Friday, February 13, 2015

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

This book is so good, I can't even explain. It's about a young woman named Cather who write fanfiction using characters from a book series that is like Harry Potter, but isn't. She goes off to college and takes a fiction writing class, but she doesn't want to create her own characters--she loves writing fanfiction so much she can't make the transition to writing "real" fiction.

If you like Harry Potter, you'll like this book. If you like fanfiction. If you like slash fiction. If you like love stories. If you think the real love story in the Harry Potter series was between Harry and Snape. If you like good writing. If you like Nebraska. If you like realistic, contemporary young adult fiction. If you want to know what life is like as a first-year college student. 

I loved one of Rainbow Rowell's other young adult novels, Eleanor & Park. But I loved Fangirl even more, I think. 
If you've read them both, which did you like better? Eleanor & Park had more pathos (nothing wrong with that). Fangirl is funnier, but it still had plenty of dark moments.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

SkyFlakes Crackers

These crackers were highly recommended by my wise friend Leila, so I had to try them. They are similar to saltines, but slightly denser and less salty. I can definitely understand the appeal! They are the perfect food for when you don't really feel like eating, but you know you need to eat something. They are soothing and comforting.

You won't find them in your average U.S. grocery store but you can buy them on Amazon.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

I didn't plan to read Gone Girl. I didn't plan to like it, either. But I asked my friends for suggestions of books to review, and TC suggested Gone Girl.

When Gone Girl came out in 2012, I read about it everywhere. The plot was intriguing, but it didn't sound like the kind of book I would enjoy reading. I don't enjoy scary books, or murder mysteries, or books where bad things happen to good people (or even to bad people). But I confess that I want to know what happens in these books, even if I don't want to read them myself. So I scour reviews (especially the ones that have spoiler alerts) for hints about the ending. Sometimes I read the last few pages on Amazon if I can. By the time I was done binge-reading reviews of Gone Girl, I had a pretty good idea of what happened in the book, including the twists and the incredibly depressing ending. [Spoiler Alert: This is as good a place as any to mention that if you haven't read the book or seen the movie--and you want to remain unspoiled--don't read the rest of this review!]

Then the movie came out a few months ago, and Gone Girl was all over the news again. I read all the think pieces about the differences in perspective between the book and the movie, about the changes necessary to make the plot work as a film, about whether Ben Affleck was the right choice to play Nick, about what the author Gillian Flynn thought of the movie (she adapted the screenplay herself). Again, I didn't actually want to see the movie--I just wanted to know all about it.

So this week I checked Gone Girl out of the library with some trepidation. Did I want to spend many hours reading a 415-page mystery when I already knew the ending? I started reading, however, and I am glad that I did. Most of the book is narrated by Nick Dunne (played by Ben Affleck in the movie), and as I started to read I was picturing Ben Affleck telling me the story. The characters Ben Affleck plays usually seem dumb and smarmy to me (whether they are supposed to be or not), so I was having trouble reconciling the Ben Affleck persona with the Nick Dunne persona. Nick Dunne was too intelligent and too good a writer to be played by Ben Affleck--and, in fact, Nick Dunne had been a writer before he lost his job at a NY magazine and moved back to the heartland to open a bar. But as I read further, Ben Affleck receded to the back of my mind and I was thoroughly gripped by Gillian Flynn's writing.

I knew that the sections that appear to be Amy Dunne's genuine diary (written over the course of five years) were actually written by Amy over the course of a few months, as she carefully sets in motion a plan to frame her husband Nick for her murder. I found Amy's voice in these diary entries fake and cloying--which was fine, because the diary was fake. But who knows what I would have thought of those diary entries if I hadn't know, going in, that they were fake?

I was surprised by how gripped I was by the book--I thought knowing the plot twists in advance would make the reading tedious, but, in fact, knowing the plot ahead of time gave me more time to consider how the author had worked to build up suspense, how she was setting up the reader (and Nick) for a fall, and how psychotic Amy actually was. Amy is truly a criminal mastermind--as is Gillian Flynn, by extension.

And the ending--so good, so right, so chilling. At the end of the day, isn't all marriage a bit of a prison sentence? [P.S. I am not talking about my own marriage, of course, as it is perfect.]

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

I love this book. I love everything about it, including the spare white cover with a heart-shaped cookie in the center, one bite taken out of it. 
I love that it sucked me in and made me cry, and I love that I couldn't put it down and read all 217 pages in one sitting.

The narrator, Jennifer, is an outcast in elementary school. The other kids call her Fattifer and  tell her that she smells. Her only friend is Cameron, a similarly unpopular boy with an abusive father. After a frightening encounter Jennifer and Cameron have with Cameron's father, Cameron disappears. Jennifer's teacher tells her that Cameron's family moved. A few months later, kids at school tell her that Cameron is dead.

Eight years later, Jennifer's mother has remarried and they've moved across town. Jennifer reinvented herself as Jenna when she started her new high school, and now she has friends and a boyfriend. She learned how to smile and make jokes, to act happy all the time so that people will enjoy being around her. But then Cameron reappears in town--his family had moved, but he wasn't dead--and Jenna struggles to maintain her facade. "I didn't know why I was doing this, anyway, when what I really needed was to spend more time trying to pass trig. Well, I did know. I was doing it for Ethan because I thought that was part of what a good girlfriend did, and I'd spent all of junior high and high school observing those around me to see what 'normal' looked like. I'd tried to learn it from the outside in." The theme of identity, of fitting in, hits home for me partly because it is the theme of the novel I am working on.

But, and forgive me the tangent, it also made me think about a paper I wrote in college about cultural differences in the concept of identity. In Western cultures, the self stops where our body stops. In Eastern cultures, the concept of self can extend to the family, the community, even the whole country. So your actions, your reputation, are not yours alone. In the US, I wonder if we take the value of self-expression too far. There is value in being yourself, in finding your own path, but there is also value in harmony, in going along to get along, in working together.

If you are always marching to the beat of your own drummer, you never get to play with the band.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Trader Joe's Roasted Gorgonzola Flavored Oven Crisp Crackers
I had the good fortune to encounter Trader Joe's Roasted Gorgonzola crackers at a Christmas party recently. I tried them eagerly, because I love crackers and I love Gorgonzola. The crackers were tasty, but they had only the faintest hint of Gorgonzola flavor when they first hit the tongue. After that it's all salt and cracker.

I am a bit conflicted about cheese crackers anyway. (Breaking news, area woman conflicted about cheese crackers.) Even the cheesiest of cheese crackers still taste mostly like cracker. And I am never clear about the function of a cheese-flavored cracker. Are you supposed to eat it by itself, or with cheese? The crackers above are pictured with cheese, but is that a hint about what the crackers are supposed to taste like or a serving suggestion?

I did a bit of research and discovered that, in fact,these crackers are not exactly what they seem:

The dark underbelly of the cheese cracker reveals itself. I may never be the same.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Conversion by Katherine Howe

I've always been fascinated but by what used to be called hysteria and now is called conversion disorder ( It's a kind of collective delusion. Some people think that's what was happening during the Salem witch trials. But there are many other examples of schoolchildren, often girls, falling ill with a sickness that later turns out to be all in their heads (

I remember hearing about the real-life case this book is based on and reading every article I could get my hands on just trying to get to the bottom of it. When I heard there was a novel written on the subject I couldn't wait to read it. And I finally got my chance today. Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, the book didn't live up to my expectations.

This is one of those cases where the real story is so interesting that any fictionalized version would just be a shadow. The narrative is juxtaposed with a parallel narrative taking place during the Salem witch trials. This element seems a little bit too on the nose.

But the subject itself is still fascinating and I admire the author’s effort to make sense of it.

An Abundance of Katherines

I loved John Green's latest novel The Fault in Our Stars as so many other people did. So I was interested in reading some of his other novels.

I picked up his 2006 novel An Abundance of Katherines at the library. I had a bit of trouble getting into it. I had trouble warming up to the protagonist whose main features seem to be that he was a very smart and that he’d been dumped by 19 girls named Katherine. That wasn't enough for me to really empathize with or understand him and I struggled several times just to keep reading. Things improved a bit when the protagonist, Colin, and his best friend, Hassan, embark on a road trip. They meet some interesting characters along the way and the plot picks up. The less time we spend with Collin and his heartbreak the better, for me at least. In fact, my favorite part of the novel wasn't even written by John Green. It’s the appendix, where a mathematician friend of the author’s explains Colin's search for a mathematical formula that will predict the length of a relationship.

I'd love to hear your opinion on these two books or your suggestions for new types of crackers! Please let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions of other books to read or crackers to eat. Thanks!