Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful ThingsI ignored the Cheryl Strayed hype for a long time because ugh, memoirs, and also eh, advice columns. But I heard enough people falling over themselves loving on Tiny Beautiful Things that I figured I should at least check it out. And seriously, this thing is so good that you’ll probably be hearing about her memoir in this space some day, which is just crazy talk.

Anyway, this book is a collection of advice column questions and answers from “Dear Sugar”, Sugar being a formerly anonymous and always honest advice-giver. I’m not terribly much for advice columns, but I knew this one, and this book, was going to be perfect for me when I got to page 15 and found the following sentence: “The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.” Yes. This. A thousand times this.

Most of the questions Sugar gets, or at least publishes, are secretly about that one thing. Sure, on the surface they’re about a lot of things, from romantic relationships gone awry or not-yet-existent to family relationships of dubious quality to crises of faith and identity, but Sugar’s answers tend to boil down to one thing. Will this make you happy? Do it. Will it make you sad? Don’t do it. Will it make other people happy or sad? That’s not really your problem.

You might think that would get boring over 353 pages and 56 questions, but the fact that it doesn’t is a testament to Strayed’s writing. She could just say, “It’s not making you happy. Stop. The end,” but instead she says things like, “You mustn’t live with people who wish to annihilate you. Even if you love them.” She could even stop there, with simple and direct answers, but instead she throws in stories from her own life, which has been difficult in many ways and wonderful in just as many, to show the question-askers that yes, life sucks, but not all the time. Things may seem bleak now but they will be less bleak later. But only if you focus on making yourself the most awesome self.

It’s a powerful book. I am one of the lucky few who, in Sugar’s words, “have almost never had to get over anything,” and I know that I am lucky for it. But I also know that my time will come, and I am glad to be prepared in advance. And it’s lovely to see letters from people who share my low-grade neuroses, to know that I’m not the only one and that if I can see clearly the answer for the letter-writer, I may just possibly have an answer for myself.

Recommendation: For you. For everyone.

Rating: 10/10

Everybody Sees the Ants, by A.S. King

Everybody Sees the AntsThis book had been sitting in my office for approximately forever, requested in a fit of “read ALL the A.S. King” and then ignored because I am terrible. But eventually I found myself without a million other things to read and I seized the opportunity to continue my magical King journey.

And I do mean magical — all of King’s books that I’ve read have a slightly supernatural feel to them, and this one is no exception. In this story, our protagonist, Lucky, dreams that he visits his POW grandfather and wakes up with items from his dreams littering his bed. Lucky also has some imaginary ant friends who wander around pointing out important things and saying things about other people, but who doesn’t? Hence the title, I guess.

But as usual, the magical part of the story isn’t really the focus; what we really have here is the story of a high school freshman who just wants to get through high school but is hounded on one side by school bullies and on the other by a school administration that cares more about Lucky’s poor taste than his daily struggles. Lucky’s parents aren’t any help as they’re busy ignoring the problems in their own relationship, and of course Lucky isn’t too proactive about talking to anyone either, figuring that the adults in his life should just understand what’s wrong without him having to actually tell him. But with time and a sweltering summer trip to Arizona to visit family, Lucky is able to see that he’s not the only person with personal and family problems and is able to see that he’s a pretty cool dude regardless.

I quite enjoyed this book, which so perfectly captures the awfulness of teenagerhood and also reminds the reader that everyone has problems that feel like the only problems that exist, and that solving those problems mostly involves facing them head on. I also enjoyed the POW storyline more than I thought I would at the start; the connections to Lucky’s life and story are strong and the resolution of Lucky’s quest to save his grandfather is as complex as it should be. There were a few simplistic bits, including a quasi-manic quasi-pixie definite-dream girl and some awkward fat shaming, but in a story narrated by a 14-year-old it’s a touch more allowable than usual.

Recommendation: For teens as well as adults who are safely past the traumas of teenagerhood.

Rating: 8/10

Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, BernadetteI had this strange feeling while reading this book for one book club that it was definitely the book I wish my other book club had read instead of Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, which is baffling because they’re really not the same book at all, except for that fact that there are disappearing mothers and very cold places involved in the story. I think what made me compare them is that both of them are full of absurd coincidences and unlikely events, but Bernadette acknowledges and really encourages its own insanity. Yes, perfect, pass me the blackberry bush remover.

I will grant that at first, I was like, what the heck is this. The book is written as a collection of emails and letters and memos between, like, every character in the story, and at the beginning things are a little odd because Bernadette has not gone anywhere and is instead in Seattle being a crazy lady. Crazy in a good way, in that she snarks on all her daughter’s classmates’ parents and the city of Seattle generally and that she has lots of disposable income lying around to do things like make eight-foot signs to annoy her neighbors, but also crazy in a bad way in that she lives in a seriously dilapidated old building and outsources most of her life to a virtual assistant out of India.

The epistolary format starts to make more sense, though, as the story shifts back and forth between Bernadette’s emails to her assistant about her family’s impending trip to Antarctica (I mentioned rich, right?), her neighbor and fellow school parent Audrey’s emails and notes to another friend about how crazy Bernadette is and how Bernadette totally ran over her foot in the pickup line at school, Bernadette’s emails to her assistant authorizing payment for the totally ridiculous doctor’s fees resulting from this imaginary injury, etc. etc. We get to see how completely deluded all these characters are, how they think they interact with each other, and how they really interact with each other. And it’s the disparity between the last two that really drives the plot of this book, which hits a high point at an intervention involving both a psychiatrist and several federal agents, at the same time. Awesome?

The ending of the book is a bit rough, partly because there are some overlapping timelines that make working out the order of events a little difficult and partly because the ending is not quite as insane as the rest of the book and therefore feels a bit out of place. Of course, the ending involves most of the characters becoming less insane than they were in the rest of the book, so I guess that makes sense thematically. But I wouldn’t have been upset with, like, a penguin going insane and biting people or someone getting stuck on an ice floe with inexplicable access to email.

Regardless, I loved this book so much. It’s absolutely bonkers and doesn’t take itself at all seriously, and yet it imparts important morals like “clear communication is important” and “for real, though, if you people would just talk to each other things would be so much easier.” Usually a severe lack of communication between characters is cause for me to throw books against the wall screaming “That’s what mouths are for, dummies!”, but Semple makes it work. You can tell she’s written for Arrested Development, and for me that’s an absolute plus. When’s her next book coming out??

Recommendation: For those who wanted A Confederacy of Dunces to have slightly more likeable characters.

Rating: 10/10

RIP Update

It’s been a bit quiet around here this week, as I only managed to schedule posts for the first week of my two-week vacation and decided to have fun in Australia rather than worrying about writing anything. Or even reading anything… I read a total of two books on the trip and neither were RIP-related, which is a shame because it’s spring in Australia and that’s closer to fall than I’m going to get here in Florida until, like, January. Pants and a sweatshirt?? My poor cold bones.

Even the penguins are freezing!

On the plus side, my vacation required a total of eleven flights (four out, four back, and three between cities), and there were free movies and TV shows to be had on almost all of them. Suuuper helpful for jetlagged eyes, and for getting in my RIP watches for the week.

Hannibal, episodes 1 and 2
HannibalI had heard about this show through a couple of friends who enjoy it, but I just knew that it was supposed to be good and it had Hannibal Lecter in it. So when it turned out to be about some probably unnecessarily autistic-ish FBI dude I was like, whaaaat. (I have only seen Silence of the Lambs.) But I was still intrigued. It’s a crime procedural with weirdly dead bodies (impaled by antlers in one and used to grow mushrooms in the other); what am I gonna do, say no? And eventually Lecter shows up, of course, and he is more than sufficiently creep-tastic, so I’m sure I’ll be catching up with this series soon.

Oculus
OculusI didn’t intend to watch this movie, and my husband actually picked it to watch without me because he knows I’m not a fan of horror movies, but my eyes wandered over to his screen and saw Amy Pond buying a creepy mirror and I was like, well, I could read these subtitles for a while. And in fact it turns out that horror movies are way less horrifying with the sound off. (#lifehacks) I’m not sure how far into the movie I started watching, but I think it was pretty early on, and the gist of it is that Amy Pond buys a creepy mirror that her dad used to own before he brutally murdered her mother and was murdered by her brother and then Amy Pond went off to foster care and the brother to jail. Now the brother is out of jail and Amy Pond wants to prove that the mirror is haunted so she sets up a bunch of cameras and non-electric lanterns in the house and obtains a dog and some plants to power the mirror or whatever and her brother is like, you crazy, lady. But of course she’s not crazy, or she is crazy, but also the mirror is totes haunted and creeeeeeeepy things are happening in the house in the present that are dovetailed in with scenes from the past leading up to the horrible murders. The movie even almost sticks the landing, but it’s a horror film and really only has a couple of options for endings, so it’s not as awesome as it could have been. I think it would make a really intriguingly creepy book, but apparently this is one of the few movies not based on a book in some way, so I’m gonna need someone to go write that novelization for me, ‘kay?

Ask the Passengers, by A.S. King

Ask the PassengersA long time ago, I read King’s book Please Ignore Vera Dietz largely because I once shared a name with the protagonist but then it turned out to be super awesome and included a flow chart so even more awesome. Then King’s next book came out and I was like, I should totally read that, and then this one came out and I was like, I should totally read that, and then her next book came out… point is, I’ve put off reading her books long enough, so I am embarking on a quest to catch up. But not too quickly, or what will I have left to read?

I’m glad I waited this long to read Ask the Passengers, because as it turns out it is the book that I had thought or hoped that Speak would be, and it would have sucked to read Speak second. Both books deal with a girl with a secret (not the same secret), but where Anderson’s narrative is removed from the main character and we don’t really know what’s going on in her head, King’s gets right up in Astrid’s brain and gives us all the good thinky thoughts.

So Astrid is a New York City girl living in Podunkville, PA after her parents moved the family for reasons. Her small town is nice and all, but everyone is all up in everyone else’s business because that’s the traditional small town sport. Astrid’s more or less made her peace with this, but it does put a kink in her burgeoning relationship with another girl. Astrid’s girlfriend wants Astrid to come out as a flag-flying lesbian so they can date in the open, but Astrid isn’t even sure if she likes girls, plural, or just this one particular girl, or even this one particular girl, so could everybody maybe just give her a minute to decide?

I really loved this book, which pretty well encapsulated my teen angst over… every single thing that ever happened to me. I like that Astrid is smart enough to recognize all of the gossip and curiosity as the shenanigans that it is, but that, realistically, that knowledge is not as super helpful as it really should be. On the plus side, Astrid has old dead philosophers like Zeno and Socrates to turn to (the latter in an oddly literal way), as well as the titular passengers who fly over her town and who get their own brief narrative interludes as Astrid sends her love to them and they hear or otherwise receive it. It’s no talking pagoda but I’m still intrigued.

I absolutely love the way King writes her teenagers and even their parents, absent as they may so far be, and her way with words still keeps me somehow both glued to the pages and flipping through them as fast as I can to find out how things are going to play out. I am really excited to keep poring over her backlist, though come come October you’ll probably find me gushing about her upcoming book, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, which, with a name like that, I could not possibly turn down.

Recommendation: For anyone who has ever been an over-thoughtful teen and fans of John Green who want a little more magic in their lives.

Rating: 9/10

The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters

I don’t know where my book-o-sphere was when this book came out a couple years ago, but luckily it came back in time to inform me of this book’s awesomeness before I stopped liking bonkers speculative fiction (not that that’s ever going to happen). The world is coming to an end but there’s a policeman still solving crimes anyway? Sign me up!

Of course, the world isn’t actually coming to an end, exactly, or probably even our intrepid policeman would be giving up. It’s coming pretty close, though — there’s a giant asteroid on an unchangeable collision course with Earth that is going to kill everyone within a very large radius of where it hits and make life pretty sucky for those on the other side of the Earth.

As the story opens, our characters know when this asteroid is coming but not precisely where, but people are still committing suicide left and right because they cannot handle this unknown future. So when a dude is found hanged in a McDonald’s bathroom, everyone except our protagonist, Detective Hank Palace, is absolutely convinced it’s just another “hanger” and that it’s time to go back to sitting around contemplating inevitable doom.

But Palace thinks that there’s something weird about the crime scene, especially the strange woman he saw avoiding it and him, and he, in his adorable memorized-the-rulebook baby-detective resolve, is going to solve the case.

So obviously there’s this possible-murder plotline, which goes through all the requisite twists and turns and red herrings and double-backs of your average murder mystery, and the solution to said mystery is fairly well thought out. But the real heft of the story lies in its setting, with this giant asteroid making everyone crazier than usual in small-town New England. Winters does a great job of writing this plausible reality where some people think that suicide is preferable to whatever could possibly come after the asteroid and others think that the asteroid is an excuse to do every stupid thing you wouldn’t do if you knew you had to survive it and still others are convinced that the whole thing is a government conspiracy.

And I love our detective friend, who takes himself so absolutely seriously with the memorizing of the rulebook and the following of the procedure but also knows that he’s taking himself too seriously even if he can’t do anything about it. Palace is really the only character that gets to grow and change, but even the most one-note of Winters’s characters is somehow delightful.

This is a book that was clearly written for me, and I am very happy that there’s already a sequel waiting for me on my library’s shelves when I am ready to delve into this world once more.

Recommendation: For my bonkers-loving friends and those who like mysteries that are more about setting than plot.

Rating: 9/10

Saga, Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan

Saga, Vol. 1Even though I seem to be incapable of catching up with all of the single issue comics I’ve been buying over the last year, I got it into my head that I should and could totally start another series, for free from the library! Of course, see the first part of that sentence, so this particular book spent many months being renewed to the limit and checked in and back out until I finally decided that if I wasn’t going to read it now, it was never going to happen.

Part of my severe procrastination in reading this volume is that I really didn’t want to not like it. I had seen and heard this series talked about all over my favorite media, and everyone has pretty much agreed that it’s quite good. But on the other hand, it’s by Brian K. Vaughan, who wrote the Y: The Last Man series that I loved until I didn’t, and also the few panels that I had seen of the comic looked, well, a little too weird for me.

But, seriously, everyone was talking about it, and I am not one to get left out if I can help it, so now I can also say that I have read it. And that it’s quite good. I hope it stays that way!

First things first, yes, it’s super weird. The protagonists are a dude with horns and a chick with wings, and the antagonists include a robot prince with a monitor for a head and a chick with no arms but lots and lots of legs. We meet the robot prince mid-coitus, and later another antagonist goes to what is apparently a sex planet and we get many helpful illustrations of what goes on there.

But the story itself (so far) is pretty normal. Our protagonists are from two sides of a long war, and at the beginning of the book we are treated to the birth of their be-horned and be-winged daughter. No side of the war (and there are apparently many sides) is okay with this union, and so many people are sent out to kill our heroes, although at least some of the hunters are told not to kill the kid. So that’s interesting.

Also interesting is that the series is called Saga, and at certain points characters mention that the parents are ruining the “Narrative”, so I am intrigued to see what comes of that. And I am, as I was with Y: The Last Man, totally rooting for our protagonists and even a little bit for some of the antagonists, so it will be fun to see what horrors await them (I have been promised horrors!). Perhaps I’ll even find out in a timely fashion this time? A girl can dream…

Recommendation: For fans of Vaughan and strange worlds in general, and those with strong stomachs for sex and violence.

Rating: 9/10