Thursday, June 22, 2017

CACTUS EATERS by Dan White


Cactus Eaters - How I Lost My Mind and Almost Found Myself - On the Pacific Crest Trail
By Dan White

I was looking for some travel books at my local library when I came across this book. The spine had many indentations on it, and how could I resist a title like Cactus Eaters? My husband and his family eat cactus, but in the form of nopales - sliced into thin strips, cooked and inserted into tacos as a filling. I pulled the book out from the shelf and gave it a good flip before slipping it into my canvas tote bag. 

Cactus Eaters is a memoir by Dan White about his experience of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with his then-girlfriend, Allison. This isn't just a hiking story. This is also a story of a struggling relationship between two people at pivotal points in their lives, from the perspective of a man whose life is changing and he is unsure of what he wants. Dan wonders whether their struggling relationship can survive outside of the Pacific Crest Trail. 

Before reading this book, I never realized that the PCT hiking community was so small. People recognize each other from the signature books that hikers sign at various points along the trail. Cactus Eaters introduces us to the lightweight hikers who follow the teachings of Ray Jardine, the snobbery and competitiveness that one can encounter occasionally, as well as other intriguing individuals that one can meet on the trail. At some points I found his assessment of certain individuals a bit too judgmental, but for the most part, I enjoyed reading his portraits of different people they met along the trail. 

Dan speculates on the type of person who would be drawn to the Pacific Crest Trail. Many embark on the trail to work through some type of emotional pain. Having grown up somewhat sheltered and privileged, he feels like he is unproven, like a sword not yet used in battle. The full title of this book is Cactus Eaters - How I lost my Mind and Almost Found Myself on the Pacific Crest Trail. *Almost* is right. During the last third of the book, Dan falls into a spiral of aimlessness and prioritizes himself and his PCT goal over Allison and their relationship. The memoir doesn't end with a neat, climactic moment of self-realization, but with his relationship with Allison unraveling into a distant friendship, and the two of them drifting off into their respective lives. As satisfying as it would have been to have a snappy Hollywood ending, I accepted the realism. 

Cactus Eaters breaks away from cliches ending in the protagonist/speaker "finding" himself. Contrary to expectations and hopes that he may have had going into the PCT, he fails to find himself, but instead, gets lost along the way and struggles to find direction after PCT. Eventually he moves on with his life, but those events occur far after the PCT experience. However, I was glad to know that he turned out okay. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and White's narrative style. Dan White intermingled his and Allison's experiences in the PCT with the historical background of the PCT and wandering thoughts.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

ALL FALL DOWN by Jennifer Weiner


I found a used copy of All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner in a Starbucks cafe in Point Loma in the newspaper rack. It was still in good condition, and I looked around for someone who might've placed it there on purpose. An old man smiled at me from his seat. Maybe he does this as a hobby, I thought, smiling back at him as I slipped the book into my purse.

Am I really going to read this?

Does my bookshelf need another book?

My paralegal program started recently, and on top of that, I started my new job as case assistant for one of the largest local firms in San Diego. I flipped through the book during the weekend as I printed out stuff from the computer. Before I knew it, I was halfway done. And a little after that, I was done.

All Fall Down is about an educated, upper-middle class mommy blogger who lives a stressful life trying to balance between taking care of her sensitive daughter, their finances (she has to write professionally to make ends meet for the family), her distant husband, and her aging father with Alzheimer's. To placate her stressful mind, she takes prescription painkillers. But soon, the calming and soothing effect of those pills becomes the only reason she is able to get up in the morning.

What makes this book good is that it deals with real problems and misconceptions that people have towards drug addiction. We all have this horrid image of the homeless and haggard low-income drug addict, but drug addiction goes past socio-economic barriers, as we can see in Jennifer Weiner's novel, All Fall Down.

My plan for this copy is to pass it onto the next person in a public place.

My rating: 5/5 stars





Find out more about All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner:
Amazon | Goodreads | Barnes & Noble

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL by Soman Chainani


The School for Good and Evil
by Soman Chainani
(Book 1)

Retellings of classic fairy tales have a history as long as gossip itself, and continue to be popular in pop culture. Among retellings is Soman Chainani's debut novel, The School for Good and Evil, which debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. In this hilarious novel, Chainani takes the generic, quasi-medieval setting of fairy tales and reinvents it to subvert countless fairy tale tropes while telling a story about friendship between two girls. 

Sophie and Agatha live in the village of Gavaldon, a generic fairy tale-esque village in the middle of some woods. Every year, on the eleventh night of the eleventh month, two children disappear. The legends say that a School Master kidnaps the children and takes them into a school where one of them learns Good and the other learns Evil. The children would eventually graduate into fairy tales as a hero and a villain. 

Sophie, the most beautiful girl in the village, has spent most of her life doing "good" deeds and primping herself to prepare to be kidnapped into the School for Good. Agatha, on the other hand, lives by a graveyard, wears black frocks, has a pet cat - looks as if she's perfect for the School for Evil.

However, when the kidnapping happens, the girls find that their purported paths have been switched - Agatha is a student of the School for Good while Sophie is thrown into the School for Evil. 

The School for Good and Evil challenges a lot of tropes introduced by fairy tales that a lot of us grow up accepting, such as that attributes such as ugliness, the color black, and dirtiness = evil, while attractiveness, the color white (and other pastels), and purity (pristine surroundings, pure intentions) = good

Chainani also questions the ideology of "goodness" and also our subjective connotations of what it means to "hurt" or "help" someone, and whether it's really so good to "give" something. The five rules that separate Good from Evil are:
  1. The Evil attack. The Good defend. 
  2. The Evil punish. The Good forgive. 
  3. The Evil hurt. The Good help. 
  4. The Evil take. The Good give. 
  5. The Evil hate. The Good love. (page 157)
Take Rule 4 and apply it to the fate of Good animals who "help" Princesses:
"Animals love to help princesses for so many reasons!" said Princess Uma, stopping at the water's edge. "Because we sing pretty songs, because we give them shelter in the scary Woods, because they only wish they could be as beautiful and beloved as--"

"Wait."

Uma and the girls turned. Agatha held up the storybook's last page--a painting of the stag ripped to pieces by monsters as the princess escaped.

"How is that a happy ending?"

"If you aren't good enough to be a princess, then you're honored to die for one, of course," Uma smiled, as if she would learn this lesson soon enough. (page 130)

A lot of distinguishing between good and evil starts with the appearance, but the book also addresses deception (when a Good or Evil person is disguised as the other). Agatha struggles between the School's institutionally-enforced dichotomy between Good and Evil because she was placed in the School of Good, but her appearance and reclusive outward demeanor makes her appear as if she belongs with the School of Evil: 
"What if my face is Evil?"

Her teacher flinched at her tone.

"I'm far from home, I I've lost my only friend, everyone here hates me, and all I want is a way to find some kind of happy ending," Agatha said, red-hot. "But you can't even tell me the truth. My ending is not about what Good I do or what's inside me. It's about how I look." Spit flew out of her mouth.

"I never even had a chance." (page 372)
Despite this book being full of hilarious moments (mostly in which Sophie attempts to do Good deeds at school), it also contains some sincere moments of growth for Agatha's character, in which she emerges from beneath Sophie's flamboyant shadow and paves her own destiny. As her confidence increases, Agatha transforms from the reluctant sidekick to her own heroine, and also realizes that there are things in-between Good and Evil (page 423). 

Overall, this book helped me develop an appreciation for fairy tale villains for their flair and passion. With their contrasting personalities, Sophie and Agatha complement each other well as friends (and maybe frenemies). I absolutely loved the clever reinvention and subversion of fairy tale tropes in The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani. 

I look forward to reading the second book, A World Without Princes, which actually came out this April. The third book, The Last Ever After, will be released on July 21, 2015. 

Find out more about The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani:

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

NORA AND KETTLE by Lauren Nicolle Taylor


Nora and Kettle
by Lauren Nicolle Taylor
Expected Publication: February 29, 2016

If you haven’t read anything by Lauren Nicolle Taylor, you’re in for a real treat: Nora and Kettle is an upcoming novel by Lauren Nicolle Taylor, international bestselling author of The Woodlands. Set in the years after World War II, Nora and Kettle features a story about friendship and love between the daughter of a civil rights lawyer and a mixed-race Japanese-American orphan. 

The first few pages of Nora and Kettle whisked me away into the sheltered but troubled life of Nora, daughter of a prestigious civil rights attorney. Living in a large home with her affluent family, Nora has learned to hide her bruises and stay quiet, mostly for the sake of keeping her little sister safe from their violent father. 

The story soon shifts to the perspective of Kettle, a young man who goes out of his way to make life livable for his family, a group of Nisei orphans (“Lost Children”) who were taken from orphanages and placed into internment camps. 

What do Nora and Kettle have in common? They are protective of those they love, and would sacrifice much to make sure that their loved ones are safe. Nora bravely endures her father’s beatings to make sure her sister is safe, while Kettle fights to work risky jobs in the mines in order to feed his family of fellow homeless children. On the surface, they live very different lives, but they also have a lot in common. 

The story flows seamlessly between the perspectives of Nora and Kettle. I found myself attempting to piece together different facts and details to get a hold of the big picture or the “real deal” of a character.The revelations are satisfying and add layers of complexity to characters and their motivations. Hints introduced throughout the book come together to reveal important discoveries later on in the story--wish I could say but it’d be too spoilery. Take my word on this!
A sketch of Nora and Kettle, by Lauren Nicolle Taylor
Nora and Kettle left me reeling with emotions--happy ones, angry ones, and also sad ones. I dreamed along with Nora, simmered with anger at her father’s violence and hypocrisy, and cheered for both Nora and Kettle. I found myself identifying with both characters’ struggles, dreams, and fears. 

The emotional impact of this novel also stems from Lauren Nicolle Taylor’s signature style of poetic prose. Her vivid writing sweeps me away into the secret realms of her characters’ minds and hearts, where they are free to express how they truly feel. This is especially true for Nora, whose innerworld is dreamy and mobile compared to her oppressive situation at home, where she has to hide her true thoughts from her overbearing father. 
"A Frankie and Kettle Moment" by Lauren Nicolle Taylor
Overall, this is a poetically written novel about two strong-willed characters who will do whatever they can to ensure the safety of the people they love. The post-World War II setting and Kettle’s background illuminates a segment of history that is often overlooked: the removal of children from orphanages and their subsequent placement into internment camps for having any sort of Japanese ancestry. Nora and Kettle are likable characters who drive the plot forward and I find myself investing deeply in their struggles. Nora and Kettle is an exhilarating read and I highly recommend it.

Expected Publication Date for Nora and Kettle: February 26, 2016

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

DIARY OF A JOB SEARCH: One Man's Journey from Unemployment to a New Career by Tim Johnston


Diary of a Job Search: One Man's Journey from Unemployment to a New Career
by Tim Johnston

Ever read an old manual? My dad owned a lot of old textbooks from the 1970s and 1980s, and as a kid, I'd flip through them whenever I was bored. One of the books was a guide on how to save money on your car, and the author spoke about driving beneath the speed limit, 55 mph. "Wow, cars were slow back then," the ten-year-old me would remark.

The technology of job hunting, while it is a constant phenomenon and necessity, is constantly changing, especially in the Internet Age. This book, like so many others, was a product of its time, and it reveals a lot of insight into the anxious mindset of the post-9/11 American job hunter.

Perhaps the economic chaos after 9/11 was the beginning of the end to the idea of one stable, lifelong career, the expectation that the same company will take care of its employees for life. The beginning of job hunting and company-hopping as employees realized that they were on their own in terms of securing their financial future. Along with new circumstances comes a new "game", new rules, and new tools to use in the job hunt. It's the reason Richard Bolle comes out with a new edition of What Color Is Your Parachute? every year (A thorough book of advice on the job hunting process. I recommend it).

Diary of a Job Search by Tim Johnston goes back to the pre-LinkedIn days of 2003. Tim the Job Hunter's journey is fun (and occasionally hilarious) to read.

I'd like to compare the experience of reading this to staring into a time capsule of what it was like to search for jobs around the time the Internet was starting to take off in popularity. Lots of references were made to the 9/11 attacks and their catastrophic effects on the job market. Tim regarded the use of the pre-LinkedIn Internet for job hunting with skepticism, and partly because job sites were already being spammed with resumes and sketchy sales opportunities.

Some lessons Tim learned along the way remain relevant in 2015: "feeding and watering" your network, interviews, negotiating one's salary, being likable/showing value in an interview, and being persistent in the job search despite the challenges of morale and unemployment.

I hope Tim is doing well today. He was a likable job hunting protagonist in this book, and even though our life circumstances are completely different, it was easy to identify with him and his concerns and aspirations.

My rating: 5/5 stars by 2003 standards





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Friday, May 15, 2015

YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler


Yes Please is Amy Poehler's book of all-things-Poehler: memoirs, opinion essays, thoughts, ideas, lists, and the occasional haiku poem. Amy Poehler's voice strikes me as sincere, intelligent, witty, and engaging. She is self-conscious of her role as an entertainer who is creating a book about herself, and also as a white woman who grew up in a working class.

Poehler's career has survived at least two wars and the 9/11 attacks. Amy Poehler stated that after the September 11, 2001 attacks, "It felt like America might not ever smile, never mind laugh, again" (135). But it did. I remember Amy Poehler's hilarious skits with Tina Fey from around 2008 during the presidential campaign.

If Yes Please reflects Amy Poehler as a person and comedian, then the book has given me a lot of respect for her because she shares the guilt she felt over the way she'd indignantly handled the negative reaction over a skit making fun of a girl with cerebral palsy. She lived with this guilt for years until she finally gathered the courage to apologize. I thought it was brave of her to come out and admit the crummy way in which she'd reacted to the backlash.

In addition to stories about her way to becoming the SNL star that she is now, Amy Poehler shares moments from her childhood. One of my favorite parts is the section about her "plain" looks:

"I had already made a decision early on that I would be a plain girl with tons of personality, and accepting it made everything a lot easier. If you are lucky, there is a moment in your life when you have some say as to what your currency is going to be. I decided early on it was not going to be my looks" (20).

Amy Poehler also points out the double standards that mothers and teenagers are held up to. With mothers, stay-at-home-moms and working mothers are made to feel bad for either not working or for not spending enough time with their children. For teenagers, girls straddle the line between "virgin" and "slut", a game that no one can ever truly win. Amy points out all of these frustrating standards with a light and humorous tone, without sounding preachy or angry.

Her life motto: "Good for you, not for me."

The layout of Yes Please by Amy Poehler is beautiful, consisting of splash pages between each chapter with short and snappy lines, such as "Do whatever you like," and "Short people do not like to be picked up". I also enjoyed looking at photos of her past, which are sprinkled throughout the book but do not dominate the discourse.

My rating: 5/5

Thanks for reading! Find out more about Yes Please by Amy Poehler:
Amazon | Goodreads

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The 10 Best Books of May 2015

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Selected from nominations from library staff across the country (LibraryReads), here are the top 10 books that librarians are thrilled about sharing in May 2015:

1. Uprooted by Naomi Novik - In this awesome book by the author of the Temeraire novels, a young girl is uprooted from her family and thrown into a world of magic and war. In order to protect her home and village, Agnieszka must help the Dragon wizard fight against the corrupting forces of The Wood. Naomi Novik draws from folklore and legends to create a new take on old stories. (Release: 5/19/2015)

2. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas - A new book and series by the author of Throne of Glass, A Court of Thorns and Roses borrows elements from an old fairy tail: the beauty and the beast. A Court of Thorns and Roses is the first book in Sarah J. Maas's new series about a young huntress who kills a wolf and gets kidnapped by a beast in the woods. The beast turns out to be one of the immortal and powerful faeries in the land, and he wants retribution for the wolf that she killed. As prisoner, Feyre comes to fall in love with the beast, but soon must figure out a way to defeat the shadow that threatens to destroy the beast's land. (Release: 5/5/2015)

3. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson - This is a companion book to Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, so you don't have to read Life After Life to enjoy A God in Runs. In Life After Life, Ursula Todd found himself reliving the events of last century again and again. In A God in Ruins, Ursula's younger brother Teddy, a poet and bomber pilot, husband and father, navigates the dangers of the 20th century as he comes of age. (Release: 5/5/2015)

4. A Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi - As a southern California in the midst of a very long drought, Paolo Bacigalupi's dystopian thriller strikes true in the center of my fears. In the American Southwest, Nevada, Arizona, and California fight over the remaining shares of water for the Colorado River. (Release: 5/26/2015)

5. The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza - An outrageously stylish, wickedly funny novel of fashion in the digital age, Imogen Tate, editor in chief of Glossy magazine, finds her twenty-something former assistant Eve Morton plotting to knock Imogen off her pedestal, take over her job, and reduce the magazine, famous for its lavish 768-page September issue, into an app. (Release: 5/19/2015)

6. Early Warning by Jane Smiley - This second installment of Jane Smiley's trilogy brings the journey of a remarkable family with roots in the Iowa heartland into mid-century America. Early Warning opens in 1953 with the Langdon family at a crossroads. Their stalwart patriarch, Walter, who with his wife, Rosanna, sustained their farm for three decades, has suddenly died, leaving their five children, now adults, looking to the future. Only one will remain in Iowa to work the land, while the others scatter to Washington, D.C., California, and everywhere in between. As the country moves out of post–World War II optimism through the darker landscape of the Cold War and the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s, and then into the unprecedented wealth—for some—of the early 1980s, the Langdon children each follow a different path in a rapidly changing world. (Release: 4/28/2015)

7. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson - A thought-provoking science fiction epic in which a catastrophic event ushers in the Earth's impending doom. Nations around the world unite to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space. The complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain. Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another journey into the unknown . . . to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth. (Release: 5/19/2015)

8. The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths - Book 7 of the Ruth Galloway mystery series. The chilling discovery of a downed World War II plane with a body inside leads Ruth and DCI Nelson to uncover a wealthy family’s secrets. (Release: 5/19/2015)

9. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf - A bittersweet yet inspiring story of a man and a woman who, in old age, come together to wrestle with the events of their lives and their hopes for the imminent future.
In Holt, Colorado, Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to a neighbor, Louis Waters. Her husband died years ago, as did his wife, and in such a small town they naturally have known of each other for decades; in fact, Addie was quite fond of Louis’s wife. His daughter lives hours away in Colorado Springs, her son even farther away in Grand Junction, and Addie and Louis have long been living alone in houses now empty of family, the nights so terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk with. (Release: 5/26/2015)

10. Little Black Lies - Sharon Bolton - In such a small community as the Falkland Islands, a missing child is unheard of. When another child goes missing, and then a third, it's no longer possible to believe that their deaths were accidental, and the villagers must admit that there is a murderer among them. And suddenly, in this wild and beautiful place that generations have called home, no one feels safe and the hysteria begins to rise. But three islanders--Catrin, her childhood best friend, Rachel, and her ex-lover Callum--are hiding terrible secrets. And they have two things in common: all three of them are grieving, and none of them trust anyone, not even themselves. (Release: 5/19/2015)

Thanks for reading! Which titles are you interested in? Is there a title you think that should make this list?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

DYING TO FORGET by Trish Marie Dawson (The Station #1)


Dying to Forget
by Trish Marie Dawson
The Station Series, #1

Dying to Forget by Trish Marie Dawson puts a spin on the common religious notion that people who commit suicide go straight to hell. Two major tragedies befall Piper Willow, a girl in high school. The third results in her death.

Piper finds herself in a clean, white place - a Station for people like her who have committed suicide, a chance for redemption.

In order to redeem herself and possibly go to a better place, Piper and her friends in the afterlife become Volunteers who go back to Earth to reside in the minds of individuals who are contemplating suicide, in order to persuade them to choose life over death.

Old vs. New Cover

Dying to Forget Covers: Old (left) and New (right)
I love the new cover so much more than the old one. While the new one is generic and vanilla, with a closeup of an attractive model, it doesn't turn me off like the old one does. What does it tell me about the story? Nothing, except that the protagonist is a white female. However, it doesn't make me go, "Eww."

First thoughts about the old one: Eww, sullen teenager in an unflattering pose. Why is she squatting as if she's about to drop a deuce, and why is her crotch covered by white fabric? The model looks like she has an attitude, which is not representative of Piper at all. Piper lacks that edge. The background is visually interesting though.

My Thoughts

I thought it was very cool that Trish Marie Dawson chose to tackle the widespread idea of the suicide victim's condemnation to hell by giving the victims a chance to redeem themselves in an in-between Station. I laughed at the concept of the bureaucratic heaven (The afterlife is a big business! Why wouldn't it have a huge bureaucracy?).

Nigel was an endearing character, and I was glad that Piper was able to meet such a nurturing fellow. I thought Nigel was God at first, but how often do you get to meet the CEO in a densely bureaucratic company? I feel like there is more to him than meets the eye - he seems to play a larger role in the afterlife bureaucracy than he lets on.

It took me a chapter to warm up to Piper, mostly because I found her naive obsession over Jock Guy annoying. Fortunately, that only lasted a chapter. The ending comes in the form of a huge cliffhanger - I saw it coming from the setup earlier in the novel, but I welcome this direction in the plot because I want to find out what happens.

The Audiobook Experience

I listened to Dying to Forget by Trish Marie Dawson on Audible, narrated by Kimberly Woods.

Kimberly Woods' voice comes across as very adolescent, kind of breathy. It took a while to get used to (especially during the whole Naive Piper stage), but by a third of the book in, I was enjoying her narration, and I can't imagine this book or Piper without Kimberly Woods' voice. I hope Kimberly Woods narrates the next books in The Station Series, because I can't imagine Piper with a different voice.

Woods' vocal rendition of Piper makes me picture Beth Greene from The Walking Dead (possibly because the similarities in speech patterns)and as a result, I pictured Beth as Piper rather than either of the cover models. Here's a picture of lovely Beth:
Beth Greene from The Walking Dead, played by Emily Kinney
Woods' high voice is perfect for embodying a teenager but not so much for old men. I couldn't tell Nigel's voice apart from Sloan's step-dad's voice. But they were relatively minor characters, so that was okay. And their emotions were still conveyed well. 

This book translated well into audiobook format. I played this in my car during morning and evening commute and looked forward to hearing more about Piper's afterlife each time.

My rating:

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