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review 2018-02-19 06:53
Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai'i (memoir) by Susanna Moore
Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai'i - Susanna Moore

Susanna Moore is best known for her critically acclaimed novels—complex and compelling works like In the Cut and My Old Sweetheart. Now, Moore’s Light Years is a shimmering look at the early life of this cherished novelist. Taking the form of a Commonplace Book, it mixes reminiscences with passages from famous works of literature that were formative in her younger years. Born in Hawai’i at a time when the islands were separated from the U.S. mainland by five days’ ship travel, Moore was raised in a secluded paradise of water, light, and color. As a child she spent endless days holed up with a bundle of books while the sound of the ocean and the calls of her brothers and sister drifted toward her through the palm grove. All around her, Moore saw flashes of the ocean described in those pages: a force of kaleidoscopic beauty and romantic possibility, but with an undercurrent of unfathomable darkness. In Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai’i, she weaves reminiscences of her childhood with some of her favorite pieces of literature—excerpts from Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, Treasure Island, Kon-Tiki, To the Lighthouse, and many others.





Susanna Moore grew up in the 1950s and 60s on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Many locals considered her and her family "haole", a white & privileged family living in a fine home staffed with servants. Moore writes of attending cotillion classes at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Her mother struggled with mental illness and sadly passed away when Moore was only 12 years old.


That's about the gist of what I learned from this super short (less than 200 pages) "memoir" of hers. I've heard of Susanna Moore as a writer but have not picked up any of her novels yet. I stumbled upon this at a discount sale one day and was intrigued mainly because my grandmother lived in Hawaii for a time (also where she met my grandfather) and her stories of island life always captured my attention as a child (have yet to see it for myself though). I was hoping for something similar from this book.


So that's where we run into the confusion with the excerpts. Moore writes, "I began to keep a journal about the sea by copying passages from the books I was reading..." but that's about the only explanation the reader gets for what follows: the large majority of this book just being long excerpts of OTHER people's work. I didn't have an issue with that by itself so much, but more with the fact that the excerpts have little to no preface. Other than many of them having the "sea" theme, there's not much explained as to WHAT about these fragments of books was so compelling to her. What about these passages specifically spoke to her? I would have been interested in those stories but no such luck. I ended up flipping past these pages as much of it was stuff I've already read over the course of my life.


That these excerpts make up the bulk of the book is what annoyed me so, rather than Moore sharing more of her OWN stories. If I pick up this book, I don't want an anthology of others, I want to hear about HER experiences, as the title promises. There is a little bit of that here, just not enough. Though there is a portion that I found interesting where she discusses the issue of racism running throughout the islands that has spanned for generations.


"It was a hierarchical, snobbish, and quietly racist society... there was a fairly unconscious racism all around us..." but then it turns weird because in some ways her words starts to sound as if she's trying to make it seem okay because you know, it's just how it was...


Yeah, in short... not all that impressed with this. Felt a bit like a lazy, thrown-together excuse for a book.

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review 2018-02-19 05:15
The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion

Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later–the night before New Year's Eve–the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LAX, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center to relieve a massive hematoma. This powerful book is Didion's attempt to make sense of the "weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about marriage and children and memory . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself."





In the year 2003, Joan Didion and husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, receive word that their daughter, Quintana, has been rushed to the ICU (on Christmas Day, no less). Quitana had been battling a severe case of pneumonia when her condition had suddenly turned septic. Just a few days later, December 30th, Dunne and Didion are settling into their dinner meal when Dunne suffers a massive, fatal coronary right at the dinner table. 


By October 2004, Joan Didion decides to start journaling some of her thoughts since experiencing all this pain and loss, this journal being the seed that would eventually become this book, The Year Of Magical Thinking. Here, Didion thinks on moments over the course of her forty year marriage to Dunne. Moments where she now, in retrospect, believes there were warning signs of the grief that was to come. As far back as 1987, she recalls, Dunne had expressed fears of premature death. By 2003, what would end up being the year of his death, Dunne had developed a long history of heart trouble, even having a pacemaker installed. Numerous times that year he had said he felt sure he was dying, but Didion admits she dismissed these moments as him just having momentary bouts of depression. 


Like most people trying to cope with the sudden loss of a loved one, Didion struggles to navigate through feelings of guilt, that sense that you could have done something more to save them. She even toys with the idea that she can still reverse the outcome of the events. But hey, don't judge. It's wild what grief can do to an otherwise seemingly sane mind. 


Didion also shares her feelings on being a mother having to witness her child suffering in illness and feeling helpless to fix it. While Didion's passages regarding her husband read strangely distanced in tone to me, it was these moments where she talks on Quintana that touched me much more. How awful that must have been for her to witness her daughter pull through brutal pneumonia and septic shock only to improve a bit before suffering a hematoma, pretty much putting the poor girl's health struggle back at square one! 


This book didn't land quite as perfectly for me as it did for a lot of other readers. That could be, in part at least, to the fact that I often don't do well with books -- either fiction or non -- that are written in a stream of consciousness style. As I mentioned earlier with some of the passages that speak on Didion's husband, the writing, at times, had a distanced feel to me. I acknowledge that grief can often bring on a certain sense of numbness and detachment from the world, but from time to time, this just read a little too arm's length to me, alternately reminding me of either a police report snapshot of events or perhaps a college paper being written on the theme of melancholy. 


But that's not to say I got nothing from this book. There were definitely passages that resonated with me, maybe moreso in that I read this the same year I lost my mother. That said, I am a little confused as to where the "magical thinking" comes in? Well written, no doubt, but it struck me as just a general sort of grief memoir rather than the life-changing work so many have touted it to be. 







* Author Joan Didion has worked as a writer for both VOGUE and LIFE magazines


* There are a few spoilers for other books to be aware of in this book: namely her husband's novels DUTCH SHEA, JR. and NOTHING LOST, but also the play ALCESTIS and the film ROBIN & MARIAN starring Audrey Hepburn and Sean Connery.

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review 2017-12-04 08:16
Split by Swati Avasthi
Split - Swati Avasthi

Sixteen-Year-Old Jace Witherspoon arrives at the doorstep of his estranged brother Christian with a re-landscaped face (courtesy of his father’s fist), $3.84, and a secret. He tries to move on, going for new friends, a new school, and a new job, but all his changes can’t make him forget what he left behind—his mother, who is still trapped with his dad, and his ex-girlfriend, who is keeping his secret.

At least so far.

Worst of all, Jace realizes that if he really wants to move forward, he may first have to do what scares him most: He may have to go back. Award-winning novelist Swati Avasthi has created a riveting and remarkably nuanced portrait of what happens after. After you’ve said enough, after you’ve run, after you’ve made the split—how do you begin to live again?





>> TRIGGER WARNING: This book describes graphic scenes of domestic violence.



After taking years of physical and emotional abuse from his father, teenager Jace decides to drive from Chicago, IL to Albuquerque, NM to meet up with his estranged older brother, Christian, whom he hasn't seen in years. Jace had hoped his mother would come along, but she urges him to go on ahead, simply pressing a paper with Christian's address into Jace's palm and promising to meet up with him in New Mexico for the Thanksgiving holiday.... the thing is, Christian doesn't know Jace is on his way. Jace arrives at Christian's door with a busted face (courtesy of their father), less than $5 to his name and no idea what to say. Christian takes Jace in, figuring questions would get worked out as they went along, and the bulk of the story from there focuses on Jace pretty much rebuilding his life in New Mexico -- starting school again, getting a job, and waiting to see if his mother will actually find the courage to finally leave her abusive husband. 


WHEW, this one gets into some tough topics! I found myself tearing up multiple times! Jace's experience with reuniting with Christian after so many years illustrates the challenges of being the younger child with a much older sibling, something I know quite well with my own older sibling. Jace points out to Christian: "Friends get years, but I get 20 minutes."


Another bit I related to was Jace's struggle was coming to terms with the reality that you physically resemble someone you come to strongly dislike ( as in, you physically resembling the parent you constantly butt heads with or the one with questionable life choices / moral compass). Along those lines, this story also points out the reality that abuse can go down in ANY kind of home. For example, Jace's father is a respected judge within the community but at home he's beating the stuffing out of his wife & kids.


Similarly, Jace has his own experience with losing his temper with a girlfriend. This part of the story was a tough spot for me. Up til this portion of Jace's story, I was liking the kid. But I have insanely low.... non-existent, really... tolerance for a guy smacking around a woman for any reason.. the exception being if SHE is physically threatening the guy's life, then by all means he has the right to defend himself as a human. But in Jace's case, it was just a flare up of jealousy and his actions end up scaring the bejeebus out of his girlfriend. While my opinion of him certainly dropped in that moment, he does show redemptive behavior later on in the story. I was really impressed when he comes forward and tells the girl that he's so disappointed in himself he WANTS her to press charges against him, he deserves it. Can you imagine the world if the assaulters across the world suddenly, collectively manned-up like that?! Cue Louis Armstrong! 


Jace's experiences teach him to develop what he calls "Fightology" -- lessons to tell himself to get through the worst times. For example, Fightology #8: If you relax your body when a hit is coming, it will hurt less (what's weird is that something about that almost seems logical AND counter-intuitive at the same time) or Fightology #9: Sometimes even the rules won't protect you. It gives the story an extra layer of sadness that he's had to develop such rules to survive his life but over time he finds ways to step away from the hardness and embrace the zen, changing his system to "Calmology": #1 Run every day. #2 Speak up if you have something to say #3 Fix what you can, accept what you can't (a nod to Serenity Prayer), etc. 


Like I said, it's a tough story to stomach. Definitely wouldn't recommend it for readers younger than the "older teen" crowd. That said, it brings important truths to light, not only about surviving abuse, but also regarding difficult nuances within sibling and parental relationships.





>>  In her acknowledgements section, author Swati Avasthi mentions that this novel (less than 300 pages) took her three years to write. 

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review 2017-11-05 17:25
The Waiting Place: Learning To Appreciate Life's Little Delays by Eileen Button
The Waiting Place: Learning to Appreciate Life's Little Delays - Eileen Button

Some of the most priceless gifts can be discovered while waiting for something else.
We all spend precious time just waiting. We wait in traffic, grocery store lines, and carpool circles. We wait to grow up, for true love, and for our children to be born. We even wait to die. But while we work hard at this business of living, life can sometimes feel like one long, boring meeting. Even today, with instant gratification at our techno-laced fingertips, we can’t escape the waiting place. Somehow, in between our texting and tweeting and living and dying, we end up there again and again. In the voice of an old friend or a wise-cracking sister, Eileen Button takes us back to the days of curling irons and camping trips, first loves and final goodbyes, big dreams and bigger reality checks. With heart-breaking candor she calls us to celebrate the tension between what we hope for tomorrow and what we live with today. Chock-full of humor and poignant insights, these stories will make you laugh and cry. They’ll challenge you to enjoy―or at least endure―the now. As Eileen has learned, “To wait is human. To find life in the waiting place, divine.”




In this collection of essays, the title inspired by a portion from Dr. Seuss' The Places You Will Go, newspaper columnist Eileen Button takes us into the daily routine of her hectic life and shows up where she found the beauty in the chaos. It took work and dedication, moments of forcing herself to stop and be still, but over time she came to learn how to work past her daily life gripes and see the gifts in the small moments. 


"The Waiting Place is for people like me who get stuck in their precious, mundane, gorgeous, absurd lives. It is for those who work hard at the "business of living" only to find that they seem to be caught in one long, boring meeting...It's for those who wake up one day and find themselves repeatedly sighing and thinking 'This is so not the life I dreamed of living.' It's also for those who wonder what is worse: to remain in the day-in, day-out lives they have created or to risk it all and make a change, even if that change results in falling on their faces. The waiting place is never cozy. In fact, when we find ourselves there, most of us try like heck to escape...The following essays breathe life into common (and not so common) waiting places. I hope you find yourself in these pages and conclude, as I have, that some of the most priceless gifts can be discovered while waiting for something else." ~ from Chapter 1


Her essays cover pivotal moments throughout her life where epiphanies slipped in under the mundane. Sometimes it wasn't right in the moment, but years later as she reflected on cherished memories. Some of the highlights: reminiscing about fishing trips as a little girl with her father; comical wedding mishaps (that were likely not so comical in the moment lol); recalling the beauty in her grandmother's hands , seeing all the life lived that showed there during family Scrabble games; revisiting her childhood home as an adult and the emotions that stirred up, turning that glass doorknob and taking in the hush of the place. Eileen also recalls lectures her grandmother would give her about her nail-biting habit, something my own grandmother rides me about to this day!


Eileen also discusses the struggle that comes with sometimes being defined by your spouse's occupation, in her case being the wife of a Methodist pastor.  She defines various doubts and fears that unexpectedly came along with the position of a pastor's wife as well as the he pressures and expectations that your congregation can put on you. Button reveals that she often feels she has a "dysfunctional, co-dependent" relationship with the church.


Additionally, there's the strain of trying to figure out what to do, how to make things work when the household income barely covers the monthly bills (Button recalls the day she swallowed her pride and applied for WIC).


"I reach for my daily stack of mail. Today's includes a Rite-Aid weekly flyer, the water bill, and a credit card offer that features three crosses and the message "Jesus Loves You" on the card. The credit card company writes, "Express your faith with every purchase!" There is something deeply wrong with a world in which you can own a credit card with a full color picture of Christ's object of torture printed on it."



She describes added emotional fatigue worrying over her youngest son, who was born with a condition where the upper and lower portions of the esophagus didn't connect. Speaking of her children, one thing I noticed that I found a little disappointing is how she seems to take pride in fixing meals over playing with her children. I mean, yes, it is definitely admirable that she takes the time to make nourishing meals for them, I was just a little surprised when one essay illustrates how one day her kids genuinely seemed shocked when she finally, grudgingly agrees to fly a kite with them. But it is in this moment that she has one of her revelations which she can now share with readers -- why honest presence is so important to her children! 


This collection also touches upon the topic of depression. Button shares moments where she deeply hurt for loved ones who had fallen into immense emotional darkness and her inner aggravation at feeling helpless to save them. Here again, she shares the calming takeaways she eventually came to realize are born in life's harder moments. For readers reaching for this book at a time when they find themselves saying, "This is not the life I signed up for," she offers this to marinate on: "To live is to wait. It's how we wait that makes all the difference." Hang in there long enough, you'll find your way to the brass ring. 


As a whole, these essays are so enjoyable largely because Button writes in the tone of a good friend who speaks in soft tones but still makes it clear she's been through the wringer in her day and, at least on some level, knows of what she speaks.  It's also a kick to see her East Coast upbringing infused into her wording:  "wicked dark' "wicked ugly". Her humor balances the heavier bits and I give her bonus points for working in a "Come On Eileen", a nod to my favorite 80s song :-D

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review 2017-04-21 18:11
Sunny Side Up (graphic novel) by Jennifer & Matthew Holm
Sunny Side Up - Jennifer L. Holm,Matthew Holm

Sunny Lewin has been packed off to Florida to live with her grandfather for the summer.  At first she thought Florida might be fun -- it is  the home of Disney World, after all.  But the place where Gramps lives is no amusement park.  It’s full of . . . old people.  Really old people. Luckily, Sunny isn’t the only kid around.  She meets Buzz, a boy who is completely obsessed with comic books, and soon they’re having adventures of their own: facing off against golfball-eating alligators, runaway cats, and mysteriously disappearing neighbors.  But the question remains -- why is Sunny down in Florida in the first place?  The answer lies in a family secret that won’t be secret to Sunny much longer. . .





It's the year of America's Bicentennial celebration (1976) and Pennsylvania preteen Sunny Lewin cannot be more excited for the family's summer trip to their beach house! But when her older brother's demons end up ruining family time at the fireworks show, Sunny's parents quickly decide it would be better for her to spend the summer visiting her grandfather in West Palm Beach, Florida. 


Not only is Sunny still reeling from the family drama brought on by her brother's struggle with alcoholism, but she's also not sure what to do with herself while trying to acclimate to her grandfather's retirement community, Pine Palms. Pine Palms has strict rules limiting the number of pets or children allowed on the property, so it's not so easy for young Sunny to find her place. Not to mention everyone is old and the place itself is about 2 hours away from Disney World! What's a kid to do?!


Luckily, it's not long before she does run into another child her age, Buzz. Buzz and Sunny are soon sharing a love of comic book stories as well as developing a little side business of tracking down "secret" (aka not technically allowed) pet cats of Pine Palms. Just as Sunny starts to settle into a "bloom where you are planted" mentality about the retirement community, she's struck by yet another struggle within the family -- her grandfather trying to hide his smoking habit from her. This is the last straw for Sunny. She is tired of trying to shoulder everyone's secrets and addictions on her small shoulders! Sunny gives the adults in her life a wake-up call that she is a child and needs to be allowed to experience these fleeting moments of innocence before it's too late. 


Adults that grew up in the 70s and 80s will have great nostalgic fun with this one! I myself was more of the 80s-90s era, but I could still spot plenty of pop culture references worked into the artwork: the unmistakeable 70s stylin' of the characters' clothing, Donny Osmond posters on the wall, loading up the station wagon to go to Sears to do school shopping, Sunny browsing lunchboxes with a Holly Hobby design faintly noticeable among the selections... it was just fun to make a sort of "I Spy" game of it all! 



The artwork style itself also brought to mind similar lines and colors seen in Sunday cartoons like For Better Or Worse and LuAnn, maybe even Zits. The coloring in Sunny Side Up is done by none other than Lark Pien, who also did the coloring for the Printz Award winning graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang as well as Yang's follow-up work, the duology Boxers & Saints.


Even if the timeframe isn't your childhood era, there are some universal topics addressed within Sunny's story. I got a particular kick out of her starting school and getting a teacher her older brother had, and having to get the scowl when the teacher makes the connection between her and the troublemaker brother. O.M.G., do I ever remember going through that myself! LOL.



No doubt, Sunny Side Up touches upon some tough themes for young readers: a grandfather's secret cigarette habit, a brother's struggle with alcoholism, certain residents of Pine Palms showing signs of the early stages of dementia, even talk of the Cuban Revolution / immigration issues of the 1970s gets thrown into the mix.



Possibly uncomfortable reading for the young ones, but there is a point to it all, and an important one at that! In a brief author's note at the end, brother / sister author team Jennifer and Matthew Holm reveal that the idea for this graphic novel stemmed from their own tough childhood experiences. They figured there were likely other kids out there who have had or are having similar struggles that need to find stories they can relate to, stories that will possibly help direct them toward the help they need to get through these kinds of challenges. While some moments within this story are undoubtedly hard-hitting, the Holm siblings leave readers with a sense of optimism for the future and a reassurance that there is help and hope out there if you just stay the course and, as Sunny's grandpa reminds her, "keep your sunny side up!"



Fans of YA literature, note the shout-out to David Levithan in the acknowledgments section at the end! 

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