A Tale of Two Books

Completely by coincidence, I read two books this month with remarkably similar set-ups – coming-of-age male LGBTQ characters – back to back. Neither book had really been on my radar, either: I picked up Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe at a bookstore after getting shamed at book club for not having read it, and the next day decided to pull More Happy Than Not from my local library without really looking at its plot.

I finished Aristotle first, delighting in its simple but beautiful language and the relatively straightforward set-up of two teenage boys and best friends discovering their feelings for each other (I also loved the secondary plot of these boys being Mexican in a 1980s Texas border town and what that means for their lives and life journeys). The cover alone is also incredibly gorgeous, may I say. Diving into More Happy Than Not, I was surprised (although not upset) when I discovered it was going to be remarkably similar – a teenage boy discovering his feelings for his male best friend. Even its setting in modern-day New York, with a Latino protagonist, allowed for similar motifs to float through.

But then… the *TWIST* in More Happy Than Not occurs, and I was COMPLETELY gobsmacked. It’s hinted in the summary – which I had ignored – but it really takes the book in a different sci-fi direction.

WHAT I READ:

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Benjamin Sáenz) and More Happy Than Not (Adam Silvera)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 coming-of-age stories, I give Aristotle 5 Texas summers and More Happy 5 mysterious neurological procedures.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

More Happy Than Not:

In his twisty, gritty, profoundly moving debut—called “mandatory reading” by the New York Times—Adam Silvera brings to life a charged, dangerous near-future summer in the Bronx.

In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again–but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely.

When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is.

Why does happiness have to be so hard?

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe:

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

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In short, even though these books seem to be very similar, they take off in wildly different directions – and I thoroughly enjoyed both. Must-adds to your reading list.

All the Single Ladies

I’m doing it, folks – I’m keeping up with my bookish New Year’s resolutions! (Except for pledging to read a classic novel by a female author every quarter. Whoops. Jane Eyre, I’m still coming for you!).

The resolution I kept this month? Reading more non-fiction. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Rebecca Traister) has been on my read list for a while now, since it landed on the “Best Books of 2016” books.

There were a lot of really interesting takeaways in this book, which explores the historical role of women in American society and how social, political, and economic events have impacted how they are viewed – and what they are able to do.

WHAT I READ:

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Rebecca Traister)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 wedding rings, I give this 3 fully-formed individual women.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

A nuanced investigation into the sexual, economic, and emotional lives of women in America. In a provocative, groundbreaking work, National Magazine Award finalist Rebecca Traister, “the most brilliant voice on feminism in the country” (Anne Lamott), traces the history of unmarried and late-married women in America who, through social, political, and economic means, have radically shaped our nation.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

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The books is full of fascinating facts, stats, and stories, but I pulled out just a few of my favorites…

First, the advice in the appendix on what is needed to make single women truly equal in America reminded me a lot of The Year of Living Danishly – and what makes people in that country so happy. Essentially, we need better policies including stronger equal pay protections, national healthcare system, mandatory parental and sick leave, and welfare benefits. And, of course, we need to “protect reproductive rights, access to birth control, and sex education.” Just something to chew over…

Another stat that stood out to me as someone who is definitely not ready to get married yet: “The ‘Knot Yet Report,’ published in 2013, reported that a college educated woman who delays married until her thirties will earn $18,000 more per year than an equivalently educated woman who marries in her twenties.” Gimme that cheddar, yo!

And finally, Amelia Earhart’s plea to her husband after she turned down his proposals several times: “You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means most to me… Please let us not interfere with the other’s work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements. In this connection I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinement of even an attractive cage.” Might be going into my wedding vows.

Highly recommended for people looking to learn a little bit more about history and a lot more about being a woman.

Second Chances

It’s rare for me to reread a book. It’s even rarer for me to reread a book I didn’t really like the first time. (Have you seen Belle’s library? There are just too many books, people!). But, I did exactly that with my latest read by Sarah J. Maas.

I flailed over Sarah J. Maas a few weeks ago and her second series A Court of Thorns and Roses. While (im)patiently waiting for the third book to come out in May, I realized I could fill my Maas-sized hole by attempting her first, BELOVED series, again, Throne of Glass.

Being a dabbler in the book blogging community, I have seen many bloggers obsessed with this series for years. And yet, reading the first book in 2013 didn’t do a lot of me. At the time, I gave it 3 stars and sighed, “I struggled with this one. On the one hand, I felt a little bored at times and not sure if I wanted to go on. I hoped that there was not a follow-up book because I didn’t know if I wanted to read it or not. However, by the end I was mildly intrigued by what happens next. Let’s put it this way – I’ve put a hold on the next book at the library but am not heartbroken that I am 11th in line. Solid 3 stars (I enjoyed reading it, probably wouldn’t read it again or buy it).”

Joke’s on me, because I read it again. So, what does 2017 Kristen think now?!

WHAT I READ:

Throne of Glass (Sarah J. Maas)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 female assassins, I give this 3.5 glass palaces.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.

Her opponents are men-thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the king’s council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she’ll serve the kingdom for four years and then be granted her freedom. Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilarating. But she’s bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her … but it’s the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.

Then one of the other contestants turns up dead … quickly followed by another. Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

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Basically… a LOT of conflicting emotions. I loved Celaena and she is definitely the most well drawn-out. I thought she had really interesting and contradictory elements to her that made me happy. And, who doesn’t love a kick-ass female? Where it lacked for me was 1) her male “love triangle” participants and 2) most of the plot, tbh.

First, the two men semi-competing for her heart were fairly one-dimensional, and their attraction to Celaena (and her attraction to them) not well established at all. She basically just thinks the Prince is hot, they hang out a few times, she’s in. Maas’ other series is amazing because you REALLY get to know the main men, and to understand why the lead would fall for one or the other. Here, it was more like “Ah, a man. I must be attracted to him.”

As for the plot, I liked the Trials element, but thought the “scary” portion of a castle monster killing the competitors to be very lackluster. There would literally be throw-away sentences like “Yup, another three people died, bummer.” I wish there had been more of an element of dread, which you don’t really get until the end.

 

All that being said, I’m much more interested in diving into the next book, which rumor has it is much better than this one. Considering how much I love Maas’ next series, I can only think/hope that her writing continues to improve in this one.

Creative Writing Exercises

Confession: I often don’t love those books that everyone else in the world loves and proclaims to be THE BEST EVER. I found The Underground Railroad to be lacking an emotional heart; Fates and Furies just wasn’t worth the long library wait; and The Goldfinch had too many words not saying enough for my tastes.

So, maybe I’m not the SMARTEST reader. But I still love reading, read a ton, and often like books everyone else likes! Sometimes I even read the super-literary books and like them! I’ve read books with footnotes, guys!

Going into reading Lincoln in the Bardo, I was pretty pumped. One of my favorite bloggers recommended it and it has over 4 stars on Goodreads. And yet, I found it to be pretty “meh.” I liked the mixing of historical research (quotes from memoirs, letters, etc) with the fictional telling of Lincoln’s child in “purgatory” following the child’s death. But, this book was exceptionally skim-worthy, with too many characters, confusing motifs, and far too many mentions of throbbing members for my liking. I’ve said this about other books (primarily Fate and Furies), but this seemed just like an excessive creative writing exercise to me. At a certain point, I want more character and plot development and less clever literary techniques.

WHAT I READ:

Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 gravestones, I give this 2.5 throbbing members. (Ugh)

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

(What can I say… I’m done with trying to summarize it myself.)

The captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War. On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body. Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

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So, should you read it? I dunno, maybe. Perhaps if I in a better mood, or reading this in an educational setting where I had to discuss it with others, I would appreciate it more. As it stands, it just really didn’t do a lot for me.

Stuff You Definitely Missed In History Class

A few years ago, I listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Missed in History Class, about a subject I had definitely never been taught: “The Tulsa Race Riots and Black Wall Street.”  I HIGHLY encourage you stop reading this immediately and spend the next 30 minutes listening to that episode. This extremely traumatic episode in recent American history is more than merely a race riot: it is a black holocaust and one that was virtually scrubbed from American history books until very recently.

Essentially, in 1921 a suburb of Tulsa populated mainly by black people was looted and destroyed over a two-day period by a mob of white Tulsa citizens, including law enforcement and National Guard members. Hundreds of people (mostly black people) died, many thousands of black people lost literally everything, and it was deliberately scrubbed from any official historical mention until the 1990s – with no official recognition by the state until 2001. (And, of course, survivors and their descendants have received no insurance payments or reparations to this day.)

All this to say, I had no idea my most recent book club read was about these race riots until I was well into it, sparking my memory from years past that I had once spent thirty minutes learning about this historical episode via a podcast. I am extremely thankful for both this podcast and this wonderful book for exposing me to this forgotten part of our dark history.

WHAT I READ:

Dreamland Burning (Jennifer Latham)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 baby detective teenage girls, I give this 4 Victrolas.

#FirstFifty Synopsis:

SOMEONE (me) returned this book to the library before remembering to do this, so I’ll just copy the Goodreads description:

When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past, the present, and herself.

One hundred years earlier, a single violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what’s right the night Tulsa burns.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

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This book does a wonderful job at making ignored history come alive, and I liked both the present-day mystery and the past-day retelling of the horrible events. The few quibbles I had with it (hence the 4/5 stars): first, some of the characters were very one-dimensional. In particular, the present-day lead’s best friend is really just there so she has someone to say her thoughts out loud to, and has no other role in her life. Second, I wish the villain wasn’t QUITE such a caricature. The author gave him some interesting dimension at the end, but I think it would have been more powerful had the villain been a more major character who was nuanced and seemed like a “good guy” whose true colors are revealed when the riots break out.

But, all quibbles aside, this book is incredible for its historical impact and highly recommended.