Wild

mourik-web1I’ve loved Cheryl Strayed since before I knew who she was. While her work moved me profoundly, the name “Cheryl Strayed” meant nothing to me. To me (and countless others), she was simply “Sugar.”

“Dear Sugar” to be precise.

The now famous letter “The Truth That Lives There” was one of the very first I’d read, and I remember the way it shook me to my core. A collection of readers all looking for a way out, wondering if they deserved one, if they were right to want one, and instead of judgment or rationalizations, Sugar boldly says,

“Go, even though there is nowhere to go. Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay. Go, because you want to. Because wanting to leave is enough.” (Emphasis mine.)

In one letter I understood that readers spilled the darkest parts of their hearts to Sugar because Sugar would do the same. She’d talk about her past, her divorce, her parents’ divorce, her mother’s death and the rocky road it took to get her here, to you. Her words were mesmerizing. Her responses were always more than just advice; they felt like poetry. So who was this mysterious woman who could tell strangers baring their souls to her what they needed to hear all while baring her own as well?

Finally, in 2012 she revealed herself to us and the world as Cheryl Strayed.
In 2012 she released Wild.

I read Wild, Strayed’s debut memoir, in about three days, though “read” is putting it mildly. I devoured it.

Wild is the story of Strayed’s experiences on the Pacific Crest Trail—a 2,659-mile hike that winds its way from Mexico, through the Colorado Desert, over the Sierra Nevadas, all the way to Canada. Her decision to hike it is made almost on a whim. She sees a travel book in the grocery store and can’t stop thinking about it until before she has time to second-guess herself, she’s buying gear at REI and selling off her belongings in preparation for three solid months in the wilderness. Too little time to hike the whole distance, but enough to still be a mind-bending feat.

The real “why” behind it all is the most interesting part. Having just entered a particularly dark period of her life, Strayed is looking for answers anywhere she can find time. Instead of being a recent college grad with the world at her feet, she’s a young college dropout whose marriage has disintegrated, whose mother is dead from a sudden and aggressive cancer diagnosis, and whose self-destructive behavior has her spiraling downward fast.

In short? She’s lost and it’s clear that it’s the trail she hopes can ground her, whether she realized it at the time or not.

And so her adventure begins. As she takes one heavy step after another, stumbles on one obstacle after another, falters at one crossroad after another, Strayed uses her trademark style to put us there right alongside her. Her writing is effusive and lyrical and it never lets up, which made every moment of her journey a joy to read.

Her words wormed their way into my heart in just the same way that her responses would when she was Sugar. I felt like I was growing with her. It felt like we were in it together.

“Until now, I hadn’t even truly understood the world’s vastness—hadn’t even understood how vast a mile could be—until each mile was beheld at walking speed.”

It’s hard to express just how much I loved this book. Watching Strayed go from this terrified and confused woman to someone braver and stronger and more confident and accepting of herself than she ever thought possible resonated with me profoundly. This book made me want to live. It made me proud of my own journeys. It made me feel a kinship with the author. It made me want to get out into the wild and breathe the same air she did.

I would read it again and again. Maybe one day I’ll even read it on the PCT. When I was done, anything seemed possible.

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The Buried Giant

buried giantFor fans of Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant was two distinct things at once: the author’s first novel in a decade and a sharp departure from the rest of his oeuvre. For me, though, it’s all I know. Despite the massive success of both Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, it was The Buried Giant that served as my introduction.

Over the course of the novel, we follow an elderly couple (Axl and Beatrice) as they search for their son while grappling with a mysterious and pervasive amnesia that they refer to only as “the mist.” The mist blankets the post-Arthurian world that they inhabit, preventing them not only from remembering where their son has gone or why he’s disappeared, but even things that only happened a few weeks ago. All of it hangs in an impenetrable fog.

We watch their relationship shift as they fight to remember their past, while at the same time facing a question with the power to change everything: will they still be the same people—and more importantly, will they still love each other—when they remember their history?  

I can’t say if the sparse, purposefully flat writing I encountered shares any similarities with Ishiguro’s previous work. I can say, however, that my first thoughts were of Gawain and the Green Knight, courtly love, and Arthurian folklore. If his goal was to capture the feeling of those 14th-century tales, then job well done (though let’s set aside the fact that I generally don’t enjoy writing like that for now).

There was something about the world created in this book that I absolutely loved. Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table never felt more real or more unique to me than in this story. The mythical king’s history seemed less like fairy tale and more like fact.

And yet it pains me to admit that overall, The Buried Giant was a bit of a slog.

Despite being a slim 317 pages, it took me a solid month to get through it. Every time I picked it up, I’d find myself intrigued by the world building, but it was always, always a struggle to pick it up in the first place.

By the end, I was desperate for a book club to discuss it with. I couldn’t help but feel that whatever there was to unpack was whizzing by over my head.

As I think about the book now, despite having only read it little more than a month and a half ago, I’m beginning to wonder if the same mist plagues me. I remember so very little about the book. The overall gist, sure, but what I was supposed to get out of it? How it made me feel? What I honestly liked, what I didn’t?

None of that has stuck. I forgot it as soon as I closed the cover.
I’d definitely read more of Ishiguro in the future, but The Buried Giant isn’t something I’d come back to.

2015: Year in Review

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My last post detailed the success of my project, but I wanted to give an overview of the works themselves. It’s hard to admit that I once again failed in my attempt to post reviews of everything. I know I was wavering in my commitment to this blog sometimes. It was never that I wanted to abandon it, but more that I had a difficult time getting myself to sit down and write.

But I was always happy to be reading.

Here’s the full breakdown (comics included) of everything I read in 2015:

  1. The Terror by Dan Simmons
  2. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  3. Ultimates 2: Volume 2 Grand Theft America by Mark Millar
  4. Sula by Toni Morrison
  5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  6. Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado
  7. Secret Avengers Volume 1: Let’s Have a Problem by Ales Kot
  8. Secret Avengers Volume 2: The Labyrinth by Ales Kot
  9. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  10. The Wicked + the Divine Volume 1: Faust Act by Kieron Gillan
  11. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
  12. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  13. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  14. Secret Avengers Volume 3: God Level by Ales Kot
  15. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  16. The Round House by Louise Erdich
  17. The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
  18. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  19. The First Bad Man by Miranda July
  20. Landline by Rainbow Rowell
  21. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  22. Native Son by Richard Wright
  23. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  24. Sexcastle by Kyle Starks
  25. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (spillover into 2016)

Most thought-provoking: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Most disappointing: The Intuitionist
Funniest: The First Bad Man
Most surprising favorite: Native Son
Least favorite: The Wandering Falcon
Most over hyped: Station Eleven

All-Time #1 Favorite: Everything I Never Told You

Overall, it was a very good year for me. Though there were a handful of titles I didn’t especially enjoy and only one that I actively disliked, there weren’t any that I found truly, objectively awful—a marked improvement considering I had to contend with both The Good Girl and Hell House last year.

As for next year? I plan to continue making a serious effort to read more POC, though with less stringent rules. (No more hardcore tracking of percentages!)IMG_4111 (2)

The book I’m looking forward to the most is certainly Mark Danielewski’s 
The Familiar
. It’s currently sitting next to me at the moment, just waiting begging me to finish The Sympathizer or cast it aside and start reading it immediately.

There are a handful of book clubs I have my eye on (including a tiny one of my own), a host of new titles that I missed in 2015, and—thanks to Christmas—some fantastic comics with my name on them.

I’m feeling reinvigorated. I feel more ready to tackle this blog with the dedication it deserves, and I’m looking forward to it all.

I hope you’ll stick with me.

Happy reading!

-S

2015: The Experiment

2015 books collage

I began 2015 with a singular goal in mind: I wanted 75% of the books I read to be written by people of color. When I realized that the only book I read in 2014 written by someone who wasn’t white was The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, I saw that something was terribly amiss. One out of 19 books—that’s a measly 5%. I went out of my way this year to do better. A lot better.

So, you might be wondering, where do I stand now?

[Drumroll, please!]

With 14 out the 19 books I read this year written by people of color, I am achingly close to my goal, but no dice. I fell just shy of the mark at 74%.

74%! I can’t believe how close I came. I probably wouldn’t be so frustrated if I didn’t know for a fact that it would have been 79% if I hadn’t been seduced by the lure of a book club that I didn’t even end up attending. Instead of reading the next diverse title on my list, I skipped it to read Station Eleven (which I hated, by the way) under the impression that I could do so and still reach my goal. Gah. So irritating! But oh well. I still came damn close.

I should also add that I’ve continued my practice of not including graphic novels or comics in my final count. I didn’t count them last year as part of the total number of books I read, and continued that this year. Mostly because I can read one in about an hour so it feels like cheating somehow?

I admit that’s an arbitrary distinction. I think I’ll have to look into changing that for 2016, but for now, I haven’t been counting them in my tally.

Numbers aside, the real question at the heart of this experiment is… did it work? Did I notice a difference in reading mostly people of color for an entire year? Do I feel different for having done so?

In this I am happy to report only complete, unabashed success. It changed everything. Americanah opened my eyes in ways no book ever had. Everything I Never Told You literally strengthened a friendship. The Sympathizer and The Wandering Falcon highlighted my own ignorance about two completely different parts of the world.

Never has reading left me feeling so incredibly, incredibly alive.

And I don’t mean to say that as a way to disparage any of the amazing books I’ve read in the past. Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, and Cormac McCarthy will always hold a special place in my heart. They’re brilliant. There’s no questioning that for me. It’s just that it’s impossible to see the ways in which your picture of the world is incomplete until you start hearing the voices that had been silent to you.

This little project has completely changed the way I intend to read for the rest of my life. I realized that I just can’t afford not to consciously seek those voices out. I can’t afford not to think about it.

I really encourage you to attempt this project in your own life. If 75% seems daunting (maybe you only read five books year), then try seeking out just one or two. When you add a book to your to-read pile, take the extra second to see if the author is white. If they are? Then go out of your way to add a book by someone who’s not.

And if you ask me why? Then I answer, to add new sounds to the symphony of your literary canon. To hear the full orchestra of the world.

And because it’s worth it.

Trust me.

The Shining Girls

After a string of books that left me feeling exhausted both mentally and emotionally, it was time for a break. I wanted some literary equivalent of pop rocks: bright, snappy, and done in a flash. Enter, The Shining Girls.

Lauren Beukes’s 2013 novel was the poppy, page-turning summer read I was looking for. Set in Chicago, we meet time-traveling serial killer Harper Curtis and spunky victim-cum-survivor, Kirby Mazrachi. Harper’s power to flit in and out of time makes him seemingly impossible to catch, and the book leads us to wonder not just if Harper can be stopped, but how Kirby will ever figure out who attacked her and why she survived.

It was the conceit that completely drew me in. A man out of time who instead of learning about the worlds he finds himself in, learns everything he can about his next victims, his “shining girls.” Their habits. Their tics. Their likes and dislikes. Their daily routines. Everything he can until it’s time to strike, promising as always to come back for them on another day, in another time.

Beukes uses this idea to play with perspective. Alternating chapters between Harper and Kirby are expected and effective, but what I appreciated most was her decision to give each victim a chapter of her own, from her point of view, as well.

When you’re writing a book about murdered women, I think this step is crucial. Without it, the bodies stack up and mean nothing. They’re just gore and shock and horror and the death of a woman is used as set dressing and quite frankly, we live in a world that just doesn’t need any more reinforcement of the idea that the destruction of women’s bodies is “just for fun.”

Beukes humanizes these victims. Her writing is just strong enough to let the deaths pack a punch. When these victims die, it’s not horrific because it’s graphic (though it typically is graphic). It’s horrific because for just a moment, we learned something about their hopes and dreams—their innermost lives—before seeing them snuffed out forever. And because we’re floating through time, we see all manner of women throughout Chicago’s history, from the Great Depression to punk.

This is not to say that Beukes’s writing is without its missteps. In fact, many of the book’s most awkward moments come from the time-travel aspect. In an attempt to highlight what era we’re in, Beukes latches onto key historical moments, which works well with WWII. But when we get to a literal mention of Roe v. Wade, it starts feeling over the top. I don’t need to know the most pressing issues of the day to know what year it is. Thankfully, these moments are spread out.

My only other issue came with some of Beukes’s decisions regarding how several relationships were played out. Things essentially fell apart for me toward the end, leaving me scoffing or rolling my eyes during parts of the climax instead of cheering.

But I’d still put The Shining Girls ahead of Gone Girl, which I think was written about as well, but frustrated me far more. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s scary. In short? It’s everything a summer beach read should be.

The House on Mango Street

Even if you hadn’t already read it in freshman english. Even if you didn’t already know Sandra Cisneros’s poetry. Even if it hadn’t already been the pick for One Book, One Chicago. You’d know with a minute of picking up The House on Mango Street that it was pure poetry.

Another title where I’m not sure how it slipped by my literary education—I knew nothing about it until I picked it up for the first time this year.

It almost seems unfair to review it as a novel, considering how short it is (a mere 110 pages), but then that’s a limiting way to judge a book. Written in 1984 and set in my hometown, The House on Mango Street is a series of vignettes told from the perspective of a young latina named Esperanza Cordero. In each chapter, she provides commentary on her neighborhood, her friends, her family, and the desire for a better life.

As short as each vignette is (some just a handful of sentences), together they create a rich picture of a specific time and place in Chicago’s history. Cisneros’s words breathe life into Esperanza’s world in a way that feels like you could almost reach out and touch it.

Mango Street fell short of a home run for me, though it’s hard to pinpoint why. I think it just didn’t fall within the realm of what I typically love (a meatier text, richer prose), but it was still easy to see how it made it into the canon.

Cisneros’s writing is absolutely beautiful and every now and then, one of the vignettes would drop this beautiful little jewel of truth that really hit home for me, as in the chapter, “A Smart Cookie:”

“Then out of nowhere:
Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Beacuase I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.
Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then.”

In the book, so many of Esperanza’s experiences with womanhood were the ones that resonated with me. Cisneros has a knack for distilling the experience of growing up as girl into these truly brilliant moments that transcend race and class (though the way she illuminates those nuances is equally brilliant). In those moments, I felt like we really understood each other.

Even though I can’t say this was a favorite or that I loved it, The House on Mango Street is such a rewarding, quick read that I have to recommend it as something everyone should pick up. When even the slowest reader could finish it in an afternoon, there’s really nothing standing in your way.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The NPR Book Concierge is here! A new annual feature, it’s one of the best ways (I think) to find a contemporary read to give as a gift or get for yourself. Personally, I’ll be perusing everything in the “Mysteries” and “Seriously Good Writing” cross-section.

NPR’s Book Concierge

Use the filters below to explore some 250 titles NPR staff and critics loved this year. (You can also combine filters!)

How do you figure what books to gift? Any tried and true tricks to picking something your friends and family love?

Eleanor & Park

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You don’t have to read YA fiction to notice the trend that’s been going strong since Harry Potter. First came the boy wizard, and then came Twilight, Eragon, Percy Jackson, The Mortal Instruments. Even Hunger Games doesn’t stray too far from the path in its eschewing of reality for a horrific dystopian future. So when buzz about Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park started drifting my way, I noticed. Because what sets this book apart is that its title characters are, well, normal. They don’t have special powers. They’re not “the chosen ones.” They don’t save a nation from unspeakable forces. Eleanor and Park do something that felt much more magical than any of that—they fall in love.

Told from its title characters’ points of view in alternating chapters, Eleanor & Park explores the lives of two wayward teens in 1986 middle America and their blossoming relationship.

I purposefully chose to read the book in September, in the heart of back-to-school season, in the midst of my annual rewatching of My So-Called Life. I set the scene for myself because I had a feeling that the book would just fit into my heart better that way. And it did.

I found myself lingering over pages in this lightning quick read, rationing chapters, hesitating before turning the page, just so I’d get to spend a little bit longer with it. Just so I wouldn’t finish it too fast. Which, of course, is exactly what I did with all of my favorite books in high school. Eleanor & Park felt more honest than almost any other portrayal of teenage love I can think of. When I finished it, I wished I could have gone back in time and found this book when I was still 16.

It’s a supremely easy read. I don’t think I’d call it groundbreaking, either. It’s just refreshing. It’s like a comfortable old friend. Just seriously consider picking it up the next time you’re in the mood to remember high school without all the bullshit of having to actually be in high school.

[originally posted October 30, 2013]

An Experiment

I’ve been blogging consistently since I was about 14 years old. I had a Xanga. No one read it because I didn’t want anyone to read it. I didn’t tell anyone about it except my best friend, and it stayed that way until college. Then I prepared for study abroad and started a new blog, and a group of about five of my closest friends were aware of it, though I still kept a private blog just for myself (and again, maybe my best friend). What I wrote was a fairly thorough diary of my life and nothing more.

When Tumblr rolled out, I was a senior in college. Everyone I knew signed up for it, but I had no idea what to do with it. The format was foreign to me—it didn’t seem meant for writing and that was all I ever did. But I kept up with it, posting regularly and writing less until I hardly really wrote anything at all. It didn’t take too long to realize this, and for a long time, I hated it but did nothing. I had an audience there, albeit a minuscule one, and I didn’t feel I could go back to hiding everything I wrote.

But late last year, I decided to give myself a challenge.

I was reading more than I had in what felt like my entire life. I was an English major in college, yes, and literature was always my best subject. Yes, I remember being 6 years old and wanting to be a writer. But I never made enough time to read for fun, for myself. Then suddenly I found myself going through a book or two a month. I was always reading something, and it was the most consistent I’d ever been at anything. At around the same time, I was looking for something to dedicate myself to as a way to force myself to write again. I needed some kind of timeline. Some kind of deadline. Something—anything—to compel me.

And then it hit me.

If I reviewed every book I read, I’d post at least once a month. It was an achievable goal. It was realistic.
It was the push I needed.

And now here we are, a good five full months on the dot since I started that project for myself and I haven’t skipped a beat yet.

So where does this leave you?

Well, the experiment will continue. Everything I read, I’ll review, and I’ll review it here. I’ll also be moving over my existing reviews to get started. So everything from my thoughts on Jane Eyre to why I hated Hope: A Tragedy and where I think contemporary YA fiction is going will be here. These are reviews for no one and everyone, and if no one finds this little blog, that’s okay, too. Because most of all, these reviews are for me.

Welcome.

hello, there

This is me.