Friday, June 27, 2014

Best Books of June

Here are the best books that I read this month. The reviews are mine; the summaries and covers come from Goodreads.

Fat Kid Rules the World – K.L. Going

Troy Billings is seventeen, 296 pounds, friendless, utterly miserable, and about to step off a New York subway platform in front of an oncoming train. Until he meets Curt MacCrae, an emaciated, semi-homeless, high school dropout guitar genius, the stuff of which Lower East Side punk rock legends are made. Never mind that Troy's dad thinks Curt's a drug addict and Troy's brother thinks Troy's the biggest (literally) loser in Manhattan. Soon, Curt has recruited Troy as his new drummer, even though Troy can't play the drums. Together, Curt and Troy will change the world of punk, and Troy's own life, forever.
Review: The 5 stars are for Curt. He is a fascinating and complicated character. I really appreciate that a drug addict/criminal character is written so complexly. He isn't just a semi-homeless drug addict, he's also a punk rock god, a friend, and a realistic human. He's not a "bad guy" or a cautionary tale. The author just let him be himself. That's awesome.

The book's narrator, seventeen-year-old Troy, is a self-conscious fat kid. He meets semi-homeless Curt while trying to come up with an un-funny way to commit suicide. Curt immediately decides that Troy will be the drummer in a new punk rock band, even though Troy doesn't know how to play the drums.

The book is very well-written and has some funny moments. The characters behave like realistic teens and twenty-somethings. The plot is a little slow, and Troy is not as complex or interesting as Curt, but Curt more than makes up for all of that. The book is worth reading just for him.

Before I Die – Jenny Downham

Tessa has just a few months to live. 
Fighting back against hospital visits, endless tests, drugs with excruciating side-effects, Tessa compiles a list. It's her To Do Before I Die list. And number one is sex. 
Released from the constraints of 'normal' life, Tessa tastes new experiences to make her feel alive while her failing body struggles to keep up. 
Tessa's feelings, her relationships with her father and brother, her estranged mother, her best friend, her new boyfriend, all are painfully crystallized in the precious weeks before Tessa's time finally runs out. 
BEFORE I DIE is a brilliantly-crafted novel, heartbreaking yet astonishingly life-affirming. It will take you to the very edge.
Review: Sixteen-year-old Tessa has decided to stop her treatments for leukemia so that she feels well enough to enjoy her last few months of life. She makes a list of things that she wants to do before she dies, including having sex, doing drugs, committing a crime, becoming famous, and falling in love.

The title tells you how the book ends, but the story is not predictable. Tessa's list is so unusual that you never know what she's going to do next. This book is beautifully written. I especially like the end where reality is mixed with thoughts and Tessa's instructions to her family members. I also like the unconditional love that Tessa's family and boyfriend have for her. She treats them horribly, and they never give up on her.

The author did a great job of showing the complicated emotions that surround death, but the realistic emotions also made it difficult for me to connect with Tessa. In the beginning of the book, she is so angry, and so ungrateful, and so selfish that I disliked her immediately. She does get a little better at the end of the book, but it's not enough for me to like her. I really hate her pessimistic friend, Zoey. The younger brother is inconsistent and often acts much younger than his age.

This book's greatness comes not from the characters but from the effect that the book has on the reader. It makes you think about what you want to do with your life. It makes you grateful for your relationships. It makes you appreciate the everyday things. Most of all, it makes you happy to be alive.

Swamplandia! – Karen Russell

The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline — think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades — and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the World of Darkness.

Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve year old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.

Review: A family of alligator wrestlers goes on a quest to save their island theme park and themselves. Chief Bigtree, the father, is delusional about the future of the park. Ossie, the older sister, needs to get to the underworld to marry a ghost. Kiwi, the older brother, is trying to survive on the mainland. Ava, the younger sister, is left alone in the swamp with the creepy Birdman.

This book started weird and ended terrifying. It was definitely a strange story. The setting was one of the most vivid settings I've ever read. The setting had its own backstory. The characters were complex, unusual, and interesting. My favorite character was Kiwi. I loved his horrible name and huge ego. The plot was crazy and unexpected: I didn't see that ending coming. The writing was beautiful and quirky.

My only complaint was the pacing. It felt like it took me forever to get through the book. The story floundered in places and didn't feel like it was going anywhere. I was just reading for Kiwi and the author's amazing writing. Those things weren't really enough to keep me going, and several times I considered putting the book down and reading something else. The ending also felt slightly rushed.

This story makes you think about the murky space between the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. I'm glad that I didn't give up on it. Despite its pacing, this was a wonderful, dark, and messy book.


All The Things = 27 books.

I’m currently reading: Eli the Good by Silas House

Friday, June 20, 2014

Best Book of May

I was so busy in May that I didn’t have a chance to write the Best Books post. I did read a lot of books in May, but most of them weren’t very good, so there’s only one book in this post. It’s a very, very good book. Go read it.

Around the void left by the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963, the poems in this collection speak, unleashing the strong emotions both before and after the moment of assassination. Poems take on the voices of Evers's widow, Myrlie; his brother, Charles; his assassin, Byron De La Beckwith; and each of De La Beckwith's two wives. Except for the book's title, "Turn me loose," which were his final words, Evers remains in this collection silent. Yet the poems accumulate facets of the love and hate with which others saw this man, unghosting him in a way that only imagination makes possible.

My review: This is the best book that I've read in a long time. It's possibly the best book that I've read so far this year. There are a lot of great poems in this collection, but my favorite was probably "Ambiguity Over The Confederate Flag." I kept coming back to that one because it was so attention-grabbing.

These forty-nine poems explore the 1963 murder of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers. This is the type of book that you keep thinking about long after you've finished it. The poems are beautiful, powerful, and disturbing. What impressed me most was the author's ability to get inside the heads of real people and make it sound so authentic. The poems are told from the points-of-view of Evers's wife and brother as well as his murderer and his murderer's ex-wives. Each poem explores some element of Evers's life and death.

This book could have the power to leave the reader feeling hopeless, but the author handles the subject so skillfully that it doesn't. The book perfectly captures the complexity of human nature. It shows humans' capacity for love and hate, despair and forgiveness.

If you are interested in poetry or American history, I'd highly recommend this book.

Friday, June 13, 2014

I’m Back: Here’s What Happened

I’m home from my first residency at Spalding University in Kentucky. I was there because I’m getting my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I did take some random pictures of Louisville, but you won’t be seeing them because I haven’t had a chance to put them on the computer yet. I don’t think I’ve even taken the camera out of the suitcase yet.

I spent 11 days in Louisville. It was exhausting, awesome, and slightly terrifying. This was my first time going on a plane by myself. It was also my first time leaving Colorado by myself. But, I did it. I got to stay in a fancy hotel and meet a bunch of really interesting people. I did spend a lot of time lost and wandering around Louisville, but that was to be expected. I kind of get lost everywhere.

The residency was like a writing conference on steroids. It was nine straight days of lectures, readings, workshops, and meetings. Unlike my past residencies at other schools, we didn’t get the weekend off. I don’t travel much, so I had a hard time adjusting to the time zone change. I felt like a stumbling zombie for most of the residency. However, I did learn a lot. Even though it was scary and mentally exhausting, I’m glad that I went. It was totally worth it. The best part was that I went 11 days without hearing anyone say, “You’re getting a MFA in Writing for Children? What do you plan to do for money?”