Monday, July 22, 2013

The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls by Julie Schumacher

The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls by Julie Schumacher is a young adult novel.  When Adrienne’s mother meets CeeCee’s mother, the mothers decide to create a mother-daughter book club.  The two girls are joined by Jill and Wallis.  Through Adrienne’s first-person point-of-view, we meet each of the girls, each falling into a cliché personae.  Adrienne is the misfit who misses her athletic best friend.  CeeCee is the privileged rich girl who is suffering the book group as a form of punishment.  Jill is the adopted Asian daughter of non-Asian parents who encourage her studying for the PSAT, selling snacks at the local swimming pool, and all the usual Asian tropes.  Wallis is the enigmatic weirdo, younger than the others because she’s been skipped a couple of grades.  Even her mother is a mystery, not coming to the book group meetings.

Together, the mothers and daughters read several classic novels, including The Yellow Wallpaper, The Left Hand of Darkness, Frankenstein, The House on Mango Street, and The Awakening.  Of course, CeeCee can’t be bothered to do the reading and she manipulates Adrienne who is missing a summer she had planned to spend with her best friend until she hurt her knee.  Adrienne’s essay begins by stating that “book clubs can kill you” and states that someone will drown by the novel’s end.  It is almost immediately obvious who will drown, once all of the necessary characters enter the story.  So the big “aha” moment at the end is practically splashed across the page in neon lights.

To quote directly from the novel: 
“The ending of a good book, I had always thought—at least, a book that sticks with you—should be satisfying but also sad.  A character should die, or almost die, and the people left behind should see things differently.  They should change.”  (218)
I agree.  Too bad the author seemed to know this and then decided not to write a good book, one that will stick with you.  Each and every character remains precisely who and what they were on page one—insecure, narcissistic, superior, and weird. 

I didn’t dislike it altogether.  I thought that Adrienne’s explanation of literary terms was amusing and Schumacher does a good job of introducing each term as it relates to the narrative of the novel itself.  Also, there are many literary allusions which could make this a potentially interesting book.  Nonetheless, I found it predictable and mostly banal.

Also, I know I should never judge a final publication by its Advanced Reader's Copy but, having just read two young adult ARCs in a row, I have to say that I hope the publisher of this novel will clean up what becomes a confusing and muddled mess towards the end.  Already frustrated by the obvious tropes throughout the novel, it was all the more annoying to have to reread sentences because of dropped words, misplaced punctuation, etc.  So my fingers are crossed that the publishers will go through the novel with a fine-tooth comb.  It really needs a lot more attention than most ARCs I read.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos

Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos is a young adult novel about a boy, James Whitman, who is trying to cope in what is obviously a chaotic home situation.  His older sister has been expelled from school and is then kicked out of their home.  James calls his father the Brute and his mother the Banshee.  And all he wants to do is bring his sister home, get her back in school so she can graduate, and maybe make sense of himself and his life.  He carries a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leave of Grass with him, has a crush on a girl, and his best friend is having some troubles all his own.

There are times when the prose has a cadence not unlike Walt Whitman’s poetry which makes sense for a narrator who can quote lines of poetry and is trying to write poetry himself.  This is a coming-of-age novel that focuses self-awareness.  In trying to get to where he understands how his sister’s life became so out of control, he eventually comes to understand himself.  The ending of the novel seems to be a little rushed as the various threads of the story are tied up and issues are, for the most part, resolved.  I liked this novel and I’ve a feeling some young readers will recognize themselves in the narrator’s confusion and despair.  Hopefully they will also be able to recognize his courage and commitment to what is best for himself. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Archetypes: Who Are You? by Caroline Myss

Archetypes: Who Are You? by Caroline Myss is a contemporary interpretation of the Jungian idea of how archetypes inform our sense of self and our lives. The author has written some excellent books on archetypes and self-awareness. This one, however, is not one of her better ones.

The book is written with a female audience in mind although archetypes, by definition, are universal and should cross all boundaries--including gender. So the "Queen" archetype can also be the "Executive" archetype according to Myss. Forgive me but this reader found it to be a little sexist to even suggest that women can't be executives or would prefer to be a queen than an executive. Of course, Myss herself declares this is not her intention but there is no question that it is not at least implied the moment she offers an alternative. A less gender-specific original archetype than “Queen” would suffice.  Royal, Rule, Leader, Executive, meaning men and women.

By trying to make the archetypes more contemporary, Myss introduces some new choices, arguing that society evolves and how we define ourselves should likewise evolve.  This at least explains the Fashionista archetype.  I find this beyond ridiculous.  It seems obvious to me that a person defined by the Creative archetype would find expression through clothing, through layering and mixing textures.  Rather than seeing the obvious, she develops a new and completely unnecessary archetype.  Even the Creative archetype is merely another definition for the Artist, a well-known and familiar archetype Creator archetype. 

In addition to the book there is a website ( where you can take a quiz that will help you "find" your archetypes. Or those delineated in this book anyway.  You then have a personality page designed specifically for you to which you can add items, if you are so inclined. The website is derivative of Pinterest and, at this point, doesn't seem to be offering much by way of interesting or even inspiring content. Worse, it seems to be changing into a commercial resource where advertising is specifically targeted to your archetype.  For this Intellectual Creative with hints of Caregiver, I simply haven't found myself excited by the website at all.

With all of that said, I do like that Myss explains how archetypes manifest in different ways so that the caregiver may be a healer or counselor but may also be a mother and the Creative may be a visual artist but may also be a performer, a writer, or something else. She also explains how ignoring the expression of different archetypes can often cause feelings of depression or even manifest as disease. I agree with Myss in this and am only sorry that in trying to bring something new to the table she didn't add anything of any real depth. I would recommend reading her book Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential to anyone interested in learning about archetypes from this author. There are many other books on archetypes as well.  If you are new to archetypes, you definitely want to start off with a good resource, not some mediocre teachings.  If you have already read about archetypes, are familiar with the works of Jung and Bolen, you’ll just want to skip this book altogether.

Monday, July 15, 2013

God Revised by Galen Guengerich

God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age by Galen Guengerich is a pastor’s attempt at reconciling what the Bible teaches with a millennia of church history while trying to further reconcile faith with modern science.  The author comes from a conservative Christian background, a former Mormon who, during college, pulled away from the faith of his family and evolved spiritually to where he is today:  a pastor at a liberal church in Manhattan.  He shares his story to provide a context and support for his argument that it does not make sense for Christians to continue to believe in the inerrant word of God as supposedly revealed in the Bible or a supernatural God who is all loving, all knowing, all powerful and, yet, allows children to die of famine, or to be sexually molested, etc. 

The challenge for me, in writing this review, is to balance my appreciation of what the author has written while disagreeing with his points.  If his purpose were to persuade someone such as myself that changing how we define God is the answer to reconciling religion and science, he failed.  I simply was not convinced.  However, when I think about it from a more Christian perspective, perhaps a conservative Christian who is becoming disenchanted but still seeking answers in the same faith, then this book may provide some guidance, some direction, without necessarily risking providing any solid answers. 

This is an excellent decision on Guengerich’s part.  In giving the reader room to make conclusions unique to the individual, he builds on all that he contends about America and western philosophy, with numerous references to pop culture, literature, which weave together with quotes from the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.   The author writes, “The reason religion is necessary, after all, isn’t so we can find salvation for the next life, but rather so we can find meaning and purpose in this one” (17).  For him, religion is necessary but what the individual believes is open to debate, interpretation, and highly flexible.  And so he asks:
The question is why:  what’s the problem that belief in God and the practice of religion will solve that cannot be solved any other way?  Do we as human beings have a problem?  Do we need saving?  If so, from what?  What is the problem to which a political, or social, or psychological solution is insufficient, one that only belief in God and the practice of religion can resolve?  (92)
For him, the answer is obvious.  There are problems that do not require God but, without religion, life is not full, or as rich, as it ought to be.  Religion gives life meaning, relevance, significance.  He comes from a position that is rooted in a lifetime of faith.  He can only say that the transcendent moment is a spiritual encounter because he has never experienced such a thing outside of any belief system, conservative or otherwise. 

And this is where the book completely fails for me personally.  Again, I have to say I fully enjoyed the book and would even recommend it.  In fact, I know someone to whom I am going to give it now that I have finished it.  But there is an assumption of what is necessary that ultimately leaves the author’s arguments trapped into petition principia, begging the question rather than truly answering the issue at hand.  In suggesting that religion has failed in defining God adequately, if the patriarchal system established by the church is likewise inadequate, is religion necessary?  For Guengerich assumes yes but he never ultimately proves it in this book.  For those who want to believe but need some new direction, this book will suffice. For those considering letting go of Christianity altogether because they cannot reconcile contemporary knowledge with ancient wisdom, this book may or may not keep a sheep from straying too far away. For those who are questioning the very reason for religion altogether, the end result is simply weak, not strong enough to convince this reader religion is necessary, Christian or otherwise.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bibi's Bookshelf--Four Reviews In One

I borrowed all of these books for Bibi but between her being sick and her mommy being sick and just poor timing, she never got to read them (or have them read to her, as the case may be).  Anyway, I read them and thought I'd share my thoughts, even without the benefit of Bibi's enthusiasm.

This book is lovely to look at but clearly for older children than my granddaughter.  I enjoyed reading it very much and practically drooled over some of the images. This is very text heavy too, which is why I think that older tween readers will appreciate this book far more than a preschooler or even elementary school age child would.  The story is simple—an adult man reads his father’s journals and shares the stories his father shared with him as a child.  Truth and fiction, as is true with most memory, gets blurred and fuse into a lovely, imaginative tale.

The illustrations in this book are so bold, gorgeous, and fun.  As they should be.  This collection of fairy tales, told in free verse form, is fun to read, especially because the poetic form used is unusual.  You see, the first line of each poem is also the last line because the poem goes, line by line, forward in telling the story while, halfway through, repeating the lines in reverse order.  Hence, “reverso poem.”  I think elementary age children who are comfortable reading independently will love this book because they will recognize what it is the author is doing.  They may even be inspired to try to write a reverse poem of their own. 

Stories of the trickster archetype, typically a rabbit, are so common in many cultures and here is a beautifully illustrated edition of a story of a rabbit who tricks a bear by offering to work and plant the fields.  The rabbit agrees to share the produce and asks the bear if it wants the tops or bottoms of what grows.  The bear makes a choice and the rabbit plants and hoes and sows, each time leaving the bear with very little and providing a lavish supply of food for the rabbit and all its kin.  Because this is such a common theme in literature, ask your local librarian for similar books about Anansi, Br’er Rabbit, Puss in Boots, et al.  This is such a common theme that, even as the child matures, you can find the archetype in other books.  Bilbo Baggins is definitely tricky.  And Yoda.  

I love Mo Willems and his pigeon books so I was sure I would love this book too. When a little girl decides to take her stuffed rabbit to school for show-and-tell, mischief ensues for another little girl has a bunny too!  The girls bicker and their teacher takes both bunnies away.  The illustrations are typical, cartoonish and simple.  The backgrounds, however, are photographs of actual city streets, buildings, and even the interior of where the little girl lives.  The effect is charming and could be used to inspire little ones to draw their own people and add them to scenic photographs.  It might even be a fun project to do as a family.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Lion in the Lei Shop by Kaye Starbird

The Lion in the Lei Shop by Kaye Starbird is a novel told from two first-person point-of-view, switching from a child’s memories to a mother’s about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the aftermath.  Not many World War II novels are told from the perspective of a child and a woman.  This one does it beautifully.

By trading voices, Starbird allows first Marty, the daughter, to share her experience and then April, her mother, to tell her own, often complementing and contradicting one another, the stories belie the truth and yet sound honest.  As Marty herself says, “memory is a subjective thing” (258).  A careful reader will see many of ways in which the narrative perspective changes the meaning and details of different experiences.  Because of this, I can see where this novel would make a wonderful reading group choice, where participants could point out the many different ways mother and daughter agree and disagree.

I loved the novel all the way until the end.  To bring the story to some obvious closure, the author rushes things along and then allows things to become too convenient, even trite.  After carrying the story along with a strong and conflicting mother/daughter relationship, it is an outsider who helps bring peace and healing.  I am sure other readers will find it lovely but I found it a betrayal of the contract the author creates in preceding 80% of the story and an unforgivably easy-out.  For me, anyway.  Given the pages that preceded the last two sections—told by April and Marty respectively—I expected more from the author and this novel. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Cheri and The Last of Cheri by Colette

Cheri and the Last of Cheri by Colette has been on my “to read” list since I was an adolescent and my mother bought me a copy while we were browsing The Strand bookstore.  I tried to read it at the time but I think it’s a good thing that I did not get excited enough to read it at the time because I know I could not have appreciated it as much as I do now. 

What a wonderful pair of novellas.  In the first, Cheri, we are introduced to Chéri and Léa.  He is a bit of a playboy, a pampered child of a former courtesan; she is a family friend and also a former courtesan.  Their relationship begins merely as a distraction but lasts longer than either could have predicted in spite of a large age difference.  However, the story begins, not when they fall in love but when Chéri announces that he is to be married.  Léa’s response is publicly accepting but she is devastated, realizing too late how deeply her feelings for the younger man had taken root.  He, in the meantime, tries to settle into a domestic lifestyle for which he is emotionally and experientially ill-prepared.  

The second novella picks up a few years later, following the Great War.  Chéri has been to war, has witnessed the devastation of violence, and exhibits all of the post-war existential frustration and confusion.   His relationships with his mother and wife are neither more nor less complicated as he drifts to find meaning in a world that has irrevocably changed for him.

I am so glad that Rob and I watched the movie which was based on the first of the two novellas.  I’m even more grateful I chose to read them both.  Although the first can and does hold up on its own, the second needs the former to have its full emotional impact.  And it packs a punch.  I actually exclaimed aloud, I was so surprised yet completely unsurprised.  The introduction to my particular edition, written by Judith Thurman puts both the novellas and the novelist in a context that I found fascinating.  Colette led a very interesting, even provocative life.  She manages to put much of this on the page without ever losing focus on her intention to write a story that the reader will not forget.  I have no doubt I will not forget these stories any time soon. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Mindfulness Yoga by Frank Jude Boccio

Mindfulness Yoga:  The Awakened Union of Breath, Body, and Mind by Frank Jude Boccio is a merging of Buddhist teachings on mindfulness (rooted in the practices described by Thich Nhat Hanh) and yoga into a single practice where both inform the other.  The breath and movement, the asana (pose) held as the breath is experienced, all working together to create an experience of being fully in the moment.  There are four separate asana practices, each with a familiarly Buddhist theme with mostly basic poses.  Boccio does put an asterisk beside the more challenging poses so the reader is aware of when to proceed with caution.

Now, I wrote in my blog about the embarrassing, albeit amusing, experience I had at Kripalu.  I bought this book and then told some strange guy that I was devouring it (which I was) only to discover that the stranger was the author.  I had bought the book to read it when I came home my resistance to its temptation was futile.  I only wish I had waited because now I would love to refer back to the things that interested me most about Boccio’s teachings.  He does a wonderful job of showing how the two spiritual practices inform one another.  The Eight Limbs of Yoga.  The Eightfold Path.  How hatha yoga moves with the breath and how the breath grounds a mindfulness meditation practice.  It does not take a great deal of imagination to see the parallels but Boccio manages to make it all seem both obvious and profound while still keeping the more esoteric ideas accessible.

He says that each of the practices in the book “can take anywhere from 45 to over an hour and a half” but I found my practices with the book lasting closer to 2 hours and that was even when I held a pose for the shortest number of breaths.  This is because I only take about 6 breaths when I’m in a meditative state (fewer if I am not doing yoga as well) and holding a pose for 30 breaths lasts a little longer for me especially when the average number of breaths per minute for an adult is 12-18 breaths.  After the second practice, though, I caught on and didn’t hold a pose for 30 breaths when I could choose to hold it for 10.

What I especially loved about this book was the challenge of holding the poses for extended periods of time.  This can be quite boring for some people but for me there is more challenge in holding Mountain Pose than in moving from Mountain to a standing forward bend.  I was able to explore my body along with my breath and feel where and how I held tension to maintain my balance.  The same was true for some of the seated poses.  I could feel how my body fought for balance and where the muscles were reacting in subtle ways.  I was then able to see how I might need to create some balance in the rest of my life, to tone and exercise the muscles that were not working to help reduce the risk of future injury. 

I doubt Boccio intended such a thing but I certainly benefited.  I also enjoyed exploring the breath and how it changes, the way the breath communicates with me, if I will merely slow down and listen, letting me know where I am moving or holding with ease and where I am not.  The author recommends staying with each practice until it is familiar.  I did not do that because I wanted to do one of his practices a week as a complement to my own daily practice.  However, I knew before I even finished the first one that I would be keeping this book so I would be genuinely surprised if I didn’t find myself exploring one of the practices for a week or longer at some future time.

Once again, however, I am wishing that the book had a companion dvd or cd so I could immerse myself in the practice without losing focus.  Referring back to the book is an unwelcome distraction and makes mindfulness a little more difficult (although I suppose if I were “better” I could refer back to the book with mindfulness and return to the practice with mindfulness).   A cd would suffice, truly.  The poses are beautifully photographed and explained in the text.  But because each of the four practices has a different focus (body, feelings, etc.), the intention behind the practice changes and the exploration of each pose changes.  A cd with Boccio saying where to notice a specific point of release or reminding the student to breathe and let the breath be your guru would make the overall experience more immersive.  And maybe, just maybe, it would have kept this student from spending nearly 2.5 hours on a yoga practice when her tummy was clearly saying, “Oy, stop with the asanas already and let’s eat.”   

You will find a long list of other books on yoga and Buddhism on my Reading Challenge pinterest board.  If you want to read along with me or see a book for which you'd like to read a review, tell me.   I'm always curious.  Insatiably so, even.
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