Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dare Me by Megan Abbott: A Review

Dare MeDare Me by Megan Abbott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a brilliant though nearly indescribable book. (There is simply no good way to explain how a book about cheerleaders and murder can be lyrical and beautiful, but it is.)

This is the story of the friendship between Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy, two high school cheerleaders at the top of their game. But when a new coach is hired to lead them, the delicate pyramid of power is disrupted, and the consequences are deadly.

I loved this book. The writing is gorgeous. It is visceral and magical and raw. Abbott perfectly captures the evils of adolescent self-absorption and cruelty in these characters in pitch-perfect prose.

I keep describing this to friends as the literary equivalent of the film "Heathers," but it's so much better even than that.

Read this!

Monday, December 17, 2012

For the Sisters and Brothers

My first reaction to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday was as a mother. Outrage and fear and pure agonizing sorrow have settled somewhere in the depths of my marrow over the last few days. But my next reaction comes as someone who at a very young age lost two siblings. This is for the surviving brothers and sisters.

When I was ten years old, my mother gave birth to twin girls: Jillian and Miranda. They were unplanned and unexpected as well. (In 1979, doctors did not routinely conduct ultrasounds, and so when my mother went into labor a month early and Jillian was born, the doctor was baffled at her small size until he realized she had a twin still waiting to be born.) And so, ready or not, our family of four grew quickly into a family of six.

The twins were premature, and they were born in a rural hospital that did not have the sophisticated NICU wards of today's facilities. They were in the hospital for an entire month before they were allowed to come home. However, despite the lack of access to neonatal specialists, they seemed to have made it past the initial hurdles of being born too small (just about 3 and 4 pounds each respectively). And their lives felt like gifts.

Soon, however, it became evident that they had health issues that transcended their being born prematurely. The phrase I remember being used again and again by the doctors was "failure to thrive." This meant they did not eat, and they did not grow, and they did not develop as they should. By the following summer, they were both very ill. They had respiratory issues, cardiac issues, and something called "lactic acidosis" which rendered them in a constant state of pain.

We spent the entire summer commuting between our home and a larger hospital an hour away. The doctors were mystified, and could offer us little hope. And when Jillian passed away that June, we all feared for her identical twin's fate.

But I was eleven then, and I believed in the power of magical thinking. I believed that if I prayed hard enough, if I bargained with God, if I promised any number of little girl promises, that Miranda would survive. And so when she died that August, I was devastated. I was angry with the universe. I was angry with God. And I felt utterly powerless. (I can only imagine what my mother and father felt. And as a mother now, I wonder at the grace with which they handled this theft. I know now, this was their gift to me and my younger sister and I am so, so grateful.)

When school started again, I channeled this frustration and sorrow into writing. I wrote the story of this loss again and again and again. (I believe sometimes that I am still writing that story with every novel I write.)

Writing gave me control. It put me in charge in a situation where no one was in charge. It empowered me. And it conjured them; it brought them back, at least in my imagination.

On Saturday, I wrote 9,000 words. I turned off the television and (when I wasn't hugging my own daughters) I wrote. And wrote. I was manic. Mad even, pounding out a story that had nothing to do with the reality of what happened in Connecticut on Friday. I was eleven years old again, trying desperately to create a world in which children do not die. In which little girls will not grow up without their sisters.

All I have, all I have ever had, are my words, but now they seem to fail me. Because I don't know how to make sense of this, how to get control over this. In my family's case, our loss was tragic but explainable. Illness, sickness, is a fact of life. It is not evil, it just is.

But what happened on Friday did not have to happen. It did not have to happen. And I cannot fathom the sense of injustice these families must feel.

I know the grief of losing a sibling. I know the sorrow of a life cut short. The anguish of stolen promises. And I write this for the brothers and sisters, for the children who will always wonder what their lives would be like if the world were a kinder place.

I wish I had words that could undo their pain. But I could write a million words and none of them could lessen this overwhelming sadness. These are futile incantations, evidence only of our ultimate powerlessness in this sorrowful aftermath.

And so it is with humility that I offer this to the sisters and brothers of the twenty children lost on Friday. I know this, because I am evidence of this:

You will grow up. You will become important, intelligent, and sensitive people. You will fall in love, you will feel joy and happiness again. And you will carry the memory of your siblings in the deepest parts of your huge hearts and in your beautiful smiles.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


So NaNoWriMo just ended. For the entire month of November I religiously awoke at 6 a.m. and wrote until I had 2000 words. This year, I cheated a little, starting out with 20,000 words instead of none. But I wrote the requisite 50,000 (plus an additional 10,000) during the month of November. And today, I wrote the 89,015th word and came to the book's (first) end.

I am "done." But what does that mean? This book, in its current form, is for my eyes only. No one, but me, will ever read these pages. It is, despite that (first) final sentence and sentiment, still very much a work-in-progress. It is not done by any stretch of the imagination.

But the only way to manage a novel for me is in phases. And each phase has a finish line. This is the first.

Here is what "done" means for me at this stage:

For two or so months now, I have submerged myself into the murky depths of this story. I have, whether I felt like it or not, entered the lives of these characters and made them struggle and suffer. I have watched them make mistakes, love each other, hate each other. I have written scenes that were just dreadful and left them wriggling there on the page like severed worms. I have written descriptions that weren't quite right but would do, for now. I have lost control of the story and then reined it back in. I have explored and scavenged and imagined and then re-imagined these characters' lives. I spent a week writing the most tantric climax in the history of climaxes...seriously, it went on and on and on...wondering the entire time if anyone would ever, ever believe it. And then, on the other side of that storm, I struggled to make the ending not feel like a rushed afterthought but rather a culmination -- of everything that came before it -- as a good ending should be.

Writing first drafts is thrilling and frustrating, exhilarating and exhausting. One day I feel brilliant, and the next day I feel like a fraud. The result is usually an odd combination of pitch-perfect prose and unbelievable plot twists. Character who are as vivid and real as my own family members until they open their mouths and all the cliches spew out. There are amazing insights and themes bubbling to the surface and dull, unoriginal thoughts as well. It is terrible and wonderful and not even close to done.

I know that for the next nine months or so I will turn this draft upside down and inside out. Characters will change or disappear entirely. Sentences will be dissected and entire paragraphs excised.

But the story has a (first) beginning a (first) middle and a (first) end. The first draft is "done."

And now I nap.

Monday, December 03, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: A Review

The Perks of Being a WallflowerThe Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 1/2 stars. I think I would have really enjoyed this book as a young teen. The voice of Charlie, the ninth grade narrator, is authentic and sweet. His self-awareness and naivete make for a truly endearing character. He is a "troubled" kid who is seeing a psychiatrist for some fairly ambiguous problems, a loner who finds friendship and acceptance in a small group of older teens. There were a lot of complex issues explored (domestic violence as it pertains to teens, sexual abuse, homosexuality, and suicide), but it didn't ever feel over-the-top.

With all that said, I didn't feel as attached to his friends, Patrick and Sam, as I wanted to be. I think I would have felt the intensity of his feelings if the entire triumvirate were more fully fleshed out. The other issue I found problematic was the epistolary device. The novel is told in a series of letters to an unidentified character. I kept waiting for the identity of the recipient to be revealed, and it just doesn't happen.

My Favorite Books of 2012

One of my resolutions this year was to read 100 books. And while I'm pretty sure I am not likely to reach this lofty goal, I have read more than a book a week this year, many of them books published in 2012.

Here are my favorites.

Some of them will likely populate a zillion "Best Of" lists, but there are a few buried treasures here as well. (These are listed in no particular order.)

The Guardians: An Elegy
Girlchild: A Novel
The Age of Miracles
The Salt God's Daughter
The Yellow Birds
The Odds
Outside the Lines 
Beautiful Ruins
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving 
The Fault in Our Stars