Month: February 2014

26 Feb 2014

seattle 2014

Hello. I just got home from Seattle. It was my first trip to the West Coast and boy howdy was I charmed.

I was also charmed by this, my first opportunity to take a non-wedding related vacation in an exceptionally long time. I am married now, which means I am allowed to have sex, file jointly, and travel in peace. Also, own property.

Our first stop was Seattle proper, where one of my loveliest librarian friends has made her home. And boy, was it a nice home. First of all, do any of you have friends who have serious design skills? I feel like I am above average in my home decorating skills, but my darling Shelley? She has got something else entirely. More than a good eye – more like home design guts. Her apartment looks like she’s lived in it half her life – it’s filled with pictures and books and vintage furniture and art… basically, it was like stepping into an Apartment Therapy home tour. Just a lovely space.

Also, we met Ferdinand, my own ginger kitty’s male doppelgänger. Except skinny and all over the da-amn place. Ferdy made Peach look like a chubby, largely immobile pile of fluff.

We did a night and a day in the city. Our friend was so kind as to show us her favorite parts of Seattle as well as some of the required tourist spots. The big downtown library was first, of course. I was particularly enamored with George Legrady’s digital installation that displays library collection and circulation data in a visual live feed. 75% of my professional nerd-interests in an entrancing video loop. Amazing.

On Sunday, we hit up Ballard and Fremont. Farmer’s Markets, record stores, the antique mall, and brunch.

Yuppie stuff. Delightful, delightful yuppie stuff.

We even stopped by a bar for a 2 p.m. iced coffee cocktail. Shameless.


My boy and I usually have more travel aspirations than we have time or money. In order to afford our trips, we squirrel away tiny bits of money, slowly filling our special travel savings account for trips yet unimagined. We prioritize travel over many things – we don’t have a budget line item for concert tickets or video games or even books – but our trips have been relatively infrequent. It’s hard to consider travel a true passion. Passions are what you obsess over, what you do every day. Travel is imaginary until the plane takes off; every trip sneaks up on me.

What I am passionate about is being the kind of person who shows up. It was delightful and convenient when our Boston friend moved to Seattle, but this trip was percolating ever since one of my nearest and dearest Michigan ladies was first stationed at Fort Lewis. Before we could afford to visit, she moved to San Antonio. And shortly after we moved to Boston, she was sent out to Germany.

But now she is back in the States, and back in Washington. We spent most of the week in Tacoma, catching up and sleeping in and watching Gru and otherwise enjoying each other’s company. I hadn’t seen her since 2009. I had never met her three-year-old son. I missed meeting Baby #2 by a few weeks, but maybe next time.

Visiting new places is fun but when you are far from your loved ones, a week of conversations and good company is priceless. Travel can be prohibitively expensive – it was for us for a long time – but now I have the time and means to make it work. I might not drool over the Travel Channel or max out my credit card on plane tickets, but if you’ll have me in your home or your city, no worries, I’ll do the legwork.

I’d love to go back to the Pacific Northwest, but I probably shouldn’t because then I might never come back. Seriously. It was beautiful and laid back. The libraries were gorgeous. The food was great. Everything was cheaper than it is in Boston. There was coffee EVERYWHERE.

A Jessica Wonderland.

Watch out, West Coast.


24 Feb 2014

ned vizzini

I’ve wanted to post something about Ned Vizzini since he died, but I’ve been unsure of what I can say. What I should say.

Most of us who have passions have a story to tell about our passion. An origin story. The friend who lent you that book. You know, the book that changed your life. Or maybe it all started at school, when you picked up an oboe for the first time, took the class that flipped on a light switch in your brain, met the teacher who spoke directly to your soul.

My origin story includes Ned Vizzini. My mother handed me a thin yellow galley – maybe my first galley? – and told me I might like it. It was Teen Angst? Nahhh, Vizzini’s first book, a collection of essays he’d written while still in high school.

Ned’s essays floored me. They delighted me. They were stories about family, about feeling different, about feeling too nerdy to get by but getting by anyway. Ned was just a little bit older than I was. He was young. He was writing about being young. He was writing well. I’d read YA lit before – loved YA lit – but this was something entirely different. Something special.

I read and re-read this book many times as a teen, and when Be More Chill came out in 2004 I was excited. So was my sister. Ned was running his own book tour, insisting that he and his girlfriend loved road trips and would drive anywhere that would have him. My sister – my shy, introverted, nervous sister – called me at college and told me she’s talked to the principal and she’d emailed Ned and he was coming. To our high school. What on earth.

Something fell through on the school’s end, though, and Ned wasn’t to come. He felt bad. He emailed my sister and invited her to come to another school event, an hour away. I came down from school and we drove into the sticks together. We sat in a strange rural middle school cafeteria, the odd teens out – were we groupies? Fangirls? Sisters who couldn’t pass up a once in a lifetime chance?

We met Ned, briefly, afterwards. I remember that he knew my sister’s name, that he was much more excited to be hanging out in rural Michigan than I was, and that he seemed so much younger than me. He had a strange, guileless energy. Like he might say anything. Like he might respond to your emails if you asked him to visit your high school, even if you were a sixteen-year-old girl.

When It’s Kind of a Funny Story came out in 2006, I knew what a galley was and I was happy to get one. When I read that Ned based the book on his time in a mental health unit, I wasn’t surprised. When the book found a broad audience – many teens and young people who themselves struggled with mental illness – I wasn’t surprised.

But when I read that Ned had killed himself, I couldn’t believe it. I read in an interview somewhere that he thought he was still struggling. That he was always going to struggle. But he had coping mechanisms. He wasn’t having suicidal thoughts. Things wouldn’t ever be great but they could just be.

I’m a person who is deeply, irrationally invested in believing the best things people say about themselves. Probably because I spend so much time crafting my own, hoping that someday I will be the person I imagine myself to be. Hoping that everyone believes me. I’m sorry you were in pain, Ned. I’m sorry you had to go so soon. Thank you for starting early and hanging on, for writing your books, for letting me be a weirdo in your middle school writing workshop, for being a tiny, tangential part of my own story. Thanks so much.

17 Feb 2014

two hundred


200 Words

I have written at least 200 words of fiction every day in 2014. I’m digging it. It’s enough words to feel like I’ve done some creative work – some sentences, a paragraph or two, a small idea – but not so many that writing becomes a horror that I spend all day dreading, avoiding. I can half-ass 200 words if I’ve had a busy day or a stressful day. I can speed-write 200 words in 20 minutes if I’m on my way out for the night or if it’s almost bedtime. Most days I write more. 200 words are just enough for something interesting start to emerge, and if I have more time, I can keep going. I usually keep going. I usually don’t notice that I’ve finished. Yesterday, I hit 10k.

Life of the Mind

A small writing goal allows me ample time to do other things with my life. Yes, this includes working full time, cooking, keeping house, and being social, but what feels more important right now is that I still have time to think. I’ve come to realize lately all of the thinking I’m not doing. I’ve always considered myself to be a thinker. An interior person. But what usually goes on in my interior is just wheel-spinning, usually of the anxious nature. Bad brain stuff. Shutting down those particular neural pathways will probably be a lifelong effort, but while I’m working on writing I’m also working on thinking, because for me, they go hand in hand. More than hand in hand. They are just the same thing. If I’m freaked out about sitting down in front of a blank Word document because I’ve got to write XXX words before XXX and they better be good, then committing to deeper thinking and focus is going to be difficult. Right now, my Sit and Think/Write Whatever schedule feels roomy. I like it.

Quiet Down In There

I’m not much of a TV watcher anymore. I usually feel pretty high and mighty about this. But you know what’s kind of the same as living in a house where the television is always running? Keeping your headphones in for 7, 8, 9 hours a day, brain on a steady diet of podcasts and audiobooks and Other People Talking. Or, even better, the lure of the never-ending scroll of your Twitter feed, the constant Facebook surveillance even though you really insist that you hate Facebook and everyone on it. Two weeks ago, I put myself on a Media Fast. Very minimal television, few podcasts, no audiobooks. No videogames, Twitter, or Facebook. Just reading and writing.

And working. And housework. And exercising. And everything else I do in my life. But I’m doing those things with a slightly quieter brain for awhile. At least until I get back from my vacation.


I am not the first person to compare writing and running, and I am certainly not the most eloquent or experienced. I am hugely amateur at both endeavors, actually.

If I was to assign a narrative to my experience as a runner, I would do so as follows: for the first 18 years of my life, I was afraid of the act, found it difficult, physically uncomfortable, and painful. It was something I was never, ever good at and never, ever expected to get better at. I dabbled with running during college and after, but never more than a mile. When I moved to Boston, running was the only form of exercise I could afford, so I tried to take it more seriously. It started out crappy but got better. Four years later, I’m not a great runner, but I am a better runner. I am not so afraid. It doesn’t always hurt. I feel like I have the tools to run more, run faster, run longer, if I make the time.

My writing narrative feels much more negative. I’ve always written. Never not written. In college, I stumbled into a creative writing degree, and four years later stumbled into writing (bad) novels. After graduation, I still wrote, but something started to break and grad school kicked it all to pieces. Now, I feel less creative, less flexible, and much, much more afraid. I worry every day that writing is not for me, but I worry even more that writing is something I’ll never be able to stop doing even though it makes me feel awful, even if I am never able to write anything I am proud of.

I wish I could reverse those stories. My writing experience in college was a little more like the first story. I was learning. Getting better. Like I had the tools to get better. I don’t feel that way anymore, but maybe it’s just me writing mind-narratives and then living up to them. Maybe if I write 200 more words, if I change the way I tell myself stories, if I make the right hard choices, then I can feel the same way about writing that I feel about running – hopeful.

10 Feb 2014

Books before Movies, Movies before Books, and other Not-So-Important Dilemmas

A few weeks ago I finally watched the first Lord of the Rings movie. Yes, thirteen years is a long time to avoid a well-respected cultural touchstone of cinema, based on a cultural touchstone of literature. I understand that. But you know… elves. Trolls. Orcs. Dragons. Three hour movies about elves and trolls and orcs and dragons.

But also, I wanted to read the book first. I always want to read the book first. My reasoning has always been that I would prefer to meet characters in their primary setting – between two book covers. Through my actions, I make a fairly unsupportable assumption that books are always better than their adaptations. But I don’t even think I believe that. I think I just like the scramble – quick! Find the book and finish it before we go! And probably more importantly, the ritual strokes my literary-ego. I am a person who chooses books before movies. Please, everyone line up to admire my giant brain.

Book-Before-Movie feels virtuous but does not always result in a more enjoyable reading/ watching experience. Re-reading a favorite just before taking in a film adaptation can be especially hazardous. I watched the first Hunger Games movie with a friend who had just finished a re-read; we all agreed it was a great film and a great adaptation, but my friend had a laundry list of “well, they skipped THAT part and changed THIS part” to discuss as well. I re-read Perks of Being a Wallflower before watching the movie and felt the same way, but also felt like there was something different, something so good about the book that wasn’t in the story but in the narrative. Something that didn’t translate to the screen – maybe something that couldn’t.

Then there is the Lord of the Rings dilemma. Over thirteen years, I told plenty of people that I was planning on reading the books. But I wasn’t going to read them. I didn’t really read fantasy. I was in grad school. I was always going to read something else instead. It wasn’t going to happen. It hasn’t happened. Stalemate.

But what really tipped me over was my experience with Game of Thrones. I chose to watch the show because I was coming around to fantasy, because I wanted to watch a show with The Boy, and because everyone on the planet was obsessed. I didn’t feel a need to read the books before I watched because I didn’t even know if I would like the book. Lord of the Rings was a classic. A Song of Ice and Fire was thousands and thousands of pages long.

Anyway, you are all well-aware that I loved the show and launched quickly into the books. And while I read it was fairly clear that if I had come to this book cold I never would have made it through the first few chapters. There is just too much going on and too many characters. Watching the show gave me a leg-up, and then reading while I read helped me understand some of the more subtle scenes in the show. Some folks make the argument for Book First because you get the pleasure of imagining characters on your own, without input. But when a movie or show is cast as well as Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, then I don’t mind. My endearment to the characters of Westeros made the books worth the effort.

And I never would have read the books if I hadn’t watched the show. I could have gone to my grave Jon Snow-less, Rob Stark-less, Tyrion Lannister-less. Stalemate broken.

In conclusion, I have spent 500+ words on an issue of little or no importance. Read before you watch, watch before you read, do what you like, do what you do. But if you’re spending decades of your life making excuses for reading a book or watching a movie, you should probably just do what you have to do. You’re not getting any younger, you know.

P.S. My extreme LoTR avoidance also allowed me the very rare pleasure of meeting Boromir for the first time, screaming “NED STAAAAAARK!!!” into the small space of my living room, The Boy laughing at my inverted cultural priorities over the last 13 years.

P.P.S. Now, next time I go home to Michigan, I can play Lego Lord of the Rings with my sisters. I am excited. This is a very legitimate reason for an adult woman to be excited. I promise.

06 Feb 2014

the stars of 2013 – final quarter

I’m sorry. I am still talking about books I read last year. This has become the Forever 2013 Blog, a url where time stands still. But you guys, I cannot leave the last quarter of my Goodreads Star report unfinished. It’s unbecoming.

This will be me final star report. I am having some Deep Thoughts about book reviewing and some misgivings about Star Ratings in general. That probably isn’t going to stop me from using them, but they will stay on Goodreads where they belong. Please feel free to add me as a friend! I am always looking for Goodreads friends. I will add you back, I promise. Unless, of course, your reviews include more gifs than words. Or any gifs at all. I just can’t handle all those flashing pictures in my feed, yo.

Two Stars

~ the books that annoyed me or had major league flaws ~

Just Like Fate by Cat Patrick

Premeditated by Josin L. McQuein

Stained by Cheryl Rainfield

Dear Teen Me edited by Miranda Kenneally

Artemis Dreamt by Crystal Beran

Since You Asked by Maurene Goo


Three Stars

~ the books that were just fine, no huge complaints, but nothing to write home about either ~

For the Good of Mankind by Vicki O. Wittenstein

Looks Like Daylight by Deborah Ellis

Legends, Icons & Rebels by Robbie Robertson

Pepita: Takehiko Inoue Meets Gaudi by Takehiko Inoue

Lincoln’s Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin

Regine’s Book: A Teen Girl’s Last Words by Regine Stokke

Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies by Nell Beram

Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices ed by Mitali Perkins

A Marked Man: The Assassination of Malcolm X by Matt Doeden

Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss

Breakfast on Mars and 37 Other Delectable Essays by Brad Wolfe

Women of the Frontier: 16 Trailblazing Homesteaders by Brandon Miller

Leap of Faith by Jamie Blair

Believe by Sarah Aronson

Losing It, ed by Melvin Burgess

Women Aviators: 26 Stories of Pioneer Flights, Daring Missions, and Record-Setting Journeys by Karen Bush Gibson

Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans during World War II by Martin W. Sandler

Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas

They Call Me a Hero by Daniel Hernandez

Darkness Everywhere: The Assassination of Mohandas Gandhi by Matt Doeden

Andi Unexpected by Amanda Flower

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, and Other Female Villains by Jane Yolen

Your Food is Fooling You by David A. Kessler

The Nazi Hunters Neal Bascomb

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf

Full Ride by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Mojo by Tim Tharp


Four Stars

~ the books I really enjoyed and would not hesitate to recommend ~

Mountains Beyond Mountains (adapted for young people) by Tracy Kidder

The President Has Been Shot!” by James L. Swanson

The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne by Catherine Reef

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Boxers by Gene Luen Yang

Saints by Gene Luen Yang

The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

The Diviners by Libba Bray

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt

Two Boys Kissing by David LEvithan


Five Stars

~ I am having a love affair with these books ~

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart [my sort-of review here]

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King [my review here]

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline [my review here]


01 Feb 2014

more reasons to love fangirl

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was one of my favorite books of 2013. Along with the rest of the reading public. I know.

Why bother to heap even more praise on a book that’s had plenty? Well, I just re-read it, and there was just so much to love that I didn’t get to tell you about the first time. Indulge me.


Coming of Age… as an adult


Alright. I guess we can talk about New Adult again for a moment. I am still a skeptic of this supposedly burgeoning literary genre. I don’t think it is appropriate or accurate to give every book about an 18-24 year old a particular label. I think genre traditions and definitions run deeper than “age of characters” – slapping on an age-based descriptor regardless of other narrative factors ignores genre traditions and can mislead readers.

Is Fangirl New Adult? Is it Adult? Is it YA? A big part of Fangirl’s wide attention is that it does sit squarely in that area of Adult/YA crossover. Cath is a character with broad introverted, nerdy girl appeal, regardless of the age of said nerd.

But the book’s YA-ness is really hard to deny. What Rowell has done is write a very traditional coming of age romance and set it in the very beginnings of adulthood. Although Cath is a grown up, her story feels about as YA as YA gets.

I would argue that Rowell achieves this in part because she grounds Cath’s story inside of another story – the Simon Snow series. Simon Snow – the focus of Cath’s creative attention for years – is a (meta?) fictionalized Harry Potter. Which is a work of children’s/YA literature, and also a school story. Set against these two touchstones, Cath’s move to college feels more like a move to boarding school than an exodus into adulthood – like she’s moving out of the space of childhood but clearly hasn’t left yet.

The meta-fictional contrast between Hogwarts, Simon Snow, and state college is a unique and ingenious narrative tactic, regardless of what label you want to slap on the book.


Oh, Cath


But what I really think separates Fangirl from the traditions of adult literature is Cath – more specifically, how Rowell lets Cath steer the story.

I have read a handful of books about college students written for an adult market. All of these books have been decidedly about college as an institution, about learning and knowledge and power. About the place of higher education in the world and in the lives of individual students. The characters may be interesting and well-developed, but they also feel a little like pawns in some kind of grander allegory.

Last year I read Rebecca Harrington’s Penelope. I talked a little bit about it in this post. Like Fangirl, Penelope is about a shy, nerdy girl who feels socially awkward while she dive into her first year of college. Like Cath, Penelope faces new social situations, romances, and experiences the triumphs and pitfalls of becoming an independent adult-type student.

Comparing only premise and plot, it would seem that these two books are quite similar. Readalikes, maybe. But I would argue that Penelope the book is not about Penelope the character. Penelope the book is about Harvard. It is about cultural, intellectual, and social capital amongst 18 to 22-year-olds. It is about various collegiate rituals and requirements and how absurd they are when observed from a distant lens. Penelope stands in for any girl, her quirks, traits, and desires tailored to fit the needs of certain metaphors, to elucidate a larger Big Idea.

Fangirl does explore a fair amount of Big Ideas – most of them about art and authenticity and what sacrifices are required to divine out your own passion and abilities at the tender age of 18 – but ultimately, the story is about Cath. It’s not an extended metaphor starring an awkward young coed – it’s a story about a specific awkward young coed with metaphors thrown in for set dressing.

And I think my previous post pretty much sums up why Cath is a character worth caring about. At least if you are an introverted nerd girl. After a recent twitter exchange, it has come to my attention that Cath may in fact be an INFJ. This explains my personal affection toward her – as an INFJ, I feel a special kinship with most of my Myers-Briggs mates.

This has also opened the door to literary Myers-Briggs speculations. This is probably not a particularly useful way to spend one’s critical energy, but I’m afraid once you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole it can be difficult to climb out.


The Craft

Ms. Rowell’s writing is slick. It’s the kind of narrative that almost slips under the story and the excellent dialog – you almost don’t notice it, but you are enjoying it. I feel like some of Ms. Rowell’s critics do not give her adequate credit for her writing chops. It’s like that whole “I don’t want to look like I’m wearing make-up so I will wear seven times as much make-up as anyone else to achieve the all-natural look,” thing. Or watching women’s gymnastics. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of work to make prose read easy.

In Fangirl, Rowell’s tight third-person narrative shows off her skill for the descriptive simile.


Cath put on brown cable-knit leggings and a plaid shirtdress that she’d taken from Wren’s dorm room. Plus knit wristlet thingies that made her think of gauntlets,like she was some sort of knight in crocheted armor.

Cath set the phone on her desk and leaned back away from it. Like it was something that would bite.

But Cath didn’t worry about Reagan, not like she worried about Wren. Maybe because Reagan looked like the Big Bad Wolf – and Wren just looked like Cath with a better haircut.

“You look like you need some fresh air.”

“Me?” Cath gagged on her pot roast sandwich. “You look like you need fresh DNA.”

Reagan wore eyeliner all the way around her eyes. Like a hard-ass Kate Middleton.

Clever, yes. Entertaining, yes. But oh, please do not dismiss these lines as set dressing. Lines such as these channel Cath’s point of view into the third person narration. They capture something about the scene and about Cath’s attitude toward it, and Rowell knows just when to employ one. This is the kind of genius comedic writing I fear my puny brain could never manufacture. This is why Rowell is deserving of her heaps of praise, even though her prose is more straightforward that literary, even if she’s writing love stories.

I could go on. Oh, I could. But we’ve reached 1000 words of Fangirl-love, and guess who just got an e-galley of Landline today. Me. ME. I have got reading to do.

Image credit to the imminently talented Simini Blocker. If you haven’t checked out her work yet, please do. She’s like my patron saint of YA fan art. Run quickly. And while you are at it, hire her to illustrate all the picturebooks ever. This chick is going places.