Friday, June 28, 2013

Fiction | One More Dilly Bar

Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen by Susan Gregg Gilmore is the perfect light summer read that doesn’t feel too fluffy. It’s got more meat than your average chick-lit, but it’s not too bogged down with literary drama to keep it from being enjoyable. I’ve had it on my list for years just because of its sweet Southern title that rolls off the tongue.

Meet Catherine Grace—daughter of a small-town preacher, smart, spunky, and dying to get out of Ringgold, Georgia. Catherine Grace has been plotting her escape for as long as she can remember, making plans over Dilly Bars at the local Dairy Queen with her sister Martha Ann. The two sisters live with their father, the local Baptist preacher; their mother drowned when the girls were young. Catherine Grace’s only connection left with her mother is Gloria Jean, a neighbor and good friend of the girls’ mother who helps Catherine Grace plot her escape as soon as she turns 18.

When her eighteenth birthday rolls around, Catherine Grace’s bags are already packed. She heads to Atlanta to start a new life, because, at the root of it, she just can’t understand how anyone can be happy stuck in Ringgold, Georgia. In Atlanta, Catherine Grace gets settled in a new job and a great place to live. Having worked so hard to escape home, it’s only fitting that she gets dragged back by a family emergency and once there, gets some news that rocks her world. Faced with home and family or the life she made for herself, Catherine Grace must decide where she fits and which place feels more like home.

Ultimately, this book is about family, and everything that comes with it—love and mistakes and forgiveness. It’s about home and figuring out where that is and what it means. Catherine Grace follows the same path that many people do—belittling a town she hates and all the people in it, only to realize there’s nothing actually inferior about it (or them). She was a protagonist to cheer on, understanding her mistakes are the most human of human mistakes as she tries to figure out her place in the world. Gloria Jean is the most refreshing, heart-warming character as one who knows her faults but lives and loves anyway.

I recommend this as a good summer read, and if you enjoy, follow-up with these titles for a similar reading experience: One, Two, Three, Four

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Idlewild Round-Up

After what’s seemed like a long, unintentional hiatus, I’ve actually made it to book club the past couple of months! The Friday night meetings are sometimes killer, as we often go away for the weekends, but I’m hoping that this summer will be low-key enough that I’m able to keep going. I always love reading the books in the summer when I don’t have to think about anything else!

Our May selection was Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. The summary and introduction hyped this up as a hilarious, witty novel, but meh…it wasn’t all that to me. The story follows Jim, a lecturer of medieval history at an English university. He’s not really a grump, but he doesn’t have a shred of optimism in him either. He’s cynical and sardonic, almost in a pleasant way—which is where the comedy is supposed to come in. Jim feels like he’s living in a world of crazy people, both inside and outside of academia.

Lucky Jim doesn’t have much of a plot; rather, it chronicles Jim’s encounters to make a sort of satirical statement on English society, particularly academia, in the 1950s. And that must be why it’s lauded as such a hilariously trenchant novel; it was to the society in which it was written. For me now, it just sort of existed. We didn’t have a ton to say about this one; everyone sort of enjoyed it but also didn’t get a ton out of it. The characters were enjoyable, and at points it was a total entertaining farce (especially in the last third of the book). Amis didn’t treat any of his women particularly well, either. I think I would enjoy this more on a second reading, as I would for any of Elaine Dundy’s works, but I doubt I’ll ever get to it.

Our June pick was a collection of short stories: The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon. We have never done short stories as a book club and thought it would be an interesting experience. Well, it turns out, calling this a “short story collection” is pretty deceptive. So the publisher calls it that, but really, this is more a series of vignettes focusing on the same characters. It takes you a couple stories to realize that you’re reading about the same people, but as you get further in the book, the “stories” feel more like chapters as the running thread becomes more dominant. The overarching plot involves a Guatemalan literature professor, Eduardo, and his encounters with different characters—a brilliant student who suddenly leaves school, verbose Mark Twain scholars at a lit conference, a Serbian classical pianist who favors his gypsy heritage over classical upbringing, and, tying it all together, Eduardo’s own Polish grandfather with a story of how it made it out of Auschwitz alive.

In most of the stories, you learn more about these characters than the narrator that ties them all together. In the end, you still feel like you don’t know much about Eduardo; he’s sort of lost, himself, and he keeps chasing after something or someone because that’s what he does—it becomes his own sort of obsessive treasure hunt. And though you don’t know much about it, ultimately Eduardo is the one this book is about, as he explores his own identity and history. I feel like the author was trying to do something really poetic and subtle and sort of self-indulgent that maybe a lot of people could think they identify with. Maybe it went over my head or maybe I just didn’t appreciate it, but ultimately, it was just okay.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Little, Monumental Bit of Real Life

This little blog has seen its days of drought on occasion—those days/weeks/months when posting frequency drops nearly to non-existent. Usually my excuse is just “ehh, busy,” and though I’ve been keeping it up pretty well the past two semesters (miraculously!), you may have noticed a drop-off over the past couple of months.

I rarely go into real life here (I save that for Tumblr), but I just have to share the reason for the recent absence. In a nutshell—a wedding! June 1st was the big day in Nashville for Colin and myself, and it couldn’t have been any better. A wonderful week and weekend with friends and family in the city I will always call home and one that most of our guest list had never even visited. I hope the city showed them a good time, and I know the wedding showed them a good dance party.
Photo credit: Q Avenue Photo
So now the wedding is over, the graduate thesis is complete, and it’s smooth sailing for the rest of the summer until my last semester begins in the fall. 
Happy summer reading!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Fiction | Sun, Surf, and Summer Boys

Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty is the first YA book I’ve read since the great Fall of YA 2012, and oh, I thought it was great. This was the perfect book for me to celebrate my end of semester and kick off summertime.

What I loved about it is how Han really tries hard to capture everything that makes summer so great—at least for those of us who love it. Most integral to the story, she taps deep into the details that make summer so memorable and so defining for Belly, the story’s main character.

Fifteen-year-old Belly has spent every summer of her life in the beach town of Cousins. She’s described as measuring her life in summers; all year she looks forward to the day she, her mom, and her brother pull into the beach house owned by her mom’s best friend Susanna and begin unpacking the car. To Belly, the summer in Cousins isn’t vacation; this is the life she lives for. And alongside Belly’s family is Susanna’s—her two boys, Conrad and Jeremiah, that have always, for the most part, treated Belly as their little sister.

But as happens when kids grow up and teenager hormones are running rampant, things just aren’t that simple anymore. For the first time in Belly’s life, she feels eyes on her in a different way. Boys are starting to take notice, and it’s causing a shift in the household dynamic with three testosterone-driven boys that Belly isn’t sure how to handle.

Belly’s dramas are the same ones everyone suffered in adolescence that just feel so darn Earth-shattering. As you get older, you look back and realize that a lot of it was rather silly and melodramatic, but that doesn’t make it any less important. It’s part of growing up—feeling confusion and angst and just so much emotion about everything. For me now, at 27, I remember those feelings, but it’s like I’ve matured and the rollercoaster has leveled out beyond the ups and downs.

Once you’re in Belly’s shoes, nothing she’s living feels melodramatic the way you may expect being a YA romance drama. She’s a strong character that experiences a lot of contrasting elements in her life; she’s just trying to figure it all out, just like any other teenager. Her nostalgic levels rival my own as she relishes sweet memories, specific moods, and little details that have defined her summers so far. It’s enjoyable to follow her experiences as she navigates first crushes, changing relationships, and figuring out her place. All I wanted after this is sun, surf, and cute floppy-haired boys. At least there’s two more in the series!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The JUV FIC Corner presents “Anastasia at Your Service”

Remember a couple summers ago when I started re-reading some of my childhood favorites and I called it the JUV FIC Corner? Yeah, I barely do either. It was a series of a posts I started, and I wrote a handful on them on such childhood classics as The Great Brain, Maniac Magee, and Anastasia Krupnik. Recently, I pulled out my e-reader for a book club book, and I saw the Anastasia Krupnik series available digitally, so I decided to add the next in the series for a quick, fun read.

Anastasia at Your Service is the third in Lois Lowry’s series. By now, Anastasia is twelve and living that perpetual ennui that plagues pre-teens. She is stuck at home all summer and BORED. Her solution is to earn some money as a Companion to some old, rich lady, so Anastasia puts up flyers around town advertising her services. She gets a gig pretty quickly with the wealthy Mrs. Bellingham, only to find out Mrs. Bellingham expects her to be a maid. Anastasia—a maid! Though she’s ready to storm out and quit on the basis that old Bellingham took advantage on her services, Anastasia accidentally threw a piece of silver down the garbage disposal and now has to pay off her debt.

Anastasia matures quite a bit in this one as she faces any kid’s nightmare and learns the most valuable lesson of growing up: sometimes, you have to do things you don’t want to do. (Ugh, I know, it’s still terrible, no matter how old you are!) The Krupnik parents are fabulous and one of the most satisfying things about this series. They treat Anastasia as an equal; she’s not coddled or babied at all. They teach her decision-making as an adult, have conversations with her as if she’s older than 12, and it lends a lot to this character’s upbringing. Anastasia is taken seriously by the adults closest to her, and I think that’s how all kids and pre-teens want to feel. She’s a relatable character because the reader learns lessons alongside of her, and ultimately, Anastasia is a person you want to emulate.

I really enjoy this series because it’s intelligent, funny, and by no means dumbed down for the audience. It’s refreshing to read a series for kids that isn’t censored or simplified. Though it’s not necessarily a bad thing, most JUV series treat the kids like they are kids; their tone recognizes a definite divide between kids and adults. The Anastasia series is unique in that this line is blurred, making it a perfect series for those kids who just need something a little more.

What were your favorite series as a kid? What enticed you to pick up a book?