  Like most humans, I don't relish admitting that I'm wrong, even if my original position either has no basis or isn't founded on anything real or meaningful.

Take the film Argo, for instance.  Historically, I haven't liked Ben Affleck.  I don't think he's a particularly compelling or even good actor, and I don't enjoy most of his films.  When I saw a preview for Argo, I was like, "No way.  Ben Affleck?  This movie is going to suck."  To be honest, I also thought the movie didn't look good.  A complicated, high-stakes political thriller set in the 1970s?  So not my scene.

But Jordan wanted to see it, and so one night when it was my turn to plan a date for us, I picked a restaurant that he liked and bought tickets to Argo.  "I'm probably not going to like it," I warned him.  "I'll try not to complain because I know you're really excited about this movie.  But don't be mad at me if I don't like it."

I really was trying to have a good attitude this time (this hasn't always been the case in the past), but deep down, I was like, "For real, this movie is going to suck."  I just hoped that I could bite my tongue once the credits rolled. 

But as the movie started, I found myself in a strange position: I was actually kind of enjoying it.  It was a weird feeling.  I was already amped up to hate this movie.  I'd seen the preview, made a mental note of Ben Affleck's critical involvement, and decided that I wasn't going to like it.  Period.  But there I was, sitting in the dark theater, actually excited by what I saw on screen and anxious to see how this complicated, high-stakes political thriller played out. 

And, I had to admit, Ben Affleck didn't totally suck.

That night, I happily ate my words and declared that I had loved Argo.  If I hadn't been so excited about the movie, my admission wouldn't have been so happy, but I liked it so much that by the end, I honestly didn't care that I had done a complete 180.

All of this is a long, roundabout way of saying that my experience going into the film Cake was much the same as Argo.  I was more interested in the subject matter of Cake, but I'm not a huge fan of Jennifer Aniston.  So I thought, "This is probably going to be a good movie, but Jennifer Aniston is going to suck.  Boo."

(If you haven't noticed, sometimes I can have a bad attitude.  I'm only human, but I'm working on it.)

So, so wrong again, and so, so happy to eat my words.  Because this movie is stunning.  

Cake focuses on Claire, a woman who has been left visibly scarred and in chronic pain after a car accident.  Her entire life has been radically affected by this event, having lost her job, her husband, and other relationships, and she is struggling with a severe addiction to pain medications, as well as significant anger and hurt.  When Nina, a woman in her support group, commits suicide, Claire develops a relationship with her widower and young son.  Through these relationships, as well as her relationship with Silvana, the woman who helps take care of her, Claire faces her pain, hurt, fears, and anger, as well as the past tragedies that she has been holding onto so tightly.  These people push and challenge Claire, bringing out the ugliest and most desperate parts of herself, but also giving her hope and helping her to move forward, even if it's only one tiny step. 

Aniston is simply magnificent in her portrayal of Claire, and I'm shocked that she wasn't nominated at the Academy Awards for her performance.  Watching her on screen, I felt her physical pain for the entirety of the film.  She captured the experience of living with chronic pain so perfectly, making simple tasks like walking, bending down, standing, sitting, or even lying down seem like they caused her significant bodily pain and effort.  Aniston also makes Claire such a beautifully human character.  She is so angry and bitter, so hopeless about her situation, and she has pushed many people out of her life.  She pushes away the people who love her and are closest to her, the people who want to help and support her, and she can be incredibly snarky and mean.  Because of this, a lot of people run away or write her off, unable to deal with her difficult attitude and seeming unwillingness to try to get better.  

But through it all, Aniston makes you feel compassion for Claire.  Seeing a woman who lives with constant and incredible pain every single day, you can't help but feel like her difficult attitude is understandable (even if it isn't necessarily justifiable).  Of course she's angry and hopeless and scared.  Her whole life is changed and may never be the same, and no matter what she does, she will likely be living with chronic pain for the rest of her life.  And that sucks.  

At one point, Claire apologizes to her therapist for being so difficult during their aqua therapy sessions.  She recognizes that she hasn't been doing her best work and has been uncooperative.  Then she clarifies, "I really am in a lot of pain."  This feels like such a big moment for Claire, when she says these powerful words, thereby admitting and owning the enormity of her struggle.  Like I said, it doesn't necessarily justify Claire's behavior, but it certainly contextualizes it, and it makes her such a human character.  It's easy to not see pain as a wholly valid medical complaint, in great part because pain is subjective and because there are a lot of people who still think you should just "suck it up."  Aniston makes you see how incredibly limiting this view is and why chronic pain needs be to treated not only physically, but also emotionally, particularly because it can lead people to feel desperate and hopeless, even causing some to contemplate suicide.    

Cake is an incredibly stripped down film, and it doesn't flush out a lot of the background details.  We don't know much about Claire's accident or her injuries.  We don't know exactly what happened between her and her husband.  We don't know how she got addicted to pain killers or what her long-term prognosis is.  We are given similarly few details about Nina and her family, only finding out very late in the film that, like Claire, Nina suffered from chronic pain.  While part of me wanted to know all of these details, to have each back story completely filled in, I actually think Cake's incredibly focused portrayal of Claire at one particular moment is incredibly successful and moving.  We aren't clouded by history, making judgements of Claire based on her past.  We see her as she is now, and it doesn't really matter what the particulars are that got her here.  

Moreover, in not flushing out the back stories in great detail, Claire's story feels more universal.  She can be anyone who has struggled with chronic pain, hopelessness, anger, fear, hurt, addiction, even suicide.  Her story is not just her own, but rather a meditation for anyone who has ever been in her situation.  And I think in doing this, the film presents an opportunity for us to reflect on and discuss how we treat these sort of issues, as well as how we can better treat, help, and support individuals like Claire who struggle with these sort of difficult physical and emotional wounds.  

Five out of five stars.      

What I'm Reading: The Miniaturist

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam-a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion-a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.

"There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed…"

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office-leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella's world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist-an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes' gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand-and fear-the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

The beginning of this book is pretty slow.  Nella is totally out of her depth in her new city and new home.  She's naive and inexperienced, and she encounters considerable trouble trying to find her place in the Brandt household.  The members of the family and staff are closed off, cold, and they are incredulous if not outright resentful of her presence in their home.  As such, it makes sense that the book starts off slow and feels a little difficult to get into.  We see things primarily from Nella's point of view, and her struggle with being an outsider mirrors our own as readers to find a foothold in the novel.

Things pick up once Nella's husband Johannes returns from a long trip and gives her the dollhouse.  I was very intrigued by the mystery behind the dollhouse, particularly the unsolicited pieces that the miniaturist sends to Nella and how these help her unlock the secrets of the Brandt household.  The Brandts are an interesting family, caught in the middle of 17th century ideals of morality, purity, and Christianity while hiding away those parts of themselves that don't conform.  I enjoyed going through Nella's journey of discovery, as she peeled back the layers of secrets and learned more about her new husband and family.  As a character, she really comes alive when her conservative sensibilities come into contact with the less savory parts of the Brandt family, and while she could have written off their secrets as simply "sinful," she instead challenges and ultimately widens her worldview, fighting for her family with admirable strength and courage.  

Burton's exploration of 17th century Amsterdam felt quite rich to me.  Her handling of religious and social issues was compelling and engaging, and her descriptions of the city were some of my favorite.  Amsterdam is such a beautiful and vibrant city, and Burton captured it well on the page.  I could see the canals and streets in her descriptions, and it felt almost like being there.  I also loved the mystery around the miniaturist: who they are, how they know so much about Nella and the Brandts, why they keep sending pieces to Nella.  I think the mystery could have been tighter, particularly in regard to how the miniaturist knows so much about the Brandt household (and other households in Amsterdam, as we later learn).  I like the idea of the miniaturist being this observer who takes in the world and tries to see those things that are hidden away.  But that doesn't explain how the miniaturist knows so much and can actually change/affect Nella's pieces based on particular events. 

My biggest complaint with The Miniaturist is that it is a third person present tense narration.  This felt so clunky and off-putting to me, and it made it that much harder for me to into the story.  I don't really understand why Burton chose this form of narration.  I don't think it added anything to the story at all, and a third person past tense narration would have made the writing flow better and feel more natural.     

Three and a half out of five stars.  

Waiting on Wednesday: God Help the Child

Today I'm participating in a meme hosted by Breaking the Spine.  Here's a look at an upcoming release that I'm excited to read.

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
Expected publication date: April 21, 2015

Here's the description from Goodreads:

Spare and unsparing, God Help the Child is a searing tale about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult. At the center: a woman who calls herself Bride, whose stunning blue-black skin is only one element of her beauty, her boldness and confidence, her success in life; but which caused her light-skinned mother to deny her even the simplest forms of love until she told a lie that ruined the life of an innocent woman, a lie whose reverberations refuse to diminish . . . Booker, the man Bride loves and loses, whose core of anger was born in the wake of the childhood murder of his beloved brother . . . Rain, the mysterious white child, who finds in Bride the only person she can talk to about the abuse she's suffered at the hands of her prostitute mother . . . and Sweetness, Bride's mother, who takes a lifetime to understand that "what you do to children matters. And they might never forget."

I've previously mentioned my love for Toni Morrison and her stunning novel Beloved (if you haven't read it, seriously, stop everything and just read it; I'll wait).  Morrison is without a doubt one of my favorite writers.  She is a literary giant, among the great writers of the world, many of whom have already died.  As such, their canons are static.  Whatever we have now is all that we'll ever have from them.  Which is what, in part, makes me so excited about Morrison.  The fact that someone who is so brilliant and such a master storyteller is still writing and publishing, creating new literature for readers to enjoy and to be challenged by... well, that makes me endlessly excited, and maybe it sounds corny, but it makes me feel really lucky.

It's not often that writers who are so good, who create literature that is so moving, groundbreaking, and important exist in the same world that we do, changing how we think about ourselves and the world around us.  And I feel lucky to live in a world with Toni Morrison, to see her work come off the presses and into our discourse, to be affected by her work in the moment that she presents it to the world.  That's a unique gift that future generations will not have, and I treasure it.

Is anyone else excited to read God Help the Child when it comes out?  What books are you most looking forward to?  

Where My Books Have Been: Oxford

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

This past fall, Jordan and I went on our much-belated honeymoon.  We had been dreaming of and planning this trip for three years, and after a lot of patience and a lot of saving, we finally booked tickets to Europe.  We had four weeks to see seven countries and nine cities.  It was a whirlwind (quite literally), a once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip, and we came back rich in unique experiences and absolutely filled with memories that we will treasure forever.  

The final stop on our trip was London, and as former English majors and book lovers, we decided to visit Oxford one day.  It is heralded as a mecca for book lovers, and we were excited to spend the day in a city that has so much rich literary history.

Punting, a favorite pastime in Oxford.

The whole experience felt like something out of a 19th century novel.  Compared to London, Oxford feels a lot smaller and more quiet, and it has a lot of charm and even more history.  From royal machinations and public executions to centuries of internationally renowned higher education and some of the most well-known and important works of literature, Oxford is a place where so much has happened, and you can feel it throughout the city.  You turn the corner and stumble upon the pub where J.R.R. Tolkien read the first pages of The Lord of the Rings or the church where C.S. Lewis came up with the idea for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  It was both humbling and awe-inspiring to be surrounded by so much important literary history.

The pub where Tolkien read from The Lord of the Rings. 

According to the legend, C.S. Lewis came out of the church on the right, saw the head of a lion on the building directly across, and then saw the lamp (pictured here).  This was the genesis of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

This house is near the garden where Lewis Carroll was sitting when a little girl named Alice came up to him and requested that he tell her a story.  She specified that she wanted it to be about a little girl named Alice.

Oxford boasts such an impressive literary history in great part because of the renowned University of Oxford, which is made up of almost 40 different colleges.  Numerous writers and scholars have come here to work, and it is no surprise that Oxford has a large selection of libraries, including the Bodleian Library.  The Bodleian Library has one of the most extensive collections in the world, and any book published in the United Kingdom has to send a copy to the library.  It currently has more than 11 million printed items.

The Bodleian Library

One of Oxford University's reading rooms.  

In addition, Oxford is home to the Norrington Room at Blackwell's bookshop.  The Norrington Room is the largest single room dedicated to selling books in the world.  I've been to a lot of bookstores in my life, but this one was incomparable. 

Only a fraction of the books for sale in the Norrington Room. 

More than anything, Oxford feels like a college town, and most of the city is made up of the various schools.  The buildings may be a lot older and the setup and curriculum different than that of most United States' universities, but it still feels much the same.  Students are running around with backpacks filled with books, trying to get to class on time.  They sit on stone steps, discussing art, politics, even the latest pop songs to top the charts.  They hang out at the pub, working on class assignments or laughing with friends over beers, chips, and cigarettes.  The city feels alive with youth who are just discovering themselves as adults for the first time, encountering new ideas, asking new questions and forming new opinions, and becoming the people that they will be for the rest of their lives.  

It was incredible to be around this kind of energy and excitement, and it reminded me so much of my time as an undergraduate student, when I was learning so much, not only about the world around me, but also myself.  It definitely made me nostalgic for my college days.  I'm fortunate that college was such a rich, positive, and formative time in my life, and I miss it.     

The students call this the Bridge of Sighs, after the bridge in Venice.  In actuality, it's clearly modeled after the Rialto Bridge, also in Venice. 

Our visit happened to coincide with Oxford's matriculation ceremony, which is when new students are formally accepted as members of the University.  As such, the city was especially busy, with excited new students celebrating their matriculation at the pub with wine and beer.  They were all wearing traditional academic dress, which you can see on the female student on the right in the picture below. 

Some of the colleges are open to visitors, though usually for a fee.  The most popular is Christ Church, not only because it is so beautiful, but also because it was used in the film adaptations of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.  For those of you who are fans, the scene when Harry first meets Draco Malfoy on the steps of Hogwarts was filmed at Christ Church.  The Great Hall in the films was also modeled after Christ Church's own Hall, though these scenes were not shot there because Christ Church could not accommodate the four tables required for Hogwart's four houses. 

On the left, you can see the long line of tourists waiting to get into Christ Church.

While there is so much to see and do in Oxford, the city also has a lot of quiet stretches, particularly along the river.  There are lush green plants and beautiful weeping willows, and these areas are perfect for relaxing with a good book and your journal.  These quiet moments were some of my favorite from our time at Oxford, and I wish that we had had more time to sit and enjoy them. 

Where are your favorite places to read and/or write?  
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