We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

we were liars

It’s been months since I’ve done a YA literature book review, not because I’ve given up on the genre now that I’ve been out of a middle school classroom for a few years, but more because it has been awhile since I’ve found one that really stood out to me. While I love the dystopian genre as much as anyone (although, I have to say I don’t think I am going to be able to bring myself to go see The Giver when it comes out in theaters soon; how could they possibly have done that better than the book?), I am getting a little worn out on it. Authors are churning these books out in the way of vampire books a few years ago; it’s becoming mundane and derivative and I’d love to see a new spin on it. Until then, I may have to walk away from YA dystopian for the foreseeable future.

Luckily, there is still great YA rolling off the presses and E. Lockhart is leading the way with the recently published We Were Liars. This book hooked me from the very start, drawing me into a world of a publicly distinguished, but privately broken family who spends every summer together on their own private island. While the adults (three sisters) are enmeshed in a King Lear-esque drama over who will inherit the kingdom, the oldest of the cousins come together each summer to fritter away the warm months, each year growing more aware that their family is break apart even as they grow closer, with nothing short of tragedy to turn their tale around.

Cadence, one of the “Liars” (the nickname given to this coterie of kids who live separate lives for nine months out of the year, but then gel together as one for the warm, long days of summer) and our narrator throughout, feels like a reliable narrator, until the reader realizes that the story she tells may have other versions that she is unwilling or unable to share. While the twists of her account are not necessarily obvious until later in the novel, E. Lockhart’s use of fairy tales to weave together the adult and teen components of Cadence’s recollection give the reader a feeling of not all being quite as it seems. What may seem like a perfect American family soon has cracks that are irreparable, making the reader realize that maybe the idea of a “perfect” family fits with Hans Christian Anderson’s compilations more than it does any reality of this world.

The instant I finished this book, I sent a message to my oldest niece (an 8th graders and avid reader), telling her to drop everything and go find this book. If I still had a classroom, I’d go out and buy several copies to start handing out to students on the first day of school. It really is that good! E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars is going to draw in a variety of readers, both male and female, from the middle grades up. Any book that keeps me up until 2AM, swiping page after page easily earns:

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Purchasing a Piece of Peace

It’s amazing how quickly five weeks of home leave can fly by, between wanting to meet up with friends and family, getting through endless shopping lists and a variety of doctors’ appointments and trying to grab a few minutes here and there to just relax and enjoy the blue skies and warm days of June in Idaho. (Home leave is congressionally mandated time that all Foreign Service officers are required to take between overseas postings. Originally, it was meant to make sure officers came home, reacquainted themselves with the country they represent and give them a chance to catch up culturally, which can be hard after being immersed in a land so different from “home.” Some folks contend that the home leave requirements are outdated now that technology has created such a small world, but I think it is still a necessary- if costly- endeavor. Officers and their families need to physically reconnect with their friends and family and spend some time on the ground in the States, as in the end, their job is to represent that home government overseas and it’s hard to do that if your only links to it for years on end are through binge watching Netflix and a never-ending Facebook feed.)

As we worked our way through two years of shopping (Wunderlist is an amazing tool!), buying a new suit and laptop for Thad, new running shoes and some sundresses for me, we soon tired of Target (blasphemy, I know) and the mall. Luckily, one of our final purchases didn’t require searching for a parking spot in a sea of asphalt or weaving through crowds of young mothers chasing their toddlers. Rather, all that was needed was a sturdy pair of shoes and some four-wheel drive.

Last on our shopping list: a bit of mountainside property.

After selling our home while in Chengdu, we decided that we wanted to once again own a small slice of Idaho, but this time without renters or a management company or a tilting retaining wall. Instead, we wanted tamarack pines to attract woodpeckers, huckleberry bushes to attract bears and some wildflowers scattered throughout it all. It wasn’t a “normal” shopping list for a realtor, but we found someone great who showed us an assortment of lots that fit the bill, with one standing out above the rest.

A hilltop meadow overlooking three mountain peaks that segues into pine trees and berry bushes as it slopes down the mountainside was the clear winner of the search. (The fact that there were deer on it each time we went to see it was a bonus point as well.) It took a bit of back and forth with the banks, as we were not the only ones vying to buy the twelve acres of Idaho timberland, but we can now, once again, officially call Idaho home, as there’s a small piece of acreage with our names on it, ready and waiting each time we return to the Northwest.

 

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Weekending with the Merlion

“Hey, do you want to go to Singapore tomorrow?” These are not words uttered by most of the US population, but when the tiny island known for its incredibly strict laws and spotless streets is just a few hour drive away, why not celebrate Hari Raya with a long weekend on the equator?

With our passports still with the local government, awaiting diplomatic visas, and my bum still smarting from my spill down the stairs, we planned a quiet weekend in the city, figuring this would be the perfect chance to get some driving practice in and learn the ins and outs of the road system, which seems to abhor straight lines more than anything else. But then, late last week, the same day our passports came back from the foreign affairs office, we got word that some great friends from Chengdu were going to be in Singapore for the weekend. Calendars clear (other than my planned outing to the butterfly farm and maybe catching a movie, both of which can happen any weekend of the year), we decided to book bus tickets, find a cheap hotel (okay, nothing is cheap in Singapore, but at least an affordable hotel) and head south to spend some time with fantastic Chengdu-ren.

Finding bus tickets wasn’t as easy as I had hoped because with the long weekend, all the well-known bus companies were totally booked. (This was Friday evening and we were looking for a first-thing-in-the-morning bus on Saturday.) Finally, I found one that seemed doable and bought tickets as Thad reserved the hotel. In the end, his find was better than mine. While mine got us across the border and back, it did make way too many stops, including one for repairs on the bus. (I’m not entirely sure what the deal was, but there were a lot of lug nuts being screwed and replaced and possibly a tire or two, although since I never left the confines of the air conditioned bus, I can’t verify the latter part of the statement.) On the other hand, Thad’s hotel find was top notch. Not only were we in the hotel right next door to our friends, but our place had a fantastic outdoor pool and restaurant area that made for a lovely evening of drinks and catching up on night.

As always seems to happen when we travel, we stumbled onto some great adventures. On Saturday, after getting in and taking quick showers to ease the smell of sticky travel, we headed down to the bay to see the famous merlion, one of my favorite things in Singapore. Standing on the pier, we could see across the water to a stadium filled with spectators and some kind of massive show taking place. Scanning further, we realized there was a dock floating in the harbor that looked primed for a serious fireworks display. Being early evening, only an hour or two before sunset, we decided to pull up a cement stair, do some people watching and wait to see what became of the celebration that was going on across the way. As we chatted, talking about friends and travels over the last few months, it didn’t take long to realize there was a serious party taking place. We’d seen some signs advertising Singapore’s 49th national celebration, so we figured we must have lucked out and come upon the official event. This belief was quickly backed up as we watched a trio of military helicopters flying overhead, carrying an absolutely gigantic national flag, followed by an air force jet flyover and the booming of cannons from watercraft across the bay. But, my favorite part of the festivities occurred just as the sun was going down. Suddenly, the roar of boat engines overwhelmed the crowd as we watch an armada of navy gun boats race past us, shooting and gunning down a drug smuggling watercraft trying to sneak its way across the bay. (The scenario was obviously just a show, but man-oh-man did it send a strong message about how Singapore feels when it comes to illegal drugs!) The evening ended with a beautiful fireworks display, heightened by their reflections in the enormous Sands hotel mirrored glass walls.

Getting in a cab to head back towards the hotel and in search of some decently priced food (no, I do not want to pay $26 for a hamburger!), Thad asked the cab driver about the celebration. Quickly, the cabbie explained that the national day wasn’t until the first week of August, but what we had seen was a full-scale run through to make sure everything went according to plan.

Are you kidding me?

The “dress rehearsal” was an entire show in and of itself. From across the bay, it looked like the stadium was holding Olympic-level opening ceremonies, there were helicopters and jets and navy gunners, not to mention a full fireworks display.

Singapore, I am impressed with your dedication!

We rounded out the weekend with free entry to the Asian Museum (another lucky stumble) and a day of wandering on Sentosa Island, including a visit to the aquarium where I was reminded just how tiny the personal space bubbles of mainland Chinese are. (One old woman- it is always the old ladies) stood so close to me that we were actually touching from shoulder (hers, since it was a good eight inches shorter than my own) to hip to calves. This would be understandable in a smooshed and crammed subway car, but harder to abide by when we are standing in a massive viewing room where there is enough room for everyone to do jumping jacks without touching their neighbor.

Last minute it may have been, but the chance to catch up with good friends was a wonderful surprise and well worth the long waits at the border crossings. (I was surprised that it was the Singaporean border that was the unorganized and painful crossing, as they seem to be so on top of everything else!) And, now that we have our passports back, we are looking forward to many more long weekends of travel over the next two years.

 

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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

a tale for the time being

While I was home in Idaho this summer, I had the chance to meet up with my fellow English teachers from the middle school I taught at for nearly a decade. In that time, we each tried to nurture a love of reading within hundreds of students, searching for books to connect with young adults who had a wide span of reading ability. My personal love of YA literature grew in that time period, and during the school year, most of my reading was focused on middle school level books, but one fellow teacher was my lifesaver when it came to keeping me abreast of literature outside of my classroom needs. This woman read voraciously (and was an amazing teacher- I still don’t know how she does it all!) and often dropped by my classroom with a stack of books she thought I might like. When we all met up a few weeks ago (with a shou-tout to truly tasty Sandbar Restaurant in Marsing, Idaho) , true to style, she brought an entire box of books to share with the group. I think I ended up with five of them and with bags already bursting at their weight limit, I did some quick reshuffling to make sure all five made the trip to DC and then on to Malaysia, as there is nothing recommended by this woman that I would not give a shot. A Tale for the Time Being was in that pile.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is an interesting look at the lives of two families who live on opposite sides of the world. Nao, the main narrator, is Japanese, but after living in the US with her family for the majority of her childhood, defines herself in terms of American pop culture and mannerisms, which makes her family’s financial ruin and return to Japan all the more difficult. Not only does she have to deal with their new poverty, but also the culture shock that comes with moving home to a place that doesn’t feel like home at all. As her father fights depression and survives several suicide attempts, she must find her place in this land where she doesn’t want to be, keeping a journal of her growing desire to no longer be a part of this new world.

On the opposite shore of the Pacific Ocean, Ruth, a novelist (although with nothing to show in recent years) living on an isolated island with her quirky husband, finds Nao’s journal washed up on shore after the terrible earthquake/tsunami of 2011. Ruth is instantly drawn in by Nao’s writing, feeling a connection to this teenage girl that goes beyond their shared literary interest. But, it takes Ruth time to realize that Nao is no longer the angsty teen who wrote the journal, as it what written well-before the devastation of the tsunami. Nao is either a grown woman, living a life of her own, or, she has tragically committed suicide, as she plans through her writing. Ruth can’t not find out more about this enigmatic young woman from across the sea.

Overall, the storyline is well-laid out and Ozeki’s writing is full of compelling details and descriptions. I was especially drawn to the story of Nao’s great uncle, who was forced to become a kamikaze pilot for the Japanese Air Force during World War II. But, with that said, there were a few things that really turned me off to the book as a whole, but my largest complaint was when the book delves into the world of the fantastic. I’m just not a fan of the sudden appearance of a ghost or otherworldly being in a novel that beforehand was strongly realistic fiction. When I was studying Spanish and had to take Spanish literature classes, I could just never get into these “fantastico” stories that were so prevalent in the writing. Magical realism is not my forte and at times, A Tale for the Time Being swung that pendulum pretty heavily.

A smaller, although still annoying, part of the book that I couldn’t get out of my mind was the way Ruth treats her husband. She claims to be in love with him, but she is also quick to make snide and hurtful remarks to him. This strange relationship, while not a huge plot point in the novel, was one that just felt unfinished or underdeveloped.

This novel was okay. It is definitely not something I am raving about, nor would I recommend it across the board. If I had a friend who was very interested in certain topics, whether it be Japan or the aftermath of the tsunami or western Canada, I would not hesitate to point out this title, but it isn’t a book I would buy a friend or family member as a gift. Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being earns just:

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“Sleep Donation” by Karen Russell

“Sleep Donation” by Karen Russell

Sleep Donation

The short story genre has never held a huge amount of appeal to me, as I often feel like the author is either trying too hard to create a crazy amount of symbolism in an attempt to be “literary” or they leave me hanging, wanting a full-blown story with fleshed-out characters and detailed action, rather than fifteen pages of straggling nuance and half-hearted hints. But, Karen Russell’s newest release , “Sleep Donation,” drew me in with a fascinating concept and a novella length that I hoped would allow the story a depth beyond that of a traditional short story.

(Disclaimer: Before I go any further, I’m not bagging on all short stories. I am Poe’s biggest fan and love “The Lottery” and “The Monkey’s Paw” equally. But, I rarely pick up a collection of short stories, so this one diverges from my normal reading habits.)

The premises for “Sleep Donation” is a strong one- the US (and soon other countries) is hit with a lethal rash of insomnia that threatens to decimate the population. With little understanding of the disorder, volunteers work to provide sleep transfusions to those most in need. The main character, Trish Edgewater, works with one of these branches, convincing people to donate their healthy sleep (and that of their children), at task which she is supremely successful as she emotionally manipulates the donors through the tale of her own stricken sister, who died after nearly a month of sleeplessness.

For me, the highlight of this story is the connection between Trish’s use of her sister’s biography and the use of dreams to create life. Both are giving power to stories, which creates a decidedly post-modern feel to the writing. And in the end, does Trish’s telling and retelling of her sister’s story serve to memorialize her beloved family member or does it cheapen her suffering through its prostitution? It’s an interesting idea, about how the “owner” of a story uses and manipulates that tale for their own benefit or that of others.

If only the whole tale held up to that same intriguing standard. But it doesn’t. There are too many gaps in the details to make me really love this story. (I want to love it. I think it has a solid foundation, but it crumbles under missing mortar.) For example, I want to know more about the insomniac’s disorder- more about the science behind it. Is it caused by a virus or is a plague of modern making when people can’t step away from the glow of their various devices? Is it contagious or merely addictive? Also, Russell is pretty vague about the treatment. We know that dreams from healthy sleepers can be transfused, in true Red Cross style, but how? How does a sufferer receive those dreams and what does that process feel like for both the giver and the receiver?

In the end, much like the receivers of the donated hours of sleep, I just wanted more.

The irony of the timing of this read was that I read the entire thing on Sunday night when I couldn’t sleep. Yes, that mid-afternoon nap and then Pepsi with dinner may have contributed to my sleeplessness, but still, I read this one cover to cover (okay, first finger-swipe to last, since it is only being released in ebook form, at least for now), sometimes in awe at Russell’s literary craftsmanship and at others baffled by seemingly missing, yet key, details. By 2AM though, I came down square on the center of the fence with this one, meaning Karen Russell’s novella, “Sleep Donation” earns a middle of the road:

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(See my review of Karen Russell’s best-seller, Swamplandia here: http://insearchoftheendofthesidewalk.com/2012/02/10/swamplandia-by-karen-russell/)

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A Broken Butt Won’t Keep Me Down!

I’m not sporty. My loyal blog readers (all 8 of you!) are aware that my athletic history includes such highlights as logging a few innings in the right field of a junior high softball team, fully coordinated between my socks, outfit and hair scrunchie and getting punched in the face by a participant while coaching Special Olympics. But, as the years continue to roll on by and my love of sprinkle doughnuts doesn’t diminish, going to the gym has become a necessary evil in my life. I’ve always wanted to be a runner- someone who looks forward to pounding out a few miles after a long day or work or who feels energized by an hour on the treadmill. Try, try and try again. It just isn’t happening for me. But I put in my time so that my pants still fit.

Still unemployed (I got my official rejection letter for one embassy position yesterday morning), I’ve got a bit of time on my hands. With no excuse to not put in a couple of extra hours a week, I decided that mornings would be the best bet. I could drive Thad to work, hit the gym (which at an embassy short on space, is actually a workout hallway- the cardio machines lined up one behind another down the edge of a long corridor, meaning when a few people are running, it looks like a strange treadmill chase is taking place, with lots of sweat but no actual forward progress) and then head home to shower and get ready for a day of doing whatever it is I am going to do to kill my free hours at this point. I did this several times early last week and it was a great way to get my day up and moving, rather than lounging in my pink owl-patterned pajamas until 11 each day.

Friday morning, I rolled out of bed, had a bowl of corn flakes and threw on my running shorts and tank top with a few minutes to spare. Hair in a high and tight ponytail (best to keep it from sticking to my neck in the gazillion percent humidity of KL), I headed downstairs, shoes in hand, to wait for Thad to finish suiting up. From there, I’m not exactly sure what happened. I wasn’t in any hurry, so there was no skittering or rushing, but somehow, on the last set of steps (our house is five levels!) my socked foot slipped on the marble flooring and from there I stood no chance of righting myself. Down I went! I clearly remember thinking “Don’t hit your head!” as I knew that marble flooring would not gently pillow my noggin, but in my efforts to not crack my skull, I bounced straight on my bum. Three times. I came to a rest in an oozing pile at the bottom of the stairs, huddled on my side, holding aching butt.

Needless to say, one cannot take that spill and walk away with impunity. A bruised forearm, scraped elbow, and oh yes, a fractured tailbone were my housewarming gifts in KL.

But, I’m not going to let a cracked bum keep me from going out and about. Earlier this week, a handful of ladies in the embassy community took me to Chinatown where there is an amazing store called Peter Hoe’s. It’s the kind of place that Penny from The Big Bang Theory would shop to decorate her apartment- lots of bright colors and fun patterns. Luckily, the day I went there, I didn’t have much money on me, so I only came home with one big basket, rather than the pile of goodies I would have liked to have made my own.

Nothing tops the evening out, in terms of uniqueness, that we had last night though- happy hour at a bar set up on a helipad in downtown KL. The owners haul a bunch of outdoor furniture on to this helicopter landing site on the 25th floor of an office building, selling food and drinks to anyone willing to brave the locale. No nets. No fences. Just a thick yellow “do not cross” line and a few bouncers who enforce the rule of the line. (See more photos at fellow FS/KL bloggers site: http://worldwideavailability.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/helipad/)

It’s going to be a few weeks before sitting doesn’t send zinging pain into my rear, but I’m not going to let that stop my wanderings in this new city. Two years are going to fly by and, in the wise words of Aerosmith, I don’t want to miss a thing!

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California by Edan Lepucki

California by Edan Lepucki

California

How far would you be willing to push the line between right and wrong to ensure your own safety? What options would be on the table if it meant keeping your spouse and unborn child protected? At what point to the heinous choices of others become too much and you break off the relationship, even if it is providing you with the basic necessities for survival? Edan Lepucki’s new novel, California uses a post-apocalyptic outer Los Angeles setting to address these questions, creating a world where black and white are no longer distinguishable amongst the thick gray swath painted by the morals and ethics of personal survival.

Reminiscent of The Road, although less bleak and not as beautifully written, California takes place in the near future, when much of the United States has been destroyed through a series of natural disasters, followed by widespread crime and violence. As the infrastructure of cities begins to breakdown, those with the means to do so are willing to pay for protection in the form of Communities- self-contained areas that promise tranquility and peace through heavy vetting of residents and high costs for inclusion. Those without the money to buy their way into these new establishments are left to fend for themselves, some remaining in the decaying cities while others strike out on their own in the wilderness.

Cal and Frida are part of the latter. After Frida’s brother dies as a suicide bomber in the city, she and Cal realize there is no place left for them in “civilization,” so they embark on a journey into the woods where they hope to create a new life for themselves. Soon though, the desire to be with others is overwhelming and after hearing of a larger community of settlers just a few days hike away, they set out to find their neighbors. Having been warned away from this group, they are nervous, but especially Frida, who believes she is pregnant, can’t stop her curiosity of what might be just over the ridge.

What they find is a surprise on many levels. Now, they must decide if they want to be a part of this reclusive settlement (if the members will even have them) or if it would be best to go back to their small cabin and continue on their own. The longer they stay and the more they learn about this functioning outpost, the harder their decision becomes and the less in sync with one other the tight couple grows.

Lepucki forces the reader to confront a series of philosophical conundrums, both about what it means to be a family and at what point the price for security is too high. With no tightly tied up happy ending, the novel leaves the reader to put themselves in this near future setting and wonder what choices they would make and at what point it would all become too much. Although the basics of the post-apocalyptic plot aren’t’ new, the twists and turns and ethical challenges help Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, earn a solid:

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