Girl in Translation – Jean Kwok

girlintranslation“I was born with a talent. Not for dance, or comedy, or anything so delightful. I’ve always had a knack for school.”

Kimberly is just eleven when she and her ‘Ma’ emigrate to the States from Hong Kong. It has long been a dream of theirs to live in America and chase that American dream. They arrive in New York with little more than the clothes on their backs and the promise of a new life.

Ma’s older sister, Paula, has been living in New York with Uncle Bob for several years and it is because of her sponsorship that Kimberly and Ma are able to come. But don’t get the idea that Paula is a benevolent soul; she’s not. She puts Ma to work in the clothing factory Bob manages – a sweat shop – and sets her sister and niece up in an apartment so filthy, cold,  and vermin infested that the building has all but been condemned. In fact, every other tenant has moved out in anticipation of the building’s eventual demolition.

Girl in Translation is the story of Kimberly’s adolescence. It’s about her tenacity. If she weren’t so intelligent, her story might have had a different conclusion, but she’s really smart and it’s those smarts that propel her past many of the obstacles poverty throws in her way.

Those of us who live a comfortable existence likely have very little notion of how incredibly difficult it must be for people who come to, let’s say, North America and try to start a new life. Immigrants often don’t speak the language. They don’t understand how anything works. They have no way of advocating for themselves. Kimberly and her mother also have to contend with Aunt Paula who is petty and stingy and jealous of Kimberly’s smarts.

There are moments of kindness in Kimberly’s story. She makes a true friend early on. She finds success academically. She makes her way. But there are significant sacrifices, too.

Like Kimberly, Kwok was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to New York City. She, too, worked at a sweat shop. She, too, was smart. At about the two third mark in the novel I started to feel a bit…I don’t know…disappointed. Kimberly’s story remained interesting, but I really felt as though this was a memoir dressed in a novel’s cloak. I can’t quite explain why, but I didn’t feel like I was living the story anymore, I felt like I was being told the story. And then…that thing I HATE. Flash forward twelve years and let’s see where all the characters are. Nothing about that epilogue – over-wrought and schmaltzy as it was – seemed to fit the rest of the novel.

That’s my own personal niggle, though. The novel has been praised all over the place and I suspect the vast majority of readers will really enjoy it.

Why We Broke Up – Daniel Handler


Daniel Handler has written a book that will resonate with just about anyone – young or old – who has ever had their heart stomped on. Which means YOU will love this book. Yes you.

Why We Broke Up is Min Green’s farewell letter to Ed Slaterton, a boy she met at her best friend Al’s Bitter Sweet Sixteenth birthday. As she recounts her brief but meaningful relationship with Ed, hunky co-captain of the basketball team, she also returns to him all the detritus of that relationship.

I’m telling you why we broke up, Ed. I’m writing it in this letter, the whole truth of why it happened. And the truth is that I goddamn loved you so much.

You don’t have to be sixteen to appreciate what’s in Min’s box: the bottle caps and ticket stubs and note on a napkin. Every relationship has its stuff. Min’s relationship with Ed lasted only a few weeks, but as is often the case with the very young, they pronounced their feelings (Ed first) very early on.  They might have seemed, at first glance, totally mismatched. Min, the Jewish girl and movie aficionado and Ed the cool jock with a string of past-girlfriends. But, as Min says: “…the thing with your heart’s desire is that your heart doesn’t even know what it desires until it turns up.”

When I was in grade nine I was madly in love with a boy called Dana. I loved him as only an awkward fourteen-year-old girl can possibly love a much cooler fourteen-year-old boy: from afar. I still have a picture of us taken on our grade nine trip to Prince Edward Island. Me in my Indian cotton shirt and really unfortunate flared jeans, a Bay City Rollers haircut; him in the uniform of the day (and also, perhaps, a Bay City Rollers haircut. Come on, it was the 70s). Anyway. He drank from my coke bottle and I saved that bottle and the inch of pop left at the bottom for years! And I never even got a kiss.

Why We Broke Up is a good bye letter, but it’s also love letter. It’s quirky for sure. (Daniel Handler is perhaps better known as Lemony Snicket, author of the very popular Series of Unfortunate Events books. My 13 year old son is almost through the series and he is constantly reading me bits because he finds them so funny.) The book is illustrated by Maira Kalman and it’s a lovely book – glossy papered and heavy.  brokeupIt’s a clever way to tell an often told story – boy meets girl. Etc.

It’s hard not to feel for Min, though, as she sifts through the mementos, calling up the events associated with them. There’s a story for every artifact and even though she’s giving them all back, the reader understands that her heart will not easily be mended. That’s love for you.

Visit The Why We Broke Up Project



Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn


That I read Gone Girl so soon after finishing Dark Places is a tribute to Gillian Flynn’s talent. With so many books on my tbr shelf, I don’t generally read books by the same author back-to-back. Gone Girl had a few extra things going for it, though. Virtually everyone has been talking about it and I just couldn’t resist its lure any longer.

Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott Dunne are just about to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary when Amy goes missing. There are signs of a struggle in their rented Missouri home and Nick can’t really account for his whereabouts that morning, so it doesn’t take too long for the police to start treating him like the prime suspect.

Flynn uses a dual narrative approach to tell the story of their courtship and life in New York where Nick was a magazine writer and Amy wrote quizzes for a variety of publications. Life was pretty good for them. They were beautiful, smart and rich. Well, Amy was rich because her parents – Rand and Mary Beth – had written a series of books called Amazing Amy which had, until recently, been a bit of a cash cow. Then Nick and Amy’s fortunes take a turn for the worse and suddenly they find themselves back in Nick’s hometown.

From the start we know that the golden lives of these two protagonists is slightly tarnished. On the morning of the anniversary, Nick’s reaction to his wife’s greeting of “Well, hello, handsome” is one of “bile and dread” inching up his throat. Then: Amy’s missing.

Gone Girl is a supremely entertaining game of cat and mouse. Their married lives had been marked with anniversary treasure hunts and this year is no different. Amy has left the first in a series of clues for her husband. The clues, and the letters which accompany them, seem to indicate Amy’s  awareness of her husband’s unhappiness and her own part in it. But Amy wants to patch things up. The treasure hunt also seems to point to Nick as the person responsible for Amy’s disappearance and slowly the media, Amy’s parents and even his twin sister, Go, start to regard him with suspicion.

But there is more to Gone Girl than a suspenseful mystery. There’s actually quite a damning indictment of the fakery of  relationships; the  potential for infidelity, boredom, entitlement. We want the fairy tale until we don’t. Marriage is hard work. Nick and Amy’s story is extreme, but recognizable nonetheless.

Flynn is a terrific writer. I mean – gifted. She inhabits Nick’s brain as easily as she inhabits Amy’s. They are sympathetic and reprehensible and downright scary in equal measure. To say much more about the plot would be to spoil the novel’s twists. Suffice to say, this is one married couple I wouldn’t be inviting over for dinner any time soon!

Our Town – Thornton Wilder

ourtownI have loved Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Our Town, since I was fourteen or fifteen. I was trying to figure out how I would have come into contact with it, as I certainly didn’t read it while in school. My best guess is that it was because of Robby Benson, who starred in an adaptation of the play which must have aired on television. If you are a regular visitor to this blog, then you know that Robby and I go way (way) back.

I probably purchased my copy of the play around then – it’s an Avon paperback which, according to the cover, cost $1.75. (I know, eh?) It’s dog-eared and highlighted and marked up and the words contained within still, after all these years, move me.

In the Foreward of the HarperPerennial edition of the play Donald Marguiles, an American playwright and professor, calls Wilder “the first American playwright.” Marguiles further posits that Wilder paved the way for many of the playwrights who came after, and are perhaps better known: Albee, Williams, Miller.

First produced for the stage in 1938, Wilder’s play takes place in Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire. The play is performed on a bare stage. The actors mime their stage business. For theatre goers attending that first production, Wilder’s play must have seemed wildly modern.

“Stripping the stage of fancy artifice, Wilder set himself a formidable challenge,” says Marguiles. “With two ladders, a few pieces of furniture, and a minimum of props, he attempted to “find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.””

Our Town could be any town. That’s the point. The characters on the stage are us. The three act structure of the play mirrors the circle of life: birth, love and marriage, death. One might easily argue that nothing happens. Yet the exact opposite is true: everything happens.

The Stage Manager guides us through the play.  Our Town is a fine example of metadrama; that is a play which draws attention to the fact that it is a play. The Stage Manager acts both as a sort of Greek chorus and bit player. He has the power to alert the audience to events in the future and to allow characters to revisit the past, as he does – famously –  for Emily in Act Three.

The language of the play is simple. Characters speak colloquially. They are just average citizens, concerned with the weather, town gossip, and their children. Even my class of grade ten students were able to see themselves in George and Emily. It is a tribute to the timeless quality of the play that despite the intervening years – from the play’s debut until now –  not much has changed.

DR. GIBBS: Well, George, while I was in my office today I heard a funny sound…and what do you think it was? It was your mother chopping wood. There you see your mother – getting up early; cooking meals all day; washing and ironing  – and still she has to go out in the backyard and chop wood. I suppose she just got tired of asking you. And you eat her meals, and put on the clothes she keeps nice for you., and you run off and play baseball, – like she’s some hired girl we keep around the house but that we don’t like very much.

As a teenager I would have certainly seen myself in that passage. Now, I see my own children.

We are all the same: we are born, we live and we die. The Stage Manager remarks  that even in Babylon “all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney, – same as here.”  It underscores one of the play’s motifs: time and its passing. What do we know of those people? “…all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then,” remarks the Stage Manager.

In the Joss Whedon’s landmark television show Angel, the title character says “If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters… , then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.” (Epiphany, 2001)

In Our Town‘s final act Emily comes to the same realization, albeit too late. “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” she cries.

The Stage Manager replies: “No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”

Perhaps my students aren’t quite ready to acknowledge life’s brevity. I know, for sure, they don’t live “every, every minute.” Why should they? I didn’t. I don’t.

Wilder’s play is a powerful reminder, though, that we should. And that message is as meaningful now in 2013 as it was in 1938.

Bliss – Lauren Myracle

blissBliss Inthemorningdew (no, I’m not joking!) is new at Crestview Academy. It’s tough enough to be the new girl, but Bliss’s life is further complicated by her unusual last name and the fact that her parents are hippies. Bliss has spent her entire fourteen years living in unusual places: a tent, the basement of a college and, most recently, a commune. Now she lives with her very formal maternal grandmother in Atlanta, dumped there by her parents who have run off to Canada to protest the Vietnam War. Or Nixon. Something, anyway. They’re sort of non-entities, in a very strange way.

This is a situation neither Grandmother not I would have chosen, but Grandmother is nothing if not morally upright, which made it impossible for her to turn me away. She’s also uptight, and it seems that often the two go together.

Although life with her Grandmother is odd (at least in the beginning), Bliss is looking forward to having something she hasn’t ever had before: a friend. Soon is she is navigating the impossibly complicated world of teenage drama and it’s a world about which she knows very little.

Lauren Myracle’s novel Bliss isn’t really a coming-of-age story, though. It’s sort of part mystery, part ghost story, part thriller. On some levels it works very nicely; I had no trouble turning the pages as I raced along to the book’s conclusion. In other ways, the book is perhaps a bit bloated. There’s commentary on racism, mentions of the Klan and many of the characters in this book are concerned with Charles Manson and the now infamous murders which took place during the summer of 1969.  Myracle opens chapters with quotes from Manson and quotes from the Andy Griffith Show, perhaps as a way of balancing extreme good and extreme evil. For my money, Bliss might have benefited from a little judicious editing and more of a focus on what was really intriguing:  new girl tries to fit in and gets caught up in creepy hi-jinx.

Bliss is a likable character. I’m not sure I understand why her parents dumped her. She’s smart and kind and open-minded. It was easy to be with her and to fear for her safety. I’m certain teens will find lots to like about this book

The Guardians – @andrewpyper

guardiansAndrew Pyper’s been on my literary radar for a few years now – ever since I read his first novel, Lost Girls. (This was well before I blogged, or even knew what blogging was, so I have no review. I do remember that I thought it was smart, well-written and creepy.) A couple years ago I read Pyper’s novel. The Trade Mission, a book I had some trouble with. Not because of the writing, more because I felt like I was in way over my head.  The Guardians was a much easier read, well, perhaps not easier, but more accessible.

Carl, Ben, Randy and Trevor, the novel’s narrator, grow up in Grimshaw, Ontario. It’s a one-horse town, a place they can’t wait to leave. They are solid friends and have been since they were kids. They play hockey for the Grimshaw Guardians, smoke up in Carl’s car before class and fantasize about Ms. Langham, their young and beautiful music teacher. On one level, The Guardians is about this friendship. But there’s more to this story than four boys making out with their girls and smoking dope.

Because there’s this house which just happens to be across the street from Ben’s house and as Trevor recalls: “it alone is waiting for us. Ready to see us stand on the presumed safety of weed-cracked sidewalk as we had as schoolchildren, daring each other to see who could look longest through its windows without blinking or running away.”

The Guardians opens with Ben’s suicide in the present. Trevor must return to his old stomping grounds to attend the funeral. He’s at a bit of a crossroads, Trevor. He’s recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and he’s a man of a certain age (40) and he’s feeling the full force of death’s lingering gaze. Pretty much the last place he wants to be is back in Grimshaw, where he’ll have no choice but to remember certain events from his youth that he has sworn a pact with his buddies to never talk about.

I hope Mr. Pyper will consider it a compliment when I say that The Guardians reminded me a little bit of Stephen King’s brilliant novel, It. I loved that book, not just because it scared the bejeesus out of me  (which, frankly, seems silly now given that the monster was a giant girl spider that lived in a cave) but because of the friendships between the characters – which King always handles so deftly. Pyper does a fine job, too, of giving us characters to care about even when they make bad decisions. And they do; they’re kids.

The house has a part to play, too. It’s long abandoned and creepy as hell and bad things happen there, both real and imagined. Their relationship with the house drives the narrative both in the past and now, present day.

The strength of the story, though, is that it taps into that very human feeling of helplessness, and frailty. Trevor’s feeling it as his body begins to betray him. There’s also this notion of “you can’t go home again.” I’m not a 40 year-old-man, but I understand perfectly that idea of returning to the place of your youth but no longer being young. Trevor feels it when he is reunited with Randy. “That’s what we see in each other’s eyes, what we silently share in the pause between recognition and brotherly embrace.”  Their youth is gone, but they are haunted by it nonetheless.

The Guardians is a sad tale, well told.



Perfect Chemistry – @SimoneElkeles

perfect chemistryI admit it: I have a type. I like bad boys with kind hearts. Stories that feature these guys (and I’ve read a lot of them) fill in those ticky boxes faster than you can say smoldering eyes and tattoos. You’d think by now I’d be over it, but clearly not. I devoured Simone Elkeles YA novel Perfect Chemistry in one sitting.

Brittany Ellis is eighteen and just beginning her senior year of high school in a Chicago suburb. She’s pretty and popular, captain of the cheerleading team, dating the hunky high school quarterback.  She lives in a huge house on the right side of town.

Everyone knows I’m perfect. My life is perfect. My clothes are perfect. Even my family is perfect. And although it’s a complete lie, I’ve worked my butt off to keep up the appearance that I have it all. The truth, if it were to come out, would destroy my entire picture-perfect image.

Alejandro “Alex” Fuentes is also eighteen and also in his senior year, but his life is vastly different from Brittany’s. For one thing, he comes from the wrong side of the tracks. For another, he’s a gang banger.

Senior year. I should be proud I’ll be the first family member in the Fuentes household to graduate high school. But after graduation, real life will start. College is just a dream. Senior year for me is like a retirement party for a sixty-five-year-old. You know you can do more, but everyone expects you to quit.

The interesting thing about both of these characters is that what the reader sees on the surface is only part of their story. The alternating first person points of view allows us a glimpse into lives which are much more than what they initially appear. Brittany and Alex would have no reason to ever interact. In fact on the first morning of school, Brittany’s reaction at almost hitting Alex while trying to nab a parking spot pretty much says it all:

Alex takes a step toward my car. My instincts tell me to abandon my car and flee, as if I was stuck on railroad tracks with a train heading straight for me….

But Brittany is no shrinking violet and when, later that day, she’s paired with Alex for a year-long chemistry project, she gives as good as she gets. So, naturally, sparks fly.

Perfect Chemistry is a love story, true, but it is also a story about making choices, standing up for what you believe in,  and breaking down those stereotypes which often hold us prisoner.  Brittany and Alex are well-written characters, believable and relateable. I really wanted things to work out for them.

Back in the 70s there was a movie very similar to this book. It’s cheesy now because frankly, blue-eyed Robby Benson was never going to make a very convincing “Chicano”. Still, it has similar themes. In case you have some time to kill, check out Walk Proud.

Dark Places – Gillian Flynn

dark-places-book-coverLibby Day is a survivor. She’s survived a drunken, dead-beat father, Runner,  extreme poverty, and the horrific massacre of her mother, Patty, and two older sisters, Michelle and Debby. Well, maybe to call her a survivor is a stretch because Libby is reclusive and mean. She says it herself at the beginning of Gillian Flynn’s terrific novel, Dark Places.

I have a meaness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you can stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.

Ah, yes, the murders. For the past 24 years Libby’s older brother, Ben, has languised in prison for the crime. He was 15 when he is alledged to have killed his mother and younger sisters. Libby has never once visited him partly, perhaps, because it was her testimony that sent him there. She was seven at the time.

Now, at 30, Libby is alone, broke and desperate. That’s how she comes to accept The Kill Club’s offer. Lyle, one of the Kill Club’s members, reaches out to Libby and makes her a propostion. If she’s willing to come to a meeting and talk about the case, they’ll pay her $500. That original deal morphs into something more and suddenly Libby is revisiting the night that changed her life forever.

gillian-flynnGillian Flynn (right) is a new-to-me writer although everyone and their dog has likely heard about her by now due to her recent novel, Gone Girl. She started her writing career as a journalist and was the TV critic for Entertainment Weekly for a decade before turning her hand to fiction. Look at her: she’s beautiful. And scary. And it just occurred to me that her writing reminds me of one of my all-time favourite writers, Lisa Reardon. Her writing is fearless…and fear-inducing.

Dark Places unspools the Day murders in two ways: as Libby digs for the truth and as the events of the day unravel. For this, we spend time with Patty and Ben. Patty is a sympathetic character, a mom who loves her children and tries to care for them, but whose dwindling emotional and financial resources make it nearly impossible. Ben, on the other hand, is a fifteen-year-old boy in a house full of women. He’s desperately searching for a place to belong and an outlet for the anger which bubbles inside him.

Flynn skilfully weaves the threads of this story together offering the reader equal measures of horror and heartbreak.  I couldn’t put the book down – that’s just about the highest praise I can give a book.

I love me some lists

The end of a year always inspires listmakers to reflect on the days gone by. I love all the ‘Best of’ book lists – more titles to add to my notebook. Here are some great Best of 2012 lists from bloggers and others to help you decide what to read next:

A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook

Bart’s Bookshelf

Book Addiction

You’ve Gotta Read This

Dot Scribbles

Savidge Reads, Part One

Savidge Reads, Part Two

SCC English

What’s Not Wrong

If you’ve done a list, let me know and I’ll add it here.