From inside her apartment, Claire could hear the neighbor kids in the hall.

It may not seem smart, but sometimes you just need to figure yourself out.

It may not seem smart, but sometimes you just need to figure yourself out.

Book Review: The Smart One by Jennifer Close

I can’t believe I haven’t posted in almost a month! It has been a whirlwind time, to say the least, and I’m hoping I will now be able to get back on track with my reading and posting. This month has brought drastic changes to my world: I moved to Brooklyn, got a job, started that job, and have finally begun to settle into a new, post-college way of life. Although challenging at times, the past few weeks have been incredibly rewarding and exciting.

As though it was meant to be, I picked up Jennifer Close’s newest novel The Smart One before anything had begun. After reading (twice, by accident!) her best-selling novel Girls in White Dresses, I was interested to see if I would enjoy Close’s next book as much. Girls in White Dresses is an engaging tale about young women in their 20s moving to new cities and learning how to cope with the drastic adult changes that began to affect their group of friends. I figured even though Close’s next novel was geared more towards family, she would still have insightful advice to share about new beginnings.

The novel follows the storyline of four family members who find themselves disappointed, frustrated, unearthed, and amazed by the new experiences of their lives. Claire, who recently broke off her engagement to her live-in boyfriend, feels unsheltered and in danger of collapse. Deeply in debt and lonely, Claire decides to quit her job and move back home while she figures things out. Her older sister, Martha, who also lives at home, is unnerved by her lack of enjoyment at her job. Although she went to school to become a nurse, Martha gave up her profession early on and became a store manager at JCrew. Martha finally decides she’s had enough, she believes it’s time to return to nursing and follow her earlier dreams.

When her two older daughters drastically upheave their lives, their mother, Weezy is only slightly concerned. Excited to have both her daughters home under her roof, Weezy feels as though she has a chance to mother again. Until she remembers how torturous it was the first time around. Caught between trying to be supportive and angered by how miserably her daughters fight and treat her, Weezy is wondering when Claire and Martha (now reaching their 30s) will figure their lives out.

At the heart of it all, Weezy’s youngest, Max, in college and dating the beautiful Cleo, begins to have problems of his own. As graduation approaches, it seems that Max and Cleo may be destined for Weezy’s basement as well.

In the end, The Smart One becomes a gripping tale about finding who you truly want to be and surviving the tough times while you make your discovery. Claire, Martha, Max, Cleo, and Weezy spend most of the novel unhappy with their choices until they are able to understand the rewards they reap at the end. It is a novel about finding your bearings and discovering how strong you can be, just by relinquishing your ego for a little while.

I truly enjoyed The Smart One, especially at a time in my life when I am finding out just how strong I can be, Close accurately depicts the trials and tribulations of the makings of success. If you are at a place in your life where you are looking for something else, I recommend giving The Smart One a quick read.

How angry am I?

A room with a cynical view.

A room with a cynical view.

Book Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Boston Globe recently declared Claire Messud as one of 2013’s most influential Bostonians. She was recognized as an author who was fearless enough to write about a character who readers wouldn’t/shouldn’t or couldn’t love. Her controversial new novel, The Woman Upstairs, was praised for its ingenuity and recklessness.

I read this small blurb in the Globe while I was in the middle of The Woman Upstairs. At that point, I hadn’t made a clear decision about how I felt about Nora Eldridge, the elementary school teacher who lives a single, almost isolated life in retaliation of her mother’s subsuming marriage. Eldridge, strongly affected by her mother’s inability to become her own person, lost to the duties and responsibilities of being a wife and mother, was decidedly single, pressured to enjoy the freedom of spinsterdom after her mother’s death.

But Nora’s decision holds many consequences. She views the ability to take care of her mother, father, and Aunt Baby in their old age as a privilege, spending the holidays with her father and Aunt Baby, quiet or gossiping about old friends. While the rest of her generation is spending time with their children, their spouses, and their family friends, Nora is generous with her time.

But this “Woman Upstairs” is not satisfied by her life of supposed freedom. When a young boy in her class, Reza, is terrorized by other children in the school, Nora’s entire life changes. The Shahid family is a welcome exposure into a world that Nora has spent little time in. Simultaneously, she falls in love with each member of the small family; the mother, Sirena, an Italian artist, brings Nora back into her beloved world of art, Reza, the curious young boy enables her to appreciate the attentive, quiet solitude of early childhood, and finally, Skandar, the handsome husband is an engaging speaker, discussing the cyclical patterns of historical ethics.

Nora is blown out of proportion. She is extremely happy now, teaching Reza and his classmates during the day and spending evenings with Sirena in their shared art studio. After long dinners together, Skandar walks her home. Nora’s life becomes fresh with exciting possibilities–living out a life with a beautiful family who is interested in her.

But slowly, this visiting family (only in the United States for Skandar’s year lectures) begins to pull away from Nora. Her love for them has her clinging to a lifestyle that she cannot maintain. Her anger and frustration at the world is both cynical and reasonable.

The story begins with her anger and ends with her fury. It is understandable that readers did not love her. She has a right to be angry. Frustrated by the role of her mother’s generation, the wife, Nora claims independence and singlehood, and then she is lost to a world of being an outsider. Although Nora is not loveable or simple, her complications are sympathetic. She is of a growing world of women who cannot gain a handle on her role in society.

The novel is refreshing and unsettling. Messud develops a world of imaginary experiences paralleled with reality. She argues that life is not simply what you make of it, instead, life can and will throw you lemons and you may not be able to make lemonade. Don’t read this book if you are looking for a lighthearted story. But I think Messud is making a beautiful point and its time we take it seriously.

I’ve lost every book I’ve ever written.

It leaves a mark...in the shape of a spot.

It leaves a mark…in the shape of a spot.

Book Review: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

I hated going to bed when I was reading Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. Fast-paced, intriguing, and highly entertaining, it was almost impossible to put the book down. The narrator, an unknown author who frequently “loses” his writing, is a sarcastic, intense, and searching man who writes the story of his life…sort of.

The novel focuses on themes of truth within fiction. The novel’s fictional author is a writer with great expectations, and is told in college to slant the truth. For much of his life, the writer has always been able to lie about his background, his name, his interests, and even his whole identity. The novel explores the separation between truth and fiction and leaves the reader wondering if they are almost interchangeable: if fiction is filled with elements of truth and reality is bogged down by fiction.

While in college, the narrator becomes introduced to “Julian,” another aspiring writer whose work is constantly in competition with the narrator’s own. Julian is clearly a man lost amid his own genius, unable to look too far beyond his own ego. Julian’s friend from youth, Evelyn, a beautiful actress with cold, blank eyes, becomes the narrator’s great love interest, his ideal heroine–the star of many of the stories he begins to write throughout his life.

The novel is chaotic; the narrator, caught between the truth and fiction, misleads the reader several times. But perhaps that’s the magic, each page is a great story and author Jansma is a wonderful storyteller. Each chapter is a snapshot of the narrator’s life at different points, beginning with early childhood at the North Carolina airport to life in college and post-grad life in New York, eventually ending in a couple chapters that are similar to a travel journal, cataloging his travels and his friendships on the road.

Overall, it’s almost hard to describe how unique and almost unsettling the novel is. You’ll have to find out for yourself, I guess. But don’t let strangeness alarm you: this book is honestly one of the best I’ve read in awhile. So check it out, and let me know what you think!

 

International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly.

TV shows are the new books...

TV shows are the new books…

Book Review: Orange is the New Black

I was living in New York this summer when suddenly every subway advertisement featured the characters on the new Netflix TV show “Orange is the New Black.” Although not my type of show, I began to hear great reviews–everyone who saw told me that it was great. It was not until November, when I went to the Random House Open House, that I learned the TV show was based off a memoir that had been published almost three years earlier.

I picked the book up in the midst of finals preparation. I thought it would be appropriate to read a book about prison and hardship while sloughing through my four never-ending papers. But what I didn’t know was how effortlessly inspiring the novel would become, and how it truly appreciative I would learn to become at the end of it.

Piper Kerman graduated from Smith College (shout out to the Seven Sisters!) without a specific career goal in mind. She stayed around Northampton, continuing to enjoy life in the Pioneer Valley and searching for herself. When Nora, Kerman’s girlfriend who also happens to be a drug dealer, invites her to travel around the world with her, Kerman jumps at the chance. Young, naive, and completely insensitive to consequences, Kerman spends time with Nora and eventually delivers a suitcase of drugs herself, becoming a part of the illegal ring. After only one frightening experience, Kerman decides to break things off with Nora and leave the dangerous world she had only recently entered.

Almost ten years later, Kerman,engaged and happily living her life in New York among friends and family, is brought up on drug charges from her past. She is sentenced to 13 months in prison and shipped to Danbury, CT, her new home.

Orange is the New Black is an insightful memoir about making mistakes and owning up to them. Kerman never acts as though the system played her unfairly, instead, she accepts her sentence, pleads guilty, and lives without complaint in Danbury. Luckily, Kerman’s attitude enables her to observe Danbury and her new inmates in an unbiased, fairly non-judgmental way.

The women she meets at the prison are a wide range of different personalities, socioeconomic statuses, and behaviors. But slowly, as time passes, Kerman learns that each one of those women have something to offer. Orange is the New Black is truly a story of female relationships, filled with heartbreak and love. Kerman explores the terrible world of the U.S. prison system and shares her findings in an honest and reflective way.

The book made me frustrated with the U.S. prison system and frustrated by crime. Most of the woman locked up with Kerman were brought in on drug charges that posed little to no threat to society. Many were young girls who were looking at years behind bars simply for being the wrong place at the wrong time or dating the wrong boyfriend. I cannot profess to know much about the prison system but I appreciated Kerman’s experience as an insightful look into the personal opinions of someone who has spent some time among women whose lives become a closed book to society.

Apparently the TV show does not strictly follow the book. I’m still not sure if I’ll give it a try, but I highly recommend reading the memoir. Take a couple of hours to think about life outside your own, life in a world that you (probably, hopefully) will never know. It’s a great learning experience.

Two weeks after his twenty-fifth birthday, Ichiro got off a bus at Second and Main in Seattle.

Defining the importance of patriotism in an alienated individual.

Defining the importance of patriotism in an alienated individual.

Book Review: No-No Boy by John Okada

Happy Thanksgiving! For this holiday, I am reviewing No-No Boy, a book that resonates strong themes of patriotism and identity. Perfect for holiday reflection.

Author John Okada died in obscurity after writing only one novel. In No-No Boy he illustrates the Japanese-American experience post-World War II. Critics have said that Okada’s significant literary impact upon Japanese-American culture cannot remain unnoticed.

Protagonist, Ichiro Yamada returns home to Seattle after two years in federal prison. He was put away for denying the draft. Previous to being drafted, Yamada and his family had been kept in Japanese internment camps, taken from their home in Seattle and brought to the desert of Arizona. Ichiro fights continuously with his guilty conscience, unable to understand whether or not he did the right thing.

His mother is proud of Ichiro for not fighting against Japan in the war. She believes Americans have lied to the public about the result of the war; she cannot possibly envision that Japan could have lost the war. Although her family in Japan has sent letters over asking for help and food, she claims they are American propaganda, believing that the American government is continuing the ruse that Japan lost.

Ichiro, surrounded by a broken and deluded family, is unable to identify where his patriotism lies. He is embarrassed by his mother, who cares little about Japanese family who lost sons fighting against the Germans. He is frustrated by his lack of courage and inability to have gone to war. Ichiro’s friends, many of whom were soldiers themselves, try to bolster him up.

The novel is tragic and alienating. It shows the plague of a Japanese-American after the war, unable to support their countryman, and fighting against racism at home in America. It was an eye-opening novel for me because I so rarely hear about the Japanese internment camps and the Japanese experience in America during World War II. Although it was briefly mentioned in U.S. history class in high school, my knowledge of the Japanese-American experience is minimal.

Okada’s story is fast-paced. He moves Ichiro through intense experiences and a relatable identity crisis. There is a lot of death within the short novel, exposing the reader to the chaos of post-war life.  No-No Boy is gripping and easy to read, but it is a hard story to comprehend when it’s over. I like a novel that encourages me to think, and No-No Boy did just that.

When I was seven, I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl in race, manners, and speech, whose mother, Lulu Minturn, was the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai.

Well, it amazed me.

Well, it amazed me.

Book Review: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

It is the rare book that causes a reader to laugh out loud, to cry with an aching heart and to finish the last page with a sigh of relief. Amy Tan’s newest novel The Valley of Amazement is a whopping 600 pages, but it is an emotional roller coaster, well worth the read.

The novel spans both time and personal narratives, charting three generations of American and Chinese-American women. The story begins in the middle, with Violet, a precocious young woman living with her mother in Shanghai. Violet’s mother, Lulu, is a high-class madam, the head of a famous courtesan house. Violet lives among the various courtesans, observing their manners and behaviors with men, learning at an early age what happens behind closed doors. Her premature understanding of the relationships between men and women create the illusion that Violet is older than her fourteen years of age.

Suddenly, Lulu decides that she is ready to leave Shanghai and return to her birthplace, San Francisco. Without explanation, she tells Violet to begin packing. Confused, Violet wonders at the reason for this drastic move.

Due to corruption and the cruel politics that dominate the Shanghai during the turn of the twentieth century, Lulu is separated from Violet before they are able to board the ship. Lulu, without knowing it, leaves Shanghai without her daughter.

Meanwhile, Violet is kidnapped and brought to a courtesan house where she is forced to learn the tricks of becoming a high-class mistress. At fourteen, Violet is tossed into a life a danger and sexual abuse,utterly void of happiness or love.

While the beginning of the novel is filled with frustrating events that fill readers with despair and make them want to pull their hair out, Violet’s life changes drastically over the course of the next decade. She eventually does find love, friendship, and happiness. Although sometimes she is stripped of everything, forced to rebuild it all again, Violet develops a resilient personality, pride and confident about herself.

The turmoil of Violet’s story parallels with Lulu’s, which Tan explains later in the novel. Together both women grow to learn how to care for themselves and learn to find love within, not from men or even from parents.

Amy Tan writes an exquisite tale about love and suffering. She creates characters who demonstrate the power of will and hope, while illustrating that sometimes, life can just be too terrible for no reason at all. The stories of Violet and Lulu (and later Flora, Violet’s daughter) are tragic but maintain a strong sense of dignity and hope. The pride both women have in their ability to survive is mesmerizing to read and inspiring to imagine.

The novel is a marathon; it is certainly not a book you can pick up and whip through. I highly recommend this incredible novel, but I must warn you, be ready for a wild ride.

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.

Sometimes they can be TOO great.

Sometimes they can be TOO great.

Book Review: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

When my professor asked who had read Great Expectations before, almost the entire class raised their hands. Except me. I read Bleak House a couple of years ago but other than that, I managed to avoid Dickens for the entirety of my childhood.

I’m not sure why this is the case. But since I have been told that my English major cannot be completed without the full knowledge and experience of Dickens and his extensive novels, I was ready to dig in. And perhaps my excitement to give Adam Bede a break, led to me look forward to Great Expectations immensely.

And I enjoyed it very much. I really liked Pip, the protagonist, a young boy who is eager and ambitious to make something of himself. Pip is not perfect (not at all) but he is endearing and sympathetic.

Raised “by hand,” Pip is brought up by his older sister and her husband. While Mrs. Joe, Pip’s sister, is abusive and hateful, her blacksmith husband, Joe, is Pip’s closest friend and confidant. Together Pip and Joe support themselves through Mrs. Joe’s terrifying reign.

Dickens’s cast of characters is entirely stereotypical, but at the same time, refreshingly unique. Pip engages in conversation and helps a convict hiding away in the marshes, he “plays” with Miss Havisham, a woman who has isolated herself entirely from society, and he is constantly ignored and mistreated by the horrible Mr. Pumblechook. With characters who have names like Pumblechook, Pocket, Magwitch, and Jaggers, Dickens evokes a sense of humor into his novel. Pip narrates both with a sense of comedy and tragedy about his world.

When Pip unexpectedly receives an inheritance which sends him into the throes of London living, he is ecstatic. Believing his generous benefactor to be Miss Havisham, Pip thinks that the elderly woman wants her adopted daughter, Estella, to someday be his wife. As Pip tears through his funding and realizes that money does not constitute happiness, he becomes lost and tangled in a web of desperation.

The novel is an examination of modern capitalism. Dickens reacts to the burgeoning belief (of the 19th century) that social mobility is an exciting prospect. While Pip moves forward on the ladder of expectation and economic stride, he learns that his world is lonely and rather useless without love.

Great Expectations is a very contemporary novel. I enjoyed it because it wraps up a college career nicely: it explains the greatest perks in life (love, happiness, friendship) and demonstrates that money and title mean nothing without the joy of companionship.

There are twists and turns throughout the novel that will keep you guessing. I think that the lasting effects of the novel are to expect the unexpected, and to appreciate everything you have. Dickens writes a beautiful novel that spans across centuries and applies to modern life as aptly as a story written in 2013.