Where She Went

Where She Went by Gayle Forman

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This book is the sequel to If I Stay, and I was just as unimpressed with this book as I was with that one. The narrator is Adam, who was the boyfriend of Mia, the girl who was in the coma in the first book. He’s become a rock star, but he and Mia broke up, so he’s really angsty. Most of the book is a kind of mystery about why Mia dumped him, and Adam’s grumpy complaints about his heartbreak and his pitiful rockstar lifestlye. After all that, the explanation isn’t very satisfying, or at least not good enough for so much buildup. The gimmick of the first book, Mia’s floating consciousness during her coma, has to pull too much narrative weight in this explanation.

I picked up the book because I was interested in what a mediocre YA romance would say is the solution to a long distance relationship, and I was unsatisfied with the answer. Mia and Adam break up during their first bout of long distance for reasons that she doesn’t deign to communicate to him at the time. Of course a teenage long distance relationship can’t survive poor communication, much less a freeze out. Duh. Spoiler alert: when Mia and Adam get back together, they don’t even consider touring separately, not even just for a few months. Adam basically decides to give up his insanely successful band to be with her. There’s a lot of stuff about how he doesn’t enjoy music anymore, but then it seems like he gets back into it. This sacrifice seemed so unnecessary. I think it would have been more romantic for a disillusioned rocker to get his groove back after reuniting with a girlfriend, instead of jettisoning his career. After their current tours are over, they could have arranged their future separate concert tours to always play the same cities, or take turns touring and piggybacking, even if they don’t necessarily play music together, which might have been a cloyingly sweet ending.

Another small pet peeve. YA writers sometimes write about teenagers whose lives are much too adult to be believable to me. In this case, before the accident, Mia and Adam had frequent sleepovers and an overnight camping trip while they were in high school. Mia’s parents, it is explained, are super progressive. Maybe I just grew up in a different time (late 90’s-early 2000’s) or my parents were unusually conservative (and Catholic) but this just does not compute for me. It seems to me that writers have a choice either to write teenage characters or to write characters who are leading adult lives, and they can’t have it both ways. They want the characters to be young (close to the age of their readers), but they also want their relationships to have the intimacy and logistical ease of adult relationships. These books are wish fulfillment fantasies, of course, and it makes sense that the teen readers would like to have such permissive parents as well, but I think the books lose something in realism by eliminating all parental oversight. Note: I’m not prudishly saying teenage characters can’t have sex, I’m realistically saying that it can’t be that easy for them to have sex.

Searching for Dragons

Searching for Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

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In this sequel to Dealing with Dragons, Cimorene has to find and save Kazul, the king of the dragons, who has been kidnapped. (It’s the wizards again, of course.) Along the way, she meets Mendanbar, King of the Enchanted Forest, who assists in her quest. He has a magic sword. Predictably, they fall in love, but I found the relationship charming and modern and not overly mushy.

One of my favorite subplots concerned a couple people who were sort of filling the roles of villains, but weren’t really villainous at all. A descendent of Rumplestiltskin has accumulated several children through the family spinning business–and he genuinely cares for them until they return to their parents as triumphant young adults on quests. An uncle feels pressured to do something wicked to his nephew to remain in good standing for his club, but he really likes the boy. Cimorene and Mendanbar tell Rumplestiltskin’s great-grandson to open a school for all those children, and advise the uncle to send his nephew there. This just seemed like such a sweet, optimistic view of the world, that people might be able to twist and bend the rules creatively to play the outward role of a villain when they have to, while still remaining true to their hearts and even doing good work for others.

The Scorch Trials

The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

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In this sequel to The Maze Runner, Thomas and his friends are still experimental subjects for WICKED. They have to make their way through a punishing desert and a city full of violent, infected “cranks,” while treachery and betrayal are brewing.

I complained about the weak characterization in the first book, and this book is no better in that regard. I wish a writing workshop teacher had told Dashner to show, not tell. The language was incredibly bland, except for an attempt at making up uninteresting slang words for the boys to use, most of which were just used like substitutes for obscenities.

The characters endure some horrible violence and internal strife, and all throughout they keep wondering what WICKED’s purpose is in putting them through it. It keeps piling on and piling on, and then at the end, there’s still no resolution, no payoff that answers any questions at all. There are hints about how WICKED is “adjusting the variables” to create “patterns” but without more information that doesn’t make any sense. I’m sure this vagueness is what is supposed to get us to read the next book. But at this point I was so frustrated with the senselessness of it all that I’m not sure Dashner can come up with an explanation that will satisfy. The horror seemed to cross some kind of line. I don’t think I want to bother with the next book.

Parenting Sacrifices and Priorities

Yesterday I published a book review. That shouldn’t be a big deal. This is a book blog. But it feels like a big deal to me because that review means I have finally caught up. For the first time since OCTOBER, I don’t have a list of books I’ve read but have yet to review.

When I was pregnant and worried about having to sacrifice all the things I do that are important to me, someone told me that, “You’ll make time for the things that are important, and the things that you do give up will be the things that weren’t that important anyway.” At the time I found this idea comforting.

Now I feel like it was a lie.

Since having my baby, and perhaps to a greater extent, since returning to work, I have given up several things that I would definitely say are important to me. The thing I don’t like about this statement is the way it can be flipped to blame me for my own poor priorities. It seems to tell me, “Well, since you’ve given those things up, that must show that they weren’t that important to you, or you’d have found a way to make them happen.”

Really? I’ve stopped exercising and I never get to sleep. Is that because I don’t care about my own health and sanity? If you don’t count my audiobooks, I’m reading at the rate of about a single book a month. Does that mean I’ve suddenly lost interest in novels? This blog got pretty far behind schedule. Was that because it’s not important to me? I rarely see my friends, so obviously I don’t care about them. I still nourish writerly ambitions bigger than this blog that I’ve done nothing toward achieving. Evidently that doesn’t matter to me at all anymore, since my priorities have shifted.

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These things that I gave up have in common not less importance, but the fact that they require large chunks of uninterrupted time, planning, time from home, sustained focus and/or mental energy. I never consciously chose to sacrifice these things, but they gradually fell away because I couldn’t find a way to make them fit.

And on the other hand, I am finding time to do a lot of things that I don’t find important in the grand scheme of things. I am able to do these things because they’re easy, convenient, and undemanding. For example, I read a lot of articles online and keep up diligently with my facebook feed and all the things my friends share. These things aren’t really important to me, but I spend my time on them because they’re easy to fit into the small moments I can steal away from my work and family life. They’re relaxing and don’t tax me mentally.

I wondered whether this is a mom problem or a parent problem, whether it’s a gendered thing. Because if it is, then I can call bullshit on all of it, make my husband help me more, and find sweet relief in coming closer to egalitarianism. But when I compare myself to my husband, I find he’s going through pretty much the same thing. He also only makes it to the gym about once a week, even though he currently feels more discontented with his level of fitness than I do with mine. His friends are probably even less understanding than mine are. His buddies are not interested in cute babies the way mine are, and the things they used to do together are pretty baby-unfriendly. He doesn’t read or write; his hobby is video games. And he’s told me that he also finds it hard to immerse himself in a game because he has only a few minutes to play, or he has to listen for the baby. Of course, sleep is the one area in which I’m definitely suffering more than he is. He somehow finds the energy to stay up almost two hours later than I do every night, and he has yet to weep from sheer exhaustion. All I can do about that is shake my fist at biology for giving me two lactating breasts and him none. So the good news is that my husband and I are already doing a pretty good job splitting things as equally as possible. The bad news is that there’s no room to improve, no task I can push off on him without tipping our scale too far in the other direction.

I know this is a first world problem, and I’m mostly just railing against the 24 hour day and the 40+ hour work week and the brevity of the human lifespan. It’s also a sign that I’m still adjusting to working parenthood, and need to work on my time management. Of course “having it all” doesn’t exist because life necessitates trade-offs, as much as we all wish it didn’t. Saying yes to one things means saying no to another, and if you try to say yes to everything then you only end up half-assing it all.

So I’ve recognized that there are several things in my life that I want to prioritize better, even though I haven’t been giving them enough time lately. Maybe now that I’ve finally caught up on one of these things, the blog, I can start to consciously set aside time for the others as well. It may mean reconceptualizing time so that I can accomplish things that I currently believe require hours free from interruptions in a few stolen minutes here and there. Julianna Baggott, who I greatly admire, talks about how her writing process is like this; she has 4 kids and has published books that amaze me in their quality and sheer number. She’s an amazing role model for a writer with kids, and I need to start taking advice from people like her. Of course, that means I need to change my routines to make these things I do value a part of my life again. To make this possible, I might have to do things like babyproof the room with my computer in it–or get a laptop. And it probably means I have to wean myself from the facebook drug. But I could miss baby pictures from people I haven’t seen in ages! What if I’m not up to speed with the latest rage-bait news about homophobia, creationism, and rape culture? How will I survive without reading Buzzfeed articles about 90’s nostalgia?

Motherhood Comes Naturally

Motherhood Comes Naturally (and Other Vicious Lies) by Jill Smokler

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The theme of this little volume is blowing apart a bunch of myths about motherhood. Each chapter has a myth as its headline, and Smokler tells stories to show why these little pieces of conventional wisdom are so wrong. For the most part her point seems to be that motherhood is harder than we’ve been taught to expect

After reading this and Smokler’s first book, I think I’ve decided that Scary Mommy, Smokler’s blog, is better than either of her books. It’s odd to say that because she’s the same person writing them both, obviously. Maybe Smokler’s guest writers and her forums and confessional make the blog bigger than her singular vision, and the “extra” that the blog has and the book doesn’t is something that doesn’t translate well into book form. Maybe I hold books to a higher standard than blogs. But when I compare Scary Mommy to other mom blogs, Scary Mommy is a clear winner. And when I compare these books to other writing about mothering that I’ve read, I can’t get very excited about them. Maybe I’m humorless because I don’t find this or other mom humor books quite as funny as I’d like to. I definitely agree with Smokler’s Manifesto: she considers maintaining a sense of humor about parenting so important that she lists it as her first commandment/affirmation. Probably my issue is that I’m so deep in the thick of it right now that I don’t always have the perspective necessary to find things funny. And I think to some extent, laughing about how horrible things are for moms is just accepting the status quo. I prefer to examine why things are so bad, through books like Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids?

Parent as Mystic

Parent as Mystic, Mystic as Parent by David Spangler

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This book articulated a very beautiful philosophy of parenting. With simple, memorable images and stories, Spangler described how he and his wife have managed to find the balance that’s right for their family. The book is not so much religious as spiritual, focusing on fostering deep, loving connection between the family members. To the extent that I go in for this kind of stuff, I found it empowering, but anyone who doesn’t like slightly New Age-y rhetoric might find it alienating.

My baby is at a particularly adorable age where he fits perfectly in my lap, so of course my favorite image of Spangler’s was the idea of a parent’s role as simply being a lap, an open, welcoming place for the child to come for comfort and peace. It’s about being accessible to the child, being there for him. Of course, in order to have a lap, you have to slow down, sit, and wait for the child to come to you.

In some ways, reading this little book made me feel kind of inadequate as a parent, for all the reasons cited in this article about the new mindfulness trend in parenting. It’s hard to be all zen and faith-filled and joyful, especially when you’re exhausted. Spangler discussed his failures and struggles in addition to his family’s picture-perfect moments, though, so I have to own that feeling of inadequacy and frustration rather than blaming it on his obnoxiousness, because he’s not obnoxious at all.

(And can I say how refreshing it is to read about parenting from a father’s point of view? Especially a book that’s all about creating enduring relationships in the family, rather than a more concrete, scientific topic like sleep or feeding. I think this is the first parenting book I’ve read by a man who’s not a pediatrician.)

Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers

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This is the second Lord Peter Wimsey mystery and I enjoyed it more than the first because the ending seemed less convoluted. Instead of a cackling villain, this story had a series of coincidences and secrets among a surprisingly passionate noble family. In this story, Lord Peter has to clear his brother of murder charges when his sister’s fiancé turns up dead outside their hunting lodge. The mystery’s solution requires uncovering 3 doomed love affairs, involving a Viennese courtesan, an abused country wife, and a fiery socialist. The fun British wit and sentence-level flourishes are my favorite parts. My favorite line was when Lord Peter’s mother, the dowager duchess, exposes a lie, and her son congratulates her. She says, “My dear child, you can give it a long name if you like, but I’m an old-fashioned woman and I call it mother-wit, and it’s so rare for a man to have it that if he does you write a book about him and call him Sherlock Holmes.” Of course, I imagined Maggie Smith as the dowager duchess. The setting for these books is 1923, so it’s like playing murder mystery dinner theater at Downton Abbey.