Holding Two Thumbs Up for Holding Up the Universe

Jennifer Niven has done it again in her novel Holding Up the Universe. She’s written another fantastic Young Adult novel featuring two unlikely main characters: Jack Masselin, prosopagnosiac-in-hiding, and Libby Strout, formerly known as “America’s fattest teenager.” I’m cringing as I type that description, but Libby uses the label herself. She was so heavy that at one point, the fire department had to bring along a crane, open up her bedroom wall, and lift her out. But now, she’s lost a lot of weight, has been through therapy, and is ready to join her peers at school. She knows it’s not going to be easy, but she’s hopeful that things can be different this time around. Meanwhile, Jack hides his face-blindness by acting like an overly-confident douchebag (again, the character’s word, not mine!) to everyone. When Jack and Libby’s worlds collide in a truly cringe-worthy way, they discover an unexpected camaraderie. They both understand what it’s like to feel trapped within themselves.

This book was so enjoyable to read. Despite Jack and Libby’s unusual circumstances, they were both incredibly relatable. Jack’s diagnosis of prosopagnosia was fascinating. He can’t recall faces – not even those of his family members or his own. He uses identifiers to help him piece together who is talking to him…even if it’s his mom or little brother. Jack feels that telling people about prosopagnosia will make him a target, and since there’s no cure for it, he figures there’s no point in worrying anyone else about it. I learned that prosopagnosia is actually quite common, and one in fifty people are face-blind. Brad Pitt and Lewis Carroll may be prosopagnosiacs. But what also makes Jack interesting is that he’s kind to his purse-wearing little brother, angry at his cancer-surviving father for having an affair, and acts “shitty” to Libby to save her from a worse fate from his so-called friends. He’s both a good guy and a bad guy. How refreshing.

Libby was a refreshing character, too. She tells it like it is. She’s bold. She stands up for people. She loves to dance. She’s smart. She gives people chances. She’s insightful. She talks about loss in a real way. She loves to read and is a huge fan of Atticus Finch. She mentions what “Atticus told Scout: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” I’m all about this concept – it’s exactly why I love reading so much – so I love that I found a character (and most likely, an author) who loves this concept, too.

Why else did I enjoy this book? There’s fantastic witty banter. There are flirty, swoony scenes. There is humor. There is girl-friendship. The ending was also satisfying. Really, there was very little not to love! If you’re looking for a great Young Adult read, I’d highly recommend Holding Up the Universe.  


Reading up on Prince


        Could U be the most beautiful girl in the world?

        It’s plain 2 see U’re the reason that God made a girl

        When the day turns into the last day of all time

        I can say I hope U are in these arms of mine

When I saw the beautiful cover of The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince, I knew I was interested. I became a Prince fan in 2004 during my senior year of high school. A strange time to become a fan, but my dance class used Prince’s song “Thunder” for our spring recital and I couldn’t get enough. I needed more Prince in my life! Lucky for me, Prince was releasing his album “Musicology” that year and going on a concert tour. My aunt got tickets to one of the three Minneapolis shows (thanks Aunt Cathy!), so we went to see him LIVE! Simply amazing. So much energy and charisma! My favorite part of the show, though, was when he sat down in a swivel chair and played some of his hits on a plain old acoustic guitar. It was a huge venue, but felt so special. The author of The Most Beautiful, first ex-wife of Prince, Mayte Garcia, mentions in the book that she also loved when Prince played an acoustic guitar.

“The acoustic guitar is my favorite,” I told him. “I like that little squeaking sound when you slide your fingers up and down the neck. It’s so personal.”

While I enjoy Prince’s music, and relished every sighting of him on TV – be it the Super Bowl, promoting his music on a late night show, or even appearing in an episode of New Girl – I didn’t really know anything about his personal life (other than the strange fact about him becoming a Jehovah’s Witness). I didn’t know who he had dated or married or divorced or that he had lost a child – all of this took place when I was just a child. Mayte’s story of her life with Prince provided all sorts of new information and insights for me.

Along with these intimate looks at life with Prince, Mayte also tells readers about her life. Mayte’s father was in the military, so she moved around frequently during her childhood. She began training as a belly dancer at the age of three, and dancing became a passion and a source of revenue for her. When she was 16, she went to see Prince at a concert in Barcelona. Her mother miraculously managed to get a videotape of Mayte’s belly dancing to Prince when his tour passed by near their home in Germany, and the rest is history.

Mayte and Prince began a strange friendship. He would call her on the telephone and they would talk for long periods of time. He would fly her to different cities so they could hang out. He would send her song ideas he was working on and ask for her opinion. When she graduated from high school, Mayte put her dreams of dancing in Cairo, Egypt, on hold so that she could join Prince’s tour. She spent years traveling with him, dancing in his shows, appearing in music videos, and being a friend.

“For me, this relationship was the opportunity to step out of my ordinary world into a rarified existence in which life itself is a work of art. It had never occurred to me that each shoe and rock and handwritten letter is an opportunity to express yourself—or it’s just one more of a million little things that don’t. It’s up to you. But why would you choose to create a life from a pile of little things that don’t actively matter to you?”

Eventually, their friendship became a courtship, and Prince proposed to her over the phone. They got married in Minneapolis in 1996. Mayte was 22 and Prince was 37. From the book, it’s clear that the couple was very much in love. They pushed each other creatively, intellectually, and spiritually. They both had big dreams of creating a loving family. Two months after their wedding, Mayte was pregnant with their first child. Unfortunately, after a difficult pregnancy and labor, the baby did not live long due to Pfeiffer Syndrome, a rare disease where bones fuse together. The loss of their child and their grief created a rift between Mayte and Prince that they were not able to repair. After a strange appearance on Oprah in which the couple refused to speak about their child, a molar pregnancy, a period of separation where Mayte bought a house in Spain while Prince started a relationship with another young girl and began studying as a Jehovah’s Witness, Prince finally asked for their marriage to be annulled. Their divorce wasn’t finalized until 2000. It wasn’t until Prince married Manuela Testolini in 2001 that Mayte truly realized her relationship with Prince was over.        

At first, the writing style of The Most Beautiful didn’t feel very polished. I thought it was going to be a cringe-worthy celebrity book. Mayte would be telling the reader about something that happened in the 1980s and that would remind her of something that happened much later, so sometimes the timeline felt confusing. However, as I read more and more of the book, I became less bothered by this, and was sucked into the strange and wonderful world of Mayte and Prince.

I highlighted many songs and music videos that I want to look up now. (Prince had managed to block most of his videos from appearing on YouTube, but Mayte’s website has a few videos and a dance reel at https://www.mayte.com/). I hadn’t realized there was so much belly dancing in Prince’s music! I also want to see some of the things that Mayte has done post-Prince (for instance, she helped Wade Robson choreograph Britney Spears’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” music video and infamous MTV performance).

While it’s obvious to anyone that this book could be a chance to grab some of the money and fame after Prince’s death, the book was so….so real….so loving, that I didn’t come away thinking poorly of Mayte or Prince after reading the book. She wasn’t making Prince out to be some perfect, awe-inspiring thing just to please his fans, and she wasn’t being cruel to get back at him as a scorned lover either. She just wanted to share with us – the fans – a part of his life. It felt very genuine. There were bits of humor, like when Prince sent Mayte back to her apartment to change when she showed up in sweat pants one day. He expected everyone around him to be dressed to impress and dressed to work hard. He had a wardrobe department in Paisley Park that tweaked his clothing so that it fit him perfectly and wore one-of-a-kind pieces. He often stole Mayte’s clothing and had them revamped for himself. Remember that period of time where he wore really big sweaters? Those were Mayte’s pregnancy sweaters! Prince also employed a “foo foo” staff member who was responsible for zhooshing up hotel rooms to make them more comfortable and homelike for Prince.

“The foo foo was not about a pampered star’s outlandish demands; it was about this hydraulic engine being well maintained, fed, and rested enough to pull an entire train.”

I would recommend this book to anyone who is a Prince fan. The book paints a picture of a life just as surreal as you would imagine. It couldn’t be easy to be married to a celebrity, but for a little while, Mayte had it all. Today, she is still dancing and choreographing. Additionally, she runs an animal rescue charity. But most poignantly, she finally became a mom after adopting a little girl. I walked away from this book feeling like I knew a lot more about Prince and I hope other readers will enjoy it as much as I did.

“With love, there is no death.”

Book of the Month Club is not the Club for Me

Months ago, an ad appeared in my facebook feed notifying me of a sweet sounding deal for the Book of the Month Club. I’d already heard about book subscription services from other bloggers’ pages, and I was interested to try one out for myself. I decided to give Book of the Month Club a shot. They’ve been in the book delivery business since 1926, so they felt like a trustworthy brand. What could be the downside of receiving books in the mail?!

One month seemed like too short of a trial period for me, so I decided to go in for three months. Each month, an e-mail arrives notifying me that the month’s selections are available. I log in to the website and there are five books I can choose from. There is an essay, synopsis, and preview of each book to help make my decision. After making my selection, there is also an option to add extra books for $9.99 each. Then, my box ships. When it arrives at my house, a crisp, sturdy box holds the hardcover book safely inside. A card tucked inside encourages readers to post pictures of themselves with their books. Discussion is also encouraged, providing another way for readers to utilize the BOTM website.

While it sounds good in theory, I quickly realized this club wasn’t for me. For one, I rarely spend money on books thanks to the library, the OverDrive app, and gift cards. And I couldn’t tell you when I last bought a new release – in hardcover, no less. The club might be a bargain for readers who regularly buy books, but for me, the cost isn’t worth it.

I’ve really grown to love e-books. In the last few years, I’ve read 99% of my books on my Kindle Fire. A big, bulky hardcover book just doesn’t work in my toddler-driven life. The books that I’ve already received from BOTM will be sitting on my bookshelves for quite some time before I choose to pick them up. That means I won’t be discussing the book online with the other BOTM club members. I’ll be missing out on the whole fraternization aspect of the service. An e-book of the month club would be more up my alley.

Lastly, my biggest issue with BOTM is the minuscule monthly selection of books. When I log in to find out what my choices are, I’m usually disappointed. None of the books are what I would pick out for myself at a bookstore. Thrillers, crime stories, and memoirs have dominated the selections since I’ve been a member. If you look at the books I’ve read in the past year, you’d know that it doesn’t quite mesh with my reading preferences. Where are the young adult books? Where are the fun, cute books? Where are the fantasy books? Luckily, BOTM does allow you to skip months. Your subscription rolls over into the next month, and you can take your chances then. I’ve done this a few times already, as none of the books were appealing to me. Nevertheless, the selection falls flat.         

In all, BOTM didn’t turn out to be a good investment for me. I see now that whatever books were selected for BOTM turn into trending books on Goodreads, so their business model works – just not for me. The price, book format, and selection leave me feeling unsatisfied. BOTM definitely fell short of my expectations.

Have you signed up for a book subscription service? What was your experience like?

Invincible Summer, You Broke Me Down


Just days ago I was on the fence about my current read, Invincible Summer by Alice Adams. At that point, I was 60% of the way through the book and feeling like the marketing team had just used the word “summer” in the title as a clever way to get on summer reading lists. I wasn’t really sure that it was that great of a book – just one that had gotten some hype. Well, now I have finished it, and guess what?

It made me cry! Guess I can’t still be on the fence about it if it made me feel that strongly.

It wasn’t even that what the character or the author said was all that original or profound; it was just that what was said were things I had thought or experienced myself. This reminded me of a quote I read on Pinterest just today: bennettquote

As the characters in Invincible Summer grew up and experienced marriage, babies, and loss, I connected with them more and more. For instance, my friends and I ended up scattered across different cities and states after college as we followed job opportunities for ourselves or our spouses. The main character thinks, “I guess this is what happens when you grow up. People drift off in their own directions. Sometimes I look around at my job and my flat and my car and can’t believe that people have mistaken me for an adult and let me have all of this. But this is it, isn’t it? We’re the grown-ups now.’” And like myself, she also misses her friends: “It wasn’t that there was anything specific they needed to talk about; it was just that there were so many things she’d made mental notes to tell him, nothing of consequence, just anecdotes she’d been saving up because she knew they’d make him laugh. She didn’t really have that in her life anymore, and she missed it, really missed it.” Even though the characters in this book drift apart and deal with the hardships of divorce, losing their jobs, bad decision making, and dealing with the death of a parent, they eventually find their way back to one another. This gives me hope that my group of girlfriends will continue to keep our friendships going, even through the tough times.  

So would I recommend this book? Yes, I would – to the right audience. This book isn’t for YA-loving, dystopian, trilogy fans. Instead, I would recommend this to twenty and thirty-year-olds who are experiencing all of these major life changes. I think these are the readers who will appreciate the book’s simple beauty.

Finding Inspiration in the Finger

fingerI was driving in my very own neighborhood about a year ago when a car with two teenage boys drove past and instead of giving me the friendly neighbor wave, I got the finger. Yes, the middle finger.

I was shocked!

Why would someone stick up their middle finger like that at me? Was I driving poorly? Did they think I was someone else? A buddy, perhaps, who drives a Chevy Impala, too? Did they regret it afterwards? Or were they just mean, jerky boys?

As you can see, this moment stuck around long after the seconds it took for the boy to hold up the offending finger at me. And clearly, I’m not the only person who’s had a moment like this. In Jo Knowles novel, Read Between the Lines, she includes a dedication to “the man driving the station wagon who gave my family the finger in 2003 even though we didn’t deserve it.” Each chapter in the novel is voiced by a different character who encounters the finger during the course of a single day in a single town. Their reactions to the finger differ: one girl is shamed by it, a boy is emboldened by it, a father is at first stunned and then angered. Some find it liberating and others find it hurtful.

Knowles’s writing style is just right for this story – honest and heartfelt – young adults will be drawn to this, especially those who like books by Siobhan Vivian, Jenny Han, Carolyn Mackler, and David Levithan. I found the characters to be realistic and believable. They each seem to feel that there is something more to life than what they’ve been stuck with, but they don’t really know how to make their lives any better. A pretty cheerleader searches for meaningful conversations and friends who aren’t so shallow. A kid who is bullied – both by kids at school and his own father – searches for respect. A 19 year old man strives for a better job than the “temporary” one he has now at a fast food restaurant. A teenage boy wishes his friends would grow up and quit their mean pranks, yet also wishes they were still just kids again, enjoying summers in their tree house. Each character, who was briefly mentioned in a previous chapter, becomes more than what others see when they look at them. The only thing I disliked about this book was that the chapters never went back to the other characters to see how their lives turned out. Instead, we as readers have to imagine what will happen. Maybe getting “the finger” will inspire a change in their lives, or maybe it will simply fade from their memories as time passes.

While most of the characters are teenagers, the final chapter is narrated by a young, female teacher. I could definitely relate to many of her struggles and worries. She has taken the place of another teacher and hasn’t figured out how to gain her students’ trust. Teaching is just not what she thought it would be. She’s considering giving up, but in the final lines of the book, she states, “That just like there is more to her than what they see, there is more inside each one of them. What’s your story? she will wonder as she scans the room from face to face. And this time, when she pleads with them to read between the lines, she will try to do the same.” This is exactly what I tried to do with my students, and what we really need to do with each other: stop and consider what issues other people may be dealing with and be kind to one another. Read Between the Lines hasn’t received as much attention as other YA books, but it’s quietly compelling and worth the read.

Current Read: Beautiful Ruins

imageI’ve read some wonderful books lately; however, for my first installment of Current Read Monday, I’ve got a book I’m really not crazy about. The book is called Beautiful Ruins, and it’s written by Jess Walter. I waited several months for a digital copy to become available from my library, and now that I’ve got it, I can’t seem to get through it. I’ll admit that the first thing that drew me to this book was its cover (look at that idyllic coastline), but the book’s blurb reeled me in too.

Goodreads blurb: 
The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio’s back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier. image

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.

Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.

Sounds pretty great right? The part I’m struggling with is the amount of characters and time periods the book contains. Just when you get interested in a character’s storyline, the chapter ends and you’re sent in a different direction. I’m sure this was done very purposely. It keeps you reading to find out what happens to those characters later, but it’s a bit frustrating. There are also some slow and tedious sections that I just don’t care for. I’m 49% of the way through the book at this point, and I hope I’m not still reading this book next Monday!

The beautiful cover got me this time! Have you had a similar experience where the book’s cover was better than its contents?

A Box of Books

box_of_booksI recently mailed a package to the school I worked at for four years. Inside the box was a stack of books that I had picked up at the Half Price Bookstore, read, and wanted to share. Mind you, I bought these books months ago, but I couldn’t bear to part with them! I almost decided not to mail them at all. Then I looked around at our apartment (which is bursting at the seams already) and decided that since I had read the books, I could live without the physical proof. Here’s what I sent and a review in fifteen words or less, plus some notes to help you decide whether or not you should add it to your summer reading list:

  • Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson: Average teen pulls prank, earning a reputation. He then deals with rumors and ruined reputations.
    • Read Twisted if you like realistic characters and situations, and topics that are relevant to today’s teens. Also read if you liked Anderson’s other novels, like Speak.
  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman: Accident lands a girl in a coma. She must decide to live or let go.
    • Read If I Stay if you saw the movie preview and thought it looked interesting, or if you like teenagers put in difficult situations that they must overcome. This one’s a bit of a tearjerker.
  • The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler: 1996 teens access their future Facebook pages through AOL CD. Their choices affect their futures.
    • Read The Future of Us if you enjoyed Asher’s 13 Reasons Why, or if you are interested in how technology has changed our lives in a relatively short time, thanks to the internet and Facebook.
  • Starters by Lissa Price: Elderly rent out teenagers’ bodies for fun, but teens soon become mindless weapons.
    • Read Starters if you like YA dystopian novels with strong female leads like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Matched. This novel has a sequel titled Enders, which I picked up from the library this week, but haven’t started yet.
  • Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian: Lillia, Kat, and Mary help one another seek revenge, but maybe they go too far…
    • Read Burn for Burn if you are tired of YA dystopian novels! This novel has three girls from different social cliques working together on revenge plots. There is also a bit of the supernatural involved. This book is followed by Fire with Fire, which I also read and enjoyed, and I’m interested to see what will happen in the third book in the series.
  • Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer: Meteor pushes moon closer to earth and family must survive with stockpiled food and wood-stove.
    • Read Life As We Knew It if you’re interested in finding out what life would be like if a global natural disaster really happened and you were forced to survive without grocery stores, water, heat, electricity, cell phones, and the internet. The novel is written as a series of journal entries. It is followed up by three other books in the series (which I have not read, and I’m not sure that I will).
  • The Kill Order by James Dashner: Prequel to Maze Runner series. How it all started. Mutating disease released on innocent people.
    • Read The Kill Order if you read the Maze Runner series and are still confused! While this novel still didn’t answer all of my questions, it did help explain how the disease started in the first place. It also shows what life was like right at the time of the sun flares, which are discussed in the Maze Runner books.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: Kid leaves reservation school to attend a white school for hope of a better future.
    • Read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian if you have ever felt like you didn’t belong in your family, community, or school. Read this book if you’ve felt like there was more to you and your potential than everyone around you imagined. As the main character is a teenage boy, I feel like boys would be drawn to this book more than girls would. Read this book if you disagree with book banning/challenging and you want to see what all the fuss is about.
  • Brian’s Hunt by Gary Paulsen: Author of Hatchet and Brian’s Winter returns with more of Brian’s story.
    • This is the only book out of the bunch that I didn’t read. I just know that kids always like Gary Paulsen’s books. Students are captivated by Brian’s ability to survive in the wild on his own. I remember reading Hatchet and Brian’s Winter in elementary school and really enjoying them. I think I remember this unit in particular because we even got to build our own forts in the school forest. How cool is that?!

How did I do?  Do you think my box of books will be a hit with teenagers looking for something new to read?