Toot and Puddle, Holly Hobbie

I wasn’t sure I would have time for even a quick review today, given I’m at a five-day family reunion in snowy upstate New York, but I read my mother this picture book right before I left on Friday, and I wanted to share it with you. I hadn’t heard about Toot and Puddle before she asked for it for Christmas, but once I saw it in the store, I ended up with a copy on my own shelf as well.

It’s a simple story about a year in the life of two friends – one who loves to travel the world and the other who prefers to stay home. Each page goes back and forth between them, following both Puddle’s homey endeavors (birthday parties, ice skating, swimming in Pocket Pond), and Toot’s trip from country to country (pastries in Italy, bull fighting in Spain, sunsets in France). The illustrations are beautiful – I found myself pausing on every page to study the cozy paintings – but what really drew me in was the idea of these two friends, separated by many miles, each enjoying vastly different lifestyles while remaining emotionally tied.

This is something I always relate to strongly at the holidays. We travel across the country to see our families, and spend hours on the phone with friends living in countries all over the world. We start planning out our trips for the rest of the year, and while some of them will be adventures based on our own desires to explore the wider world, many more will be tied to visiting far-flung companions. Some days, these two possibilities seem eminently doable; others, it feels overwhelming to try to keep in touch with all the people I miss.

I couldn’t help but connect to how beautifully each of these lives is represented, as well, because I am both a homebody and a wanderer. I love to visit new places, but I also love to come home again. While each of these characters represents the extremes (and I certainly have friends and family members who do as well), I live somewhere in between. I want to wake up in my own bed, but I also want to see the sunrise half way around the world. This story reminds me, on every page, how valid and wonderful both choices are – an idea I have to remember as I embrace this whirlwind northeastern vacation while longing for my own, homey routine…

Post Christmas wrap up

My plan for today was to post a picture of all the books I got for Christmas – a brilliant and almost effortless idea that was especially perfect because by the evening of the 25th, I was taken down by a sore throat. I really needed a holiday post that required as little energy as possible. Unfortunately (and unexpectedly), I received only one book this year – an excellent yoga guide – and no matter what angle I took the picture from, one book does not a glorious pile make.

So I’m improvising, and on cold medicine, which means expectations should remain low…Unless, of course, you love children’s Christmas books as much as I do, in which case, read on to see which ones I neurotically reread every holiday season:

Image Christmas in Noisy Village, Astrid Lindgren and Ilon Wikland – My all-time favorite of favorites, this book just feels like home to me. Every time I read it, I remember the chest my grandmother kept it in, and how she would pull it out for me to read whenever I asked for it, even in the middle of summer. I will never be able to read it without remembering her and all the wonderful times we had together.


Image The Christmas Stranger, Marjorie Thayer and Don Freeman – This was longest Christmas book we owned when I was a child that could technically qualify as a picture book, although it was as long as some chapter books. My dad read it to me tirelessly every night during the holiday season year after year, and I am eternally grateful to him for his patience and love, because if it were me, I might have hidden in it or burned it or tossed it down the deepest well I could find. It’s a great story, and beautifully told, but really, he was a champion.


Image The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg – What am I, a monster? Of course this made the list. Seriously though, I love all of his books passionately. His stories are simple and elegant, and the illustrations are always stunning. I will never forgive Hollywood for making a terrible movie out of this book, destroying it for generations of unsuspecting children.





Image The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry and Lisbeth Zwerger – A family favorite, this is a classic story illustrated fabulously with Zwerger’s watercolor images. If you aren’t familiar with the tale, I highly recommend it for its graceful appreciation of the holiday spirit, and if you are, then I say you haven’t really enjoyed it until you’ve seen this version.


Image The Christmas Cat, Isabelle Holland and Kathy Mitchell – This is actually a pretty hokey story about a cat who convinces a dog and a donkey to follow the star to see the baby born in a manger. When I made my husband read it a few years ago, he looked at me like I was a crazy person for calling it a classic, but what can I say? Sometimes we find books at just the right age, and for whatever reason, we fall in love. Quality not withstanding, I always seek this book out to read by the fire when I come back for the holidays.

It’s Christmas eve…

And you’re not done shopping. This is probably a true statement if you are related to me, married to me, or friends with me because I seem to have a weakness for procrastinators. I, on the other hand, have been done, wrapped, and ready go for two weeks. Which explains why I have some time to myself today to give you a list of books you can and should buy as last-minute gifts for your loved ones. It does mean leaving the comfort of home for an actual store, but hey – that’s the price you pay for being a last-minute shopper!

I’m going to do my best to give you a list of books I haven’t reviewed here, although there are so many great ones I have read this year that a few may sneak in…

Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke (also available in German under the title Tintenherz), is the first book in the Inkworld Trilogy. I will probably reread it in the next year because I adore all three of these books (although the first was my favorite); as a book lover, the idea of being stolen away into a fictional world is exactly my cup of tea. Funke is a wonderful writer, especially for children, but I promise adults will love this too. For an even darker take on a similar topic, I recommend The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, is also the first book of a trilogy, although the third book, sadly, has not been published yet. One of the first reviews I wrote here was for the second novel in the series, The Magician King, and a year later, it remains one of my all-time favorites. Simultaneously melancholy and thrilling, Grossman is one of the most gifted fantasy writers I have ever had the privilege to read, and his books absolutely won’t disappoint.

Traveling with Pomegranates, by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor, is a memoir written from two perspectives – that of Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees, and her daughter. It’s part travel story, part spiritual quest, but what I loved best about it was seeing a painful and wonderful mother-daughter relationship related so elegantly. My mother actually recommended this one to me, and I remember talking to her afterward about it and being surprised that I sympathized more with the mother’s perspective, and she with the daughter’s. What better for the holidays than a little insight into our familial struggles and triumphs? For another excellent book about family love and strife from a more masculine perspective, might I recommend, Sons of the 613?

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern  Look, I know I reviewed this one back in February, but I just can’t stop thinking about it. I feel like it would be bordering on criminal not to include it on this list. I have yet to meet a single person who has read it and not fallen deeply in love with it, and that includes friends who don’t like to read, strangers on planes, and the young man who works at my favorite bagel shop. It really is that good. So just go get it already.

Enchantment, Orson Scott Card is an oldie, but of all the books on my shelves, it is the one I have reread the most. As much as I object to Card’s politics (and I really, really do) he is an incredible writer, and this twist on an Ukrainian fairy tale is just about perfect. I think I read it for the first time when I was fourteen, and I have read it at least once a year every year since. So, you see, I couldn’t not include it here…For a younger audience, Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants has a similar, fairyland vibe, as does Icefall, by Matthew J Kirby.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie is a must-read for everyone. It was written for the MG/YA bracket, but it’s such an important, special novel that I feel I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s poignant, witty, and satisfying on every level. If I were to recommend another book about childhood and the blurred lines between innocence and survival, I would have to go with The Good Braider. Both of these books capture the harsh realities of their situations without sacrificing hope.

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow is a fantastic choice for the conspiracy theorist/historian in your life. This grim but not especially overblown portrayal of a locked down, privacy-invaded San Francisco struck close to home for me. It is both an adventure and a terrifying look at what might happen in the not too distant future as technology infringes further on our personal lives. Another slightly more upbeat take on this vision is Ernie Cline’s Ready Player One.

Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, by Tom Robbins, is my last recommendation for today. This is a novel I stole from my brother’s bookshelf and never gave back. It’s completely quirky and hilarious, but I also love the darkness that Robbins’ manages to keep boiling just beneath the surface. He is brilliant in much the same way that Haruki Murakami is – I never fully grasp what either of them is saying, but I want to hear more none the less.

Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate, and for those who don’t, Happy “takeout Chinese food and movie-watching” Day (a delicious and peaceful celebration regardless of which you choose). If you don’t live in a country that takes Tuesday off, I wish you a speedy journey to the end of your work week – I give you permission to day-drink and overeat tomorrow in solidarity regardless.

Three Days to Dead, Kelly Meding

I thought I was going to get this post done early. Of course, I thought I was going to be done with Three Days to Dead about two weeks ago, and I just barely finished it in time for my flight yesterday (I can’t read while traveling in moving vehicles, so it was as crucial to finish the book as it was to remember everything on my packing list). Instead, I’ve borrowed my husband’s computer while he gets ready to work from a satellite office, and I’m desperately trying to convince my jet-lagged brain to THINK. And to think quickly, because otherwise I’m going to be stuck typing this on the iPad in a Starbucks with questionable internet. Mmm coffee…

Apparently though, my brain thinks we’re on vacation already, even though we aren’t, not until I’m done writing this. Fortunately, I’ve never met anyone, no matter how intelligent, organized, and efficient, who doesn’t suffer from this problem when a break is so tantalizingly near, so I don’t feel too terrible. I will say, upfront, that I won’t be home again until January 3, so my updates may be non-existent/short/incomprehensible over the next two weeks. I blame that on family, friends, and the Christmas cookie coma I plan to enter this weekend (and by blame, I mean I cannot wait for that to happen). But before I jump off into the whirlwind of holidays, birthdays, and family reunions about to commence, I do want to say a few words about this book.

I love urban fantasy (it’s been a standby for me since I was in the sixth grade), and when I learned this weekend that there are people (people I love! In my own family!) who have never even heard of “urban fantasy” (oh yes – it’s true – I almost had a nervous breakdown trying to explain it), I want to give a fun book from the genre a moment in the spotlight. I think most fans of this particular genre would agree with me that it isn’t easy to find solid, interesting new authors to read.

I’m personally holding onto the newest Dresden File book (which I would call urban fantasy, but which wikipedia insists is “contemporary fantasy” – the wider umbrella under which “urban” falls) for that very reason. It’s a beloved series, and this fall has been too crazy for me to take time to really appreciate a much-anticipated book like that one. Nevertheless, I wanted something light and gritty, and Three Days to Dead fit the bill perfectly. The three strongest points in its favor? A fresh, original plot, strong writing, and a well-written female protagonist.

If you imagine that any of these things could be taken for granted, you may not be a fan of this genre, because let me tell you, we will endure a lot of crap to get a fix when necessary. Seriously. When I was growing up, there was one bookshelf at my local library with science fiction and fantasy, and I read it all – the good, the very bad, and the “I’m embarrassed that the library may still have these titles on record under my card.”

I’m not sorry, in retrospect, that I read some of those books, mainly because they gave me a barometer for the good stuff. It’s easy to forget how fortunate we are to have good books when we’re reading enjoyable, well-paced, clever stories like Meding’s. And while we may never suffer a shortage of great literary fiction or historical biographies, we have seen some dark times in the world of fantasy. We have had to slog through some books that should never have been published. We have had to praise the existence of the Kindle because finally (finally!) we could read some of those terrible books without anyone being the wiser.

It’s a painful thing, to be embarrassed by something so beloved, but it happens. Admittedly, I read almost all of my fantasy novels on Kindle for just that reason – even if the book itself is good, the cover usually gives me away with some unfortunate art. What can I say though? I love guilty pleasure books, and I always will. I’m only glad there are authors out there still willing to dip into the murky pool to get me what I want…

Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick

Last night, I was lying in bed trying to sleep – it has been very difficult since Friday – I realized that this post, a post I wrote last Thursday night, might be upsetting to some readers this morning. When I picked this book, and when I wrote what I did, mental health was not a hot topic of debate. It was not tied to a very recent tragedy, a tragedy that I know many of us grieve intensely for, even without knowing a single person from Newtown. 

I tossed and turned for a long time wondering if I should pull the post and save it for the new year. I thought about all the things I’ve been worrying about since Friday morning, and I considered whether I should say any of them here. In the end, I’ve decided to go forward with the review since it still reflects accurately my feelings about the book, and I’ve also decided not to say most of what I’ve been thinking about what happened. 

If I changed this post in response to what happened, to the (perhaps unnatural) level of stress I’m feeling in the aftermath, I would be lying to you. Because even after all of this – even after everything I have written to my friends and family in the last 48 hours (and there has been a lot), I do still believe in radical empathy. I believe we need it now, more than ever. 

That being said, today I will issue a TRIGGER WARNING for the post below. Any person has the right to be angry, sad, frustrated – even disbelieving – about the role mental illness plays in our lives, and I want it to be your choice to read my perspective about it.

My prayers are with all those affected by Friday’s terrible events, as well as with those who, like me, are filled with a desire to overcome these hopeless, fragile feelings with compassion and positive action. 


I rarely do this, but I have to admit that I saw the movie before I read this book. To be fair, when my friend suggested going to see “Silver Linings Playbook” on the weekend after Thanksgiving, I didn’t even know it was based on a book. I mostly agreed to it because I love Jennifer Lawrence, and I was willing to risk watching a movie with the potential for an unhappy ending in order to see her during the indeterminable wait until the next Hunger Games movie.

The_Silver_Linings_Playbook_CoverI’ll refrain from telling you whether or not the film and book have an unhappy ending, and I’ll even keep my mouth shut for now on the topic of my personal feelings about unhappy endings in entertainment because I want you to be able to enjoy the book, film or both, if you so desire. I obviously enjoyed the movie enough that when my friend told me about the book, I immediately bought a copy and even got around to reading it a lot sooner than I expected to.

I have the “due date is upon me manuscript insomnia” to thank for that, actually. I was laying awake last week – my brain in overdrive and my anxiety-induced heartburn stubbornly refusing to respond to antacids – when I decided to grab my kindle and read for a while. I was in the middle of two exciting urban fantasies novels, but I didn’t want to get sucked in and end up reading until dawn (not a good choice for exceptionally busy weeks), so I started “Silver Linings” instead. I already knew (roughly) what happened, so I figured I was safe on that front. Turns out, Quick is no slouch at creating an engaging, fast-paced novel that I kept coming back to long after I should have turned out the light.

What I really loved about both the movie and the book (and they’re certainly different, although not obnoxiously so) is how the issues of mental illness are dealt with. The number of people who struggle with some type of mental illness (and this may encompass any number of diagnoses, in terms of both severity and how deeply it affects day-to-day living) – well, let’s just say that if you know five people, chances are, at least one of them has or is dealing with mental illness in some dimension. I won’t belabor this point because I believe most people know and accept that this is true, but it’s a matter of real importance to me, and seeing it represented well, and compassionately, is a gift.

Cliff says Sylvia Plath’s work is very depressing to read, and that his own daughter had recently suffered through The Bell Jar because she is taking an American literature course at Eastern High School.

“And you didn’t complain to administration?” I asked.

“About what?”

“About your daughter being forced to read such depressing stories.”

“No. Of course not. Why would I?”

“Because the novel teaches kids to be pessimistic. No hope at the end, no silver lining. Teenagers should be taught that—”

“Life is hard, Pat, and children have to be told how hard life can be.”


“So they will be sympathetic to others. So they will understand that some people have it harder than they do and that a trip through this world can be a wildly different experience, depending on what chemicals are raging through one’s mind.” (p 128)

When I read “Dear Sugar” last week, the phrase the captured me in the introduction was “radical empathy.” I didn’t intentionally pick this book next because it followed the same theme, but in fact it does. And it’s Christmastime, and I want more radical empathy in my life – not just for me, but by me.

For the last year, I’ve been trying to live by the line, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” but it’s tough. I’m a judgmental person. I like sarcasm. Making fun of things is funny. Right? Right! Well, sort of. But making fun of things that other people have worked hard on, or making fun of things that mean more to others than they do to me, or making fun of things when someone might just be having a bad day or year or decade? Not so funny.

When I was teaching preschool, I found myself drawn to children with developmental delays that prevented them from understanding certain kinds of jokes, or, for lack of a better word, sneakiness. These children struggled so hard with typical daily interactions that there was no room in their brains to develop the intentional deceptiveness that most of us have perfected by about seven years old. These kids were truthful to the point of painful awkwardness on at least a weekly basis, but I grew to love it. That raw honestly never came out of a place of cruelty, but out of a desire to make the world more clear, more manageable – less cruel, in fact.

This is the world that Pat Peoples lives in. This is the world his parents and brother and friends have to accept in order to understand him and love him the way he deserves. It’s not easy. Anyone who has been in a similar situation will tell you – it is not easy. But if you need a book that really lays it all out for you in the title, might I suggest “Silver Linings Playbook” this holiday season?

Find out more about Matthew Quick here.


At the beginning of November when I was gearing up for National Novel Writing Month, I was under the impression the book I’ve been working on with my mother, UCC minister and author of 17 (or so) books, was due on December 1. I think it was around a week later that we actually dragged out our contract and realized we had until December 13 to get the book done (there was much rejoicing), but we decided that given how busy we were, we should still mentally consider the 1st to be our deadline. Once we were both done with NaNo, we would see where we stood and go from there.

Well, December 1st came around and we were not finished. Both of us had made our 50,000 word novel deadline, but had fallen a bit short on the project we actually get paid for…We were close, but not close enough. We still had an introduction to write, plenty of editing to do, and a final major read-thru. We were two days away from one of the busiest times in the church year, and let’s be honest, our social calendars, and we were not done.

Rejoicing over – panicking, commence. The last two weeks have been insane. It feels like we’ve talked on the phone almost every day, and during each of those conversations, we have lamented the 3000 miles between us that make finishing a book stupidly difficult. She has gotten up early. I’ve stayed up late. Both of us have left notes for the other (mostly in CAPITAL LETTERS with plenty of ?????s) like the book was some sort of time capsule. I don’t know about her, but I have gained and lost the same five pounds in an alternating frenzy of binge eating comfort food and working straight through meals with heady adrenaline to keep me going. I haven’t slept well, but when I’m awake I’ve been AWAKE in a way I have rarely felt before.

And I think I know the reason for that. This book has pushed me and asked more of me than any of the others we’ve written before. My name comes before hers for the first time, and that responsibility is huge and precious to me. Somehow, I have managed to live up to what I wanted in this book too, and I attribute that, almost in its entirety, to you.

Yes, you, my generous and thoughtful readers. In the year that I have been writing about books here, I have demanded more from myself as a writer. I have wanted to share my passion for the tiny books no one has ever heard of and for the ones so popular even my brother can make jokes about them. I have tried to stretch myself for you because you have been so wonderful and present for me. You have encouraged me to read differently, to explore ideas more fully, and to embrace a community so much bigger than myself. Writing for you has changed me, and I have seen that manifest itself in this manuscript we have sent out.

And so today, instead of a review, I just want to say thank you. This has been a wonderful year, and I look forward to sharing this adoration for the written word with all of you in 2013.

(Thank you thank you thank you)

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed

When I was trying to describe this book to my husband last week, I was sort of at a loss. He heard the word advice, and immediately thought of Dear Abby or Guideposts magazine. When I told my best friend about it, about how it was the book she had to read in these last two weeks before she turns thirty, she nodded in that way a person can over text message from 200o miles away, and said, “I’ve read the column before. I’ll keep it in mind.” When I took a break from the book, and weeping, went outside to stand in the rain, one of the neighborhood cats came by for a little skittish love, and even though I’m barely a car person at all, I knelt down and pet her and told her about how beautiful this damn book was, and how it kept breaking and healing my heart over and over and over again. Then I went to the bookstore and tried to decide how many copies of it I could afford to buy as Christmas gifts.

Tiny_Beautiful-330You see, there had been a the moment in the book’s introduction (which I was reading for free at Amazon) when I decided I could not wait for Christmas myself, that I would instead immediately purchase this collection of advice columns from Sugar at The Rumpus:

Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters— every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’d absorbed before she was old enough even to understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded, with great gentleness. The fuck is your life. Answer it.

Like a lot of folks, I read the piece with tears in my eyes— which is how one reads Sugar. This wasn’t some pro forma kibitzer, sifting through a stack of modern anxieties. She was a real human being laying herself bare, fearlessly, that we might come to understand the nature of our own predicaments. (p 5)

I had never heard of The Rumpus or of the Dear Sugar column when I found this book. I don’t know what prompted me to go from seeing the book mentioned on Twitter to finding and devouring it – to having it devour me – when I have never liked advice columns before. I am a bossy little sister. I’m a stage manager. I’m a control freak with a color-coded closet and a thousand spreadsheets to my name. I am that woman who doesn’t know how great the advice she got was until five years and endless proof in its favor later.

I don’t know how to take advice. I’m too sensitive, too narcissistic. It seems, sometimes, that I would rather take all the wrong roads (with enthusiasm!) just to allow experience to teach me what I need to know rather than to listen to somebody who knows better than I do. I know I’m not alone in this. We are a large tribe, we over-confident, ego-driven maniacs. To take advice, it feels, is to relinquish some of this power that we have worked so hard to accumulate, and if we lose the power, then surely the next step is to lose our tenuous grip on life we have decided we wanted or maybe gotten or possibly just dream of. To take advice means we must take risks and work harder – it means admitting that what we have or what we do is not exactly what we want.

The narratives we create in order to justify our actions and choices become in so many ways who we are. They are the things we say back to ourselves to explain our complicated lives. Perhaps the reason you’ve not yet been able to forgive yourself is that you’re still invested in your self-loathing. Perhaps not forgiving yourself is the flip side of your steal-this-now cycle. Would you be a better or worse person if you forgave yourself for the bad things you did? If you perpetually condemn yourself for being a liar and thief, does that make you good? (p 272)

I read many of the letters and responses with a sense of deep familiarity. I didn’t realize how many people had dark stories inside them that were so similar to the dark stories inside me. I read others with the excruciating realization that I was a crying because Sugar was saying what I wanted to say to people I love…but I couldn’t say those things unless the person asked to hear them because if I did, it would probably come off as cruel or selfish or tactless. A few of the stories, I couldn’t relate to on a personal level at all, and yet the raw human experience of sharing the pain of someone else’s truth still moved me to the point that I had to stand up and walk away. I had to pray for those faceless people because if I didn’t, the injustice and suffering they had to endure would have swept me away.

Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal. (p 29)

What pushed me to run to the bookstore and buy every copy of this book off the shelf was not the advice though. Many of us have people in our lives – friends or family members or helpful strangers – who could listen to what we have to say and break things down for us. They could strip the truth right out of us, and in my experience, even the best intentioned (myself included at the very top of this list) do so with a calculating intensity that leaves us shaken, fragile and more often than not humiliated by our weakness. Chances are, if we’re willing and able to let a person do that, we both trust them to have conversations together later that build us back up, and somewhat vindictively, we also know that their turn will come. (This is awful, maybe, but true.) We can get advice practically anywhere, and in this day and age, from almost anyone. The difference between Sugar and myself+almost everyone I have ever met is that she splits the matter wide open, lays bare the intimate and hurting soul of the advice-seeker, and all the while, as a reader – as a seeker, myself – I never doubt her unconditional love of the person to whom she is speaking.

Unconditional love is not common-place. It is not easy. I am the daughter of a minister, and I have known many teachers from many faiths, and although they are generally kind, thoughtful, compassionate people, never have they been able to teach me, really, what unconditional love looks like. I grew up in a faith that expounded on the idea of both God and Jesus as givers of that unconditional love, and even though I have actually felt that kind of undeserved and accepting love before, I struggle to understand what it means. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find it in this book, but it appeared anyway.

Cheryl Strayed (aka Sugar) is not a religious woman. She doesn’t preach or give sappy, sticky-sweet advice. She has had a hard life and her experiences root her writing. If I had read just one column, I might not be so moved. I don’t know – I didn’t read one column – I read the whole book, and it left me motivated and sad and feeling like I’m worth something. I was empowered, but also intimidated by her reminders of how much work a joyful, healthy life can be. I felt, too, small that I don’t always give advice to the people I care about with the same generous love that she manages to give to complete strangers. The reason I want to give this book to everyone I know is because we all have secret (and not so secret) hurting places that require more than advice – they beg for unconditional love that doesn’t let us off the hook, but rejoices every single time we try to do, and be, better.

Forgiveness doesn’t just sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up the hill. You have to say I am forgiven again and again until it becomes the story you believe about yourself. (p 273)


If you are anything like me, you are anxious to head over here, to preview some of Sugar’s advice or here to find about Cheryl Strayed’s other books (which I will definitely be reading).

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I have to admit that I was inspired to reread The Little Prince  last month after watching a particularly good episode of NCIS. Another blogger I follow had written an in-depth analysis of the episode, and she included a nine page discussion on its references to The Little Prince. I rarely read posts like this with more than a cursory fangirl eye, but she did such an excellent job that even though my memories of The Little Prince were not positive, I felt moved to click the link she provided to read it online.

I remember owning the book when I was a child, and I also remember hating it, thinking it was very dull and pretentious, and only keeping it because I loved the artwork. When I was in college, I majored in Theatre Education for one semester before I switched to Writing, Literature, and Publishing (my school’s version of the English major), and during that fall, I was forced to work on lighting for a stage production of the book. I have worked on many shows over the years, and a typical response to being involved was to develop a fierce and devoted love for the show, regardless of how I may have felt before. This was not the case with The Little Prince. The show was long, and the songs were tedious. I must have seen the whole thing, beginning to end, fifteen times, and I hated it a little more with every viewing. Actually, that’s a lie – I hated it a lot more.

This experience cemented my impressions from childhood, and I decided to wash my hands of the book entirely after the musical was finished. Many wonderful stories are waiting anxiously to be read – why waste time feeling frustrated with one that doesn’t resonate? I happily put it out of my mind, ignoring it when I saw it in bookstores, carefully sidestepping conversations about the story whenever it came up, which is surprisingly often, likely because it is one of the most popular French books ever published, and because I am apparently an inhumane and shallow monster for shunning it and must be reminded of that whenever the topic arises.

This last issue was a real problem for me, I have to admit. People do not seem to like to be told that something they enjoy is not universally loved; I’m no different. Unfortunately, I’m also the kind of person who can be drawn, through calculated button-pushing, into arguments about things I despise, even if I have promise myself I will keep quiet. I had promised myself repeatedly to keep quiet about my true feelings for Le Petit Prince, and many times I have failed. 

So I was more surprised than anyone last month when I clicked through and read the whole thing in an hour.  I had just read this beautiful post about how its symbolism connected with one of my favorite shows, and I was as open to the experience as I could possibly be. And for the first twenty-four chapters, I felt…well…nothing. The story undeniably has some lovely lines, of course, but most of them have been tee-shirted to exhaustion, and their familiarity, rather than making me love them more, made them feel even more removed from my experience.

I found I could not relate to the “grown ups” that are despised, nor to the pilot, or the prince. I was annoyed by the fox. I loathed the rose. I felt like I was simultaneously looking behind the curtain at the man pulling the strings while also desperately trying to remain innocent enough to believe in the magic of the show. I understood that the deeper ideas had gone over my head as a child, during the time when I should have been charmed by how misunderstood and curious the prince was. Instead, I found myself comparing him to Holden Caulfield, the protagonist that I hate to hate. What was wrong with me? Why did everyone else seem to love this book? What was I missing – was the fault really in the story, or was it in me?

And then I got to the end of the book, and for the first time in all of my readings and viewings, I felt sorrow nudge at me. Here, finally, was a small taste of a great existential sadness, a loss that I could conceive of and appreciate. I tried to rationalize the pages, and my response to them, but I couldn’t. All I knew for certain was that I felt a deep connection to Antione de Saint-Exupéry when I finished the book. He had done something – something many of us foolishly and lovingly do in our fiction – he had forgotten, for just a moment, that he was writing a story, and instead, a piece of himself got caught on the pages.

Yes, there he was, completely vulnerable and inescapably naked for all of his readers to see. It’s painful for me when a writer does this unintentionally. I can almost always tell, in fiction, whether a line or a chapter was meant to draw the reader’s eye through the fourth wall or not, because when it’s not, the emotional impact is enormous. All of a sudden I find myself standing, quite awkwardly, within the author’s secrets, and as much as I want to step out quickly to avoid the embarrassment, it is impossible. I cannot leave until the horror and humiliation and frailty has been accepted, catalogued, and filed into my memory. Once this has happened, I can never think of that person in the same way again. Their unfinished edges will always be showing.

The Abstinence Teacher,Tom Perrotta

I admit that I don’t read much literary fiction. I find myself drawn more to genre fiction or memoirs, but occasionally when I’m browsing a bookstore, I see something like The Abstinence Teacher – on sale and with a strong first few pages – and I give it a try (or at least I swear to myself that I will…eventually). Of course, this poor book has now been languishing on the shelves for a few months; fortunately for it, in the midst of my November writing fervor, I found myself looking for something to read that had nothing to do with my work.

My own novel, which I will hesitantly call “finished” after this month’s efforts (by which I mean, I have a first draft with enormous holes in what a generous reader could call plot, action, and sense…) is a relatively light-hearted romantic comedy set in a parallel universe. It surprised me with a few dark twists, but over all, it could be described as frothy. I didn’t want to risk stealing ideas from another similar author, so that meant steering clear of anything in the adventure/fantasy/YA/mystery/humor realm. On the other hand, the book I’m getting paid to finish (deadline extended! December 14! Yes!), a project that’s coming together surprisingly well, focuses on some seriously deep issues regarding faith and reflection. I found that I really needed a break from the emotional response I was having to some of the work that has been contributed by other writers; this meant heartfelt or inspiring literature and autobiographies were also out. Lastly, I was determined not to spend any more money on books this close to Christmas, so it had to be on my shelf already. When I weeded out everything from the above categories, I was left with Tom Perrotta’s fascinating novel about a woman struggling to teach a high school sex ed class in a community that was evolving into a strict, evangelically Christian-minded town.

Let me come back for a moment to the reason why I don’t read many books that fall into the wide-ranging genre known as fiction. It’s simple, really. They’re depressing. That’s it – I have no complicated literary criticisms to share on the subject. I just prefer to be entertained by my entertainment, and I don’t find much pleasure in the suffering of others. This is not to say that I don’t occasionally find it cathartic to read these books, and I’m not trying to pigeonhole all fiction. This is obviously a gross generalization on my part, but the fact of the matter is, I tend to avoid literary fiction because it’s difficult for me to escape the heaviness that inevitably accompanies even the best read.

The Abstinence Teacher sort of slipped under the radar for me. It was advertised as being “Highly entertaining…a very funny, very engaging novel,” and while I admit I found it interesting, as well as completely unpredictable (an almost unprecedented experience these days), funny was not a word a would have chosen to describe it further. Wry, maybe. Clever? Certainly. But funny? No. At least not for me. I actually spent most of the novel hoping that no one would kill themselves, not because any of the characters seemed unusually depressed, but because the situation and people were both familiar and “fine” in that way that made me eerily certain I was missing the warning signs.

It was an unsettling feeling. It was also a new experience, and one that made me realize what a masterful storyteller Perrotta was – subtle, patient, and damnably mysterious about how he planned to get around to making me binge eat pound cake while watching re-runs of The X-Files on late night television (except that I gave up sugar last month, so mostly I was just drinking gallons of herbal tea while pleading with Mulder to just kiss her already). I won’t tell you how Perrotta managed to undo me, because I have to believe some of you might enjoy the post-read lethargy that arrived shortly after I finished the book. I can tell you that in the aftermath though, you would have found me memorizing the cracks in the ceiling while contemplating the horror that is our public school system.

So yes, it was (as I might have predicted had I not been so busy) a bit of downer. I actually believe though that another reader might have found the ending hopeful, so I don’t want to completely mislead you. It’s simply my take on the events in the story that brought me down…well, that, and Perrotta’s devastatingly accurate one-two punch in my emotional gut. I’m just going to chalk it up to a win that I have three more weeks to cheer myself up before Christmas.

For more about Tom Perrotta, head over here. Seriously. Go. Misery is best enjoyed with (sympathetic, in-the-know) company.