Review: Behind Her Eyes

Disclaimer: There will be spoilers at the end of this post. These spoilers will be preceded by a warning — do not read past that warning if you do not wish to discover the spoilers! The bulk of this post — including the verdict/rating at the end — is safe for those who have not yet read the novel.

Well, friends — I did it. I bought another thriller, despite the fact that I’d adamantly decided against doing so in 2017. Book of the Month Club’s February selections included a mysterious-looking thriller titled Behind Her Eyes, by author Sarah Pinborough. The novel has been touted by many as the closest rival to Gone Girl, a masterful piece of domestic noir fiction, and a thriller that will keep readers guessing until the end.

Only one of those is accurate.

Behind Her Eyes opens in modern-day England with a some very cryptic quips from “then” and “later” and “now.” The novel then switches back and forth between past and present, as well as main characters Louise and Adele. Louise, a divorced mother of a young son, lives a woefully mediocre life. Though she works only a few days per week, she is still supported financially by her ex-husband. One evening, Louise meets a handsome stranger in a bar, shares a stolen kiss, and arrives at work the next morning to discover the man is her new boss, David. To make matters more awkward, David is accompanied on his tour of his new workplace by none other than his flawlessly beautiful wife, Adele.

David and Louise struggle to resist temptation as their work environment draws them closer to one another. Meanwhile, Louise has formed an extremely unlikely (and idiotic) friendship with — you guessed it — Adele. Louise becomes trapped in a double life of sorts, unable to resist the companionship both David and Adele bring to her formerly lonely existence. Although she is guilt-ridden by both relationships, Louise’s need for intimacy overrides her conscience. Her desperation for friendship, coupled with David’s unhappiness in his own marriage and Adele’s equally intense need for companionship, creates a perfect storm of events that lead to the story’s unforeseeable climax.

The GoodBehind Her Eyes certainly delivers on the promise that readers will not foresee the story’s conclusion.

The Bad: The novel’s writing felt sub-par at best, to me. I condede that Pinborough manages to establish an unpredictable plot and three extraordinarily unlikeable characters (who still manage to spark readers’ curiosity); however, the diction itself is infuriatingly simple. Often, I felt like I was reading the diary of a teenager, or a poorly educated adult. This sounds harsh — I know — but when I read adult novels, I want to be inspired by the beauty and complexity of the author’s writing. As a high school student, I adored classical literature for the depth and vibrancy of the writing; as an adult, I am still enchanted by the world J.K. Rowling creates in her Harry Potter series, because the writing is vivid, descriptive, and beautiful. Pinborough’s book brought none of that to the table (which is mostly true to contemporary thriller form), and I had a hard time getting past my annoyance with this aspect of the novel. This was compounded by the frequent use of the F-bomb, which lost its weight with excessive utterances. Other frustrations: see spoilers.

The Verdict: 2/5. Nope, nope, nope. This BOTM pick was a miss for me. I was never truly absorbed by the story — the first half was tediously slow and I struggled to become invested in the plot. When the plot finally picks up at the end, the author makes choices that seem ridiculously over-the-top and woefully forced to achieve that #WTFThatEnding reaction.

 

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Caution: Spoilers ahead! Discontinue reading if you plan to read the book and don’t want the ending spoiled.

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The supernatural elements woven into the novel were a major miss for me. Louise suffers from night terrors, and is counseled on how to take control of her dreams by Adele, who suffered from the same affliction as a young child. With practice, the two characters are able to exit their bodies during sleep, and wander the outside world. Their abilities play a dark role in the outcome of the novel — a body swap, of sorts. This thread is strikingly similar to the concepts of Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which also just didn’t do it for me.

Louise’s character was also far too pathetic for me to enjoy or relate to. I had a hard time connecting to an individual who is lonely, but unwilling to find a job that would introduce her to more friends/provide more stimulation throughout the week. Louise’s perpetual wine drinking is also eye-roll worthy. Nearly every scene that includes Louise also includes a bottle — or two — of wine. While this all contributes to the development of her unhappy and pathetic existence, I have developed a strong sense of distaste for our generation’s glorification of women who love nothing but drinking wine in excess and grumbling about how much they hate their lives. Louise falls a bit into that category and was simply far too annoying for me to connect to or even sympathize with.

And finally, as I mentioned previously, the ending of the novel just felt completely forced and ridiculous to me. Perhaps this is largely due to the fact that I wasn’t a fan of the dream-state body-switching element of the story; perhaps my annoyance is due to the fact that I found all of the characters over-dramatized and unenjoyable. Either way, while I was surprised to learn of Adele’s true nature, I wasn’t invested enough in the characters or plot to truly experience that “WTF” reaction that apparently so many of the novel’s readers so greatly relished. Guess I’m in the minority, on this one!

Ode to the Matriarch

First she was a daughter and a sister. Then, a wife to a hardworking blue-collar man for sixty-odd years. A mother to three children, one of whom left her arms far too early; two who live on, bearing their own stamps of her personality like badges of honor. An aunt. Each of these roles prepared her to fill the shoes I selfishly like to believe she loved most: Grandma.

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When we were small (enough that three of us could squeeze into the cab of the Blue Bomber alongside Dad), we loved traipsing along for chores in the mornings. Mom would fix up a hard-egg sandwich for each of us, which we’d scarf down at the table in our cowboy boots and t-shirts. Dad would fill a mug to the brim with coffee, seemingly in pursuit of some sort of daredevil quest to see just how much jostling and bumping his steady hand could withstand before a drop could slosh over the top and onto my leg (or his).

Without fail, minutes after breakfast each morning, Barrett wanted to know: “Is it time for snackies?!”

We’d drive the half mile to Grandma’s, each of us a Real Cowboy reporting for duty, and hop out of the bumbling old pickup and race to the front door, yelling the traditional “Knock! Knock!” before we were even within hearing range. As politely as snackie-minded children could manage, we’d burst through the doorway and into the kitchen that never changed even once in my lifetime. There, she waited: dark eyes glittering, soft wrinkles intersecting on her joy-mapped face, lips stretched upward in a teasing grin. In her soft hands, empty Ziploc baggies waited for each of us.

I’m not sure, anymore, who loved morning snackies more—us kids, or Grandma. She’d shovel fruit snacks and chocolate chips and Gushers and peanuts and orange slices into the baggies until Dad firmly said, “Okay, that’s enough, Mom,” for the second time—and with a wink, she’d drop in just one treat more. The price was all but free: a kiss or three and a tight hug before whoosh!—we were out the door, off to feed cows and check fences and revel in the dynasty that Grandpa and Dad had built: Simon Angus Ranch.

* * *

During summers, we wore the road thin between our house and Grandma’s, riding our bikes with squeals down the Big Hill (and groans up the Bigger Hill). It was there, in the comfort of her sunken living room, that we learned of Oklahoma! and Meet Me in St. Louis and The Wizard of Oz. She cherished these classic musicals and fostered a love of theater in the heart of my sister, who later became Grandma’s favorite actress. In this same space, I also learned to appreciate Dirty Dancing—though it didn’t strike me as odd that she allowed a 12-year-old to watch this until just a few years ago. It is here that Barrett spent an entire summer—nearly every single day—watching Miracle and discussing the Cold War and hockey plans with Grandma, who had never seen a game of hockey in her life. While we reveled in the classic films that came from the treasure trove that was Grandma’s TV cabinet, she’d perch in her armchair with a magnifying glass, reading some article or completing a puzzle; or she’d disappear into the kitchen for a while, from which savory fragrances would emanate later on.

Mom felt guilty sometimes, I think, for all the days we pestered Grandma; but I know Grandma loved these unsolicited visits. Sometimes we’d call (forced by Mom in an attempt to establish something resembling manners), but even when we didn’t, Grandma was somehow never caught unaware. I think it’s safe to say our daily visits were more valuable to her than gold.

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Grandma is most often tied to memories of food and family in my mind, and with good reason: summers and school in-service days meant lunch at Grandma’s. We children would salivate with anticipation in the hours leading up to lunchtime, usually abstaining from breakfast in order to more fully appreciate the glory that would come at precisely 12:15.

In the small, dark wood-paneled dining room, a crowded table waited: decorative seasonal napkins on each plate; glasses filled to the brim with sweet tea any Southerner could appreciate; serving bowls piled high with corn on the cob and heavenly hash, roasted potatoes and her famous cherry Pepsi Jell-O. We learned self control at that table as we waited, squirming, for Grandma to bustle in with the main dish—if we were lucky, tater tot casserole; if we were luckier, pot roast—and beam at the faces that she so loved. Grandma’s table was a bit like those of the dining hall at Hogwarts: even when Tyler and Jacob and Barrett were all three present with their formidable appetites, food somehow continued to appear in dishes until all were stuffed to the gills.

Those who were fortunate enough to join family at that table (most often Jacob’s buddies, come to haul hay or fix fence in the summer) never left hungry—Grandma made sure of that. She made it her top priority on those beloved lunch days to ensure that we were fed like a troupe of the Queen’s finest soldiers, even if that meant we left to work cattle with our pants unbuttoned and pleasurable groans escaping from our lips. (We also may have learned a thing or two about Gluttony at that table. . . . )

* * *

We could all count on Grandma for a few certainties in life. First, her front door was always open to visitors—and you’d better yell “Knock! Knock!” on your way in. Second, she’d always have a pile of lemon crap prepared when Jacob visited from college (we used to think this meant he was the favorite, which I’m sure he’d love to believe, but I’m also sure is completely inaccurate). And third—the most certain and meaningful of all—Grandma could be depended upon to never miss a game.

She became something of a fixture at Flinthills High School, always arriving to games at least 45 minutes in advance (which became a bit of a running joke in the family), her cushioned #1 Fan! seat settled in prime viewing location for the activity at hand. During football, that seat could be found as far as possible from the “Ding-a-Lings,” whose cowbells were Grandma’s archnemises. During basketball games, her stark head of curly black hair could be spotted smack dab in the upper-middle section. I often marveled that she didn’t bring high-focus binoculars—all the better to see her grandchildren with, of course.

No matter the distance, Grandma was always there, decked out in red and black and gleaming saucer-pins from which our faces beamed outward. On weekends, she’d follow Courtney and Brianne’s volleyball teams to day-long tournaments, scribbling notes from the game in her program in that loopy calligraphy so unique to her. When the boys were in high school and lost most of their games by the 45 rule, Grandma didn’t care—she was still in the stands an hour before, watching warm-ups with her eagle eyes; often driving hours to watch forty-five abysmal minutes of football and offer a few hand-squeezes and whispers of tender encouragement before hopping back in the car for a long drive home. She braved long trips and ninety-degree afternoons on sun-baked golf courses for fifteen-minute cross country races, during which she was lucky to catch a few fleeting glimpses of me running.

Distance did not matter to this woman—only Family. Nothing was more important to her than ensuring each of us were adored to full capacity.

* * *

Grandma’s fridge is a testament to her greatest love. It is a collage in the truest sense, papered from top to bottom: newspaper clippings from Jacob’s college games, ticket stubs from Brianne’s performances, photographs of Seth’s matriculation and Courtney’s family (and Grandma’s first great grandchildren), Mother’s Day envelopes with Dad’s signature hidden “MOM” heading. Over the years, the collage changed to reflect her family’s newest accomplishments; the fridge eternally a billboard of all that she held dearest.

She is gone, now, and those words leave a hole in each of our hearts. Decades of matriarchal devotion to her children and grandchildren have come to a close, but she’s left each of us something far greater than material wealth or tangible objects.

Grandma never missed an opportunity to make it clear just how dearly she loved each of us. With each return home, she’d grasp us in a tight embrace, peppering our heads and cheeks and shoulders with kisses as she’d squeak out in that high-pitched, excited squeal of hers, “Grandpa and I have missed you so much! You’ll never know how much you mean to us . . . we think of you every single day.” Her soft, thin hands—surprisingly strong—squeezed ours tightly at every opportunity, as if she could somehow transmit this fierce passion to us through touch.

It worked. She is gone now, and there is a hole in each of our hearts. But over that aching gap, Grandma is already at work, papering a new collage of old memories to tide us over. A Christmas stocking here, a snackie bag there, and nearly-world-famous chocolate brownies filling in all the spaces between.

Review: Behold the Dreamers

Disclaimer: At the end of this post, after the rating/verdict, there are spoilers. These spoilers are made completely separate from the bulk of my review. If you do not want to read the spoilers, do not scroll past the little bit that says, “Caution! Spoilers ahead!” 🙂 

One of my goals for 2017: read one book per week this entire year. Five weeks in, I thought I was going to crash and burn. 😥 Luckily, my husband is all too happy to let me spend entire weekends reading — because that means he gets to spend his weekends in the shop, or playing PS4 with Derrick. (I love when we both crave Me Time at the same time.) Anyway . . . on with the review.

Behold the Dreamers, written by Cameroonian immigrant Imobolo Mbue, is one of the September 2016 Book of the Month Club selections and an intimate portrait of a timeless cliche: the pursuit of the American Dream. The story opens in New York City with a description of Jende Jonga, a Limbe (Cameroon) native who has lived in America for several years. Jende is passionate about and devoted to Becoming American, but there’s a problem: his visa expired years ago. After having lived in America without his wife, Neni, and their child, Liomi, for three long years, Jende is certain that he will become a legal American citizen and fulfill his lifelong dream of achieving a better life.

Jende takes a job chauffeuring Clark Edwards, a wealthy Wall Street magnate who appears to have it all — trophy wife, doting family, a seemingly-endless cash flow, an opulent home, and the respect of his peers. Mr. Edwards quickly becomes a fount of inspiration for Jende, despite the superficial nature of their relationship: Jende begins to regard Mr. Edwards as a young child might adore his father. As the story bounces between sketches of Jende’s interactions with Mr. Edwards and his family members, Neni’s life at school and home, and Neni’s interactions with Mrs. Edwards (who hires her temporarily), readers will find it impossible not to root for the couple whose unrelenting hope propels them through one trial after another.

Unfortunately, as the adage goes — all good things must come to an end, and for Jende and Neni, the threat of deportation looms heavily over their ambitions. In parallel fashion, the Jonga family’s relationship becomes increasingly strained as the Edwards family empire begins to crack under pressures long ignored. The two families frantically struggle to survive (much less, thrive) while Mbue delivers a stark juxtaposition of those who have — and those who do not.

The Good: While others have complained that the novel felt lackluster and did little to draw them in, I was enamored with Jende’s character almost immediately. Mbue’s masterful use of pidgin English makes the language (and characters) come alive. (I was strongly reminded of my collegiate running days and international teammates from Kenya and Nigeria.) The novel is also a fairly quick read: I picked it up Saturday morning, only 50 pages in, and managed to finish the whole novel before nightfall.

The Bad: See spoilers.

The Verdict: 3/5 stars. This novel isn’t a stellar debut, in my humble opinion. At times, the story felt a bit cliche; but the themes of strife and devotion make the novel a worthwhile read.

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Caution! Spoilers ahead! Don’t read any further if you wish to remain surprised.

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The conclusion of this novel felt rushed — and that was significantly disappointing. Here are my two biggest sources of contention with the piece:

  1. The Jonga-Edwards fallout leaves a bit to be desired. The build-up was there, of course, but the tale feels looser and less . . . intentional? . . . as the Jonga family endures its last flailing months in America and the Edwards family merely fades into the background. Part of me feels that Jende had an opportunity for a major character evolution within the walls of Mr. Edwards’ office. Additionally, Jende’s last-minute farewell to Mr. Edwards left me feeling . . . well, nothing, to tell the truth. The scene felt far too contrived and convenient — a dulled Christmas bow slapped hastily on the package that could have been a cherished gift, but fell a little short.
  2. When Jende and Neni return to Africa, they just . . . return. Of course, there’s a father-son generational bonding thing that occurs when the family arrives “home” — and Jende certainly undergoes a significant character change. Though a bit unconventional, the author’s decision for the main character to give up on his dream is, in my mind, a perfectly adequate conclusion to Jende’s years of obstinate refusal to be jilted by the Great America. That being said, Neni’s conclusion feels largely underwhelming. While I understand that the dynamic of their relationship differs from that of my “Western marriage,” I felt that Neni’s story sort of folded underneath her as the author searched for an ending (any ending will do).

I found much to enjoy in this piece of diverse fiction; but the ending fell flat for me. What was your take on this novel (and/or the bones I picked at the end)?

A Letter to My (Disgruntled) Students

To My Students (the Disgruntled Ones):

When I first started teaching four years ago, I was so excited. I relished the idea of sharing my passions — literature and writing — with the minds of the future; I looked forward to having a positive impact on your lives, lives that would touch so many others. I worked diligently to obtain licensure; frenetically worked to meet college deadlines; wearied myself writing a teaching portfolio that was some 50-plus pages filled with data, research, and observations.

I desperately wanted to be good enough for each of you.

The first year was tough. I left for school most mornings before 6:30 and stayed long after 8:00 most evenings. My weekends were consumed with countless hours of lesson planning, and my first year of marriage took a backseat to 67 kids I’d only known for a handful of weeks.

Mornings were for preparing myself, mentally. Mornings were filled with fear and nervous anticipation — Is today’s lesson what they need? Am I helping them to deepen their knowledge?

Evenings were for grading and planning. I saw each of you for 50 minutes daily (when you didn’t have ball games or special masses to attend or school assemblies or confession or bake sales) and was expected to teach grammar, writing, reading, vocabulary, and spelling. Evenings should have been for family and rest and four-mile runs, but they weren’t. They were for work.

The second year was better (I hit some sort of almost-effective stride), but I still stayed up at night wondering: Did I teach them anything of value today? Should I have handled that situation differently? Did I make a mistake that will leave a lasting impression on them?

Last year, I began teaching high school. I thought I would love this. I thought, Finally! I’ll get to teach the novels I cherished as a high schooler! and These students will be much more capable of complex logic and reasoning, and They will be more independent. I thought you would be more like the student that I was: driven, respectful, curious.

And above all, I still desperately wanted to be adequate.

For all of those hours of anxiety and fear and fervent planning, you have gifted me with contempt.

You have told me to f*** off, you have cursed me in the hallways, you have posted hateful remarks about me on Twitter and Facebook and even your locker doors. You have told lies to your parents, who then took to Facebook to further berate me.

You have refused to participate or listen in class. You have refused to attempt reading and writing assignments, to study vocabulary terms, to come in after school to make up missing assignments; then blamed me for your failing grades.

You have lied to me. You have disparaged me in other teachers’ classes. You have criticized my teaching methods, whined about my expectations, and questioned my curriculum choices.

And still, I lie awake at night thinking about all of the ways I have failed you. I stare into the darkness, dreaming of ways that I can become more Enough for each of you.

I cannot accept that I have done all that I can. I cannot accept that this is the best I can do for you, and because of these standards for myself I am miserable.

But that is not all. Here is a list of other things I cannot do:

I cannot make you understand the weight of your choices. I can only foster opportunities for you to learn that your actions have consequences, whether you like those consequences or not; and hold you accountable for those choices, hoping that one day you will appreciate what I have done for you.

I cannot make you realize that when I ask you to read books on or near your ability level (rather than 5 levels below), I’m not doing so as a punishment, but because you will only develop your vocabulary and ability to cognitively reason at a higher level if you read harder. I can only continue to set forth challenges and hope that you will rise to meet them.

I cannot make you want to work hard; I can only encourage you to, and hope that you respect yourself (and your teachers) enough to do so.

I cannot make you appreciate the doors that will open to you when you become fluent writers and speakers; I can only bear your complaints, time and again, as we struggle through essays and blog posts and presentations and classroom discussions, and hope that you someday communicate in a manner that beckons others to bend their heads and listen.

I cannot make you see that the sun does not rise and set from between the cheeks of your arse, despite what you may have been led to believe by your parents or your own egocentrism. I can only hold you to the same intensive standards to which I hold each of my students and hope for the best.

You see, students, teaching is all about hope. There are no certainties, no infallibilities, no Definite Absolutes. When I teach you, I do not do so with the assumption that I know everything or that my methods are the best or perfect or even always okay. When I teach you, I hope that I am doing something right, amid all the wrong.

Teaching is rarely a rewarding gig. The moments of illumination and gratitude that educators talk about? Fleeting and far too sparse. But we trudge onward, arms swinging in a march-like cadence, because we hope.

Please — don’t take that from us.

With a fervent heart,

Your teacher

 

February TBR Pile

One month into the year, I’ve stayed consistent with my top reading goal for 2017: Read one book per week.

This may not sound like much of a goal to many of my bookish fiends — I mean, friends — who read numerous books weekly; but as an English teacher who often juggles personal reading with class-related reading and mounds of writing grading . . . well, I think one book per week is just right! Normally, I’d hope to accomplish more reading over the summer, but with a little one on the way, I’m not holding my breath! 🙂

In an effort to #readharder, I’ve also planned to intentionally diversify the types of books I read throughout the year. Obviously, I’m more heavily inclined by novels of the fiction persuasion; that’s not necessarily something I intend to overhaul in 2017. That being said, I do want to read a wider variety of fiction genres or topics each month (and I feel I did a pretty good job of this in January — check my pile out here).

Without further ado, I give you the February pile:

This pile has a little bit of everything: Behold the Dreamers is a read-in-progress about an immigrant family struggling to achieve the dream in New York City. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is a classic work of Beat Generation fiction, based on Kerouac’s own travels. (It’s also a looooong standing member of my never-ending TBR list.) The Invention of Wings is a bestseller and work of historical fiction (probably my favorite subcategory of fiction writing). And finally, a detective novel and reread: The Cuckoo’s Calling. I plan to save this novel for the end of February, as I intend to read the other two novels in Rowling’s crime fiction series in the weeks that follow.

What’s in your stack this month?

January Reading Roundup

January: A month of renewal, self-improvement, and firmer resolve. I’m speaking about reading habits, of course. 😉

At the end of last year, pregnancy hormones took over and I was quite literally too tired to even read most days after school. (A tragedy, I know.) At the end of December, I realized that September, October, and November had skated by without so much as the completion of one book per month; and friends, that just isn’t right.

Now that the second trimester is well underway, my feverish need to sleep 70% of the day subsided somewhat and I was able to tackle several new reads in January! As a teacher, free time for reading isn’t exactly a luxury; I’m pretty content with my little stack ‘o five! I’ve officially averaged one book per week this year . . . and I’ll drink (grape juice) to that any day.

The Roundup, in particular order (most enjoyed -> most meh):

  1. Descent by Tim Johnston. Genre: Mystery/thriller. I picked up this eerie-looking novel at the local Hastings store as the store heaved its last, sobering, death-rattling breaths. At 70% off, I couldn’t have landed a better deal (unless the book had been given to me, of course). Johnston’s novel opens with an 18-year-old girl and her brother heading out for a run/bike ride in the mountains of Colorado as their parents drowse through the early morning hours of their family vacation. When an accident occurs on the mountain, Caitlin is taken and her family is left to their own devices in the grueling disconnect that comes with her absence. A once-seemingly typical family unit (though not without their flaws) disintegrates at the seams in the months that follow Caitlin’s disappearance. Although the novel was difficult for me to engage with initially, I came to appreciate Johnston’s unique storytelling ability and intentional use of language. The writing became a treat (once Mr. Johnston and I had acquainted ourselves better), and I became entangled in the greatly unexpected complexity and depth of this contemporary thriller. Where so many others have fallen short, Descent holds its own with motifs of distrust, forgiveness, personal anchoring, strife, and familial relationships. At 100 pages, you’ll be invested; at 200 pages, absorbed; and at 250 pages, feverishly racing to uncover the treasure that is Descent. Rating: 4.5/5 — Verdict: You will not regret this one. Unless, of course, you don’t read it.
  2. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Genre: Fiction/humor. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Backman’s writing, it became inevitable that at some point in time, I would pick up one of his works. A Man Called Ove is a charming and quick read about Ove (Ooo-vuh, I’ve been told), an elderly-isn man living in a Swedish suburb. Persnickety, irritable, and stereotypically grumpy-old-man-ish, Ove lives alone in a house that once also held his beloved wife, Sonja. Without her, Ove spreads misery wherever he goes. (Truth be told, even with her, he seems to have been a bit sour.) When a new family moves in next door (and breaks about a dozen rules as they go), Ove has no choice but to interact with these imbeciles who can’t back up a trailer, can’t use their own bathrooms, and can’t use a ladder properly. Humph! I won’t share any further plot details at this point, as doing so would give away the premise of the novel; however, I can assure you that this book will make you chuckle, smirk, sob, and laugh out loud a time or two. Ove’s prickly-but-loveable persona are easy to latch onto in this book about friendship, loyalty, death, and living in the wake of death. Rating: 4/5 — Verdict: Cute, sweet, and heartfelt; this book has all the components of a perfect weekend read.
  3. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. Genre: Historical fiction. I reviewed this one earlier this month, so I’ll just offer a few brief thoughts here. The Wonder felt like a complex read to me. Not because the language was difficult, or the plot all that challenging; but because the issues of morality, faithfulness, skepticism, and duty created such strong foundation for this novel. Although I didn’t find this book an equal to Donoghue’s Room in terms of interest and “wow-factor,” I really appreciated her intense portrait of unfailing piety contrasted with ceaseless skepticism. Rating: 3.5/5 (I’m adding a half star, FYI) — Verdict: An intriguing and not even remotely preachy novel about sticking to your guns in the face of great pressure? Yeah. Count me in.
  4. The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure. Genre: Historical fiction. I’ve also already reviewed this book thoroughly here, so I’ll save you some time and spare you the long synopsis. Writing is a bit clunky throughout the novel, and characters are fairly predictable; but the story offers a unique twist on a widely written-about topic: the persecution of Jews during World War II. While the novel lacks complexity, Belfoure makes up for this shortcoming with an interesting storyline and characters worth rooting for. Rating: 3/5 — Verdict: Worth a read, but not a book that will land on your top 10 list (or even your top 50, if I were to venture a guess).
  5. Never Let Me Go by Kazoo Ishiguro. Genre: Dystopian/science fiction. A slow-moving tale about a group of English boarding students who are seemingly living the dream at Havisham, an immense property tucked away in a secret corner of the country. Readers discover the nature (and purpose) of main character Kath’s life as she reflects on her upbringing at Havisham and her relationships with her peers and teachers. The novel is maddeningly cryptic throughout. Ishiguro’s slow reveal of the mysterious truths that Kath spends her life trying to uncover is purposeful — and enormously frustrating. Overall, I enjoyed the questions this book forces one to consider; namely, what makes us human? And just how great and terrible can our losses be when we wait for the safest opportunities to act? Rating: 2.5/5 — Verdict: Sadly, a “meh” book for me.

The great thing about reading books? You can always find a reader that has uncovered an entirely different layer of meaning and value in a work you consider beloved or unworthy. Read any of these titles and have some insight to share? Comment below!

As always, happy reading, friends — and happy February!

A Reflection on Identity

In the third grade, my teacher was Mrs. Bagel*. She had pale blonde hair that curled at the ends and sharp angles at all of her corners; I remember thinking she was very birdlike. Her bones seemed frail and tiny, like a sparrow. Or a meadowlark. Something dainty like that.

Mrs. Bagel had a voice that could boom over the classroom like a football coach with a megaphone; but mostly, I remember her as quiet. She didn’t speak unless words were necessary. Most of the time, when she wasn’t using her Teacher Voice, her little bird mouth would open and she would softly chirp out some petite rebuke or encouragement or observation.

Mrs. Bagel and I were opposites.

My mouth could not stop opening like an out-of-control faucet that has no hose attached, only a gaping end where words splashed forth with vigor while onlookers watched in a sort of curious panic — Can this damn thing even be turned off?

Even when the faucet was tightly clamped shut, sound found its way out. Within the pockets of my soft round cheeks, I developed the ability to make crackling, croaking noises like a dolphin might make (or so I imagined). In what was likely a moment of silent boredom (compounded with rebellion), I also taught myself the art of making ripply near-farting noises by pushing bubbles of air through the space between my gums and upper lip. This not only made a pleasing sound, it also produced a tactile distraction for my mouth — and annoyed the ever-living wits out of Mrs. Bagel.

In the third grade, I became a Problem Student.

Initially, I think it’s safe to say I truly couldn’t shut the faucet off — as a younger-middle child, I had an innate need for attention that could only be achieved by running my mouth at the speed of light (so I thought). Over time, though, the inability to stop talking became a signature. It was my trademark. It was also my downfall that year of third grade.

At the time, my mother did not teach at the school that I went to. (That came later, when I was in 5th grade.) So the first that she learned of my Inappropriate Behavior was probably at parent-teacher conferences in the fall. I didn’t attend conferences with my parents, so I’m not really sure what was said, but I can imagine about how things went down.

Mrs. Bagel: So, I’ve noticed Renee is a bit of a talker.

There it is, talker: my main identifying noun.

Mom: *chuckles* Yeah, she’s our little chatter-bug! She’s quite the storyteller.

Mrs. B: *mouth tightens in a firm line* Well. She also likes to make noises.

MomNoises?

Mrs. B: *nodding firmly* Noises. With her mouth. All the time.

My mom came home that night and asked me to “recreate” some of the noises I regaled Mrs. Bagel’s classroom with. Beaming proudly, I puffed out my third grade chest and delivered a top-notch series of bubbly, nearly-farty noises and sharp, dolphin cheek-squeaks. It was my finest work.

My mom, a teacher, gazed at me with a burning sort of intensity while my dad stifled a chuckle at her side. I was sharply reminded of my obligation as an Honorable and Hardworking Student Representative of the Simon Family and sent on my way.

As the year played out, Mrs. Bagel and I remained amicable enough; as pleasant as Taciturn Teacher and Loquacious Learner can be, I suppose. . . . That is, until The Incident.

You see, I was standing at Mrs. Bagel’s desk, probably asking for her to look over my cursive or math sums, and the faucet had been pretty well-managed all day long. As with any weak pipe, there was bound to be an outburst at some time. (This probably followed a 24-hour pledge to Not Talk So Much.) I teetered on my tiptoes at the edge of Mrs. Bagel’s desk, where she sat perched in her chair looking down her sharp beak — I mean, nose — at the work I had submitted for review. It was at this crucial moment of silence (think Inside-an-Egyptian-Tomb Silent) that the dam broke. With a sudden desperate urgency, I began a series of dolphin squeaks — softly, at first, but crescendoing with every unchecked moment of noisy freedom.

The (bird)shit hit the fan.

I don’t think I’d ever been loudly reprimanded by a teacher before, and though this certainly didn’t classify as “yelling,” my cheeks burned with shame as Mrs. Bagel delivered the dressing-down of the century. (Okay, it wasn’t really that bad; but to a third grader . . . who never got in trouble . . . )

I vowed to be a Better Student. I did my work relatively quietly, sat in a sort of sulky silence, and visualized duct-taping my mouth shut whenever I had the urge to chime in. I was devestated when this resolve weakened and completely dissolved within a matter of days. I berated myself over and over.

Why couldn’t I be more like Jamie? She was quiet; she never spoke unless spoken to, and teachers seemed to prefer that.

Why couldn’t I be more like Bailey? She never made weird sounds . . .

Why couldn’t I be more like . . .

Every year, at many different junctures, I asked myself the same questions of myself. I compared myself to my much more meek and soft-spoken peers; you know, the ones who knew when (and how) to simply exist in peaceful reticence. As an adult, I sometimes still find myself longing for this piece of identity that does not belong to me.

Most of the time, though, when I am honest with myself, I can admit that softness and silence and serenity are not components of my identity. No, I am a faucet with the handle cranked wide open, a torrent of words and noises spilling forth without reservation.

I am the Bubbly Fart-Noise Maker. I am the Dolphin Cheek-Squeaker. I am my own Self.

*This name has been changed.