Tried to read Daniel Handler's Adverbs; realized I am not hip enough to find it compelling and/or amusing. Will stick with my Unfortunate Events, thanks.

I'm off for a week-plus-long vacation, so no posting for a while. Not that anyone reads this anyway.

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

I have a new hero and her name is Barbara Brown Taylor.

After waiting in vain for a new book by Nora Gallagher, my jones for Episcopal women's memoirs has been filled with this, Barbara Brown Taylor's latest. Taylor was part of the early wave of ordained women in the Episcopal Church, and this book chronicles her years as the rector at a small (then suddenly rapidly-growing) parish in northeast Georgia. She begins her job with great faith and enthusiasm; by the end of the book, her enthusiasm has been crushed under the weight of a million little duties, and she takes her faith and uses it in another vocation, teaching religion to undergraduates.

I love Taylor's style; I identify with her theology; and I sure as hell couldn't do what she does. Every once in a while I wonder if I should have pursued ministry: it's in my blood, and I do like standing in front of people and talking. But the everything-else that's a part of serving God full-time -- that's what Taylor lays out, and that's what keeps me on my side of the altar.

I'll be checking out Taylor's other writings.

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor. Harper San Francisco, 2006, 224 pages.

Money, a Memoir

This book alternately shamed and appalled me. I was embarrassed to identify with the many educated, professional women who nonetheless are happy to relinquish any claim or interest in managing their own investments. At the same time, I was horrified by the many women (some of whom fall in the first category as well) who blithely go out and fritter money away on things they don't need at prices they can't afford. People, shoes shouldn't cost more than $20 ($25, maybe, but only if it's for your own wedding). Retail therapy can be useful in a pinch but is not an acceptable lifestyle choice. And for God's sake, don't be so proud of your kept-woman status.

I didn't feel that I'd learned much by the end of the book, save that my intermittent twinges of guilt over not making my own trades in my 401(k) should be addressed, not ignored. Perle lays out the situation as she sees it, then basically steps back and expects the reader to figure it out.

Money, a Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash by Liz Perle. Holt, 2006, 288 pages.


When It Happens

[Note to self: There's another YA novel I read between Weedflower and this one, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was. Clearly it was, uh, memorable.]

When It Happens is a love story between two idealistic high school seniors, told in alternating chapters from the protagonists' points of view. Sara is a good student, not part of the popular crowd but pretty enough to attract the attention of uber-cool Dave. Tobey is an underachiever, a smart guy with a band who doesn't see the need to do his homework, apply to college, or do anything that would keep him from moving to New York after graduation to make it big with his band.

At the start of the story, Sara is still hopped up on Dave. She's spent the summer thinking and doodling in her sketchbook about her idea of the perfect man, and she's hopeful that Dave is it. When he finally asks her out, she's over the moon -- but gradually, as time goes on and Dave's real, ugly personality comes out, she begins to realize that she's more in love with the idea of Dave than with Dave himself.

Tobey, meanwhile, spends his senior year plotting ways to get Sara to notice him. His plots are pretty tame, though: the most radical is a decision to buckle down and work, so he has a chance to get into Manhattan School of Music despite his lousy grades. Eventually Sara and Tobey give into their attraction, and the rest of the book chronicles their relationship through its inevitable ups and downs.

Good stuff: It's nice to read a book about smart kids who aren't necessarily defined by their smartness; sensitive kids who aren't emotional basket cases; and kids with healthy sex drives who make good, reasoned decisions about physical relationships. I liked Sara and Tobey; I liked their friends; I liked their teachers; I wanted to see things come out right.

Bad stuff: Is there any reason this book needed to be 320 pages long? I don't think so. And the villainous popular people were perhaps too cartoony (e.g., Caitlin can't just be a rich bitch; she also has to pop pills in the bathroom).

A good choice for moony girls.

When It Happens by Susane Colasanti. Viking, 2006, 320 pages.



I admit, I'm not a big fan of Kira-Kira, a book that was okay in the reading but was clearly, to me, a good-for-you book: the kind of book your teachers wished you would read while you were busy scarfing down the latest Sweet Valley High. (Or maybe that was just me.)

So I didn't have high hopes for Weedflower, and in that I wasn't disappointed (if that convoluted logic makes sense). Weedflower comes with a huge good-for-you subject, namely the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. What kid wouldn't snatch that off the shelf? . . . (Oh, right. EVERY kid.)

And yet, Kadohata surprised me several times with the quality of the novel. Sumiko is a likable heroine, the story moves along at a pretty good clip, and the author addresses several issues that I either hadn't known about -- the relationship among Japanese Americans and Native Americans at Poston, for example -- or hadn't considered, such as the relative comfort of life in the camps for internees, at least after a while. Kadohata's father was held at Poston during the war, so presumably she knows of what she speaks.

I still think this is a book that needs a good booktalk or handsell to get a kid to read it; they're unlikely to pick it up on their own. Do I think it's award-caliber? Not really, but then again, I didn't think that of Kira-Kira, either.

Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata. S&S, 2006, 260 pages.


What Teen Angst Novel Are You?

What Teen Angst Novel are You? - funny, lots of results, with pix, from the author of The Boyfriend List

LOOKING FOR ALASKA, by John Green. Sad, Funny, boozy, thought-provoking. Go read it. It's you.
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Lost and Found

I refuse to participate in the whole "curse of the second novel" debate, mostly because they're cruel (and if I ever entertain ideas of writing myself, it's crap like this that sends my insecure little heart scurrying into hiding). But in this case, it's a moot point anyway. Lost and Found is miles away from Parkhurst's acclaimed debut, The Dogs of Babel, in both mood and subject matter. But it shares with that earlier novel a fine sense of craft and heart.

Lost and Found is the story of a group of reality show contestants, traveling the world for a chance at a million bucks. Their stories are typical for the genre: a mother and daughter united by a shameful secret; a pair of brothers still living out their childhood roles; an ex-gay couple brought together by a "Christian recovery" group; two rich guys whose motives are unclear; a couple of high school sweethearts reunited for a second chance at love; and a pair of former child stars trying to reclaim past glory.

The great thing about Parkhurst is her ability to transcend these tropes and show us the humanity behind the caricatures. Within the unreality of the reality show, personalities clash and secrets are kept or revealed, mostly to the misery of the secret-keeper. As with any multiple-narrator novel, some characters (and therefore some chapters) are stronger than others, but by the end, the story feels whole. Laura, the guilty mother, is the obvious protagonist, but I found myself drawn more to Abby, the "ex-lesbian" stuck in a pretty loveless marriage with a zealous, hypocritical fellow recovering homosexual, Justin. Justin's surprising outburst near the end of the novel gives needed momentum to the story (since we aren't really invested in the outcome of the show itself).

A great read.

Lost and Found by Carolyn Parkhurst. Little Brown, 2006, 304 pages.


Penny from Heaven

I love Jenni Holm -- have met her a couple times, enjoy all of her books, love the new Babymouse series. And though I admit to a certain trepidation about this new one (mostly because it's gotten so many accolades, and see where that's gotten me in the past), it didn't disappoint.

Eleven-year-old Penny hardly remembers her father, who died when she was a baby under circumstances never quite explained to her. Her mother doesn't associate with her father's giant, loud, wonderful Italian American family anymore, but she lets Penny keep in touch, and it's here -- among her numerous uncles, her terrifying Nonna, and her bad-seed cousin Frankie -- that Penny learns what it means to be brave and to be loved.

Holm wrote the book to call attention to a shameful part of American history, namely the interrogation and, at times, imprisonment of Italian Americans, German Americans, and other "enemies" of the state during World War II. There are loads of books now about the Japanese American experience in WWII, but precious little about these other victims of patriotism run amuck. It's a careful story, set in 1953, with little politicism, surprisingly; affecting and touching, it's got Award Contender scrawled all over it.

Penny from Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm. Random House, 2006, 200-something pages.

Queen of Babble

Oh, Meg Cabot. How I love your girlish charm, your refreshingly blunt take on writing and so-called literature, your gap-toothed grin, and your stubborn refusal to accept the fact that you gotta be pushing 40. (And I do mean this in the nicest way: Meg seems like the kind of gal with whom I'd want to share pitcher upon pitcher of margaritas.)

But every time I read another of Meg's adult books, I'm struck by two things:
1) Wow, the narrator's voice sounds just like the one from [insert previous Cabot title here].
2) And hey, if it weren't for a couple adult situations (sex and travel, usually), this could be just like one of her YA titles.

Good beach read, fun and forgettable. (See? I barely even remember enough of the plot to summarize it here.)

Queen of Babble by Meg Cabot. Morrow, 2006, 288 pages.

Bass Ackwards and Belly Up

I don't quite know where to start with this novel. Did I enjoy it while I was reading it? Yes. Was it basically well-written? Sure. Did I care about what happened to the characters? Usually, yeah.

So why did it leave a kind of bad taste in my mouth?

Maybe it's my own fuddy-duddy nature. A novel that glorifies the pretty stupid idea of giving up one's college plans to follow a heretofore-unnamed (and unknown) dream is not, to my ever-practical heart, the best reading material for me. But mostly I just found the premise unbelievable. Harper's rejection from NYU, and subsequent failure to admit it to anyone? Sad, but kinda pathetic, too. (Who doesn't apply to at least one safety school? Who thinks her parents wouldn't figure it out -- which, thank God, her mother does?) Sophie's starlet dreams are just sad, and her lack of real struggles (oh, no! what ever will I do in this fabulous Beverly Hills house with the hot young movie star *and* the sexy pool boy fighting over me?) made her the least sympathetic character for me. Becca I liked; Kate I liked (though perhaps I identified too closely with her regimented, hyper-planned life). But I just couldn't shake a sense of "um . . . riiiiiiight" throughout the whole thing.

Moments of fun, and a quick read for such a high page count. But overall, just meh.

Bass Ackwards and Belly Up by Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain. Little Brown, 2006, 386 pages.

Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love

I picked this up on the recommendation of other bloggers, who heard about it because of some boneheaded challenges to the book by ill-advised parents who hadn't even read the darn thing but who were horribly scandalized by the title. (Stepping off soapbox . . . now.)

The buzz on the book is that it's a lighthearted, positive look at romance and dating among the early-high-school/late-tween set, and it is that. There's no sex here, just the boy-crazed musings of a freshman girl at a decidedly unusual Manhattan high school. Lovestruck by the science-obsessed Matthew, Felicia embarks on a possibly-brave, possible-foolhardy project: convince Matthew to work together on a science fair project unlocking the secrets of X, the mysterious "It" that makes people fall in love.

It's a cute book, with amusing characters who sometimes strain the limits of credulity (the school itself, with its lackadaisical rules and follow-your-bliss faculty, being first among those characters). Is it more than that? Not really. Will it rot your brain? Not a chance. Give it to a 12-year-old who'll delight in hiding the title from her parents.

Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love by Maryrose Wood. Delacorte, 2006, 256 pages.