Leaving What You Love: Body of a Dancer by Renee E. D’Aoust

A dancer is more than a performer.  A dancer lives and breathes movement with the knowledge that one day, their body will no longer let them dance.  But they do it anyway.

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A few weeks ago I finished reading Renée E. D’Aoust’s memoir, Body of a Dancer.  I won the book from Etruscan Press at an event at the AWP conference back in March/April, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it since then.  I picked this particular book as my prize because I identified with the description of D’Aoust as a former dancer.

For ten years of my early life, I considered myself a dancer.  I took ballet from the time I was three until I was thirteen and tap from age nine through thirteen.  I danced on pointe for about four years.  At the peak of my time dancing, I was taking dance classes four times a week: ballet on Monday and Wednesday and tap on Thursdays after school, and ballet with all ages on Saturday mornings and afternoons.  I sweated it out during my classes and tried to perform the perfect tour jeté in ballet or wing in tap.  Every Christmas, my dance studio performed the Nutcracker, and I worked my way through the age groups: first in Chinese, then as Clara (though I was more of an understudy because I was too afraid to do a solo), as a flower, a toy soldier, and finally in reeds, while also learning the choreography to Spanish.  Every spring we performed a themed recital; I performed as Doc in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the duck in Peter and the Wolf, and the wicked stepmother in Cinderella.  As a company, my dance friends and I performed to Canon in D at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center.

The dance studio was a place I could go when I was tired of the work and girl drama of school.  It was a place I could work hard at something and get better.  It was a place where my friends thought I was funny.  But in the end, it was a hobby for me, and not my entire life.  I knew when I went to high school that I was going to be involved with musical theatre, and from witnessing my older brother’s rigorous rehearsal schedule, I knew that I wouldn’t have time for dance anymore.  I knew that I had to leave the dance studio that I had performed with for six years.  And it was very, very hard to leave.

Since then, I’ve also had to leave musical theatre behind when I went to college.  Leaving an activity you love–and the people you performed with–is one of the hardest and most disheartening things I’ve had to do.  Looking back on memories of silly dances we did in ballet classes and inside jokes at rehearsals for musicals helps ease the pain, but there’s always going to be a part of me, a little chunk of my heart that says, “But why aren’t I singing?  Why aren’t I dancing?”

This is what drew me to D’Aoust’s memoir.  Though she went much farther than I did with dance– she was trained as a professional modern dancer at the Martha Graham Center and danced with many professional companies–I knew that we had something in common.  D’Aoust also had to leave dance behind and find other pursuits that fulfilled her as much as dance did.  I think that no matter how long you danced, all former dancers are haunted by “what could have been.”

Each essay that D’Aoust writes combines people with performance.  She shares stories of dance teachers and choreographers: some harsh and unimpressed, their studio floors covered with spots of blood from the dancers’ bare feet; and others kind and down-to-earth, their dancers filled with life rather than the probability of an early death.  She recounts tales of dancers who “couldn’t take it,” who quit, committed suicide, or jumped out of a window because they wanted to feel like a bird.  She describes fellow dancers who are flawed and yet dance flawlessly, who have spunk and grace.

D’Aoust ultimately leaves dance after an injury, but it is a long time coming.  A sense of numbness overwhelms her life as she is constantly working her body–and mind– to its breaking point.  In the world of dance, there is constant rejection, a feeling of never being good enough, especially for dancers like D’Aoust who never become household names, yet still dedicate their whole lives to dance.

The numbness she feels in her body flows into her relationships, including one with a longtime boyfriend.  She frames her relationships with stories of weddings, one at which she was a caterer for extra money (another struggle of living a life dedicated to dance), and one of a former fellow dancer.  She describes the strictly physical relationships of some of her fellow dancers and the odd combination of insensitivity and ferocity that bleeds from the dancers’ bodies into their minds and emotional lives.  This is one major theme in D’Aoust’s memoir: the body is inextricably linked to the mind.  Anymore, I find this to be a hard lesson for me to learn, especially in a culture that often forces people to choose between perfect bodies and a sense of mental well-being.

I also identified with D’Aoust’s final chapters in which she describes going to see dance performances and seeing old dance friends at a wedding.  The going back is often just as hard–if not harder– than the leaving.  When you go back and see people you used to dance with perform, there is often an overwhelming sense that life–dance– has gone on without you, that you were not necessarily an integral part of that world.  Though the memories are strong, the yearning to go back can be stronger.  But where you want to go back to no longer exists because it was a time, not a place.  Places–people– change.  Memories do not.

The light in this realization is that there are so many people who face the same struggle of leaving behind places, people, and activities that they love.  Though the reasons vary from education to family, from relationships to religion, so many people have felt the pain of leaving something.  And that is something that can bring people together: the stories that, once shared, help other people rather than hurt ourselves.  Leaving is a unifying aspect of human nature, something we can all understand.

I enjoyed Body of a Dancer mostly due to my personal connections with the subject matter.  Sometimes it could be difficult to follow, especially considering I am not familiar with the popular modern dance choreographers of New York City in the 1990s.  The essays were sometimes organized poorly so that I didn’t know in what time frame the story was taking place and couldn’t always follow the development of the “I” character.  Still, I think that Body of a Dancer is an insightful behind-the-scenes look at the world of professional modern dance and a message to all those who have left something they love to do: that you are not alone.

Have you read Body of a Dancer?  What did you think of it?  What other memoirs have you identified with? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading!

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Finding the Spiritual in the Mundane | The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

A strong story has beauty, curiosity, and… bees?

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A couple weeks ago I finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees.  Though I’ve never seen it, it was made into a movie starring Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Dakota Fanning in 2008.  I picked up the book at a garage sale last summer and finally decided to read it.  It was a great beach read for me and one of my favorites I’ve read so far this summer.

The Secret Life of Bees is set in the summer of 1964 in Tiburon, South Carolina during the peak of the Civil Rights movement.  The book follows the journey of 14-year-old Lily Owens, a white girl trying to escape her abusive father in search of answers about her mother’s death.  She travels with her caretaker, Rosaleen, a black woman with even amounts of stubbornness and kindness.  By following clues left behind in her mother’s belongings, Lily, along with Rosaleen, happens upon the Boatwright sisters, honey-selling bee-keepers who have more connections with Lily’s past than she initially thinks.

(A few spoilers are to follow!)

I think that the beauty of this book lies in its characters.  Each character is well developed and has an engaging journey for the reader to follow.  August, the eldest sister, serves as a stand-in mother for Lily and has all of the wisdom of Mother Willow from Pocahontas.  She seems to always know the truth in her heart before anyone can tell it to her.  June, the middle sister, resents Lily’s staying with her and her boyfriend Neil’s repeated proposals, not because she doesn’t care about those around her, but because of her dedication to her family.

May, the youngest, is the most poignant character in The Secret Life of Bees.  May lost her twin sister April to suicide; April had grown increasingly depressed due to the harsh backlash toward the Civil Rights movement.  Without her other half, May goes through life fighting off fits of weeping by praying at her wailing wall, in which she places bits of paper with prayer intentions written on them.  She is innocent and kind, but ultimately fragile because not only does she feel her own pain, but she feels everyone else’s, also.  I identified with this aspect of May’s character; as the world starts to seem darker and darker with the growing awareness of suffering, hatred, violence, and injustice, I often find myself feeling the pain of others as my own.  May’s pain, right now, is the world’s pain.

Though Rosaleen is distressed about the circumstances of her and Lily’s arrival at the Boatwright residence (It involves being a fugitive from a jail, a hospital, and Lily’s father’s peach orchard), her bitterness turns sweet as she finds a sisterhood for herself among the Boatwright women.  She is as much a mother to Lily as August is, but the kind who often won’t tell her what she wants to hear.

Though the book does mention bits of the Civil Rights movement–Rosaleen is beaten by a group of white men while in jail for retaliation, and toward the end of the book she is finally able to register to vote–the primary focus is Lily’s journey.  I found this to be a fault in the novel; it seems as though a period of time such as the 1960s South is rich with the stories of the struggles of black men and women against racism.  Yet, racism mostly bleeds into the story through subtext and in Lily’s maturing thoughts and attitudes.  Having grown up in a racist society, Lily shocks the surrounding community–and herself– by staying with a trio of black sisters.  As she spends more time with them, she realizes that these women are not very different from white people; rather, the racist culture surrounding them is what separates them from each other.  Perhaps this is why Kidd seems not to emphasize the Civil Rights movement in her book– to show the similarities of black and white women.  However, it still seems slightly wrong for the white young woman’s journey to usurp the significant historical events that are taking place at the same time.

Still, Kidd does focus on the overt racism of the setting when Lily starts to have feelings for Zach, a black teenage boy who helps the Boatwright sisters with their beekeeping.  The two realize that in that time and place, a relationship between the two of them would be not just frowned upon, but an excuse for violence.  Even so, Zach grows just as the other characters do; though at first, he is a mild-mannered, hard worker, he eventually finds himself in jail unjustly and comes home with the resolve to further integration and to combat racism.  He is filled with more anger than he has been in all his life.

As the story goes on, Lily peels away the layers of racism that her culture has placed upon her, especially in discovering her romantic feelings for Zach and forming a love for the Boatwright sisters.  Yet the real driving force of her actions is her complicated relationship with her father, who has told her that not only did Lily accidentally kill her mother with a gun as a child, but also that her mother was attempting to leave her and her father when Lily did it.  Lily’s father is abusive, cruel, and hot-tempered; to avoid feeling trapped by him, she finds respite in imagining a perfect mother who loved her unconditionally and would never leave her family.

As she stays longer at the sisters’ house, she learns more and more about her mother.  But it isn’t until the fateful day when her father discovers her at the house that she finally sees his humanity, recognizes his pain and reasons for treating her so cruelly, and moves forward with love rather than fear.  The climax brings together her father’s and her journeys to emphasize that they have both felt pain caused by the same woman, but that their differing means of overcoming that pain will separate them forever.

At each pivotal moment in the book, there is an element of ceremony.  The name for the Boatwright women’s honey is “Black Madonna Honey” after their devotion to the African depiction of the Blessed Mother Mary, especially represented as Our Lady of Chains.  The sisters and their friends join together once a week to pray the rosary and to remind themselves of Our Lady of Chains’ story of redemption.  When May commits suicide, there is ceremony amidst the pain; a days-long wake before the burial allows for healing and the expression of grief.  Even the process of honey making has a certain ceremonial quality to it in its repetition and respect for the bees themselves.  August teaches Lily to find the spiritual in the mundane through ceremony and most importantly to find the Blessed Mother inside her, rather than seek her in a mother that no longer exists.

Bees are the perfect frame for this book–Kidd includes a quote about bees at the beginning of each chapter–and they serve as a means to represent different themes.  The Queen Bee, the mother of all the bees in the hive, reflects the theme of motherhood–of lost mothers and non-blood mothers, of motherhood towards oneself.  There is a sense of complete community among bees, all working toward a common goal, not unlike the honey business at the Boatwright house.  Their community of worshipers and friends seeks to emulate the bee community in its harmony and selflessness.  Honey, in all of its different uses, serves as a symbol for healing, which is what each character in this story is searching for.

This book is an interesting counterpart to Kathryn Stockett’s popular novel, The Help that I read last summer; both books focus on white women and their changing attitudes about African Americans during the Civil Rights movement.  I cannot imagine writing a book from that perspective and walking the fine line between using historical context and racism.  Still, I enjoyed both stories immensely, while also recognizing this point.

Kidd is an excellent storyteller with gifts for character development and unique use of language.  The captivating world she created was unlike any I have ever read about or experienced.  I think that her messages of acceptance of one’s journey and the need to recognize the spiritual in all aspects of life was something I needed to understand at this time in my life.  For there is beauty in ceremony, in life, in bees.

Have you read The Secret Life of Bees?  What did you think of it?  What other books have inspired you?  Let me know in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!

Love Conquers Hate and Writing the Sonnet Yourself | A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

A tale of time travel has never hit so close to home.

FullSizeRender (8)Last week, I finished reading Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s science fantasy novel, A Wrinkle in Time.  It was first published in 1963, won a Newberry Medal, and is the first book in the Time Quintet.  I’d wanted to read it since I saw previews for the TV movie version as a kid and was given it as a Christmas gift in recent years.  Even though I’m no longer a child, I found the book engaging and containing pertinent messages that apply to our world right now, especially in relation to current events.

A Wrinkle in Time follows the journey of misfit Meg Murray, her genius little brother Charles Wallace, and her friend Calvin O’Keefe as they try to rescue Mr. Murray from another dimension.  With the help of three mysterious witches–Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which–the kids leave the rest of their families behind for places they couldn’t even dream of and an evil force that no one can seem to defeat.

Fair warning: a few spoilers are to follow!

Despite being in the “and up” part of the age-range for this book, I recognized many merits to L’Engle’s story that apply to more than just children.  First, L’Engle presents a strong female protagonist–and we’re not talking the “strong female protagonist” of much of commercial fiction today that portrays young women in unrealistic and simplistic ways under the guise of “empowerment.”  Meg is a real character reminiscent of Meggie in Cornelia Funke’s classic, Inkheart.  She has both strengths and flaws; she is a loving sister to her brothers, especially Charles Wallace, but she is also impatient about the disappearance of her father.  She cries often but has a fierce temper, which the witches insist is one of her strengths.  She is a math wizard, though also a poor student and misjudged as unintelligent by her peers.  And despite her fear, she is the only one who can save her little brother from a life of hypnotized meaninglessness.

L’Engle also presents lessons that even adults still need to learn.  When Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace finally find Mr. Murray on the mind-numbing planet of Camazotz, Meg realizes that all along, this has been her only goal.  Find her father, and he will know what to do.  Find him, and he will save everyone and take them back home.  But upon discovering him, she learns that he,too, has no idea how to get back to Earth.  He has made the mistake of thinking he was knowledgeable enough about tesseracts (the mathematical concept that allows for time travel) to attempt it on his own.  But he cannot save them, which infuriates Meg and also causes her to lose some of her innocence.  She now understands that adults don’t always have all the answers.

Though at first this creates distance between her father and her, Meg eventually finds the resolve to save her brother from the horrible ruler of Camazotz, IT, which she discovers is a pulsing brain that dictates all of the thoughts and actions of the people of Camazotz.  By flattering Charles Wallace’s intelligence, IT takes over his mind, and Meg has to be the one to pull him from IT’s control while also resisting its hypnosis on herself.  Camazotz can be read as a symbol of communism or totalitarianism and is reminiscent of a 1984-esque society.  Conformity and blind acceptance is IT’s goal, but Meg knows that living in that kind of security is not living because it allows for no difference.  And in difference, she tells Charles Wallace, we find beauty.

The main lesson that L’Engle presents in A Wrinkle in Time could not be more applicable to life in the U.S. right now: the triumph of love over evil and hatred.  In the multi-verse where the kids are searching for Mr. Murray, an evil being called the Darkness, or the Black Thing, has been conquering different planets.  There is a dark shadow over the earth that threatens to control it, and many planets have already succumbed to its power.  The Darkness can be understood as evil or hatred taking over the lives of people and their societies.  Heroic beings across the galaxies have been fighting it, including Mrs. Whatsit, who once gave up her life as a star to fight it.  Light is the only thing that can conquer Darkness.  Love is the only thing that can conquer Hate.

What pulls Charles Wallace from his spell on Camazotz is Meg’s love for him.  Once she realizes that IT has anger, fear, and hatred but not love, she pronounces her love for her brother until he is finally free of IT’s control and back in his own mind with his own thoughts.  She realizes on her own that love conquers all and that evil cannot be fought with mere pride or ambition.

This couldn’t be a truer lesson in light of the violent events that have shaken the United States in recent weeks, from the Orlando shooting to the unjust killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers.  In a world that is wrought with anger, fear, and gun violence, I hear L’Engle’s message loud and clear: that love, above all else, is the only thing that can create unity and peace.

L’Engle’s beliefs were an apparent contradiction to many.  She was a faithful Episcopalian who believed in universal salvation while also an advocate for modern science.  Elements of both are strongly present in A Wrinkle in Time, and her views cause some to view her work as too religious, while others view it as too secular.  Still, she recognizes that belief in God and belief in science are not mutually exclusive.  Similarly, The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah rightly claims that “You can be pro-cop and pro-black, which is what we should all be.”  Like L’Engle’s belief in religion and science, Noah points out that supporting those whose job it is to protect American citizens and supporting the victims of their systemic problems, especially African Americans, are also not mutually exclusive actions.

Finally, I’d like to acknowledge a scene in the last chapter of A Wrinkle in Time that reveals another important lesson.  Meg is about to go back to Camazotz to save Charles Wallace from IT, and Mrs. Whatsit explains the beauty of choosing who we are and not having our lives planned out for us.  She says that a sonnet has fourteen lines with strict rhyme and iambic pentameter.  She tells Meg,

You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.  What you say is completely up to you.

We as people are given only a certain amount of time on Earth, and we get to choose what we do with it (a lesson I learned from Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness)  We can stand idly by while the world turns and injustice occurs and discoveries are made, or we can be active participants in fighting for our beliefs, for ourselves, and for those who are oppressed.  We have to write the sonnets ourselves.

Have you read A Wrinkle in Time?  What did you think of it?  What other books have lessons that relate to issues we face today?

Thanks for reading!

Time Is of the Essence and Nothing Makes Sense | The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

FullSizeRender (4)I recently finished reading the collection of essays and stories, The Opposite of Loneliness by the late Marina Keegan.  It was one of those books that just came into my life at the right time.  About a year ago, I picked it up in Barnes & Noble–just literally picked it up–and thought about buying it, but for some reason I didn’t.  Later, I read headlines of glowing reviews about it and felt like an idiot for not getting it.  But the first time wasn’t the right time for me to read it.  When I bought it a couple weeks ago, I felt as though I needed to read it this time.  And I was right.

The essays and stories in The Opposite of Loneliness were written by Keegan from the ages of about seventeen through twenty-two.  Five days after her graduation from Yale, she died in a car crash on the way to Cape Cod.  The book was published posthumously.

What matters, though, is not the traumatic circumstances but the perspective.  Because of Keegan’s sudden death, the book carries with it two perspectives: one of the vibrant, passionate, intellectual student, and one provided by the audience who knows that the author is no longer alive due to what seems to be a glitch in the flow of the universe.

The first half of the book is a collection of short stories.  After reading each one, I found myself angry.  But a good kind of angry.  Angry because I hadn’t written what she did, angry because at twenty-two, she could write better than I probably ever will.  Each story is so complex, so real.  They engage with the quiet struggles of dysfunctional families, the twisted emotions of romance, the panic and the aftermath of death.

The first story, “Cold Pastoral,” sucked me in like a vortex.  It focuses on the impact of the death of a college student, while following a girl who knew him, who was in the all-too-common romantic place of having a “thing” with him.  She wasn’t his girlfriend, yet feels like she’s expected to fill that role.  The ending left my mind stuttering, reeling.  Keegan made me think, which I think is the goal that all literary writers hope to achieve.  The rest of the stories followed suit, each with a unique twist at the end that ignited surprise and frustration fueled by my own egotism.

The second half of the book is a series of essays– stories and observations from Keegan’s own life.  The second essay, “Why We Care About Whales,” recounts the story of fifty pilot whales that became stranded on the beach next to her Cape Cod summer home.  She wonders why we spend so much money to save a whale, yet eat fish all the time.  She says, “I worry sometimes that humans are afraid of helping humans” (153).  She says that the reason the whales get stuck there and die is not through any fault of their own; rather, the culprit is the moon that pulls the tide in and out.

The day I read that essay I found out that I had lost a cousin, suddenly, without warning.  A relatively young person.  One who lived far away, but was nonetheless family.  To me, it made no sense.  It still doesn’t.  And it probably never will.

I couldn’t help but draw the connection to the book I was reading, one written by a girl who died in a car accident.  Two lives cut short.  Two women no longer physically present in our reality.  It all connects.

Over the next couple days, I finished reading Keegan’s essays.  I noticed how often death came up not only in her stories but in her essays as well.  Especially in the short “Putting the ‘Fun’ Back in Eschatology,” Keegan talks about the Big Death– the death of the human race.  She begins, “If you didn’t already know this, the sun is going to die” (169).  She mentions the same thing in her poem, “Bygones,” which I found on YouTube when I wanted to know what her voice sounded like.  She says in a way what Robert Frost says: “Nothing gold can stay.”  Yet she does so without demeaning the merit of the gold we create every day.

Her thoughts on life and ambition and gluten allergies and bug-killing humor are filled with a keen urgency.  Despite the fact that she had no way of knowing she was going to die at twenty-two, she knew the value of time.  And she did not intend to waste it.

And now there is a published book with her name on it.

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The Opposite of Loneliness opens with the title essay which was published in the graduation issue of the Yale Daily News.  In it, Keegan writes:

There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective conscious […] that it is somehow too late.  That others are somehow ahead […] That it’s too late now to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement[…] What we have to remember is that we can still do anything[…] We’re so young.  We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have” (2-3).

What I learned from Marina Keegan is that time is of the essence.  Ambition is worthwhile.  Nothing is ever going to make sense, and I will never know everything there is to know about anything.  The sun is going to die one day, but we’re here now.  We’re here.  Now.

Let me know if you have any thoughts on The Opposite of Loneliness or this blog post in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!

Third Book of the Summer | Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

FullSizeRender (2)Yesterday I finished reading my third book of the summer, the classic pirate’s tale, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, the 19th century author also famous for writing Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Treasure Island was first published in novel form in 1883, so it’s an oldie but a goodie.

I’d never read Treasure Island the whole way through before (I tried to get into it a few times but never had the time to give it my full attention), but I’ve always had a thing for a good pirate story (I grew up with the Disney movie version of Peter Pan, and I remember being captivated by an elementary school teacher reading my class The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle).  I was familiar with the futuristic Disney version, Treasure Planet (starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, Emma Thompson, and more).  I’d call Treasure Planet one of the most underrated animated Disney movies.  I mean, come on.  It’s PIRATES!  IN SPACE! AND MARTIN SHORT IS A CRAZY ROBOT!  COME ON!!!

Treasure Island is actually remarkably similar to Treasure Planet (not that much, but similarities were definitely recognizable), but the book is a distinct Victorian Era adventure story.  I have to admit that I had to push through it at points; the antiquated language and myriad of sailing terms weren’t familiar to me, so I often used contextual clues to discern the meaning of and imagine certain situations presented in the book.  Still, though it was a book that required a lot of focus for me, it was still very enjoyable.

What I found most incredible about Stevenson’s story was that in a lot of ways, it was the first of its kind.  When I flipped through the section at the end of the book entitled, “Inspired by Treasure Island,” I learned that Stevenson was the first to create the classic image of the pirate that we have today: peg-legged with a screechy parrot, often saying “Shiver me timbers” and singing “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.”  Though there were a few pirate stories before his, no other image of a pirate has stuck around as firmly as Stevenson’s, which is modeled by the character Long John Silver.  J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan , was supposedly inspired almost exclusively by Long John Silver when creating the notorious Captain Hook.

(If you haven’t read Treasure Island yet and plan to, there are a few spoilers to follow!)

I think that Stevenson’s greatest triumph in the story isn’t the final suspense (though I did gasp aloud) or the vibrant cast of characters, but the complexity of the villain himself.  While Barrie presents Captain Hook as a wholly evil character from the start and later reveals his personal insecurities that lead to his horrific deeds and hatred for the little boy who won’t grow up, Stevenson presents Long John Silver at first as a rough and friendly sea cook but quickly reveals his mutinous intentions aboard the ship, the Hispaniola.  

Throughout the book, Long John Silver never comes across as wholly evil.  From the start, he takes a liking to Jim Hawkins–the teenage protagonist who joins the voyage to find Treasure Island by a mysterious happenstance at his parents’ inn–and vice versa.  No matter what kind of greedy, evil deeds Long John commits (killing people, for a start), Jim never quite loses his trust in him.  And likewise, when Jim confesses to Long John that he was the one who discovered the mutiny and told the “good guys” (i.e., the captain, the doctor, the squire, and the squire’s assistants) about the pirates’ plan, Long John sees Jim less as a traitor and more as an equal.  Even though Jim is fully aware that Long John can go from laughing heartily at his noisy parrot to shooting a fellow pirate, Jim still would trust him with his life.  Stevenson frequently repeats that Long John is “the best man” among all the pirates.

Because of his more complex nature, Long John Silver doesn’t get the bitter villain’s end, either; when he finds out that the treasure has been dug up already by a marooner named Ben Gunn (the equivalent of Martin Short’s kooky robot), he and Jim solidify their deal that, because Long John saved Jim from being killed by the pirates when he confessed, Jim would testify in his favor when brought to court to be hanged for piracy.  Not only does the hero not kill the villain, but Long John escapes from the good guys with just a portion of the treasure, presumably to avoid punishment for his crimes.  Still, there seems to be no revenge involved, and the villain simply fades away from the tale.

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Map of Treasure Island

I found this to be an agreeable ending and made what would otherwise be the foundation of many a clichéd story into something much deeper than that.  Though the blurb on the back of the book focuses on Jim’s transformation into adulthood, I found that to be secondary to the exploration of Long John Silver’s character.  Jim grows up mostly due to his learned ability to harness his cleverness and fear in order to get what he wants.  The book is told from the supposed point of view of an older, wiser Jim Hawkins, who laments his rash decisions often driven by pride and zeal for adventure, but who also glows in the memory that despite everything, it turned out okay.  I admire Stevenson’s ability to weave a coming-of-age story with that of a complex, evil, yet also likable character.  He reminds me that villains are just people who choose a different route to getting what they want.

My only complaint is that I wish there were more female (or anything other than European dude) characters besides Jim’s perseverant yet frequently fainting mother who leaves the story after the first couple of chapters and certainly does not join in on the epic sea voyage.  Though the Disney film has a female captain of the ship (Yeah, Emma Thompson!!), the book is much less revolutionary.  Victorian Era adventure stories were very much a boy’s genre featuring almost exclusively male characters, so it isn’t surprising that Mrs. Hawkins is the only woman you meet in 227 pages.  (The only other one you hear about is Long John Silver’s poor, poor wife.)  Definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test.

Overall, the book was a delightful and whimsical tale of adventure.  It’s a classic for a reason, and it should be on everybody’s “I’ve been saying I’d read these forever, and now I finally will” lists.  There’s nothing like a good pirate story to start off your summer!

Have you read Treasure Island?  What did you think of it?  What are your favorite literary classics?  Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading!

 

Second Book of the Summer | Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Yesterday I finished reading the second book of my summer break, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.  I had picked it up when I was spending some gift cards in Barnes & Noble last summer because I had seen/heard rave reviews about it in the YA fiction community.  I wasn’t sure if it would live up to the hype, but after reading it for the first time, I’d venture to say that it did.

FullSizeRenderEleanor & Park is a story set in Omaha, Nebraska in 1986.  The narrative switches between the title characters’ perspectives (indicated by their name) and follows their relationship from meeting on the school bus to falling in love.  I was wary of the whole “star-crossed lovers” thing at first, but instead of relying on cliché, Rowell uses the trope to create a very real story, which is what I think is its greatest merit.

Some spoilers to follow FYI!

First of all, these aren’t two perfectly beautiful, normal sixteen-year-olds; it’s not one of those stories in which the super-hot, athletic guy finally falls for the somewhat-awkward-yet-still-kind-of-beautiful-without-trying kind of girl.  (I think there’s probably a thousand too many of those.)  Eleanor is an overweight, messy-looking, misfit type of girl.  She’s embarrassed in her gym suit because it’s too tight.  Her hair is red and super curly, but not in a glamorous way.  And she’s poor.  Like, really poor.  Like doesn’t even have a landline poor.  Her stepdad is a raging alcoholic who treats everyone in her house like his property (which can be disposed of) and has kicked Eleanor out of the house before; her mom is a defenseless and compliant victim of abuse; and her siblings are all just trying to figure out how this violent and irresponsible stepdad fits into their world.  Eleanor does not have it easy.

Park has it much easier than Eleanor, but he’s still not some charming, magazine-cover, popular boy.  He’s half-Korean, and his mom is an immigrant who is still pretty traditional in her own ways.  His dad is a veteran and hard on Park for not being a “manly” guy.  His little brother is, well, a little brother.  And Park is just a kid subconsciously trying to find himself in punk music and comic books and the occasional romantic relationship.  Park’s struggles are different from Eleanor’s, but real all the same.

And the way their relationship progresses is just as real.  At first, Park is just (reluctantly) doing Eleanor (the new girl) a favor by letting her sit with him on the bus.  They don’t speak for at least a month.  But they both start to break down their barriers slowly but surely as Eleanor starts to read Park’s comic books surreptitiously as he reads them on the bus, and he starts to let her, eventually bringing her comic books to read on her own.

Their relationship begins in friendship, when the two of them form a misfit bond that, though clichéd, still does happen in real life.  Their relationship progresses until finally, in a fight with one of Eleanor’s bullies, Park calls her his girlfriend.

Both Eleanor and Park are flawed.  Eleanor often shuts people out and tries to handle her problems on her own because she fears being a burden to others and severely lacks self-confidence (as a result of a myriad of things: e.g., her family life, her “otherness”).  Park cuts himself off from his friends because he is so infatuated with Eleanor and often says the wrong thing in an attempt to be smooth and romantic.  He doesn’t confront problems well, and neither does Eleanor.  But hey, all teenagers (and people!) make mistakes.

Not only that, but the beauty of their relationship is in how they find beauty in each other: two people who are not considered traditionally beautiful and who have problems that they’re equally ashamed of.  But they see past those things and dust off the beautiful parts of each other that often go unnoticed, by themselves and by their peers.  They find amidst all of their baggage, a person they can love.

What I found most refreshing about Eleanor & Park was that it is a teenage story.  Not a dreamy, unrealistic, teenage fantasy.  A teenage story.  Sure, their kind of gushy love-talk I sometimes found cringey (but then again, I think all PDA is cringey), but for all I know with my limited realm of personal experience, that kind of talk in the 1980s between teenage lovers was completely normal.  But this story was also about friends (yes, girl/boyfriends, but at the root, friends) helping each other.  It is about the real struggles that a lot of teenagers face in their families, among their peers, and in trying to find their identities when everyone around them wants something different from them.  It’s not just “I love you! You’re amazing!!” “No, you’re amazing!!”  “No, you are!” “No, you!”  It’s “I am going to hide my shameful problems from you until it becomes too much to handle.”  It’s “I have to lie to my parents about this relationship because they would disapprove.”  It’s “You don’t have to fight my battles for me.”  It’s real.

And the beauty is also in the ending.  There’s no cliché happily-ever-after ending! *A TRUMPET FANFARE SOUNDS!  A HALLELUJAH CHORUS RINGS OUT!  THE WHOLE UNIVERSE CHEERS!!!*  It’s open-ended, so you never really know if Eleanor and Park get back together after Eleanor has to flee to Minnesota because of her family, but there is a hint that they might.  Which, is, as I’ve witnessed with friends, a very real place to be, as well.

Eleanor & Park was filled with good-natured dialogue, quirky ’80s references, and emotions from fear to joy, from embarrassment to hope.  It had me smiling at the page and gripping the book in suspense.  It’s a fictional story about teens falling in love, but it’s really so much more than that.

Have you read Eleanor & Park?  What did you think of it?  What other good YA books have you read?  Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading!

First Book of the Summer | Drinking With Men by Rosie Schaap

I’m back! (Yet again…)

So after a year of on-again, off-again blogging, I’ve discerned that I just can’t find the time to blog while I’m at college.  BUT, I still love blogging, and I love having breaks from school so that I can get back to it.

It’s been a rough/tough semester/year, and I’ve found myself in a much different place (not location-wise, but mentally/emotionally/life-y) than where I was at the end of my freshman year of college.  For the time being, I’m just decompressing from an emotional roller coaster of a year.  I’ve only been home for two and a half days, but I’ve already recognized that something that really grounds me and makes me feel good about myself is reading.

So, here’s to my first book of the summer, Drinking with Men by Rosie Schaap!

FullSizeRender (7)During my fall semester of sophomore year, I took a creative writing class called “The Personal Essay,” in which I learned how to write about myself in the form of an essay (a collection of which could be considered a memoir).  The creative writing department at my college brought in Rosie Schaap to do a reading from her memoir and have a Q & A with the students.  After the reading (which was super entertaining), I bought a copy of her memoir and got to talk to her for a few seconds.  She was totally cool and intimidating, and definitely had a free-spirited aura about her, which having read the book now, makes a whole lot of sense.

Drinking with Men is a collection of ten personal essays written by Schaap about her many, many experiences with bars throughout her life.  Each chapter revolves around one particular bar, which serves as the frame for her stories about her remarkable life.  Before she came for the reading, my personal essay class was assigned to read the first essay from the memoir, entitled “Bar Car Prophecy,” which details Schaap’s experience as a wayward, teenage stoner who discovers that she has a knack for performing tarot card readings in the bar car of the train that takes her to and from her shrink’s office weekly.  If that isn’t enough to catch your attention, I don’t know what will.

The following essays follow Schaap through bars she discovered while following around the Grateful Dead, near her college in Vermont, abroad in Ireland, in Montreal while visiting for a friend’s wedding, and in her hometown of New York City.  And with each bar, the reader learns a little bit more about the crazy life of Rosie Schaap.

I took a risk when buying this book.  Though I have discovered the wonderful appeal of memoir as a genre, Rosie Schaap couldn’t be further from me personally, other than the fact that we’re two white ladies.  As her bio says on the back of her book, “Rosie Schaap has been a bartender, a fortune-teller, a librarian at a paranormal society, an English teacher, an editor, a preacher, a community organizer, and a manager of homeless shelters.”  That’s quite the résumé.  Schaap has lived the crazy, rebellious life as a teenager (involving alcohol, pot, and not always knowing where she was going to sleep the next night), the high-falutin scholar life in college (involving lots of poetry and deep conversations with intelligent people), and the very stressful adult life (involving finding something resembling faith, her father’s death, and the 9/11 attacks).  She has seen it all and more.  And she has been drinking all the while.

Her life is so vastly different from mine, that I wasn’t sure if I would be able to identify with her memoir at all.  I’m a pretty straight-edge, reserved nineteen-year-old.  Fear drives a lot of what I do and don’t do (and trying to make that not the case can be anywhere from frustrating to agonizing), and the phrase “trying new things” has often been cause for anxiety rather than excitement for me.  Though I do like doing “new things” and have found going out of my comfort zone more and more appealing as I’ve gotten older, I find a sense of security, comfort, and peace with routine.  I do the right thing not always because I want to, but because I feel like I have to.

But what surprised me most about Drinking with Men was how much I identified with Rosie Schaap’s journey.  Of course, I’m not married, my parents are both alive and still married, and I’ve only had two real jobs in my life.  But I did identify with the emotions present in Schaap’s memoir.  She often mentions her need to feel needed and a sense of belonging, which couldn’t be more applicable to my life as a young adult right now.  She just searches for that feeling in bars, and I don’t.  She discusses grief over the passing of friends and of her father, which is a feeling I have become all too familiar with, and I’ve even written about on this blog before.  And toward the end of the memoir, she discusses the yearning to be really “doing something” with her life, the feeling that the world has so much to offer, and falling into complacency with the little you do know can be considered a failure.  I have often felt this feeling before, as I’m sure so many have.

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“To Annie– Here’s a toast to your health, your happiness, and your writing.  Cheers, Rosie Schaap”

The greatest lesson I learned from Drinking with Men is that no matter how different you are from someone on the surface, there will still be innate, human things that you share.  There is a certain level of universality that comes with being a person that will always allow you to find some way to connect with someone else, and your different choices don’t make you better or worse than anyone else.  Though Rosie Schaap sought connection through her extroverted personality in bars across the western world, I seek connection, too, just in different, more introverted ways.  We may be completely different people, but we are still just two people.  And in our humanness, there is similarity and understanding.  And in this similarity, I can see the possibility for me to lose some of my fear and take some chances.  Rosie Schaap and I aren’t that different, after all.

Have you read Drinking with Men?  What did you think about it?  Have you read any other memoirs that had an impact on you?  Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading!