Review: The Forgotten Room

*Requisite spoiler warning.

I love old houses for the stories they seem to hold, particularly places where it seems as though the owners have just picked up and left.  I love generational sagas too, the types of stories where you see how the family stories intertwine and get to trace characters growing up, disappearing and reappearing and making you gasp, “Oh, so that’s what happened to him!”  So the collaborative novel from Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig, The Forgotten Roomlooked to be right up my alley.

The Forgotten Room follows three different women in New York City in three different times: Olive in 1892, Lucy in 1920, and Kate in 1944.  They all come to the same building, an old mansion (well, new in Olive’s time, a hospital in Kate’s) searching for answers about what happened to their family.  And they all meet men, whose connections to the Pratt mansion run equally deep.  Each new couple delves a little bit deeper into the mystery of the previous generation, which the authors handle well – the reader knows more than the characters do, but never enough to completely solve the puzzle until all is unveiled at the proper moment.

I also saw a certain amount of developing feminism in each of the women’s experiences.  Having recently lost her father, Olive pushes back against the strictures of 1890s society with her reluctance to marry the first man who comes along.  She prioritizes finding the truth about her father’s death over her mother’s expectations, which is a small battle but a significant one for her time.  Lucy makes further steps with her refusal to become the secretary who sleeps with her boss, even going so far as to turn him down flat in a speakeasy.  Even more than Olive, Lucy insists on moving forward on her own terms, whether romantically or careerwise.

Kate’s struggle with blatant workplace misogyny and sexual harassment is the most obvious instance of feminism in the novel.  Her male supervisor not only sneers at the idea of a female doctor, but regularly undermines her treatment of her patients – when he’s not trying to get her alone in the storage closet.  Frankly, it was this battle against sexism, particularly when a young nurse looked to Kate as an ally and role model, that interested me more than any romantic entanglements.  That was where the novel fell short for me: these women had their own original motivations and desires, but that independence was quickly thrown out when they met The Man in their respective stories.  Though the ending(s) were cute enough, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.

Still, the parallel stories and the building tension as the generational mystery continued were intriguing enough to give this 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Review: Remarkable Creatures

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

It doesn’t take long into reading Tracy Chevalier’s first novel to figure out that the title isn’t just referring to fossils.  Remarkable Creatures alternates between two narrators: Mary Anning, the lightning-struck fossil finder from a poor family, and Elizabeth Philpot, the higher class spinster from London who turns out to be rather good at finding fossils too.  Both use fossils as an escape from their disappointing life: Elizabeth for the intellectual stimulation of collecting and learning, Mary for the money she can earn selling her “curies.”

At first, their relationship is sweet and symbiotic.  Mary takes the older Elizabeth under her wing by teaching her about the creatures they find on the beach and showing her where to find the best ones.  Then Elizabeth reciprocates by advocating for Mary when she finds a “croc,” an apparent monster skeleton embedded in the cliff, making sure Mary retains ownership despite other cury-hunters on the beach and trying to help her get a good price for it.

But, like the two women suddenly finding themselves thrust into the scientific world, the novel quickly becomes more about Elizabeth and Mary against the people who misunderstand them, or worse, mistreat them, and how those struggles start to strain their own relationship.

Elizabeth acts as Mary’s advocate, whether Mary knows it or not, for much of the book.  Here is where we see the struggle for female contributors to be recognized in the 19th century scientific community.  Elizabeth is outraged, for instance, that the collectors who buy skeletons from Mary and then sell them on to museums are listed as the finders of those fossils when they have never personally set foot on the beach.  For her, intellectual property and the right of a person to be acknowledged for his or her work is paramount.

Mary herself tries to balance the ownership she feels for the “crocs “and “monsters” she finds with the knowledge that selling them will bring in much-needed money.  Her arc deals more with class and elitism, recognizing that the best way for her to rise in status and secure her family’s future is to appease the men who come wanting tours of the beach – and to possibly marry one of them.  Few people besides Elizabeth recognize Mary’s intellectual potential, seeing her as a tool or servant to be used and paid rather than someone who could ever write papers about the things she discovers.  Indeed, to many of the men in the book, Mary doesn’t discover anything at all.

Beyond this already interesting feminist layer is the question of the “croc” itself, which turns out to be an ichthyosaurus – an as-yet undiscovered species no longer extant anywhere on earth.  This is a much bigger deal in the 1800s than nowadays; as many characters uneasily point out, an extinct species would seem to imply that God had made a mistake, or didn’t care about keeping His creations alive, which shakes their faith-based worldview.  I appreciated Chevalier’s evenhanded treatment of this debate.  She was far more interested in portraying the significance of Mary’s find than in condemning or promoting either extreme.  Indeed, Elizabeth comes to a sort of middle ground on the matter, while Mary doesn’t prioritize the God-vs.-science debate at all.

I didn’t much care for the amorous jealousy that undermines the two women’s friendship.  It seemed a bit forced to have Elizabeth envy Mary a man’s attention, even as she pronounced him a fraud and a cad (he reminded me a bit of a more abashed Wickham). Given how aware both women are of the ways social expectations limit them, I would have preferred to focus on their efforts to live despite those expectations (i.e., marriage) rather than let a clearly shabby suitor damage their friendship so much.  Then again, I suppose flaws are what make characters interesting, and an inability to let go of romance as a Way Out is certainly understandable given their setting.

Overall, I enjoyed this fictional look at two real women in the fossil community, and could definitely see parallels to the way some of my female friends in STEM have been treated today.  A worthwhile historical fiction read for any feminist or fossilist!

4/5 stars on Goodreads

 

Review(ish): L.M. Montgomery as Unexpected Mentor

I’m not really sure how to categorize this post, because the extent to which I identified with Lucy Maud Montgomery throughout the first volume of her selected journals had an enormous impact on my impression of that collection. From her opening entry declaring that she had burned all of her childhood diaries (I have more than a few I would like to shred) to her descriptions of the “melancholy” that seized her when she was older (and sounded hauntingly like my experiences with depression), I felt like this woman was my “kindred spirit,” as her most famous character would say.

Anyone who loved Anne of Green Gables will essentially find bonus material in this collection of the beloved author’s journals from 1889 to 1910.  It’s easy to find the places where Montgomery drew on her personal experiences to create Anne’s world, using her own memories and sometimes brutally honest depictions of her own feelings to remember what the emotional turmoil of childhood really feels like.  It’s also easy to see her writing style as it grew into the L.M. Montgomery we know and love.  I could recognize phrases she used directly or in altered form in the Anne books, as well as general sentiments that Anne would later echo.

I could also recognize myself in Montgomery’s inner life, as I said before.

It wasn’t just the melancholia that gripped her in the winter, leaving her without the motivation even to get off couch, as the worst of my own depression has done to me.  It wasn’t just the way she felt about books as friends, the way my own bookshelves act as a comfort when I feel lonely.  It was little things, little dislikes for irritating classmates and frustrations with unseen obstacles to her dreams.  Reading her journals even went so far as to comfort me for my own sporadic entries (I cannot seem to maintain a daily habit no matter how good it is for me).

Maybe I just connected to her as a fellow woman writer.  Maybe this is just one of those things among writers, to seek out a mentor version of yourself in the ranks of those who have gone before.  Maybe it’s just a more generic writer thing (it’s well known, for instance, that many writers have struggled with depression).  Maybe I just felt close to this real person who had created one of my favorite childhood characters.

Whatever the reason, I was not expecting such a personal level of connection when I picked up these journals on a whim at Half Price Books – but I’m glad I did.

Review: Eligible

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

I’m a sucker for anything involving Pride and Prejudice, particularly modern retellings.  So when I saw Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible on my library’s Lucky Day shelf (relatively new and popular books you can check out for only a week, no renewals), I snatched it up, anticipating a fun, if fluffy, addition to my P&P mental shelf.

I ended up feeling very divided about the book.  Sittenfeld’s modernization of Austenian issues was admirable and unexpected, which is difficult to achieve in an adaptation of such an iconic work.  The main characters’ relationships remained intact, with Lydia and Kitty as joined at the hip as ever and Liz and Darcy shooting barbs at one another.  The portrayal of Jane as a 40-year-old seeking to have a child on her own is one of the most independent adaptations I’ve seen of the eldest Bennet sister.  One of my favorite parts was the change in Liz’s relationship with Catherine de Bourgh, who appears here as a famous feminist speaker rather than a disapproving aunt; the switch from condemnation to commendation was a pleasant surprise!  The author even went so far as to split the scurrilous Wickham into two questionable love interests: Jasper Wick acts as Liz’s long-term (married) boyfriend, with the original Wickham’s jerkier aspects and scandalous back story; Ham is a decent guy who happens to be transgender, which sends the old-fashioned Bennet parents into conniptions when he elopes with Lydia.  So while the story is familiar (Liz is prideful, Darcy is prejudiced, they love each other anyway), it wasn’t exactly predictable.

But for a familiar yet engaging story, the book was slow.  Sittenfeld used Austen-esque sentences to describe her modern characters, with phrasing more suited to a Regency-era parlor game than binge-watching a reality dating show.  The chapters were ridiculously short, ranging from half a page to maybe seven pages; it was as if rather than adding a line break between scenes, she decided to just give every separate scene its own chapter.  Then Sittenfeld fleshed out the Bennet family’s financial instability and added Jane’s pregnancy and a reality show wedding (and all the behind-the-scenes experiences of filming such a thing) to a novel that already has plenty of connected story lines.  And she wrote all of those new aspects in the same short-chapter, long-sentence style.  It added up to constantly feeling like I must have made a lot of progress, then being surprised by how few pages I had actually read.

I also found myself truly disliking Elizabeth Bennet (called Liz here) for the first time in any version.  True, her pride and stubbornness are central character flaws, without which her eventual growth as a person and subsequent coupling with Darcy would fall flat.  But Sittenfeld brings out a new side of Liz that frankly felt untrue to the character.  In Austen’s original story, Lizzie asserts her independence by refusing to marry someone she does not love.  This is radical for the time she lives in, but understandable for the character.  In Eligible, Sittenfeld extends that desire for control over one’s own life into an almost manic desire to control her whole family.  Liz apparently needs to parent her own parents, going so far as to list their house for sale without telling them.  I understand wanting to help fix one’s family problems, but is it really possible that someone as smart as Lizzie Bennet would decide that being her family’s savior means steamrolling over everyone, kicking her family out of their home, and insisting on overseeing all the financial decisions from now on?

Ultimately, this felt like fluff that didn’t know it was fluff.  The three stars I gave it on Goodreads were largely due to the love I already bear for the characters and their original tale.


Have you read Eligible?  Have you ever read any adaptations of a favorite classic that disappointed you?

Peace Is Not What We Should Pray For

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

“For peace in our nation.”  I paused.  “We pray to the Lord.”

The congregation, slower in its responses here than in my home parish on the other side of the state, mumbled, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

It’s not my job to improvise the intercessions – lectors just read, we don’t write – but at that moment I wished I could add something to the single, well-meaning, inadequate line of that particular prayer.

Because peace alone is not good enough.

Peace is easy for people like me to find.  Peace is what we get because we are white, and heterosexual, and cisgender, and above the poverty line.  Our peace is not truly disturbed by the reports on TV of violence elsewhere, of fear elsewhere, of hate crimes elsewhere, because, if you noticed, it is always elsewhere, not next door.  And even if it is next door, we can draw the blinds.  We can change the channel.  We can shuffle to and from our cars and listen only to radio stations that agree with us and read only the same old books we have always read and we can do this because we are the ones who are represented in those places.  We have the option of shutting ourselves off from those different from us.  And when we cannot ignore what’s happening outside our comfort zones, we can at least use it to reinforce the mentality that allows us to shake our heads gently and think, “At least We are not Like Them.”

Peace is easy for people like me to find.

But it is a “negative peace which is the absence of tension.”  The things that might bring us true peace, a “positive peace which is the presence of justice,” are more complicated.  And it’s not a terribly peaceful process.

Probably the writer of that intercession was hoping for a deeper peace, not just peace of mind or the bliss we speak of that comes from ignorance, but the peace we are promised in the Gospels, the kind “that surpasses all understanding,” which is good because a lot of other things right now surpass understanding.  But we are creatures who need the process spelled out for us, the true meaning defined and articulated point by point.

So this is what I’m praying for.

For peace and protection of marginalized groups and minorities as they face growing violence and aggression on top of the daily struggle of navigating a culture in which they are not the group in power.

For peace and communication between opposing views, that they may allow themselves to be coaxed toward a middle ground in which they can recognize the humanity of the Other standing before them.

For peace and humility in our leaders, that they may recognize their responsibility to those they represent and to the world as a whole.

For peace and true justice as we continue to work toward equality and a more perfect fulfillment of the American vision.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Review: The Tearling Trilogy

*Note: This is a review of books I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

I picked up The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen on a whim at my local bookstore.  It had a pretty cover, and the blurb on the back sounded like one of those fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed in the past but probably wouldn’t reread ever again.

That was the first time Johansen turned my assumptions upside down.

The book begins with an armed guard fetching the 19-year-old Kelsea, the queen ascendant, from her foster parents’ cottage in the woods to take her to the Keep for her coronation.  Sounds traditional enough – a hidden heir, a medieval-ish setting, mysterious circumstances and vague dangers.  But the Tearling, Kelsea’s struggling kingdom, is anything but traditional.

I have to review the Queen of the Tearling trilogy as a whole because it operates best that way.  A coworker of mine saw me reading the first book at work, freaked out, loaned me the sequel, and graciously let me read her copy of the final book (once she was done with it, of course) when it came out.  She pointed out that the first book works mainly to set up the world, nothing truly exceptional (I thought it was well-written, but so are many traditional fantasy books).  It’s the second book and its use of magic and time that break new ground in fantasy worldbuilding.  Discovering the true nature of the Crossing that brought settlers to the Tearling was just so great, even in a genre that tends toward sudden twists (and that’s all I’m going to say about it because I don’t want to deprive anyone of reading Johansen’s work by giving my much less wonderful paraphrase here).

The Tearling trilogy consistently challenges conventions of the fantasy genre, setting readers up to anticipate tropes and not really mind it, because we like the characters and would appreciate them anyway – then taking a sharp left turn and refusing to fulfill those tropes.  For instance, the identity of Kelsea’s father is a longstanding mystery throughout the three books, with any number of powerful, immortal, or badass candidates available.  Then it turns out to be someone who died in the first book, someone with a hamartia, someone who was not special beyond being dear to his friends.  But it doesn’t fall flat, because in every instance of these unexpected twists, major or minor, Johansen stays true to the integrity of the world she’s created.

One of the things I appreciate most about this world is its strong women.  From Kelsea herself to her adversary the anonymous Red Queen to the kickass bodyguard of the Tearling’s founder, there is no dearth of women wielding power here – and diverse kinds of power too.  There are several survivors of domestic abuse.  There are physical fighters.  There are intelligent teachers who strive to pass on knowledge.  But Johansen’s world does not lack shallow, weak, or cruel women either.  There are women who turn bitter from their trauma, and women to whom remarkable things do not come naturally.  There are women who have no idea what they want, and women consumed by their desires.  Kelsea in particular walks a thin line, observing and even living in others’ stories (more on that in a minute) while she tries to decide how to harness or quash her own great temper.

Seeing so many different women be allowed to live out so many different endings and populate the world just as truthfully as the men made this a welcome addition to my bookshelf.  Whereas other novels I’ve read, however well-intentioned or well-executed, can tend toward only one or two main female characters with the rest being mere props (e.g., the Badass Freedom Fighter, the Moody Mysterious Maven, the Unexpectedly Tech-Smart Plain One), in my opinion, the majority of Johansen’s female characters were given the kind of detailed attention that transforms characters into people.

I think honestly it was the characters that made me fall in love with these books, and Johansen’s loyalty to and respect for those characters’ authenticity that made the whole trilogy so enjoyable. The third book is a masterful conclusion, sweeping readers up and hurtling along toward an ending that will probably be nearly as polarizing as the series finale of How I Met Your Mother.  If you enjoy any type of fantasy, I highly, highly recommend all three books (in order, of course).

The Queen of the Tearling – 4/5 stars

The Invasion of the Tearling – 5/5 stars

The Fate of the Tearling – 5/5 stars

NerdCon Stories Part 3: Saturday

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I figured if there was anywhere to wear my Augustus Waters t-shirt, this was it.

Saturday morning began bright and early with a John Green Yoga Adventure hosted by YogaQuest MN.  This was basically like MadLibs with yoga poses: one of the instructors read a narrative in which the protagonists of Green’s novels found themselves outside their stories and tried to find where they belonged, while the other instructor led us through poses associated with each character name, certain nouns, and some verbs.  Whenever Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars was mentioned, for instance, we did Warrior II, because she is a strong female lead.

After yoga I ran back to the hotel for breakfast in the Executive Lounge (leftover perks from having to stay on the pullout couch in the Executive Suite!) before heading off to “Centering Women in Fiction: Removing Your Unconscious Bias.”  A panel of amazing women creators talked about internalized and learned biases that even we women have against ourselves, and how we can combat those by supporting (and even demanding) those stories when they do appear.  The girl power in the room was fantastic.  I also ran into Shayna from the feminist publishing panel the day before, so we sat together and chatted a bit.

When that panel let out, I went back to the expo hall because I wanted to try out the Depict-O-Mat.  Essentially, it’s some people in a box who interview you for a few minutes and then produce an impromptu puppet show starring you.  In mine, I was Queen of the Dragons.  Plus I got to keep the puppet!

After some lunch, it was time for our kaffeeklatsch with Saladin Ahmed.  Twelve attendees got to sit down with a featured guest at kaffeeklatsches (so called because there were coffee and tea available) for an hour and chat about creativity, process, and whatever else we wanted.  Though I didn’t actually talk, it was just nice to hang out and hear others’ thoughts on representation, writing, publishing, and reading recommendations.

From there, I dashed straight to the auditorium to get a good seat for the afternoon variety show.  This is also where I found Shayna again and she joked that I must be stalking her.

2016-10-15-16-55-45The variety show included a Q&A lightning round with a squid, a conversation between Nalo Hopkinson and Daniel Jose Older, a lip sync battle, and a talk by John Green.  All I’ll say about that talk is that 1. he made me cry again and 2. you should go read it.

After the variety show I went down to something called Story Circle, where we all literally sat in a circle and talked about nerdom.  I got to say some things about Arabian Nights and how cool it was to be at NerdCon: Stories in the first place, so that was definitely fun.

My last panel at NerdCon was “Breaking into Publishing,” which is pretty self explanatory.  I got some good notes, some good quotes (my favorite was “How did I break into publishing?  With a black ski mask at night.”), and some good motivation to actually finish my manuscript so I can start querying! (I also saw Shayna.  Again.  Really can’t blame her for thinking I was stalking her.)

And thus, knowing I had a shuttle coming at 5 am the next day, my NerdCon: Stories experience was over.

NerdCon Stories Part 2: Friday

After hanging up with Dad, I walked a few blocks to the light rail and rode it back to the airport to pick up my phone.  Fortunately I had a few hours before the first panel I really wanted to attend, so I wasn’t missing any of the convention as a result of my predicament.

Riding the light rail without my phone was surprisingly serene.  Public transportation in new cities always reminds me of taking the T on my visits to Boston and riding the Tube around London, and without any games to play or people to text, I was left to look out the window at the city around me.

Of course, once I got my phone back, I immediately began documenting the experience via Snapchat, Twitter, and texting.

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The wall of a parking lot right outside my hotel.  I wonder what melody it is.

Back at the hotel, I took one of Minneapolis’s many downtown skyways to the convention center, a convenience that made running back to my hotel room between panels much easier.  Unfortunately, I was too late to attend the Mental Health in YA Literature panel, but I was overjoyed to see that it was filled to capacity because so many people wanted to discuss that topic!  After checking in and getting my preordered t-shirt, I wandered around the expo hall a little and bought some typical convention center fare for lunch.  The tables were huge, so huge that you were almost forced to sit with strangers because it was too ridiculous to have a table for 10 all to yourself.  Thanks to this, I soon discovered one of the perks of NerdCon – social interactions aren’t as awkward because everyone is around the same level of nerdiness.  For instance, a random guy asked to sit at my table, struck up a conversation, and ended up showing me his short story.

2016-10-14-11-18-24After lunch I wound up in a panel on self-promotion, which was entertaining if not particularly enlightening.  All of the panelists claimed not to be good at self-promotion, which seemed like poor planning, but since I wasn’t terribly invested in the topic I just enjoyed the banter between the featured guests.

Then came A Brief Exploration of Feminist Publishing, in which I met several wonderful ladies who are also striving to both find women in writing and create their own content.  We talked about the point at which we first realized the divide between male and female authors, who our favorite women writers are, and the history of feminist publishing.  I loved my little group and our whole discussion was fantastic.

The Writers Panel with Ben Blacker was up next.  I made more new friends as we filled up a ballroom and waited for the interview to begin.  The interviewee?  John Green.2016-10-14-16-24-04

I will admit to quietly flailing in my seat and taking far too many pictures as John came out and introduced himself.  But as their conversation began, I found myself simply needing to listen.  I was so grateful that John was so generous in sharing his writing experiences of the past and present, and that he was willing to delve into mental health and personal balance as well.  One part in particular hit me in a visceral way, because he used a similar word choice to what I tell myself when I talk about my depression.  The interview closed with questions from the audience, which John answered thoughtfully.  (I will update this post with a link to the podcast when it is released.)

My first day at NerdCon: Stories closed with an invitation to dinner with one of my favorite bloggers from SnarkSquad!  Mari and I had connected over Twitter when I realized we would both be at the convention, and she was nice enough to include me in a dinner with a few other internet friends.  After dinner, I went back to my room, watched the end of the second Harry Potter movie on TV, and went to bed (a real bed, having switched rooms earlier in the day!).


Read about my travels to NerdCon: Stories here!  And read about my adventures on the second day of the convention here!

Adulting: Why Not Celebrate Small Victories?

Two friends of mine are getting married next weekend.  Though I’m not in the wedding, they asked me to lector, so I’m driving 3 hours to the rehearsal dinner the day prior to the actual ceremony.  Since I didn’t want to drive another 6 hours round-trip between the rehearsal and the actual wedding, I booked a hotel room.  As soon as I received the confirmation email, I took to Facebook:

Just made my own hotel reservation for the wedding of two friends.  Am I adulting?

Normally I cringe at words like “adulting.”  Innocent nouns should not be pressed into service as verbs unless absolutely necessary.  But the verb form of “adult” is one I will allow for the simple reason that it is the most expressive word for the situation at hand.  “To adult,” according to Urban Dictionary, means “to do grown up things and hold responsibilities such as a 9-5 job, a mortgage/rent, a car payment, or anything else that makes one think of grown ups.”  Frequently appearing as a hashtag on social media, it can be used ironically (“Goldfish crackers and prosecco count as dinner, right? #adulting”) or seriously (“Checkbook balanced, apartment cleaned, laundry done, and dinner in the oven. I’m adulting well today!”).

The term has come under fire for its celebration of everyday chores.  Some who are already proficient at adulting (or like to pretend they are) say that everyone has to do these things.  You’re not special for cooking a real meal or running a vacuum.  A recent Cosmopolitan article argued that emphasizing the basics of grown-up life undermines real accomplishments like career growth, adding that this probably stems from Millennials’ “extended adolescence” because “growing up may feel optional” nowadays.

While many young people do benefit from still living at home and the perks of having their parents do most of the grocery shopping, this actually makes adulthood more scary, not less.

I was fortunate enough to have parents who insisted I learn to cook some basic meals and keep a bathroom sanitary before I went off to college.  They gave me a larger allowance in high school with the understanding that I would use it to purchase my own clothing, coffee, etc. so I could learn to manage income and savings on a small scale.  Though I’m sure I rolled my eyes at these lessons (sorry, Mom and Dad), I’m grateful for them now.  But no parent can teach their kids everything, at least not specifically (“Today I’m going to show you how to call the insurance company for a quote and where to find your policy number on that stupid little card”).

Many of us also grew up hearing that we could do anything, be anything we wanted, follow our dreams, etc.  And those are wonderful things to hear when you’re a kid.  They are also very broad, sweeping encouragements, with little to say concerning the nitty gritty of how to support yourself while chasing those be-anything dreams.  Again, I was lucky; both my parents were happy to help me pursue my love of writing, and at the same time they made sure I would be qualified and capable of holding a day job until that passion could become a sustainable career.

But guess what?  Adulthood is still really freaking scary.  Yes, the big career moves are nerve-wracking, but it’s also the little things that no one tells you about, like having to put towels down when it’s too late in the evening to call maintenance.  Even when you have a potential safety net at home, couldn’t you feel a certain amount of pride when you stop being complacent with letting your parents do everything?  If I lived at home, I would be proud when I made dinner for the family.  And now that I don’t live at home, I still like to send my mom pictures of the flowers I potted or the art I finally hung up on the walls.  These are small accomplishments, yes, but they’re still symbols of independence I am still learning to claim.

Perhaps this is nothing new.  Perhaps every generation up to this point has felt the same way as they’re thrown into the deep end of Grown Up Life.  But we have social media now, and ways to connect internationally with other people who are experiencing the same thing.  The only difference between us and the young adults of the past is that we can be much more public with our anxiety, and we can cheer each other on through the victories, big and small.

So I will keep on adulting, thank you very much.

 

Review: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

When I was younger, I went through a phase where my storytelling strategy largely consisted of taking a set of ridiculous characters, throwing them together in an absurd situation, and seeing what happened.  (This may have been triggered by my first reading of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which I mostly focused on the Improbability Drive and the falling whale it generated.  Also the depressed robot.) Since this was middle school, the dialogue was primarily one-liners and bad puns, and most of these plots ran out of steam after a few pages.  I was a novice writer who hadn’t yet discovered the process or genres that worked for me, so these bits and pieces of stories just sort of haunt my Documents folder and provide occasional hilarity when I rediscover them.  (My personal favorite is ambitiously entitled, “The Story of a Forwarded Letter, a Post Office Worker, and a Mailbox.”  The mailbox decides to break as many laws of physics as it can.  It’s a gem.)

Though my own attempts at this sort of thing have (mercifully) fallen by the wayside, I still have a special place in my heart for books that truly test the limits of fiction with style and absurdity, like the masterful Hitchhiker’s Guide.  In this vein, Jonas Jonasson’s The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is one of the most recent additions to my library, and a phenomenal read.  It’s not quite magical realism or fantasy, because it doesn’t contain anything that couldn’t physically happen in our world, but definitely includes plot points that set it apart from mere contemporary fiction (I mean, how many other books about South Africa’s nuclear arms development include the king of Sweden being kidnapped in the back of a potato truck with a bomb and a twin, neither of which officially exist?).  But I could believe every word of it, because it was the sort of book where I wanted the delightful characters (and even the irritating ones) to be real.

The eponymous girl, Nombeko, is definitely going on my list of Heroines I Want To Be When I Grow Up.  She reads everything she can get her hands on and actively seeks out knowledge about anything and everything.  This intelligence serves her well, whether it’s letting a bumbling engineer think he’s running things or negotiating a nuclear arms exchange with two agents who want to kill her.  In confrontations, she behaves exactly as I always pretended I would: shrugs and pours the bad guy some tea, thoroughly discomfiting him.  Nombeko is also snarky, compassionate, and hardworking.  She’s not perfect, of course, but her distrust of happiness is not only understandable, it made me relate to her more.  She is unwilling to make plans for the future, no matter how much she and her companions want them, until their current problem (the itty bitty matter of the bomb in the potato truck) is solved; Nombeko does not skip ahead.

Though I obviously took its representation of historical events with a grain of salt, I also enjoyed the way the book expanded my cultural horizons.  Nombeko is born in a slum in South Africa, a country I know almost nothing about.  Her adventures bring her (and the reader) into contact with such people as the prime minister, an ambassador from China, and engineers in charge of building nuclear bombs for South Africa.  The book spans some thirty years, touching on events I’ve heard of but never really learned about, and describing international relationships I had never considered before.  Recently I’ve realized how Eurocentric my reading tends to be (especially given my penchant for old English novels and the depths of academic English literature), which has left me with a disproportionate understanding of world cultures, so fiction like this might be a good way to start learning more.

I gasped, laughed, and mumbled, “Nonononono” – causing the Engineer a little concern.  An excellent book, from style to character development to plot.

5/5 stars on Goodreads


Have you read this?  Share your thoughts!  Or go read it and tell me what you think!