What Are You Reading? YA Edition

Books

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler. Best known for his Lemony Snicket children’s books, Handler here is writing as a female first person narrator for a YA audience. The device, or perhaps gimmick, of the tale is that Min is sorting through a box of mementos from her relationship with ex-boyfriend Ed, while composing a letter to him about, of course, why they broke up. Each item begins a new chapter that triggers a memory, and each of these chapter begins with a painting of said item. I actually found these illustrations to be the weakest part of the book and I frequently wished they weren’t there – which maybe is a case of me being too “trained” in illustration, because I was taught that an illustration should always add something to the text and not simply depict what’s written in a literal way. I kept looking for them to add some other clue or layer of meaning to the story, but they were just pictures of objects and by the end I felt they kind of cheapened the writing. My other complaint was that I sometimes found the dialogue a bit too witty to be believed. But what won me over is that this story painted a wonderfully, awkwardly, painfully accurate picture of what being a teenager is like in matters of love. All the misunderstandings, casual hurts, and intoxicating hopefulness of teen love were there, and that’s why I liked this book.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young. An adventure story set in a post-apocalyptic future, this is the first book in a trilogy about a gritty teenage heroine named Saba. The setting is a kind of sci-fi tinged wild west, and the book is written in a twangy dialect that took me some time to get used to – in fact, for a while I wasn’t sure I was going to. But as the action picked up, the dialect writing faded to where I could just hear it as Saba’s voice. With a futuristic dystopian backdrop and a bow and arrow slinging heroine, it’s obvious why this might be compared with Hunger Games, but I found its world to be more intriguingly complex, its storyline more epic, its love story sexier and more appealing. Though it started off slow for me, as soon as I finished reading the last sentence of Blood Red Road I jumped on my public library app and reserved the sequel.

Sekret by Lindsay Smith. This book came highly recommended by my friend Christina of Allodoxophobia and the premise drew me right in: Sekret takes place in Soviet Russia in the 1960s and involves a group of teenage psychics being trained by the KGB as spies. I have to point out that this novel is a perfect example of why the YA genre really should be taken seriously by adult readers – far from being a churned out slew of Twilight copycats, it’s full of inventive and original storytelling. I did have a hard time with the long descriptive passages in the book, but I’m not sure if I was just not in the right frame of mind to focus on them, or if the setting of Soviet Russia was just too foreign to envision. But overall I thought the concept, story, and characters were compelling and unique, and this was a thriller that kept me guessing at every turn.

Rebel Heart by Moira Young. In the second book of Young’s Dust Lands trilogy, the dialect writing was instantly invisible to me, which was nice. It hard to review book two without spoiling book one – well, without spoilers in general, I guess – but it seems to me that the middle work of a trilogy either is a total knockout that takes advantage of its relative freedom (it doesn’t have to set things up nor wrap them up) to be bold and creative (see Star Wars) or it’s a kind of plodding bridge trying to get from point A to point B (see Catching Fire). This, unfortunately, seemed like the latter. There were some good new characters and a KERRR-AAAAZY plot twist (!!!! that better go somewhere good!) but over all it fell a little flat for me.

What Are You Reading?

Books

I’ve read so many great books since I last wrote a book review post that I’m going to have to break them into two posts – so stay tuned for an upcoming YA Edition. Lately I’ve just been swimming in lists of books I want to read and also stacks of library books all over the house, both non fiction and fiction.

How Children Learn by John Holt. I wish I had read this book long ago – in fact I think it would be much more useful for all expectant parents to read this than to read pregnancy guides and infant care manuals! Although John Holt is known as a pioneer of the unschooling movement, you don’t have to be interested in unschooling or homeschooling at all to enjoy and reap the benefits of this particular work (some of his others are more pointedly anti-school). It is based on his extensive observations of young children (as a 5th grade teacher and as a friend) and engagingly outlines his view that young children learn as naturally as they breathe and as joyfully as they play. The chapters on talking and reading were particularly delightful; the only area where I would quarrel with him is on his view of fantasy play. He asserts that children’s natural fantasies are about being adults, and they only play at princesses and superheroes because they are targeted by adult television and movie creators. This to me seemed more like a side effect of cultural beliefs about the evils of TV and not a genuine observation – after all, storytelling is as old as human language. Before there was TV there were books, and before that raconteurs. I wonder if he would change his view if he were alive today (he died in 1985).

Landline by Rainbow Rowell. In this novel about a successful comedy writer and her troubled marriage, there is a contrived narrative device that fuels the story, but Rowell’s writing is charming and honest enough to pull it off. She paints a picture of a relationship that feels real and relatable. One of most interesting things about the book for me was how I was not entirely sure who to root for, so to speak, as the story unfolded. This is Rowell’s strength – the way she balances writing characters who are truly flawed and sometimes annoy you, infuriate you, or do bad things, and yet she gets you to care about them enough to forgive and maybe even love them. Though her stories are simple and straightforward, her characters stay with you forever because they feel like real people whom you actually once knew. The only Rowell novel left for me to read is Attachments, and I look forward to it.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. The story of Louisa Clark, a cafe waitress turned caregiver for a quadriplegic man, and Will Traynor, the man in her care who once was a hotshot corporate exec and thrill seeker and now lives confined to a motorized wheelchair. I would have been wary of this novel based merely on the description – wouldn’t it be sentimental and icky? – but I picked it up because all of my Goodreads friends gave it rave reviews. Indeed this turned out to be a book that I could hardly put down once I picked it up. I had the distinct feeling that Moyes probably researched this book by immersing herself in quad support groups online (I suspected the scenes of Lou’s own online research included a head nod or two to actual people Moyes had chatted with). She treats the subject of Will’s disability with raw honesty, and I felt the ending was deeply satisfying.

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell. It’s rare for me to not finish a book, but I only made it halfway through this one. Woodrell is perhaps best known for his novel Winter’s Bone, which was made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence – however, I doubt I’ll get to reading that any time soon. I found his writing style to be so off putting that, even though I enjoyed the characters and was intrigued by the plot (who burned down the dance hall and killed and maimed dozens of people?), I could not plow all the way through the story. There is a bit of an emperor-has-no-clothes feeling for me when I see how highly rated this book is on Goodreads, like am I just not smart enough to like it? I balked against his frequent use of passive voice, long winding sentences, and use of commas seemingly more to break up run on sentences into chunks than to give them actual grammatical structure. But I suppose it’s just a style preference. There is a rhythm to his writing, almost poetic, that to me obscures the narrative completely but to other may be enjoyable.

What Are You Reading? YA Edition

Books

OCD

I’ve been reading a lot of YA novels lately as part of my research for writing my own YA novel (which I’ve actually started! About 1,000 words so far). I think we have JK Rowling to thank for giving children’s and YA literature a measure of respectability as adult reading fare (I believe that we never would have had the Hunger Games phenomenon without Harry Potty – agree/disagree?). Right now there is a lot of good stuff being published in the YA genre. This label does not mean the book is easy or lightweight, but simply that it is has an adolescent main character driving the story. Here are some YA novels I’ve read lately.

* City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare. The sixth and final book in the Mortal Instruments series felt more like homework than pleasure reading. The MI series follows main character Clary, who is a Shadowhunter – a race of humans descended from angels who defend the world from demons – and her love interest Jace. Other characters include vampires, werewolves, and fairies, but this is more of an adventure series than a Twilight-esque romance. It started out pretty entertaining but by this final book the plot felt really tortured and the love affair between Clary and Jace was stale. Clare injected a whole new set of characters that was obviously a segue into a new Shadowhunter series, but it felt forced and it annoyed me that she was trying to hook me into her next book. I’ll pass.

* Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour. This was a novel I picked up rather haphazardly in the library YA section and I didn’t expect much from it. At the outset, the LA setting and movie-biz characters didn’t appeal, but the narrator quickly grew on me. Emi is a high school girl who reads more like a college kid (maybe she should have been? does YA include college kids?), a film studio intern, and she’s coming off of an unhealthy on-again off-again relationship with an older woman when she falls in love with a mysterious girl from a broken home who just happens to be the long lost granddaughter of a Hollywood star (Clint Eastwood thinly disguised I think). Okay, this sounds terrible when I describe it. But it was pretty sweet and charming.

* OCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu. Haydu’s new book Life By Committee was highly recommended by my blogger friend Christina, but since my library doesn’t have that one yet, I tried this earlier novel by the author. And. Wow. OCD Love Story is intense. It’s narrated in the first person by a teenaged girl named Bea and as I read I felt I was inside her tortured mind as she spirals downward. As the book begins she has fairly recently developed symptoms of OCD and throughout the story her obsessions and compulsions escalate until they have completely overtaken her life. Meanwhile, the love story aspect involves a boy in her therapy group who is also struggling with OCD. I think this would be a difficult read for someone who is dealing with real life anxiety disorder, but it was incredibly well written and gripping. Recommended IF you are up for riding along on a teenaged girl’s journey through mental illness.

* Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before by David Yoo. Here is where I confess to you that I have a bias against male authors. I know it’s terrible, but it’s true. When I’m browsing for books, I usually scan for female authors – I’ve found that this goes double when I am looking for YA – in spite of the fact that I LOVE plenty of male novelists. So anyway, I picked this one up. At first I absolutely hated the voice of Albert, the nerdy teenaged narrator – I found it implausibly jokey and contrived. I didn’t believe in some of the characters (notably, his parents). But as the story wore on and I realized that Albert was an unreliable narrator, was supposed to be untrustworthy and shtick-y and hopelessly dorky, the book clicked for me. I still had trouble rooting for Al to get the girl, because he was so needy and smothering (THAT part did seem realistic, for a teenaged boy!), but it didn’t seem to matter whether I rooted for him or not, it was enjoyable to love/hate him and I liked that this book felt truly unique.

* Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. I saved the best one for last, even though this was the first YA novel I read in this batch of books. In fact, this was the book that made me want to both write a YA novel and to read more of them – a lot more. I haven’t read Rowell’s adult-audience books yet, but I have read her other YA novel Eleanor & Park. What I love about Rowell is that she beautifully captures the emotional richness of adolescence, the way that time in a person’s life just feels so enormous and momentous – but is also ordinary and small. Eleanor & Park was a sweet love story that made me ugly-cry out loud, but I fell in love with Fangirl. The story is simple – Cath and her twin sister Wren go off to college, navigate separating from each other and from their dad, Cath struggles with balancing schoolwork with her passion for writing fanfic, and there is a love story. It’s really the way Rainbow Rowell writes Cath’s endearing and unforgettable character – I feel like she must love her at least as much as her readers do – that breathes life into this story. Especially if you happen to have ever been a college freshman, a young woman, a writer, and a book lover, this book is simply irresistible.

What Are You Reading? MaddAddam Edition

Books

IMG_5106In April I had the pleasure of attending a reading and book signing by the legendary novelist and poet Margaret Atwood. Meeting an author whose books I’ve loved for years was a once in a lifetime opportunity. She was willing to sign any of her books after the reading, an array of choices that was rather dizzying, but I chose to purchase a copy of her new novel MaddAddam for the signing. This is the last in a trilogy of books beginning with Oryx and Crake, which I originally read when it was first published. Although it’s significantly different from most of her other work (with the exception of The Handmaid’s Tale – all four books sometimes being dubbed science fiction, Ms. Atwood prefers to call them speculatory fiction), I fell in love with Oryx and Crake when I first read it. It’s one of the few books that I have reread – three times now.

***SPOILER ALERT***

It’s virtually impossible to describe the plot of the trilogy in any way without spoilers, so I’m not going to avoid them. If you want to go into these books blind, and I can understand why you would although I’d say they’re still excellent even if you know what’s going to happen, STOP READING NOW.

I MEAN IT.

Oryx and Crake. The first in the series follows Jimmy, aka Snowman, who in the present day is living in a tree on the beach after most of the world’s human population has been decimated. I TOLD YOU THERE WERE SPOILERS. Jimmy is keeping watch over the Crakers, a small tribe of a new type of human bioengineered by Jimmy’s childhood friend Crake (nee Glenn). Much of the book consists of flashbacks to Jimmy’s early days, from his mother’s abandonment, through high school and college days while friends with Crake, and into adulthood. Jimmy is a class clown as a kid and later a womanizer, a deflector, a dissembler. (I would love to discuss his character with anyone else who’s read the trilogy because I am curious about how others see him. I felt that in this novel he seemed to a person who purposely plays dumb to dissociate himself both from trouble and from pain; but later books narrated by other characters portray him as truly clownish and clueless.)

The book portrays a future in which corporations rule the world and the natural world is utterly at the mercy of human ambition. It’s chilling to read about some things that have already come to pass (human-animal gene splicing) and those that are, terrifyingly, all too plausible (pharmaceutical companies that embed poisons and pathogens into vitamins to further their medication sales). Law and order, like everything else, have been privatized, and personal privacy has been mostly erased. Society is split into an elite class who work for and live in corporation-run compounds, and the poor and underprivileged who live in the chaotic “pleeblands.” The environment has been ravaged, with severe weather events and frequent animal extinctions become commonplace. This dystopia is horrifying precisely because it reads like a projection of what our society WILL become without major course corrections.

On my first reading I was left feeling somewhat mystified by the title of the novel, which is not, in a literal way, really about Oryx or Crake. The character of Oryx is also followed somewhat loosely from childhood to adulthood. Jimmy and Crake first encounter her “acting” in a child pornography video (a mainstream form of entertainment in this future world) and she becomes a symbol of something essential – purity perhaps, innocence, vulnerability, all of these being heavily ironic as Oryx herself professes to be none of the above – that Jimmy clings to as he floats aimlessly into adulthood. She turns up again as Crake’s love interest and his scientific colleague as well as Jimmy’s lover. When I first read the novel a decade ago I was disappointed that I never got to know Oryx or find out the truth of her life story – she is a slippery figure on many levels.

Having read the entire trilogy now I think that the novel is titled Oryx and Crake because it is a Genesis story and they become the primary deities in the new world that will unfold. Even as they stand at the center of this story they are elusive and shadowy. Exalted and idealized but also remote. Their truths are impossible to grasp. Jimmy bumbles along far below, messy, goofy, directionless, yearning for love and meaning but constantly distracted by selfishness and cowardice. Jimmy is us, the human race – and, as it turns out, the one little corner of it that Crake deems worth saving.

* The Year of the Flood. The middle novel in the series feels like a bit of a return to Atwood form with two female narrators alternating throughout the book. Toby is a middle aged woman who has survived the “Waterless Flood” (this book’s term for the pandemic that Crake has unleashed to destroy most of humanity) by barricading herself into the AnooYoo Spa where she used to work as manager. She is a former member of the God’s Gardeners, a spiritual group that revered nature and sequestered itself from modern society. Meanwhile, Ren is a young exotic dancer who survives the Waterless Flood because she was in a quarantine tank at the dance club after a client exposed her to disease. Ren is also, we find out, a former member of God’s Gardeners.

Chapters about the backstories of Toby and Ren are interspersed with present day scenes and punctuated with sermons and hymns from the God’s Gardeners holy days. The Gardeners particularly revere the small, ordinary things of the natural world that have been trampled by their technology-obsessed mainstream culture – the mushrooms, the nematodes, the bees. They are tending gardens and beehives and storing food and supplies for the Waterless Flood they are sure is coming soon. Their theology is a mix of old testament Christianity and what we would think of as lefty, anti-corporate environmentalism (other religions mentioned in the book sound like offshoots of Prosperity Gospel). Toby joins when she is rescued from an abusive relationship as an adult and always struggles somewhat with her faith, while Ren joins as a child and experiences the religion more as a foundation of her identity.

Toby’s and Ren’s stories converge in the present tense as they find each other and eventually wind up in a standoff between two criminals, themselves, and none other than Jimmy – with the Crakers headed their way.

While Oryx and Crake is a story that unfolds slowly, suffused with dread, like a bad dream turning into a horrible and inescapable nightmare, Year of the Flood is a story that unfolds slowly, lit by a spark of hope, like a green shoot pushing through a pile of rot. The Gardeners are conservationists, protecting not only the plant life and knowledge that humanity will need after the predicted apocalypse, but also the better aspects of human nature – kindness, love, faith, community. When the Flood sweeps through, the garden itself is lost, but hope stays alive in the persons of Toby and Ren. I think that in fact this could have been a sequel that ended the story – it felt complete with these two books, and I would have been content to imagine what happened next. Not that I was disappointed to have another installment….

* MaddAddam. From the beginning of the trilogy we have known that MaddAddam was a group of scientists working on rogue bioengineering projects and ultimately involved in Crake’s project to create a new human race. But who were they exactly? The final book answers that question in some biographical detail and continues the present day story where Flood left off.

MaddAddam, as it turns out, began as a splinter group that formed when Zeb split off from the Gardeners, led by Adam One. Zeb was unsatisfied with Adam’s pacifist stance and felt that more aggressive action was needed to shake up the trajectory that society was taking. He presided over the Maddaddam group as they unleashed a series of new bioforms that would disrupt society without harming people physically. Though we were at first led to believe (by Crake) that these scientists were later recruited to help Crake with his experiments, we now find out that Crake in fact captured and enslaved them under threat of death.

The key elements of this novel are of course the present day story, the backstory of the life of Zeb (and by extension his brother Adam), and the development of an ever more complex theology for the Crakers, the new human race created by Crake in captivity before being released by Jimmy after the Flood. In order to satisfy some basic questions and anxieties of the Crakers, Jimmy had invented a simple religion wherein Crake was creator of all people/Crakers and Oryx was creator and protector of animal life and nature. Jimmy was a prophet who could communicate directly with Crake, and Toby takes over the role while Jimmy lies in a coma for a portion of MaddAddam.

I have to admit that I was a little befuddled by a lot of the story of Zeb. In the larger view where Atwood is creating an entire new culture, I could see how he would be part of the new canon – the archetypical Hero figure. Obviously he figures into the main action as a key member of the MaddAddam group and as Adam One’s brother, and Toby’s love interest. Still I found his character and his irreverence jarring sometimes. I think I may just need to reread and soak it in, as I have learned from rereading the previous two books that there is a lot more here than I could really absorb with one read through.

The budding Craker religion was fascinating, especially given that we know Crake had deliberately attempted to breed religion (and singing) out of this new species, and failed. Atwood is clearly telling us that music and religion are part of who we are. I suspect that she is also telling us that in these two inevitable strands of our DNA are two more inevitable strands – the pitfalls of dogma and the corrupting influence of knowledge, as well as the beauty and redemption of art. The Crakers are also introduced to literacy as one of the children learns to read and write from Toby; the book concludes with the first written history of the new people – and so, we see, their culture has truly begun.

Thus the human race is given a chance to start over, with all of the ingredients of good and evil seeded into the garden. How will the world be remade by the Crakers and by their human-hybrid offspring? I was pleased that this was left open ended because it seemed the natural conclusion to say that we just don’t know.

What Are You Reading?

Books

I’m burning the candle at both ends lately but it’s worth it when I’m getting in some good reading…

Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I tried to keep my expectations low going into this series, because I hate being disappointed by over-hyped books. And I’m not usually into YA fiction – never got into Harry Potter and never read Twilight. But for me, these books lived up to the hype. The characters were great, the plots and concepts were complex and thought provoking, the writing was good. Without giving away any spoilers, I think the ending of the trilogy left some things to desired, but wasn’t bad enough to ruin the overall experience for me. I loved reading a teenage heroine who wasn’t a romantic figure – so many elements of the books defied my expectations, in a good way. So if you are one of the 10 people on Earth who haven’t read this uber-popular trilogy yet, give it a whirl.

*a side note on ebooks* I love books. Actual books. In college my graduating thesis was a series of handmade books, so it should come as no surprise that I’m not on the ereader bandwagon. However, in the interest of meeting a book club deadline, I borrowed the second two Hunger Games books, for free, via Amazon from a friend in the group and read them on my phone with the free Kindle app. I have to admit it was kind of amazing – I didn’t even know my phone could do that, and for free! And the instant gratification! But it didn’t convert me. I still love books more, and the un-physicality of the ebooks was weird for me – even though I could read that I was 84% of the way through a novel, I couldn’t see where I was in the book. And I think even more than that, it bothered me that my kid was seeing me glued to my phone all the time I was engrossed in this trilogy. I want him to see me reading books – I don’t feel like I am modeling a love of reading when I’m holding my smartphone. Moving on….

A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin. The fourth in the Game of Thrones series of novels, I was fairly close to the end of this one when I temporarily put it down to read Hunger Games in time for the book club discussion. The GoT book before this started off slow and ended up exciting, and I think this one was the opposite – I was really into it at first and then it just dwindled to nothing. I liked some of the new plot threads, like the religious cult that arises in the kingdom, but none of it really went anywhere. It started to feel like getting bogged down in the later seasons of Lost when you begin to doubt that you are being led to any kind of satisfying conclusion. Even so, after slogging through four books I’ll probably go on with the series.

The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard. This was a huuuge downshift from Hunger Games and even Feast for Crows. It was definitely the wrong time to read it, but I had requested it from the library earlier and that’s how the cookie crumbled. It was difficult for me to get fully into the mood of this slow, lush, beautiful book – in fact I’ll probably come back to it another time – but I would highly recommend it and thank Kristine for the heads up. A collection of short nonfiction pieces, it reads more like a fine art painting than a memoir… prepare yourself to slow down and sink in.

Happy Chaos by Soleil Moon Frye. I loved Punky Brewster as a kid. I wanted to BE her. In fact the highest compliment you could have paid me when I was 8 years old was to tell me I looked like Punky. So of course I had to pick up this memoir slash parenting book by Soleil Moon Frye… and it didn’t disappoint – not for this Punky fan. It’s fun and light and entertaining, kind of like a print version of a personal blog written by a mom who is happy to admit she doesn’t have everything figured out and oh by the way also has lots of stories about growing up as Punky Brewster!! I was worried I might hate her because she seems so crunchy and beautiful and perfect, but she is actually endearingly humble and sunny – I like that in a person.

Broken Irish by Edward J. Delaney. Totally random pick at the library, one of my MUST FIND A BOOK BEFORE TODDLER DESTRUCTION ENSUES grabs from the new release shelf. A novel set in South Boston in 1999, it follows the rapidly crumbling lives of a few different Southie residents. I love a Boston setting, even though I’m not personally too familiar with Southie, and I thought the place and people were wonderfully drawn in this book. It deals with some themes that could have been trite, namely Catholic priest sex abuse, but was never maudlin or cliched. I was really digging this book the whole way through and looked forward to every naptime and bedtime when I could squeeze in a few chapters, and then – the ending. I’m not against the open, ambiguous ending in a few really well executed cases, but for the most part they just annoy me. I don’t understand why novelists go to all the trouble of crafting a story that draws you in, builds momentum, propels you and all the characters to some looming climax and then – PEACE OUT. Booooo! There was a bit of a “reveal” at the end but it wasn’t enough to be a good conclusion. Just based on that one flaw, I can only recommend this if you are willing to be emotionally invested in a story that just kind of flakes out on you at the end.

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. Thank you to Dunc for this recommendation when I tweeted my despair over Hunger Games being such a hard act to follow. I just started it, so no review yet, but I’ll be coming back to it with the next installment of What Are You Reading?!

What Are You Reading?

Books

It’s time for another round of What Are You Reading! I’m sure many of you got something to read – a book, an ebook – for Christmas. Mike gave me the fourth book in the Game of Thrones series – A Feast for Crows. I’m excited to read it, but I already started The Hobbit and feel like I have to finish that. To be honest, it’s boring me a bit, but on the off chance that I actually go see the movie when it comes out (right! like I ever go to the movies anymore), it will be more fun to have recently read the book.

I’m going to be plundering Suburban Prairie‘s book lists to create a reading to-do list via the library. I usually just grab whatever looks interesting in the 2.5 seconds I have to peruse books with a toddler in tow, but I would like to try reading some things that I want to read in the next few months! If you haven’t checked out Kristine’s Twelve Days of Christmas book reviews, you really should. So many good ideas for bookworms.

Here’s what I’ve read in the last month or so:

Favorite Wife: Escape From Polygamy by Susan Ray Schmidt. This memoir of a former polygamist wife was surprisingly complex and fascinating; I was impressed by the writing, which read more like a novel than an autobiography. Not all memoirs can pull off the trick of bringing you into the headspace of the author as they were then and letting you draw out most of the insights and lessons yourself, but Schmidt is incredibly deft at this. She became the 6th wife of Verlan LeBaron, a Mormon fundamentalist living in Mexico in the 60s and 70s, when she was only 15 years old. Raised in the polygamist cult founded by Verlan’s brother Joel, Schmidt takes responsibility for her own role in her life story – she chose Verlan as her spouse – while showing the reader how the adults (especially adult men, of course) in the cult gave young girls the illusion of choice and manipulated them into miserable lives as polygamist wives.

Verlan eventually had 10 wives and 58 children, all of them living in squalor and seeing him only a handful of times a year – just long enough for the wives to get pregnant again – as he gave all his money and time to the church. This is NOT an episode of Big Love; most of the wives were not friends and some did not speak to each other at all. They lived in utter poverty, at times borderline starvation, and were socially isolated in harsh Mexican landscapes without even the barest minimum of modern conveniences. The idea of being pregnant with young children and having to HAUL WATER and use an outhouse makes me shiver. In a crazy twist to this intimate story, Verlan’s other brother Ervil, the EVIL brother, ended up splitting off into a fringe cult that went on a killing spree among Mormons and polygamists in the Southwest in the 70s, eventually getting caught and dying in prison. Another side note: one of Schmidt’s sister wives, Irene Spencer, also wrote a memoir of her polygamist life called Shattered Dreams.

Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania by Andy Behrman. Another random grab at the library, I felt conflicted about this memoir of manic depression all the way through, and many reviews I’ve seen have said exactly what I thought about it – the element of schadenfreude fuels the readability of this book but ultimately leaves you feeling a little icky. Behrman went undiagnosed (or improperly diagnosed as depressed) for many years in which he indulged in risky sex with strangers and prostitutes, binged on drugs and alcohol, cheated and stole during his career as (mostly) a PR rep, committed an art fraud for which he was tried and convicted, and resorted to electroshock therapy but quit when he realized he was addicted to the treatments. All of these insane episodes are recounted in the book, but despite some lip service to the pain his mental illness caused to himself and others, it’s not at all clear that Behrman is capable of any true self-reflection in the end. I have seen a review that remarked on the “flat” aspect of the narration, which is cleverly observed: the happy ending (he now lives a normal life on an ever-changing combo of meds) is strangely hollow and I couldn’t help but feel that Behrman seems to have a “sorry I got caught” attitude about his life story. After all the unethical things he had done in the PR industry – which he turned into a con game more than public relations – he ends up back in PR at the end of his journey (and is now a consultant to people with mental illness, whatever that means!). Without a convincing redemption at the conclusion, I just felt that I had been taken on a voyeuristic ride and a bit conned myself.

How the World Makes Love: and What it Taught a Jilted Groom by Franz Wisner. This memoir was almost the opposite of Electroboy, in that the reading of it was dull beyond belief, but the story was rather nice and heartwarming. Wisner has a previous book called Honeymoon With My Brother, which was about a time he was jilted at the altar and went on his honeymoon anyway, taking his brother with him on an extended world tour. In this one he attempts to play his 15 minutes out a little further by again embarking on a worldwide journey with his brother, this time to investigate how people across the world do love; meanwhile he falls in love with and eventually marries a D list actress back home in LA. There is a bit of interesting information in it about different wedding and marriage customs, but not of it really hangs together, drives the story, or seems terribly meaningful. It all feels a bit amateurish as he neatly but boringly executes this facile structure of Facts About Love! interspersed with Personal Love Story!. Aaand they all lived Happily Ever After, who cares, the end.

The Beginners by Rebecca Wolff. Oh man, I was on a roll of duds this past month, wasn’t I? Here was another book I just didn’t like very much, this one a novel about a teenager (Ginger) who becomes enmeshed in the strange relationship of a young adult couple (the Motherwells) who move to a small town for mysterious purposes. I wanted to like this all the way through, because it is intriguing and the writing at times is beautiful. But it was all very writer’s workshoppy – trying waaayyy too hard to be deep, obscuring its lack of plot or character development with a whole lot of pretty words and evocative scenes. Apparently Wolff is better known as a poet, which makes sense, as she is definitely going for imagery over realism – some of the imagery, though, is heavy handed and a little obvious. Crows? And the crows by themselves aren’t clear enough, you have to later explicitly compare the Motherwells to a pair of crows? While things do actually happen in the course of the story, it all ultimately feels like a dream (which, I’m sure not coincidentally, is a prominent motif) – it’s weird and creepy and makes you want it to mean something but just feels random and kind of pointless.