Science Projects and Supermarkets

Two YA books really spoke to me from the shelves recently. The first, a story of a shy, overweight girl who uses her science fair project as an opportunity to overhaul her lifestyle; the other a story of unrequited love between a fifteen and a 22-year old. I empathized with both protagonists, having experienced my own weight loss journey and my own heartbreak from an older boy. I didn’t read them because I am still brooding over these issues. Instead, I read them because I wanted to remember. Maybe my recent marriage has me nostalgic for my younger years. Maybe I need to remember how far I have come, in terms of fitness accomplishments and healthy living. Regardless…I read books. Here are my thoughts on both.

fat cat

Fat Cat by Robin Brande is about Cat’s journey from modern-day junk food gobbling, Diet Coke draining, not-a-swimmer-anymore science nerd to a vegetarian chef and nearly-skinny girl who finds her way back into cooking, swimming, and the arms of a few very cute classmates. Cat is her own worst enemy, as she freely admits after a few scientific experiment-induced revelations. She overheard her best friend Matt say mean things about her four years ago, and she spent the next few years stuffing her sorrows down with food.

Cat’s best friend Amanda is the ultimate YA novel side-kick. She is witty, beautiful, artistic, and has a sweet, handsome boyfriend. Though she is awfully cliche, I totally adore her. Her honesty is delivered with a well-meaning smile and the kind of support a girl can only get from a best girl friend. This is a “girl power” book all the way.

One of the themes the author forgot to wrap up was Cat’s self-deprecating inner monologue. While we never know how many pounds or dress sizes she loses (a fact I LOVE, because that way readers cannot compare themselves to “fat” Cat) Cat refuses to believe that she is thin. She slowly accepts the attention and compliments from Greg, Nick, and Matt, but refuses to say them to herself. That is a huge flaw. I spent years hating my body, and I know that it doesn’t matter what others say…it is all about self perception. I wish Brande would have included something about body dysmorphic disorder – a mental illness where, despite what you actually look like, you only see a defect. This would make a good “Girls Only” book discussion book, for that reason alone.

love and

Falling in love is one of the most incredible, painful experiences of a teen girl’s life. Especially if it is unrequited. In Laura Buzao’s Love and Other Perishable Items fifteen-year old Amelia falls for her 22-year old coworker Chris. He is clever, poetic, laugh-out-loud funny, and as unattainable as Justin Bieber. His eyes are focused on other girls, no…other women. Nevertheless, a friendship flourishes. Told in alternating voices, Love and Other Perishable Items exposes to readers what it is like to be a young girl in love with a man she will never be allowed to love. Their interactions are funny yet distanced, her feelings painful yet hopeful.

But the book is so much more than romance. Amelia lives in a cigarette smoke-filled home with an overworked mother, and Chris hates that he isn’t young, rich and successful, and must thereby still give in to his parent’s requests.

I am one and twenty years old. I can vote, enlist, drink legally in the US, and ‘come into’ my inheritance in a Jane Austen novel. But I can’t come home from work and flop onto my bed in peace if I choose,

Chris still lives at his parent’s home, which many teen readers are likely terrified of having to do themselves post-graduation. Lines like the one above are humorous takes on his otherwise sucky situation.

The end is a pleasant surprise. Sometimes I don’t want the characters to fall in love. It’s too expected. Buzo wrote the mature young girl and the immature older boy a solid friendship, which is sometimes all a girl in love can ask for.

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You read on your honeymoon?!

Of course I did. But so did he! In fact, I had to physically remove the book from his hands so we could get in the convertible Corvette and drive to Tampa for the Lightning game. I digress…

I barely stopped reading to get married, I even listened to an audiobook the day before. I was re-listening to 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher. (Yeah, talk about a debbie-downer the day before the happiest day of my life. What was I thinking?!) Asher is the keynote speaker at our annual It’s All Write short story contest awards ceremony in April, and I also wanted to be prepared to for the book discussion I am hosting on the title the week prior to his visit.

13I won’t lie (do I ever?)…I loved the book the first go-round when it was published back in 2007, and was angry with it on my second. Not the book, per say, but definitely Hannah. She had opportunities to open up and talk! She could talk to cassette tapes, but not Clay? Not Mr. Porter? Everything she said on the tapes was so deliberate and planned, but her actions were so demur and detached.

But maybe that’s the problem. She was able to be honest in private, but closed up in public. How many other teens seem fine when they are around others, but are full of anger or depression when they are alone? How many teens can’t find the words, or the right person to speak them to?

I hear it all the time from adults. That teens are selfish; they live with their noses shoved into their phones and computers; they are so different from teens of decades past. As someone who has served teens for a few years now, I can say they are all wrong about this demographic. They are no different. No more entitled. They are simply trying to keep their head above water in a large and often-changing world. Teens need adults who will listen to their concerns, because if we don’t listen to them about their smaller struggles, why would they come to us with their larger, potentially life-threatening ones?

Review: Hellbent: obsession, pain, and the search for something like transcendence in competitive yoga by Benjamin Lorr

CoverArt-Lorr-HELL-BENT

A daily practitioner of yoga – even if just for ten minutes – the cover of this book leapt out at me from the Barnes & Nobles shelf. I don’t know the name of the pose the author is holding, but I know that I want to be able to do it. Most yoga books have pictures of warrior or lotus…both of which I mastered looooooong ago. This pose, though…this pose made me want to kick my shoes off right there in the middle of the mall and figure out how to bent just right.

Hellbent: obsession, pain, and the search for something like transcendence in competitive yoga by Benjamin Lorr is a very read-able mixture of memoir and expose. Memoir because it was the author who decided to embark on Bikram yoga – first attending classes, then attending the 9-week requisite teacher training, then competing regionally and nationally – and expose because there is no way this book would be sanctioned by Bikram Choudhury (founder of the 104 degree, 26 posture yoga practice), a man known for his privacy, and scathing hatred of anyone who defies him. (Read the book, yogis…don’t kill the messenger).

Lorr spends just enough time on the scientific, medical, and technical details to keep me interested, but luckily spends most of the book recounting his experiences. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a behind-the-scenes look into one of my passions. And I should admit that this book disillusioned me to the miraculous nature of Bikram yoga. I’ll admit it: I was sucked in. I was hellbent (pardon the pun) on practicing at my favorite studio on a weekly basis and was even trying to figure out how I could practice more often, high cost of practice be damned. But reading this book brought me back to reality. Made me remember that yoga is supposed to be restorative albeit challenging and heart-pumping; that yoga is a practice, not something to feel worthless over if I had to drop out of a posture; that yoga is most effective when the practitioner cross-trains. I was getting sucked into the commercial side of yoga, and this book brought me back. (Hey Lorr? My bank account thanks you.)

So it’s a great relief to have Esak next to me, struggling. Legs trembling, occasionally coming out of a posture early to sneak a break. It’s a relief because for the first time, I don’t feel like such a clod. Because in the beginner series we’re all leveled, all equal. But it’s also a relief because I know he’s legit. Only a fraud could make it through flawlessly every time.

In searching for the cover art, I found this blog written by a Bikram teacher. I appreciate her candid response to Lorr’s book because she respects his experiences with Bikram and casually remarks how hers differ.

If you have ever practiced Bikram, want to practice Bikram, like yoga, or just want to read laugh-out-loud and cringe-inducing stories, then pick up this book and read it. Read it while in lotus and your mind and your body will thank you.

Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Marie Semple

where'd

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Marie Semple is a witty, humorous novel that will have you booking a flight to Seattle cruise to Antarctica (Is the Drake Passage that bad?). Bernadette is mother to Bee, a precocious teenager whose impressive academic and social standing barely hold a candle to her wit and wisdom. Bernadette hates Seattle and the people in it so much that she lives the life of a recluse, and even goes so far as to hire a virtual assistant living in India. But Manjoola isn’t who Bernadette believes her to be. And upon realizing the trouble she put herself and her family into because of her pathetic reclusiveness, she flees.

This novel of a woman’s disappearance is told from multiple perspectives – her Micrsoft-inventor-husband, FBI files, and emails to and from the many people who played a part in her escape act. I listened to this on AudioCD in my car, so it took me a moment to re-orient myself when the format went from narrative to primary source. I still recommend listening to it, though, because the reader has such a unique voice, lending so well to the uniquness of Bee, Bernadette, and the entire whirlwind of a saga they were caught up in.

This book was recently given the distinction of being named a 2013 Alex Award Winner, awarded to adult books with appeal to young adult readers. Many times as I was listening to this book I thought of the Alex Awards, so I feel validated as a Teen Services Librarian who can choose adult fiction for her demographic. I am also validated in that I choose to read really great books.

I want my best friend Dawn to read this book. I think she will “get” Bernadette. I also think hipster-haters will enjoy this, because that is all Bernadette does, really…hates on Seattle’s Queen Bee moms and rich-wannabe lifestyles. But deep down, Bernadette is sad about a life gone awry…which many of us can relate to. In fact, the author’s idea for the main character came from her own experience. Read about it on her website.

Review: Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen (a re-read from 2006)

devil     I first read The Devil in the White City in February 2006. I was recuperating from an operation and this was the book on top of the TBR pile. I have lauded its excellence in history, mystery, and style for over 7 years, but recently wondered if I really enjoyed the book, or if the Percocet I was taking post-op liked the book. So I decided to re-read it, something I have done very few times in my adult life (no really, I don’t re-read as much as people think I do…) and I am very glad I did.

Shredded Wheat cereal, Cracker Jack, the Ferris Wheel…all of these were first displayed to the world at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1983. Inventors, performers, and artists chose this venue to showcase their work because of the worldwide exposure they were sure to receive. And, based off the popularity of the abovementioned products, they were correct.

But the fair meant more than pitching new breakfast cereal to the masses. Chicago – the Second City – held the world’s attention over New York City for the few years between receiving the vote to host the fair and the fair’s closing. The city considered the World’s Fair to be their contribution to society, both local, regional, and national. Architects from Chicago to Boston constructed stunning, record-breaking structures, built in record-breaking time. Business owners thrived in a time of depression. The country looked to Chicago to buck the trend of economic downfall, and for a short time, the city complied. The fair’s Chicago Day surpassed the most heavily-attended day of the Paris World’s Fair in 1889, drawing over 700,000 souls.

But the Fair was the setting of a much more dark game…that of H.H. Holmes’ serial killing. Herman Mudgett, who went by numerous aliases, lured women into his life with his piercing blue eyes, charm, and sophistication. When he grew bored with them, he used them as medical experiments, often killing them with chloroform and methodically investigating the insides of his victims. Many were allegedly turned into skeletons, others were burned to ash in his incinerator. All were reported missing by their families.

I found myself wanting to read more about the murderer and his victims than the fair, but found the mix of topics to be intriguing and oddly alike. The parallels drawn between the fair, the era, the city, and the killer all came together seamlessly in the end of this well-researched book. I have read a few other Erik Larsen books, and will continue to do so. His research is thorough and his writing exciting. If you read this many years ago, do yourself a favor and read it again. This is one history lesson that only gets better the second go round.

Book 77: Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor

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Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor is the sequel to last Fall’s stunning fantasy spin on Romeo & Juliet, Daughter of Smoke & Bone. Karou has no family left, and has reluctantly succumbed to the chimaera leader, the White Wolf, and his small but mighty army. She has taken Brimstone’s task of resurrecting the dead chimaera, in an effort to keep the chimaera race alive and fighting. Meanwhile her former lover, the angel Akiva, has re-joined forces with the seraphs in destroying everything and everyone getting in between them and their enemy, even if the “everyone” includes very innocent bystanders.

This sequel picks up where the first left off, with broken hearts and mis-understandings. The two protagonists do what they must in order to survive and help their own people thrive, but keep thinking about the pact they made to each other, to work together to unite the feuding races.

Laini Taylor proves once more than she is a master crafter of other worlds. What she did for Prague and Elsewhere in Daughters she did for Morocco’s kasbah and the mythical palaces and countryside controlled by the seraph emperor Joram. Readers can feel the desert heat on their backs as Zuzana and Mik follow clues that lead to Karou, and can taste the spices Karou smells on her walk through the Moroccan market.

This book is a stunning follow-up to the first, and set itself up nicely to be continued for a third and final installment next fall. I find myself thinking about Karou and Akiva and the palpable rage that is separated only by a thin wall in the underground where the orphaned-seraph and chimaera are reluctantly joining forces in an attempt to end this war once and for all, and before it passes through the barrier into Earth.

You have only to begin, Lir. Mercy breeds mercy as slaughter breeds slaughter. We can’t expect the world to be better than we make it.

I reviewed the first book in the trilogy last September when I received an ARC (advanced reader copy, for all you non-librarians/book fanatics) from a library patron and friend who runs her own book review blog with her best friend and their kick-butt kids (no seriously, they will all grow up to be rock stars). If you are ever in need of a recommendation for your teen reader, head to their site. They will tell you what you need to know, from the parent’s standpoint. I really respect their objectivity. 

Book 76: Brain on Fire: my month of madness by Susannah Cahalan

BrainOnFire_cover2Reading Brain on Fire: my month of madness by New York Post journalist Susannah Cahalan makes me want to get tested for autoimmune diseases. Like, every single one. But specifically NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis. Because that is the one that rendered Susannah nearly catatonic for a month during the spring of 2009, the one that one of the world’s top neurosurgeons cured her of…but one that is commonly mis-diagnoised as schizophrenia or similar mental illnesses. Yes, a disease that, had the right doctors not cared for her, could have landed her in a mental institution.

What began as two assumed bedbug bites quickly turned into no-holds-barred paranoia, seizures, and manic-depressive behavior. Susannah was in her early 20s, thriving as a journalist and enjoying her life in Manhattan. The first doctor she saw was convinced that she was over-worked and probably drinking too much. Days later she was on the epilepsy floor at NYU on the brink of being transferred to the mental health ward because of her uncontrollable and erratic behavior. It was only her father’s daily presence outside of her hospital room door and her boyfriend’s nightly visits that kept her calm enough for the necessary procedures to be completed which kept her as a neurological patient instead of a psychiatric one.

The brain is a monstrous, beautiful mess.

Susannah was cured. Obviously. People in catatonic states tend not to write memoirs. But she fought really, really hard to get back to her old self. The month in the hospital might have been the worst, but it by far was not the end. The past three years have been a daily struggle, trying to get her physical and mental abilities back to where they were pre-diagnoses. The disease that attacked her brain led her to compose this stunning memoir of her experiences, as well as those of her family’s (verbatim from a journal her divorced parents used to communicate with one another between visits), and doctor’s. She is an inspiration to anyone suffering from any disease because she fought to bring herself back.

Susannah’s situation brings to light – at a very appropriate time – the discussion this nation must have about mental health. Her month-long stay at NYU cost over $1 million, covered by her employe’s health insurance and her parent’s ability to cover the out-of-pocket expenses. The combination of the two is an unlikely combination for many Americans suffering from mental disease. Imagine if her insurance had run out, or wouldn’t cover the costly experimental tests, or if her father weren’t retired and able to spend all day with her, advocating for her to the doctors. Imagine if she were poor, and when her symptoms came across as schizophrenic, she couldn’t afford the tests that proved otherwise. Would she ever have recovered? Would she have spent her life in a mental institution? Or worse, in prison because of a crime she inadvertently committed while under duress of the disease?

But this is all the more reason that psychiatrists and neurologists are finding ways to break down the barriers set in place between psychology and neurology, urging for one uniform look at mental illnesses as the neurochemical diseases that they are, and in the process…getting more grant money to study the overlap.

Susannah writes about the duress mental health physicians are under, often seeing 35 patients each work day. This forced assembly-line care is unsuited to the long-term one-on-one care that many (supposed) mental health patients require.

I’m the one who is lucky. I did not slip through a system that is designed to miss cases just like my own – cases that require time and patience and individualized attention.

This 250-page memoir is a true story of resilience, dedication, faith, and success. It could have been one about failure. I pray that this book, this story, makes its way into the hands of people who have the ability to alter the way individuals with mental health diseases are tested, diagnosed, treated. Please read my review of 72 Hour Hold for another author’s take on mental health in America.